Answer: You’re right! The Bible does say not to kill people, and then it describes lots of killing. That sounds like a direct contradiction, doesn’t it?
The sixth commandment reads "Thou shalt not kill" (Exodus 20:13, KJV). Most translations (even the New King James Version) render it, "You shall not murder."
You see, there are seven different Hebrew words in the Old Testament for our English word "kill." The one used in the Ten Commandments–ratsach–refers to premeditated killing, or what we’d refer to as first-degree murder. An example would be getting so angry at somebody that you plot a way to kill that person, and then you carry it out.
Some Bible scholars have pointed out that this type of killing doesn’t refer to killing animals (Genesis 9:3), defending one’s home from nighttime burglars (Exodus 22:2), accidental killings (Deuteronomy 19:5), execution by the government (capital punishment) of those who’ve committed murder (Genesis 9:6), or involvement in certain types of war–similar to what you refer to when Israel went to war (Numbers 31:17; Joshua 6:21).
Other people simply don’t buy that. Because humans have been made in the very image of God (Genesis 1:27), killing a person is seen as a form of attack against God Himself. In fact, some people are pacifists to the point that they oppose the death of not just humans but animals as well. These people would probably see the above explanation as somebody just trying to weasel out an answer to support the bias they have towards killing in the first place.
Interestingly, in Genesis 9:6 God told Noah after the flood that whoever kills a person must be killed. The reason God gave for this law was that He’d made humans in His image. Yet God gave this instruction right after the Flood–an event that wiped out everyone not in the ark. Confusing?
People in the military aren’t the only professionals who have to wrestle with this issue. Law enforcement personnel deal with it, too. Although police officers don’t kill criminals nearly as often as is depicted on TV, there are times they might be faced with killing another human being. Does that mean we shouldn’t have a police force? And should we not have a military?
Most people accept the need for a military and a police force. Of course, they want a humane force rather than an aggressive one.
Unfortunately, most of life isn’t as simple as outright hostility or peaceful retreat. Things get mixed up–whether it’s bombing a country because they’re increasing their military might, or shooting a man of a different race when he reaches for his wallet ("I thought he was going to pull a gun"), or invading a foreign country to protect our financial interests.
Yet God is for life. Jesus said, "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full" (John 10:10).
Jesus also said, "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matthew 10:28). Each person must face death–both death on this planet and the possibility of an eternal death (or eternal life). Both count.
But strangely, in promoting life sometimes you must kill. If a crazy man goes on a shooting spree, it might require shooting him so that he won’t kill any more people. In a war, killing people is done to put an end to the war. Indeed, killing to save life can be very strange.
If you go into the military, you’ll be trained to kill and to do it efficiently. You will take orders from a superior officer rather than making those kinds of decisions for yourself. A military doesn’t work if each person decides for himself or herself what to do. You must obey orders.
I applaud you for asking yourself these hard questions that don’t have nice and easy answers. Just remember that God is for life. And I’d be interested to hear from you how you are trained to respect and promote life. That’s what I’d want my military and police force to do. How about you?