God says, "You shall not kill," but He kills. Why does He contradict Himself?

In Exodus 20:13 it says, "Thou shalt not kill," yet God kills people in floods, famines, and has Israel go and kill entire people groups.  Why the contradiction?

First of all, there is no contradiction.  "Thou shalt not kill" is from the old King James Bible.  Modern translations (ESV, NASB, NCV, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV) have it as "You shall not murder."  The word in the Hebrew for "kill" here in Exodus 20:13 is תִּרְצָח (ratsach). It is translated into the English many different ways, depending on the context:  "slayer 16, murderer 14, kill 5, murder 3, slain 3, manslayer 2, killing 1, slayer + 310 1, slayeth 1, death 1." 1

Murder is the unlawful taking of life.  Killing is the lawful taking of life.  God has said, "You shall not murder," not "You shall not kill."  After all, God says killing in self-defense is justifiable.  Exodus 22:2, "If the thief is caught while breaking in, and is struck so that he dies, there will be no bloodguiltiness on his account."  If mere killing of any kind was the issue, then why would God saying killing in self-defense is permissible?  He wouldn't.  This is another reason that modern translations say, "You shall not murder."

Also, consider that the New Testament quotes Exodus 20:13 in Rom. 13:9 as "You shall not murder."  The word in Greek for murder here is φονεύω, (phoneuo).  Matt. 10:28 says, "“And do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell."  The word of kill here is apoktinumi.  Let's compare.

  • Rom. 13:9, "murder" is φονεύω (phoneuō), commit murder, kill (Mt 5:21; 19:18; 23:31, 35; Mk 10:19; Lk 18:20; Ro 13:9; Jas 2:11; 4:2; 5:6) 2
  • Matt. 10:28, "kill" is ἀποκτίννυμι (apoktinumi), to kill, slay 3

As you can see, different words are used for "murder" and "kill."  The Greek is more specific, and since the Greek New Testament quotes the Hebrew Old Testament, we can see that Exodus 20:13 is best translated as "You shall not murder."

One final comment: since all people have sinned against God (Rom. 3:23) all people are under the judgment of God.  The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23), so when God executes someone it is not murder, it is killing because it is a lawful taking of life.  Remember, all people have sinned.  Sin is the breaking of God's law.  Therefore, God's execution is lawful.

  • 1. Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon, (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.) 1995.
  • 2. Swanson, J. (1997). Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament) (electronic ed.) (DBLG 5839). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
  • 3. Liddell, H. (1996). A lexicon: Abridged from Liddell and Scott's Greek-English lexicon. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.