First Baptist Church of La Crosse, Wisconsin
First Baptist Church of
La Crosse, Wisconsin
1209 Main Street
La Crosse, WI
(608) 782-6553

L’Chaim – To Life!

The Bible’s story of the reception of the Ten Commandments, or, as we’ve called them “the ten commitments,” tells us that Moses received these “words” or “principles” on two stone tablets. With the sixth commitment (“You will not kill”), we move from what is called the “first table” to the “second,” assuming that five words were written on one stone tablet, and five on the other (as in the illustration in your bulletin). The first table deals with relations with God, and transitions into relations with neighbours, which forms the subject matter of the whole second table.

As we’ve gone along I’ve tried to make the point that each of these statements are commitments made by those who would enter a covenant relationship with God, so that each can be read with this preface (supposedly spoken by God): “If you choose to enter into this covenant that I am offering to you, then…these are principles of covenant life and outcomes of living in relationship to me and one another.” Each of the commitments is related to the others, and each, pretty much, grows out of the previous one. “If you choose to enter this covenant then you will have no other gods with other values in my face, and, next, you will not elevate anything that is but an image of me in this world to absolute status. And you will not use my uniqueness ‘for nothing,’ or ‘take my name in vain.’ If all these things are true, then you will also realize that you live in a world that I’ve designed with rest and wholeness at its centre and will seek that quiet centre regularly, and will not sell out to temptation to pursue power and material things as ultimate. And, if that be so, then you will grant parents and others the importance they deserve. Having said all that, today, if all these things are already in place and outcomes in your life, you will not kill as a first commitment to neighbours.

Now, if we mistake these ten principles simply for commandments that are wholly self-standing and unrelated to one another, then we have a very difficult matter here. For one thing, it’s unclear just the specific nuance of the verb ratsach here. Everyone agrees it’s one of several Hebrew terms for taking life, but what does this particular word mean? Some have thought it was limited to murder (intentional homicide), including the translation committee for the New Revised Standard Version we have in our pews. In reality, this is a general term that is used for taking human life. It occurs 47 times in the Old Testament, and these are divided almost equally, with 24 meaning unintentional and 23 intentional homicide. Of the 47 occurrences of this Hebrew verb in the Old Testament, 22 of them are found in Numbers chapter 34, and the usages in this one chapter are split down the middle with 11 meaning what we call murder and 11 meaning what we call manslaughter. We cannot say that all that is named in the sixth commitment is murder, it is general killing of other humans.

Also, if we assume (as most have) that this is sheerly a commandment, then it’s a pretty empty one because most of the rest of the texts in the Bible that deal with this idea are concerned to waffle on its meaning. “You can kill here and here and here, but not there and there.” In fact, anyone who can read at all has only to read the Book of Joshua in the Old Testament or the Book of Revelation in the New to know that God’s people are often divinely sanctioned killers, and God is a killer as well. Of course, the case is made that it’s only the “bad people” that are killed, which sounds for all the world like special pleading if we’re honest. This is another reason why this text makes little sense as a commandment – it immediately dies the death of a thousand qualifications at the hand of God’s chosen people in the Bible itself.

If, on the other hand, this text (and the other nine as well), are not just commandments, but are commitments that covenant partners make, they are principles that draw parameters around normal behaviour by this negative. The outer border is “no killing.” What fits within this border are all kinds of positive techniques that point to the principle of making that which nurtures “life” the default position (no killing), and the taking of life as an extremity to be avoided. If we understand what we are reading (not commandments, but commitments, principles and outcomes), then all the texts together make more sense. We cannot, on the one hand, make no killing an absolute law, but we can make the principle affirmation to be life, or in Hebrew, “l’chaim – to life.” (I know, by the way this is the title of a wonderful song in “Fiddler on the Roof” and an old Jewish toast). L’chaim, to life. The first and foremost way of relating to neighbours is making the nurture of life as basic and the taking of life as exceptional.

I have been much helped in this by, perhaps, the greatest theologian of the 20th century, Karl Barth, who, unfortunately tended to write in circles sometimes (well, most times). What he said about this text is:

…The commandment “thou shalt not kill,” reaches us in such a way that in all the detailed problems which may arise we cannot exclude the exceptional case and yet we cannot assert too sharply that it is genuinely exceptional. In other words, we cannot overemphasise the arguments against it, nor raise too strongly the question whether even what seems to be justifiable homicide might not really be murder. (Church Dogmatics III/4, p. 400)

The core of what Barth wrote is what I tried to say I think, that the default position is “no killing,” and the agonizing exception may be the taking of a human life. May it always be the agonizing exception to l’chaim.

I also think that’s what our Old Testament Lesson from Deuteronomy 30 was driving at. As Deuteronomy told the story, Israel was gathered on the Plains of Moab poised to enter the promised land of Canaan, and God through Moses, reminded them that affirming the covenant relationship with God and one another was the same as affirming life, and standing apart from it was affirming death. If they were led away at the core of their being (literally, “in their hearts”) to affirm other social, political, and religious values than those of covenant life, their lives would not endure. It ends with the admonition that, since this is true,

Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving, obeying, and holding fast to the LORD your God. For that means life to you and length of days.

L’chaim – to life! It is often said that it was not until Jesus that the idea of “l’chaim” took its deepest meaning by moving it from mere action to motivation for action. Again, those who say this can only do it by ignoring the Old Testament that clearly places motivation at the heart of what goes into acting in life-affirming, life-protecting, life-nurturing ways. Jesus surely affirmed this old principle when he taught that our angry thoughts and bitter motivations lead to life-destroying, life-debilitating, and life-thwarting actions, and this was, in its way, killing that is not part of the outcome of life with God in Christ. He it was who prescribed that reconciliation with brothers and sisters growing out of affirming the best for them, ought to precede offering worship to God. As 1 John 4 says:

Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.

Jesus’ teachings give us wonderful examples of those positive techniques by which his disciples can fill out space inside the parameters set out by the principle of “no killing.” These techniques are the embodiment of l’chaim. One could also dip into the Epistles of the New Testament at many points to illustrate this, and this morning we return to the Epistle to the Ephesians to do so. The Epistles usually break into two pieces, the first of which set out theological reasons for the ethical imperatives of the second. Ephesians 1-3 is the first piece, and 4-6 is the second. Let me re-read our lesson well within that second piece of imperative for ethical Christian life.

Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up on our behalf, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

These words start with negative techniques of undesirable things that are to be put away, those things that kill people in one way or another according to Jesus and it is from these that physical killing flows. The apostle piles up words for bad motivations and the self-brutalization that allows humans to kill others. These are replaced by the positives of kindness, tender-heartedness, and forgiveness that are life-affirming, life-nurturing, life-developing, life-encouraging techniques that witness the great “l’chaim” of Jesus and his disciples. Of course all this runs counter to culture and it always has.

The story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection to new life, is the story that God underwrites the principle of “no killing,” that death is not the right choice. It is the affirmation of the Church that, on Easter morning, Jesus’ new life was God’s ringing toast: “L’chaim – to Life.” Life conquers death. In the story of the Lord’s Supper, the Apostle Paul wrote that, in this common rite, “we proclaim the Lord’s death, until he comes.” Yes, death is real. But our relationship with one another is based in God’s covenant word of “no killing,” and Paul’s words, “We proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” are God’s promise that, in the end, he is coming. The affirmation of life fills in the spaces for the parameters of “no killing.” The reality of Jesus, the life of Jesus comes to us, affirming life. And in this feast today, we eat the common bread, and we raise the cup with the affirmation, and dare I say, the toast: “L’chaim – to Life!”

In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.