The last five of the Ten Commandments are short, sharp, almost staccato. As the first five exhort reverence for God, the last five command reverence for man’s life, marriage and family, property and possessions, reputation and integrity.
All are negatives, “Do not”. Negatives are clear, unambiguous and concise. Try to turn them into something positive and the result is wordy and imprecise: “Respect human life” is very nice, but “Do not kill” is clearer. As it has been said, “God Almighty hath said in a voice that goeth thundering through the centuries, ‘Thou shalt not”. Never! Never! Never!”
WR Matthews wrote, “Neither Jews nor Christians hold that prohibitions are enough, or that moral goodness consists in observing them. What is maintained is that such a series of negative commandments is an indispensable aid to moral development and cannot safely be thrown aside even by persons of mature character”.
As children we realised there was a difference between right and wrong when we heard “Do not”. “Don’t touch the hot fire… don’t cross the road by yourself…” Matthews says, “’Thou shalt not’ is not the last word in morals, but it is the first word”.
There is no human group or society that did not formulate laws of this kind. Every society develops a law against murder. So does the Sixth Commandment contribute anything which we might not have worked out by ourselves?
Fundamentally, the link between “I am the Lord your God” and “do not murder”. Not murdering is thus not merely a counsel of prudence that recognises that such an act invites retaliation and vengeance and endangers everyone, but it has a higher motive based on the principle that there is a God who has made man in His own image (a concept to be understood not in a literal but an ethical and intellectual sense). Man is part of God, and to murder a human being is to diminish God.
Whatever the provocation, when a person is provoked and sorely tempted, the thought of God should hold them back from transgressing. The sages say that when Joseph was tempted by the wife of Potiphar, his father appeared to his mind’s eye and he knew he could not sin; all the more, when the thought of God appears before us, we know we cannot commit a sin.
The command against murder also has broader implications. It is not only acts which are murderous. There are also murderous attitudes. The Torah (Deut. 21) established a ritual to be followed if a dead body was found and no-one knew who had killed the person. The elders of the nearest city had to wash their hands and say, “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it”. Would anyone have suspected the city fathers? The elders implied, “This man did not come to us hungry and we failed to feed him. He did not come to us friendless and we failed to show concern for his welfare”.
If social problems exist and we fail to deal with them adequately, we are in a sense guilty of murder because we have left others to their fate and signalled that their lives are not worth saving.