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Australian Biblical Review


ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 56, 2008

WILMA A. BAILEY, “You Shall Not Kill” or “You Shall Not Murder”? The Assault on a Biblical Text (Collegeville: Michael Glazier, 2005). Pp. X+94. Paper $US10.95.

In an arena that includes the secular study of Hebrew Bible issues, Wilma Ann Bailey examines the social and political pressures in the translation from bibli-cal Hebrew within religious traditions and the ensuing effects of the choices made in a translation. This study assumes the discussion is within the English speaking world and for those who are connected to communities of faith that read the Hebrew Bible. For the centre of the discussion, Bailey takes the Protestant (evangelical and mainline), Jewish and Roman Catholic traditions of the latter half of the twentieth century. Then Bailey examines how translation of a troublesome term in the Decalogue, (Exod 20:13), refers to “kill” or “murder,” or somewhere in between. Taking into account the presupposition that the Hebrew Bible is a contextual whole and self-referential in terms of semantics, this tight and lucid argument compares the term rçh with various inner biblical contexts.

The Ancient Levant context is considered, but in this case the cognates for this term are scarce. A question considered is the effect of this translation on human ethical choices. Translation is politically motivated, but the result of the translation “murder” for is argued to be a catalyst for either fundamentalism or political decisions regarding policies on war or capital punishment. Bailey asserts that this is the case, and provides much evidence for this in movements and schools of thought within these religious traditions.

As the biblical text is a field of contestation for the right to assert various social or intellectual powers, life as it is asserted in many of these traditions has been redefined by the simple translators’ choice of a word: “murder.” The legal meaning inferred in this choice overtakes all other cultural, social and spiritual ideas about what it means to safeguard life. Although the author's conclusions and decisions about the politics of religious movements and politics often generalise, they nevertheless highlight the ethical effects of biblical knowledge. Bailey argues against the totalising interpretation of on the ethical choices of governments and other powerful bodies.

This is not a study which is merely philological comparison. It is important in the study of the meanings of the value of human life, and the furtherance of non-violence studies. The issue of human life and the fact that it either ebbs away or is taken by circumstance has immense consequences for the future of religious traditions. Many feminist and ethicist groups find many of the pro-life meanings attributed to biblical texts in religious traditions inconsistent. If one asserts from the text that one is “pro-life,” the necessary corollary is that being pro-life means anti-death. Pro-life means anti-war, anti-punitive or hate killing and anti-pollutive lifestyle choices regarding the earth. Bailey concurs with this in asserting that translation of this single term affects not only the use of the term in various English translations, but also in the forming of consistent ethical decisions on the treatment of human life.

Review by
Carolyn Finamor
University of Queensland
Brisbane QLD 4072