Human Life Is Sacred


Suppose you’re walking your dog along the beach when all of a sudden the dog bolts and gets away from you and runs out into the ocean. At that exact moment, you hear a commotion down the beach and you look out and see somebody screaming, struggling to keep afloat. The stranger is drowning, but so is your dog. You love your dog very much, but you don’t know the stranger. Your impulse is to save the dog. But what will you do?

Dennis Prager gives that scenario to illustrate how people view human life.

Since the 1970s, I have asked students if they would first try to save their drowning dog or a drowning stranger. And for 40 years I have received the same results: One third vote for their dog, one third for the stranger, and one third don’t know what they would do.

How did we get to the place where two thirds of human beings wouldn’t save a drowning stranger but one third would save a dog? The fact is, for much of American history – at least up until the 1960’s – Americans were taught that human beings were created in God’s image while animals were not. For the past 50 years that’s not what’s been taught and it shows. No wonder there is some confusion when it comes to who or what to save. Too many of us follow our hearts and feelings rather than acknowledge the sacredness of human life. Too many of us don’t know how to differentiate between our feelings and our values, or as Prager puts it, “between our feelings and revelation (divinely revealed values).”

All of us feel more for a being we love than for a being we don’t know, let alone love. Therefore something must supersede our feelings. That something must be values. But these values must be perceived as emanating from something higher than us; higher than our opinions, higher than our faculty of reason, and even higher than our conscience. And that higher source is God.

Indeed. Dennis Prager is right. The only reason to save a stranger at the expense of your dog is that that stranger is a human being, created in God’s image. Your feelings may tell you otherwise, but God’s revelation must always supersede those feelings.

Let’s see what the Bible, God’s final revelation to man, says about this issue.

Do not murder

This is one of the Ten Commandments and is often misunderstood. The word really is “murder,” not “kill.” A human being is never to murder another human being. This prohibition, however, is much older than the Mosaic Covenant.

The Noahic Covenant, Genesis 9:5, 6

And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being. “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.”

There are plenty of covenants in the Bible, which makes sense because our God is a covenant-making God. This one, though, is not widely known. It was made between God and Noah after the flood waters receded. It is unique among all the covenants between God and man because it was made quite literally at the very beginning of a new humanity on earth.

Noah was given three commands upon leaving the ark. The first was similar to the command God gave Adam and Eve: to have children to refill the earth. The second one reaffirmed man’s dominion over all creation except that while there was complete harmony with creation originally, God this time instilled a “dread fear” of man in creation and man was to include meat in his diet. Part of this command included draining all the blood from animals killed for food. This was probably looking forward to the Jewish sacrificial system. But it was God’s third command to Noah that is most significant. The absolute sanctity of man’s blood is stressed because he was created in God’s image. Even though that image in man has been greatly flawed, it is there all the same and therefore killing a human being is a crime against God Himself. The life of the one who takes the life of another person is to be taken as punishment. God could exact this punishment Himself, but He has chosen to act through His representatives on earth: man. This is capital punishment and it is not a suggestion from God, it is a command. That’s pretty simple, and it would remain so until more elaborate rules were given later on in the Mosaic law.

According to Numbers 35, failure to abide by this command would result in dire consequences.

If you did this, you would defile the land where you are living. Murder defiles the land, and except by the death of the murderer there is no way to perform the ritual of purification for the land where someone has been murdered. Do not defile the land where you are living, because I am the Lord and I live among the people of Israel. (Numbers 35:33, 34 GNB)

This command was not given only as part of the law of God to Moses for the Israelites. It was given to all mankind and there is a high price for disobeying it. The decline of society we are witnessing today may, in part, be due to the man’s stubborn refusal to follow the Lord’s command to take a life for a life. It’s not just punishment, it’s an acknowledge of the sanctity of human life.

The Mosaic Covenant, Exodus 20:13

This commandment has been misunderstood for generations because it has been mistranslated. It is not “killing” but murder that is prohibited. This makes this commandment a cousin to the command given to Noah. Very simply put, according to God you may kill but you may not murder. This is an important distinction. The word “kill” in Hebrew refers to the taking of any life, human or animal, either deliberately or by accident, either legally or illegally. But the Hebrew word for “murder,” which is used here, means only the taking of a human life on purpose. That’s why we say things like, “I killed a mosquito,” not “I murdered a mosquito,” or “The worker was accidentally killed,” not “The worker was accidentally murdered.”

That this commandment cannot refer to “killing” is clear because the Torah allows for killing another human in times of war and as capital punishment. The Bible does not allow for two popular positions held by society today: opposition to capital punishment and pacifism. In terms of capital punishment, it is the only law that appears in each book of the Torah. And remember, it predates the law of Moses, making it applicable to all mankind. In a free society, of course, you are free to hold an alternative view, but you are not free to cite the Bible in support of it because, as should abundantly clear, the Bible teaches only one thing: murders are to be put to death. Why? It is because man is created in God’s image and murder is a crime against God. The ultimate crime is not, in one sense, the taking of a human life, but harming the image of God in him. That ultimate crime deserves the ultimate punishment.

The Priestly Covenant, Leviticus 19:16

Do not go about spreading slander among your people. ‘Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the Lord. (NIV)

The idea behind this verse is better understood in context of how we treat one another. Verse 15 teaches us to honor people and to treat all people fairly, whether rich or poor. Verse 16 prohibits lying about another person and possibly putting their life at risk. And verse 17 deals again with how we treat our neighbor. The standard being put forth here is close to the teaching of the New Testament that forbids taking vengeance and demands love for both neighbor and stranger alike. So sacred is life that we need to be careful in even how we talk to and about people, so as not to provoke violence that could lead to death.

Protecting the innocent

The question Cain asked God was an important one: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” How far are we supposed to go in looking after our neighbor? Where does our responsibility end in terms of his welfare? Sure, we are commanded NOT to murder our neighbor, but what the positive side: love and concern? Deuteronomy helps us out.

Deuteronomy 19:1 – 10

These verses deal with the so-called “Cities of Refuge,” God’s solution to the problem of an accidental killing. Nothing else like these cities of refuge existed in the world. If a man accidentally killed someone, he could flee to one of six designated cities and live without fear of being killed.

Justice is very important to the Lord, even justice for the unintentional killer. The willful murderer would be punished swiftly, but there was a safe haven for the one who killed accidentally.

We don’t have cities of refuge today, but there is a great lesson to be learned from them. Elisabeth Elliot writes:

Where does your security lie? Is God your refuge, your hiding place, your stronghold, your shepherd, your counselor, your friend, your redeemer, your savior, your guide? If He is, you don’t need to search any further for security.

She’s absolutely right about that. God is our “city of refuge.” We sinners are completely safe in Him – safe from all of Satan’s accusations.

Deuteronomy 21:1 – 9

What about a murder where there is only a victim but no apparent perpetrator? It happens; even today many murders go unsolved. God instituted a plan for that, too. The murder of a human being, as we have noted, is a crime against God Himself because that human being was created in God’s very image. Justice must be satisfied, therefore a sacrifice must take place.

Then the elders of the town nearest the body shall take a heifer that has never been worked and has never worn a yoke and lead it down to a valley that has not been plowed or planted and where there is a flowing stream. There in the valley they are to break the heifer’s neck. (Deuteronomy 21:3, 4 NIV)

There seems to be a lot of “pomp and circumstance” attached to this, but there is a reason that has little to do with God. The people of Israel – and we – are to learn something vitally important. First, willful murder is a serious offense. There is no more serious offense against another human being than the willful shedding of blood. But secondly, that murder is an offense against God. In order to satisfy His demand for justice, these steps put forth by Him needed to be observed as a reminder that while the murder itself was a grievous crime indeed, harm to God was also caused and also needed to be atoned for.

Promote righteousness

When we read about the rules the Lord gave the Israelites concerning murder, they may seem to us to be unduly complex. However, God was and is still building a new society and a new people. He began with Israel and continues with the Church of Jesus Christ. We may be living in this fallen world, but we are citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. Our law is a higher law. Part of that law goes beyond just doing or not doing certain things. Part of that law is living in such a way as to promote righteous living in others. That’s why God was so concerned that His people live such obviously different lifestyles than those of the nations surrounding them. Christians ought to live with the same deliberate concern for how we appear to those around us. It’s not that we should aspire to be social misfits or freaks; it’s that we should simply live lives that line up the Word of God.

Human life is indeed sacred and how we live our lives is part of that sacredness.

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