Why Does God Command the Levites to Slaughter After Commanding “Thou Shalt Not Kill”?

It is an early episode in the King James Bible that has been known to raise an eyebrow with readers. And that is why, after Moses comes down from Mount Sinai after communing with God, and delivers the Ten Commandments – including Thou shalt not kill, God then commands someone to do just that.

The Ten Commandments appear in Genesis 20:3-20:17. And shortly thereafter, in Exodus 32:28, Moses tells the Levites to Put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour. In other words, to kill all those who were not perceived to be on the Lord’s side. And the children of Levi did according to the word of Moses: and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men.

On the surface of it, it might seem that this is a huge contradiction in the text, leaving one to wonder if there was some mistake in the narrative, or if God were truly irrational. But it can well be argued that, just like the unicorn or wizards in the King James Bible, that our kneejerk reaction to the text by today’s standards might not do justice to the intention of the text.

In other translations of the bible, the sixth commandment reads thou shalt commit no murder. In this sense, it can be argued that there is a huge distinction between one person murdering another person for a variety of reasons, and killing – for instance in defense, in war, or as an extermination order by God.

In the case of the Levites, this part of the narrative in Exodus is apparently an answer to the children of Israel worshipping false Gods, but it is also said by some to be a product of the rape of Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, which we find in Genesis 34. If these men continued to sin and were deemed to be a permanent incarnation of evil, then the lord’s order to kill them could be interpreted as a means to stopping this evil. And this would be a distinction from one person murdering another for some petty or criminal reason.

This is tricky subject matter, and one should be careful to think about why death at the hands of humans should ever be something that’s condoned – much less celebrated – because a skewed interpretation could lead to incredibly destructive and tragic results. Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so can the justification for violence, which is potentially a very dangerous and unhealthy place for any person to be in.

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