THE SANCTITY OF HUMAN LIFE
by Bob Wheeler
The Sixth Commandment reads “You shall not murder” (Ex. 20:13; Dt. 5:17; NKJV). Most of us would recoil at the thought of murdering a fellow human being. It is one the moral principle that is universally accepted. Yet all too often, when it comes to issues like war, abortion and euthanasia, we find ourselves trying to rationalize the taking of human life. Perhaps the commandment deserves closer examination.
One might begin by asking why it is wrong to take human life but not animal life. To answer that question we must go back in time to the aftermath of the Great Flood. After the flood waters receded God gave Noah and his family permission to eat animals as well as plant life, but He added this caveat: “But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood” (Gen. 9:4). God then went on to state: “Surely for your lifeblood I will demand a reckoning; from the hand of every beast I will require it, and from the hand of man. From the hand of every man’s brother I will require the life of man” (v. 5). And then He adds this explanation: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, / By man his blood shall be shed; / For in the image of God / He made man” (v. 6).
The passage is significant, for it establishes the sanctity of human life, and yet at the same time it gives a warrant for capital punishment. The two, in fact, go hand in hand. It is all based on the principle of retributive justice. “. . . then you shall give life for the life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth . . .” (Ex. 21:23,24). It is the gravity of the offense that warrants the severity of the punishment.
What makes human life precious, then, is the image of God in man. In certain ways human beings bear a resemblance to God himself. We have the capacity to think and reason, and to communicate verbally. More importantly, we have the capacity of moral discernment and the ability to enter into a relationship with God. All of these characteristics set up apart from animal life below. Murder, then, is sacrilege. It is an assault on the special dignity that we have derived from God himself.
And thus we have the sanctity of human life enshrined in the Ten Commandments. The word there translated “murder” (“You shall not murder”) is the Hebrew word “ratzach,” which is a relatively rare word, and can refer to manslaughter as well as murder. It is never applied to God, but refers specifically to the taking of human life by a private individual. It does not preclude capital punishment or just war, as both are sanctioned by Scripture.
It is important to emphasize that in the eyes of God the real sin is the attitude of our hearts. This is why Jesus could say, “Bit I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire” (Matt. 5:22 – “Raca” is thought to be an Aramaic word meaning “empty headed one”). When Jesus said this He was not really adding anything new to what was already stated in the Old Testament. What the Old Testament Law required, in fact, was this: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:17,18).
God is love (I John 4:8,16), and what He requires of us is that we love each other. Anger and hatred are the exact opposite of how we are supposed to think and behave. They are the very epitome of what is wrong with the fallen human psyche and the essence of our rebellion against our Creator. It is a moral catastrophe. Do we need to look any further for evidence of our guilt before God?