If murder is an unpardonable sin (Doctrine and Covenants 42:18, 79; 132:27), how could Moses appear in glory on the Mount of Transfiguration (Exodus 2:12; Matthew 17:3)? (Walter Martin, The Maze of Mormonism, Rev. & Enlarged Ed., [Regal Books, Ventura, CA:1978], P. 315)
Response by Malin L. Jacobs and Stanley D. Barker
Moses the Murderer?
This question can be reduced to two issues:
1. Is murder always an unpardonable sin?
IS MURDER ALWAYS AN UNPARDONABLE SIN?
Observe carefully the wording in the Doctrine and Covenants:
And now, behold, I speak unto the church. Thou shalt not kill; and he that kills shall not have forgiveness in this world, nor in the world to come (emphasis added).1
And it shall come to pass, that if any persons among you shall kill they shall be delivered up and dealt with according to the laws of the land; for remember that he hath no forgiveness; and it shall be proved according to the laws of the land (emphasis added).2
The blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, which shall not be forgiven in the world nor out of the world, is in that ye commit murder wherein ye shed innocent blood, and assent unto my death, after ye have received my new and everlasting covenant, sayeth the Lord God... (emphasis added)3
The Doctrine and Covenants is quite clear in applying the "unpardonable" qualifier "to the church," that is, to those who have accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior and covenanted to obey the laws and ordinances of the gospel.4 This application is in agreement with the Bible, which teaches that
...it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, If they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame (emphasis added).5
...if we sin willfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries (emphasis added).
He that despised Moses' law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace? For we know him that hath said, Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense, saith the Lord. And again, The Lord shall judge his people. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (emphasis added).6
Moses killed the Egyptian7 before he had received the knowledge of the truth on Mount Sinai.8 Therefore, even if his action in killing the Egyptian was murder, according to the Scriptures, Moses would not have committed the unpardonable sin.
DID MOSES COMMIT MURDER?
And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens: and he spied an Egyptian smiting an Hebrew, one of his brethren. And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he slew the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand.9
The Hebrew word for "slew" used in Ex. 2:12 is "nakah" (pronounced naw-kaw). This word has several meanings, the primary of which is:
...strike (lightly or severely, lit. or fig.): - beat, cast forth, clap, give [wounds], X go forward, X indeed, kill, make [slaughter], murderer, punish, slaughter, slay (-er, ing), smite....10
While the definition can include murder, murder is a secondary definition. In contrast the word used in Ex. 2:12 is different from the word used in Ex. 20:13 wherein the Lord said: "Thou shalt not kill." The Hebrew word for "kill" in this case is "ratsach." Strong defines this word to mean:
to dash in pieces, i.e. kill (a human being), espec. to murder:-put to death, kill, (man-)slay (-er), murder(-er).11
It should be very apparent that in the Ten Commandments, the clear meaning of "ratsach" is murder.
Bible commentators identify what occurred in Ex. 2:12 as a slaying instead of murder.12 It is significant that Bible commentators also point out that the Bible nowhere condemns Moses' action. Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown tell us:
This act of Moses...by some has been condemned as rash and unjustifiable--in plain terms a deed of assassination. But...not only is it not spoken of as a crime in Scripture or as distressing the perpetrator with remorse, but according to existing customs among nomadic tribes, he was bound to avenge the blood of a brother.13
Not only do we have the example of different words in Hebrew to express various concepts of killing and their relative seriousness, but we have the same situation in our English language. English dictionaries contain a variety of words to convey the degree of seriousness and circumstances of different forms of taking life. For instance in one prominent dictionary the defnintion of kill includes the following note:
The same dictionary defines murder as:
Legal dictionaries make the same distinction between kill and murder:
The Hebrew commentator Rashi states that rather than simply hitting the Hebrew a few times (as might be inferred from the text), the Egyptian taskmaster was
...beating and flogging him. The [Hebrew] was the husband of Shelomith, the daughter of Dibri (see Levit. XXIV. 11), and the Egyptian taskmaster had set his fancy upon her. During the night he compelled him (her husband) to rise and made him leave the house. He, however, returned, entered the house and forced his attentions upon the woman, she believing it was her husband. The man returned and became aware of what had happened, and when the Egyptian perceived that he was aware of it he beat him and flogged him the whole day long (ib.).18
Such a beating would probably have killed the Hebrew, which may very well have been the Egyptian's intention. The killing of one engaged in attacking another is a case of excusable homicide, not murder.
The rules relating to the use of deadly force to save a third party from death or serious injury bear an obvious relation to the doctrines of self-defense. It is generally held...that homicide is excused when the actor reasonably believed the deceased to be the aggressor and the killing to be necessary to save the third party's life...it is generally held...that one may kill to prevent commission of a violent felony when he reasonably believes that such use of deadly force is necessary.19
Some have argued that since Moses "looked this way and that way," he was necessarily guilty of murder. These people refuse to consider other explanations for Moses' looking around. Moses' position was precarious with respect to Egyptian politics and intrigues. Josephus states:
One of those sacred scribes...told the king, that about this time there would be a child born to the Israelites, who, if he were reared, would bring the Egyptian dominion low, and would raise the Israelites... . Which thing was so feared by the king, that...he commanded that they should cast every male child, which was born to the Israelites, into the river, and destroy it...20
Thermuthis...adopted him [the baby Moses] for her son...and...carried Moses to her father... . And...she put the infant into her father's hands: so he took him, and hugged him close to his breast; and...put his diadem upon his head; but Moses threw it down to the ground, and...wreathed it round, and trod upon it with his feet... . But when the sacred scribe saw this...he made a violent attempt to kill him: and crying out in a frightful manner, he said, "This, O king! This child is he of whom God foretold, that if we kill him we shall be in no danger; he himself affords an attestation to the prediction of the same thing, by his trampling upon thy government, and treading upon thy diadem. Take him, therefore, out of the way, and deliver him; and deprive the Hebrews of the hope they have of being encouraged by him." But Thermuthis prevented him, and snatched the child away.21
Now the Egyptians...entertained a hatred to him, and were very eager in compassing their designs against him, as suspecting that he would take occasion, from his good success to raise a sedition, and bring innovations into Egypt; and told the king he ought to be slain. The king had also some intentions of himself to the same purpose, and...being instigated by the sacred scribes, he was ready to undertake to kill Moses; but when he had learned beforehand what plots there were against him he went away privately; and because the public roads were watched, he took his flight through the deserts, and where his enemies could not suspect he would travel...22
From the above it is apparent that for Moses' entire life in the Egyptian court he had to deal with government groups that wanted him dead. He had good reason to be concerned that his defense of his Hebrew brother might be observed and reported. Such a report would have provided an excuse to have him killed.
The Bible does not call Moses a murderer nor does it anywhere condemn his action in killing the Egyptian. In the eyes of God, and according to the law of most, if not all, human societies, this killing was excusable homicide, not murder.
The critics are in error in their suppositions that all killings are murder, that every murder, regardless of circumstances, is viewed by the LDS as an unpardonable sin, and that Moses was a murderer. The presence of Moses on the mount of transfiguration is consistent with both the Bible and the Doctrine and Covenants.
Earliest known discussion: This one.
13. Jamieson, Robert, A. R. Fausset, David Brown, A Commentary Critical and Explanatory of the Old and New Testaments, Volumes I and II, Second Large "Clear Type" Edition, (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI: n.d.): 49.