The Law of Moses is not meant to be complementary to the Law of the Gospel.  It was substitutive action for those who could not forgive an offense, who required satisfaction. It is in “opposition” to the Gospel and meant as a curse, or be it, an alternative course of action to the “more excellent way of Christ.” The Law made permissible an alternative course of action within limitations.

opposition alternatives

The channeling of the retaliatory reflex by way of limitations gave the qualifiers of “righteous,” “commensurate,” and “proportionate” to such terms as “retribution,” “justice,” and “vengeance,” respectively. Nevertheless, from the beginning, all shedding of blood had been forbidden and those capable of doing so were considered to be acting in “righteousness.” The Nephites were taught by the traditions of their fathers to defend themselves, their families, their lands and their religion unto bloodshed (Alma 43:46-47 cf. 48:14-15).  This included keeping the “statutes and judgments” of Mosaic Law (D&C 58:40) considered “righteous retribution” for personal offenses. As an “appendage,” this is an alternative course of action in opposition to forgiveness.  It is substitutive action to “righteousness” (D&C 98:30-31) permitted for those of a “lower spiritual capacity” (BD Law of Moses – “a replacement of” the Law of the Gospel).  Of course, for those of higher spiritual capacity, conscience requires more than what is “justifiable” in one’s personal conduct as a Disciple of Christ.

The New Testament

To illustrate the personal conduct of a Disciple of Christ, we look to the life of Christ, the Ammonites and teachings in the Doctrine and Covenants.  Let’s start with Jesus Christ:

We begin with Matt. 5:38-48.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ taught his disciples not to retaliate at all.  This was an abrogation of the “statutes and judgments” in the Mosaic Law.  Jesus quotes the Mosaic Law specifically and no mention is made whether this abrogation is the result of changing conditions for the Jews (who are no longer an independent nation, rather subject to Caesar).  Regardless, the taking of the Law into one’s own hands is prohibited. Vengeance and justice is returned to whom it properly belongs. This, of course, only rules out seeking justice (1 Cor. 6:1-11), not self-defense, nor the defense of others.

We continue with Matt. 26:51-53.  In defense of the Christ, an innocent, Peter wields the sword.  The Lord’s response to Peter is to put away the sword.  He states the natural consequences for wielding the sword, “All that take the sword, shall perish with the sword” and “Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me twelve legions of angels?”  Christ even goes so far as to forgive those who scourge and murder him. Later (see below), we learn that in the latter days the Lord has set loose the Destroyer to act as his agent of wrath. Those Saints who identify themselves as agents of God’s wrath, after the order of Lamech, and take up the sword to shed blood will get caught up in the whirlwind of the Destroyer to be destroyed (“whirlwind” means human nature taking its course towards ultimate destruction in wars and rumors of wars).  These verses rule out self-defense and the defense of others despite others being innocent.

We finish with John 18:36.  Pilate asks Christ if he is a king.  Christ answers that his kingdom is not of this world.  He states, “If my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight.”  Not only does this indicate that the Kingdom of Israel was not the kingdom of God, but of men, it also rules out defense of the church.

What do we learn from the example of Christ?  To defend the church, oneself, or others through bloodshed is to fail at being a Disciple of Christ.

The Book of Mormon

The Ammonites, in comparison to the Nephites, are a “highly favored people” because of the covenant they had made to never shed blood (Alma 27:30).  Alma the Elder, founder of the church, will also be referenced.


We begin with Mosiah 23:27-29.  After escaping into the wilderness, Alma the Elder and the people of God settle down and till the land.  The Lamanites find Alma the Elder and the people of God.  Alma the Elder offers no resistance, rather subjects himself and the people of God to the rule of the Lamanites.  These verses rule out war in defense of lands and the people of God (not yet organized as a church).

We finish with Alma 24:19 and 26:34.  Ammon speaks of the Ammonites, who because of their love for mankind, neighbor and enemy, would rather die than defend themselves or each other.  They consider the shedding of blood, even in self-defense and the defense of others, to be “sin.”  It is their “hatred” of sin that causes them to renounce the sword even in their own defense and the defense of others.

What do we learn from the examples of Alma the Elder and the people of God?  Subjection to and love for enemies.

The Doctrine and Covenants

We begin with D&C 63:25-35.  The Lord instructs the Saints that they are forbidden to shed blood for their lands.  The Lord states that the “wicked slay the wicked.”  These verses rule out defense of lands and the church.

We continue with D&C 98:16 and 30.  The Saints are instructed to renounce war.  Pardon is referred to as “righteousness.”  These verses rule out war and justice.

We finish with D&C 105:14-15.  The Lord instructs the Saints to build Zion and not worry about its protection nor defense.  The Lord instructs the Saints that he has set loose upon the world a Destroyer to lay waste to his enemies.  The Lord says, “I will fight your battles.”  These verses rule out defense of the church.

What do we learn from the Doctrine and Covenants?  The civil authority is referred to as the “Destroyer” and as “Caesar.”  The Saints are not to fight their own battles.  They are to focus on the work of the Father, the ministry of reconciliation.  The Saints are to subject themselves to the agents of God’s wrath, a role reserved for the wicked.  The Lord will fight the Saints’ battles by setting loose the Destroyer upon the world.  The Destroyer and all of Christ’s enemies will be destroyed in wars and rumors of wars, a whirlwind of destruction, thus clearing a way for the Saints, if they remain humble, meek, patient, and long-suffering, to inherit the earth. This is the patience of the Saints (Rev. 13:10).

Moral and Legal Interpretations

The Hebrew word for “kill” is rtsh.  The word occurs 13 times in the Bible.  Two other Hebrew words are used elsewhere in the Bible.  These include hrg (to kill with malice) and nkh (to kill unintentionally).  Therefore, rtsh is defined more broadly as “take human life, especially murder” allowing for both the hrg and nkh understandings.

To demonstrate that rtsh can mean either hrg or nkh, out of thirteen times that rtsh is used, three times the word takes on the specific meaning of hrg in the legal sense of “murder” (Hosea 6:9; Ps. 94:6 and Deut. 22:26).  In four instances, it is used as a part of a list and is ambiguous, referring to no specific action (Exo. 20:13; Deut. 5:17; Jer. 7:9 and Hosea 4:2).  It also refers to the action of an animal (Prov. 22:13), a court action (Num. 35:29-30), the legal action of a family revenger (Num. 35:26-28), an unintentional killing (Deut. 4:41-42), an accessory after the fact (1 Kings 21:19) and another unclear occurrence (Ps. 62:4).  These other ten instances are ambiguous or fall under the meaning of either nkh or hrg (but not in the legal sense of “murder”).

Either this means that all these actions are sinful despite legal exceptions made for some sinners or it means that only murder is sinful because all other killings are legally sanctioned or good. To equate how the term is used legally by judges with the intention and will of the Lord is to ignore that the term rtsh incorporates both hrg and nkh without legal distinction. Therefore, it is error to believe that because the judges do not condemn themselves and even legally sanction their own or others’ killings, those killings are not, in fact, violating the Lord’s command. To make the point even more clear, Ahab is accused and condemned by the Lord for killing, not for committing murder (1 Kings 21).  King David did not kill Uriah but he was condemned nonetheless.  Most killing in the world is not murder by legal definition.  Did the Lord really intend to sanction, to call good, the majority of killing that goes on in the world? In nearly every instance where legal distinctions are made for killing in the Bible, the terms hrg or nkh are used, not rtsh.

When the Lord speaks of retaliation, he describes it as a natural consequence of casuistic law.  In Exodus 21:12, the term nkh is used to describe an unintentional killing without specification as to who will cause the retaliatory death.  Casuistic law is often interpreted as apodictic law in order to assign responsibility for imposing the retaliatory death.   To do this, “will die” or “will surely die” is translated or interpreted as “must die” or “must surely die.”  This suggests that the human community has an obligation to act against the killer in a retaliatory way.  The traditional Jewish interpretation of this verse (and all other similar verses) is that the Lord, not the human community, will bring about the death. The human community is not expected to take action. This assault on the biblical text by legal theorists creates human institutions in the name of the Lord  that arrogate unto public servants a false authority to officiate in the affairs of the Lord.  While the Lord may respect this practice for his own purposes, he specifically informed Samuel that the creation of human law was a wholesale rejection of divine law and the Lord as King (See also D&C 29:34-35).


Institutionalizing vengeance neither tames nor brings under control the reflexive and aggressive tendencies of natural man.  It does the contrary.  Institutionalizing vengeance magnifies and makes certain the reflexive and aggressive tendencies of natural man.  Vengeance is not institutionalized to “tame” it, but to  secure its permanence. The majority of killing throughout all human history has been committed by the State. It subjects man to reflexive, instinctive, and causal relationships such as exist amongst animals and inanimate matter.  How then are the children of God to put off and overcome the natural man if they are required by human law to indulge and entertain the primitive instinct? Did the Lord intended for casuistic law to be interpreted as apodictic law?  If so, government cannot be beneficial to man since individual conscience is precluded by legal jurisprudence, nor can man be held accountable in his relation to government or in the administration of human law. (D&C 134:1 cf. 1 Samuel 24:4-5, 9-13) Personal responsibility and agency are destroyed by reducing man to something upon which to be acted.

Other examples of casuistic law include Gen. 2:17, 9:6 and D&C 63:33.  Does the Lord mean that the wicked must kill the wicked and that Adam and Even must be executed for partaking of the forbidden fruit or is the Lord stating that retaliation for an offense by the wicked is a natural consequence and that mortality is a natural consequence of partaking the forbidden fruit?  It seems to me that the Atonement overcomes mortality for man and facilitates for man the repenting of his wicked nature.  Therefore, these verses are reflections on or descriptions of the escalation of violence that results from shedding blood and natural consequences from which man can and has been liberated by the Atonement, by forgiving as one who has been offended, by repenting and “agreeing with one’s adversary while in the way with him” as one who has offended, and through the resurrection.  It does not matter if the shedding of blood is institutional or individual, the end result, naturally, is more bloodshed. Therefore, these verses can be understood as a warning from the Lord:  To seek vengeance (BD: justice) ourselves, rather than to obey the command to leave vengeance to the Lord, invokes not only the demands of Eternal Justice upon ourselves for failure to recognize and respect the Atonement, but naturally provokes others to injure or cause us depravity.

Unless we are to understand that all individuals of the group were sanctioned by the Lord to engage in any type of killing they pleased, save murder only, then behind the semantic argument of legal theorists is the pragmatic consideration that a “murder” reading allows for killings in which the state engages, such as war and capital punishment. But is this correct? To the misfortune of legal theorists, “Thou Shall Not Kill” was given by the Lord to a people who did not have a political structure, certainly no state.  So either all individuals in the group were prohibited from killing, save the Lord commanded it through his prophet, or they were sanctioned to engage in any type of killing, save murder only.  It follows that the State, as a servant and representative of the people, cannot have a power that cannot be delegated because the people do not possess it. So, either the State is prohibited from all killing because the people do not possess such a power to delegate or the State is sanctioned to engage in any type of killing because it is a power the people possess, save murder only.  And so we are resolved to accept that “Thou Shall Not Kill” means all members of society and their representative the State are prohibited from all killing because it is a power prohibited by command and, therefore, one which cannot be delegated.


The Lord excommunicates, but he does not require capital punishment. Under the Law of Moses, for those requiring satisfaction because they could not forgive, the Lord permitted the shedding of blood under certain conditions, for certain offenses, and within certain limitations. In the Latter-days, the Lord has commanded the Saints not to shed blood (D&C 63:29-37). The civil authority to whom the lawless pledge allegiance may do as it pleases because secular society has chosen to be an agent unto itself, but it will only work to its own destruction.  The Jewish understanding is “all killing” even though English translations of the Torah render rtsh as “murder.”  For the Jews, any killing not sanctioned or commanded by the Lord, through his prophet, was murder, including killings caused by political authorities. (Deut. 4:42, Rendering rtsh as  “murder” makes unintentional killing a sinful act.)  Therefore, the political shedding of blood, either in war or through capital punishment, is premeditated murder because it is done without sanction from the Lord. Exceptions may be given for the outsider, but one can hardly expect exception for Saints who are covenanted and commanded to do otherwise. We have been warned of the natural consequences resulting from killing at all.   Pragmatic considerations tell us that Saints who kill cannot expect the legal definition of murder to be consistent in either time or place, nor that the human community or the representatives thereof will do as they should.  It may be better to ask permission of the Lord to do wrong than for forgiveness, but it is best to do righteousness. Therefore, if though art a disciple, thou will not kill…at all.

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L. Richard Nielsen

L. Richard Nielsen

L. Richard Nielsen

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