The Ascending Nature of Judgment

May 27, 2020

by Barry Fike

        One verse that is commonly cited in support of Jesus’ supposed pacifism is this one.  Most English versions of the Bible render this passage as “You shall not kill”.  The Greek word translated “kill” in this passage is a form of the verb phoneuo.  This verb was always sued as the equivalent of the Hebrew verb ratsah in the Septuagint Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures.  Ratsah is the word used in the sixth commandment in both Ex. 20:13 and its parallel, Deut. 5:17.  Thus, it seems quite certain that in Matthew 5:21 Jesus was quoting the sixth commandment.[1]   If this is true, then how do you interpret that word for an audience that isn’t reading the Greek or Hebrew to gain the original intent?   

          The first principle of Rabbi Hillel in interpretation (biblical exegesis) was kal va-homer.  Kal is easy or light and Homer is heavy or difficult. If a light transgression is a sin, then naturally it follows that a heavy, or weightier one, would also be a sin.  In other words if it’s a sin to be angry with your brother, then naturally it’s going to be a sin to murder him.  We’re going to see some of these principles come into play here.  


Do not commit premeditated murder- One thing that needs to be touched, in the matter of translation, is the phrase “Thou shalt not kill.”  As already stated, the words phoneuo and ratsahkl are both ambiguous and can mean either “kill” or “murder,” depending upon the context.  However, God commanded capital punishment for such crimes as deliberate murder (Ex. 21:12-15), rape (Deut. 22:25, 26), kidnapping (Ex. 21:16), adultery (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22), sorcery (Ex. 22:18), and many other crimes.  The sixth commandment, therefore, must be a prohibition against murder, not killing as such.[2]  In the original Hebrew, therefore,  it does not say “thou shalt not kill” but do not commit premeditate murder.  This has tremendous implications because God expects the individual to not only protect his person and property, but that of his family as well.  It would do well to remember that in Luke 22 Jesus disciples are armed (vs 38, 49), and Jesus himself advised them to purchase swords (Lk. 22:36).  We are told to “resist the devil” (James 4:7).  One has to recognize the Hebrew nuances of the gospel texts, and by developing a deeper understanding of the Jewish background to Jesus’ words.[3]  Paul will explain to Timothy,


"If anyone fails to provide for his relatives, and especially for those of his own

family, he has disowned the faith [by failing to accompany it with fruits],

and is worse than an unbeliever [who performs his obligation in these

matters]."  (1 Tim. 5:8)  (Amplified Bible)


          Anyone, who refuses to do so, according to Jewish law, is worse than a pagan. 


Whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment- The Rabbinic parallel to this sentiment is found in B. Bava Mesia 58b:


“Three classes of sinners are consigned to hell for all eternity: the adulterer, he who

publicly puts his neighbor to shame, and he who insults his neighbor.”


          In Hebrew this does not read judgment but Bet Din, or the house of judgment.  What is a Bet Din?  Every town that had a synagogue had its own congregational court of 3 members.  The local Bet Din sat on Monday and Thursday (Keth. 1.1), and this body dealt not only with religious questions but also with claims for damages.  

          According to Rabbi Meir, each party selects one judge and they jointly select the third.  The Rabbis assert, that two selected judges appoint the third.  The parties had to sign a document in which they agree to submit the case to the decision of the three selected judges.  Such a document being called a ‘compromisea’.[4] 

          This court has jurisdiction over matters of civil importance.  Civil cases such as larceny, bodily injuries, indemnity for the whole of the damage or for half the damage, the payment of double the loss or fourfold and fivefold, a rape, seduction, and slander.[5]  Courts of three judges exercised jurisdiction in civil matters generally, including those which might involve the imposition of fines.   They also had jurisdiction in matters of divorce...A court of three judges were required for the conversion of the non-Jew; for the absolution from vows; for the circumvention of the law annulling debts in the Sabbatical year; for the non-release of slaves after six years: for the enslavement of one who commits a theft and does not have the means to pay for the principle; and also for the taking of any evidence, even in non-controversial cases.  Compulsory orders in matters of ritual would also require the concurrence of three judges in order to be valid, as would the imposition of any sanction for disobedience.[6] 

          Paul alludes to this practice within the community when he states, “Don’t you know you all are supposed to judge these matters, so don’t take these matters to the pagan courts”  (1 Cor. 5:12).  “...and if the world is judged by you, are you not competent to constitute the smallest law courts?...”  (1 Cor. 6:2b).

          Suppose he had a good cause?  That’s a different case.  But if it’s without a cause, which is what Jesus is talking about, he’s going to be liable to the bet din.  That’s the local congregational court of three.

          From these verses many today believe that they are not to take anyone that is a Christian to court or sue or take any other legal action against them.  That would be true if our congregations were organized and administered the way that they were in Paul’s day and time.  But since they are not and we do not have congregational courts all of this has no meaning for us today simply because we are not organized the way that Jesus and Paul were referring to. 

          In Jesus’ day and time a case between brethren would have been brought before the congregational court composed of three men that were qualified to sit on the court, meaning they knew enough about the law to pronounce judgment in a way that adhered to God's will.  As will be pointed out, the more grave the matter the higher the court they would appear before.  In this case he's referring to the local synagogue court of three that could deal with the anger of one brother to another.


Whoever shall say to his brother, raca, shall be in danger of the council

          Every town that had more than 120 members had its own congregational court of 23 members called the Sanhedrin.  This council had 23 judges who exercised jurisdiction in criminal matters generally.  In terms of size and what they could judge basically there were two Sanhedrins.  The small Sanhedrin consisted of 23 members.   The Great Sanhedrin consisted of 71 members and had unlimited legislative and judicial and administrative power.  Here we’re dealing with a crime that only the small Sanhedrin can judge.  


          A person who had unnatural intercourse with an animal both he and the animal are tried by a Court of 23...Whether an ox which had gored a person is to be stoned is decided by a court of 23...likewise with the wolf, lion, bear, leopard, hyena, and snake.  Their death is decided by a Court of 23.[7] 

          These law courts also exercised jurisdiction in quasi-criminal cases, in which the destruction of animals might be involved.  Where a case was originally of a civil nature, such as slander, but might in due course give rise to criminal sanctions, such as slander of unchastity, it was brought before a court of 23; if the slander was found to be groundless, the matter would be referred to a court of three for civil judgment.  According to one view, the imposition of the penalty of flogging required a court of 23, but the prevailing view is that a court of three is sufficient.[8] 

          Notice the transliteration of the word ‘raca’.  It means nothing to us in English so it’s open to all types of abusive interpretations unless we go back to the Hebrew and the Jewish culture in which it was used.

          Raca was a slanderous term which means ‘empty headed’, or ‘this person is incompetent’, or "this person is incapable of maintaining a confidence in making a correct decision".   In other words, this is the kind of person with whom you don’t enter into any kind of a business deal.  This person cannot be trusted.  This person is so stupid that if you fool around with him in business dealings you’re going to get into trouble.  Today when we talk about someone in this way it’s called slander or liable. 

          If you slander a brother it’s a severe enough transgression of the law that they were judged by the Sanhedrin court of 23 members and not by the congregational court.


If anyone says of his brother, he’s a fool, he’s going to be liable for the fires of Gahanna-  Again, if we consider this passage in English only we may bring to mind a clown, somebody that is silly or a dunce.  However, in Hebrew the meaning is crystal clear.

          The word used here for fool is Naval!  (Nah-Val)  We read of the concept of this person in Ps. 14:1-3 and Ps. 53:1-6 where David describes this person.


“The naval has said in his heart there is no God...Corrupt and evil

Are they and doing abominable iniquity and there is none who does

Good.  Everyone has gone back, backslidden, fallen away, they are

Altogether filthy and corrupt.”


          In David’s description we have a person who has turned from God, who is totally corrupt and stands in danger of eternal punishment.

          “Whether atheism in the sense of the dogmatic denial of God’s existence was accepted by anybody in biblical and rabbinic times is doubtful.  Both in the Bible and the Talmud, the concern was with the practical atheist, who conducted his life as though he would never be held to account for his deeds.  In the Bible the statement, “There is no God,” is made by the naval, i.e., the morally corrupt person, who, while acknowledging the existence of a creator, refused to believe that He was at all interested in the actions of His creatures.  His counterpart in the Talmud is the apivorous, or Epicurean, who likewise denies the fundamental principle of religion by his abominable conduct.”[9]   

          This person was so morally corrupt that he lived in such a way that he acted as if he was never going to be held accountable for his deeds.  Because of such conduct, in which he has turned away from God, he is cut off from God!  This is the same person that Paul is talking about in Romans 3:11, 12:


“There is none who understands, There is none that seeks for God;

All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is

None who dies good.  There is not even one.”


          Yes, they are all apostates.  People who are morally corrupt, or we would say, they’ve turned their back on God and on the lost.

          It’s interesting that this concept has nothing to do with present day atheism.  Why?  Because, as has already been stated, there wasn’t any such thing as an atheist in Jesus’ day and time.  The people in biblical days all believed in some kind of a god.  They had their gods of wood, stone, and precious metals.  There wasn’t one person who didn’t believe in God.  It’s only as we have grown more “intelligent” and “sophisticated” and “wise” that some non-believers have come to view  that all of this that we see around us just happened by chance with no beginning point and no creator.

          What is Jesus’ point?  He is simply stating here that anyone who says of a brother, “this guy is morally corrupt, he is an abomination to God and he’s in big trouble.”  When we make that kind of statement, we assume a place of a judgment that belongs only to God, because only God knows a man’s heart.

          It’s interesting that when one looks at the sociological context of these remarks the former conclusion becomes even clearer.  The Essenes of the Dead Sea sect essentially saw themselves as allied with God—God would one day vindicate them and destroy those not belonging to the sect.  Therefore, the Essenes taught that one should love his fellow-sectarians (those allied with God), but hate those outside the community (those opposed to God).  Interestingly, their enmity was to be concealed like the ill will of a salve toward his master.  They viewed their status in the God-ordained system of this transitory world in terms of a slave who harbors hate against his master, but feels helpless to rebel against the institution of slavery.[10]

          Ancient Jews regarded Leviticus 19:17, 18 as an important passage about love: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart…you shall not avenge nor bear nay grudge against one of your own people, but love your neighbor as yourself.”  The passage prohibits harboring enmity against “a brother” and taking vengeance of bearing a grudge against someone from one’s “own people.”  The second verse adds the positive command to love a neighbor as oneself.[11]

          These verses clearly state that hating a person from one’s own people – an insider, co-religionist, or friend – is forbidden.  Jesus broadened his interpretation of neighbor to include an enemy.[12]

          Reading Matthew 5:43-45 against the background of the exegetical trends and sectarian attitudes reflected in the Dead Sea Scrolls, one appreciates better the aim of Jesus’ saying.[13]  Jesus rejected the idea that God was for the righteous, but against the wicked.  By doing so, he undermined the Essene doctrine of hatred toward those outside the sect.

          For Jesus, Leviticus 19:18 spoke not only about loving friends, neighbors and fellow-sectarians, but also about loving enemies.  In this instance, Jesus place the non-sectarian well within the pale of a neighbor.  Elsewhere, Jesus interpreted neighbor to include the Samaritans, a scored class foreigners (Lk. 10:24-37).[14]

          Jesus found further support for his interpretation in the way that God acts within the physical universe.  God does good to all people.  He does not single out the unrighteous for darkness, nor the wicked for shortage of rain (Matt. 5:45).  Rather, God lavishes goodness, mercy and kindness on the righteous and the unrighteous, and it is this model of conduct that Jesus encouraged his disciples to emulate.[15]

          In accordance with this verse it would behoove us not to speak of others in such a manner as to imply that a person is not saved or that a person is so corrupt that God doesn’t care about that person.  When we assume this kind of position we have assumed a position that belongs only to God.  We’re usurping the place and the authority of God and by so doing we stand in danger of eternal punishment.


Gehenna- In Hebrew it means the Valley of Hinnom and it’s a specific place in Israel.  As a matter of fact, the Temple Mount, the whole old city of Jerusalem, is surrounded to the west by the Valley of Hinnom, which swings around south and runs into the Kidron Valley.  In ancient times it was thought that they practiced Molech worship here.  This is where the children were offered in the fire in the stomach of the God.  When he speaks of Gehenna, they think of an actual geographical valley.  According to tradition, it was a dump, and fire burned there all the time, and all of the trash and the garbage from the city was dumped there.  The smell and fire and all of this conjure up a mental image in their minds of some kind of a terrible place where they didn’t want to go.  Because of this image Jesus uses this word figuratively for the final abode of the wicked.


          Notice the descending order of severity:

1.  If you’re angry with your brother without a cause, you’re going to be judged by the congregational court.

2  If you libel or slander your brother, you’re going to be liable for judgment before the local Sanhedrin.  

3.  If you cast away your brother because of his actions and say, “He’s lost” or “He’s damned,” then you stand in danger of judgment yourself, because you have assumed authority that belongs only to God! 


              [1]  David Bivin. New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus: Insights from his Jewish Context.                  Holland, MI: En-Gedi Resource Center, 2007.   , 103, 104. 

              [2] Bivin, 104.

              [3] Bivin, 103.

              [4] Cohen, 304.

              [5] Cohen, 303.

              [6] Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 4, 720,721. 

              [7] Cohen, 302. 

              [8] Encyclopedia Judaica, vol. 4, 721.

              [9] Cohen, 3. 

              [10] Krister Stendahl, “Hate, Non-Retaliation, and Love,” Harvard Theological Review 55 (1962),                 343-355; David Flusser, Judaism and the Origins of Christianity, 483-489. 

              [11] Bivin, 91. 

              [12] Bivin, 91. 

              [13] Morton Smith, “Mt. 5:43: ‘Hate Thine Enemy,’” Harvard Theological Review 45 (1952), 71-73. 

              [14] Bivin, 91. 

              [15] Bivin, 91.