Thou Shalt Not Kill
The King James Bible has had an inordinate influence on the understanding of the Bible in the English-speaking world. Its rendering of לא תרצח as “Thou shall not kill” in the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) has been memorialized in plaques and statues throughout the United States, some of which have been discussed in recent court cases. Most newer translations render instead “You shall not murder.” But what does the Hebrew mean?
In his commentary on the Decalogue in Exodus 20:13, Rashbam (R. Samuel ben Meir, c. 1085-c. 1158) argues that רצח must mean “murder” and only murder:
לא תרצח – כל רציחה, הריגה בחינם היא בכל מקום: מות יומת הרוצח (במדבר ל”ה:ט”ז-י”ח) הרצחת וגם ירשת (מלכים א כ”א:י”ט) צדק ילין בה ועתה מרצחים (ישעיהו א’:כ”א).
You shall not murder – The verb ר-צ-ח always – wherever it appears – refers to unjustified homicide. For example (Num. 35:16—I will deal with this passage below), “the murderer (הרוצח) must be put to death,” or (1Kings 21:19, of King Ahab, who killed the innocent Naboth), “Would you murder (הרצחת) and also take possession,” or (Isa. 1:21), “Where righteousness dwelt – but now murderers (מרצחים).”
אבל הריגה ומיתה: יש בחינם כמו ויהרגהו (בראשית ד’:ח) דקין, ויש בדין כמו והרגת את האשה (ויקרא כ’:ט”ז).
But the verbs ה-ר-ג and מ-ו-ת sometimes refer to unjustified homicide (i.e., murder) – e.g. (Gen. 4:8) “and he,” Cain, “killed him (ויהרגהו)” – and sometimes to justifiable homicide (i.e., execution) – e.g. (Lev. 20:16) “you shall kill (והרגת) the woman.”
Rashbam thus suggests that ה-ר-ג and מ-ו-ת are general terms, which may refer to homicide of any type, the equivalent of English “kill,” while ר-צ-ח is a narrower term, referring to unjustified killing, “murder.”