Q: The Commandments say, “Thou shall not kill.” We are told God killed the first born in every Egyptian family and assisted the Hebrew people in killing so that they could take over the promised land. Please explain.
Answer: Although generally translated, “Thou shall not kill,” the Commandment actually states, “Thou shall not commit murder.”
The Old Testament does not speak against killing in war nor against the death penalty. You are correct in noting that the Hebrews in the Old Testament believed God was on their side and supported them by destroying their enemies. In the Old Testament, we find many stories about mass killings and long lists of reasons for executions. The Exodus story, to which you refer, is complex; but the bottom line is that God told the Pharaoh to let His people go. The Pharaoh refused, and God ordered that the firstborn of the Egyptian families should die. Thousands upon thousands of children were killed by God to hasten the Exodus. It is true that the Pharaoh had enslaved God’s people and treated them harshly. In I Samuel 15, the prophet told Saul to kill all the Amalakites, men, women, and children. Genocide! In Joshua 8, we are told that the Israelites massacred all the inhabitants of Ai. These atrocities said to be sanctioned by the Old Testament God would not pass the Geneva Conventions nor be acceptable. The Old Testament gives us history, law, guidance and points the way to a different approach to life. Old Testament prophets predicted that One would come who would bring change and save us from our worst instincts. Christ in the New Testament revealed a path that replaced violence with love and kindness.
The killing of children in the Old Testament is contrasted with Jesus’ attention to children in Matthew 19 saying that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such. In Matthew 15, He exhorted His followers to have the faith of a child.
He commanded us not only to refrain from killing our enemies but to do good to them. On the matter of the death penalty, Jesus said that the executioners should be sinless. This was Jesus’ repudiation of capital punishment. Killing a person who committed a crime is retributive justice of the Old Testament. When we approve of killing, we are seeking revenge and sinking to the level of the criminals. We should find ways to keep communities safe without killing law breakers. If we continue to call for a death penalty, then we must follow Jesus’ requirement spoken in John 8:3-12 that those who judge be without sin. There is clearly a distinction to be noted between the Old and New Testaments. We can read and study both and find important guidance; but, as Christians, the most important question will always be how can we become true followers of Jesus?
Q: What did Jesus have to say about racism in the Gospels?
Answer: Jesus lived in a land dominated by Hebrews. There was little mixing of races.
In Luke 10:25-27, Jesus seems to have clearly spoken to the issue in His parable of the good Samaritan. Samaritans were the offspring of Hebrews who had intermarried with invading conquerers. They were hated by the Jews. I think it is interesting that in regarding the question of who is our neighbor, Jesus spoke about the good Samaritan who took the time and made the effort to assist a Hebrew. Also, Jesus reportedly characterized God as “Father.” If God is Father, we are all brothers and sisters to be treated equally. There is no room for racism.
Q: In a recent column, you wrote that Wycliffe translation of the Bible tended to undermine the authority of the Church by defining it as the congregation of believers. How else could the Church be defined?
Answer: Until the time of the Protestant Reformation, Roman Catholicism tended to define the Church as the Bishops. They had all authority and believers came to them for guidance and Christian truth.
The Protestant Reformers challenged that concept, especially the authority of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. They defined the church, the body of Christ, as the congregation of believers. Thus, rather than “going to Church,” they were the church, wherever two or three were gathered. They lodged the priesthood not in a select, ordained group, but in what they referred to as “the priesthood of believers.”
Earl Crow taught religion and philosophy at High Point University. He has pastored churches and still performs weddings, preaches and offers seminars. He majored in religion at Duke University and attended the Duke Divinity School and has studied at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and received his doctorate from the University of Manchester, England. His column is published Saturdays in the Journal If you have questions about religion or faith, email Earl Crow at email@example.com.