Jew and Gentile alike have been horrified by Commandments to kill.
Yet, some religious fanatics have blamed that revulsion on over-sensitivity and assimilation to non-Jewish norms and sentiments. I will show that, rather, these zealots are motivated by an assimilated way of thinking.
Some anti-Judaics have given these Commandments as proof of the inferiority of Judaism, of organized religion, or of the superiority of the New Testament. Unfortunately, followers of the ‘turn the other cheek’ have left a trail of blood along the path of history. The Jewish Bible has a closely connected Oral part that explains that killing is horrible.
A major flaw in reading the Hebrew Bible is to forget that the text was to teach Jews. And Jews hate to shed blood. Any exception confirms this rule.
Abraham to Kill his Firstborn
So, when Abraham is commanded to murder his only son, he can only see it as a challenge to him, not a command. He plays along, never believing that G^d would actually allow this to happen. He calls His bluff. As he says beforehand: God will find us an animal [instead]. Abraham doesn’t lie.
Some crimes are punishable by death. In the olden days, the Rabbis were obligated to get together a giant court to see if the accused should be executed. However, they made the criteria for conviction, based on the Torah’s text, so great that it became practically impossible to convict someone to death. In fact, we learn that a court that would execute two people within 7 years (some say 70 years!) is a bunch of murderers!
Orthodox-Jewish trigger-happy proponents of the US death penalty are made numb by assimilation. All trials as done by US civil Law that lead to execution are simply state-sanctioned murders. (To put someone on death row for decades speaks of a cruel mindset beyond belief.) They are very far removed from the delicate Jewish capital crime trials of the past whereby the rabbis were looking for the minutest details to exonerate the accused. If some people really deserve death, G^d can execute them–no pressing need for us to do so. However, the crimes stay on the Books as a warning, to tell everyone that certain behavior is completely beyond the pale.
The Wayward Son
This is a gruesome Commandment that obligates parents to turn in their child if it’s completely going the wrong way. What a bitter lot. However, the Talmud already says that the conditions to actually execute such a child are nearly impossible to be met. In fact, it states that no child was ever executed for this. That these Laws are only given to be learned and warn us of the gravity of certain behavior. Then, one Sages says that he actually sat on the gravestone of such a child. However, it doesn’t say if he was only accused or actually executed for this behavior. My take it that the Sage only said this for deterrence. Which is clearly the whole reason for all these Commandments to kill.
To Wipe out Amalek
This obligatory genocide is given to Jews to tell this peaceful lot: you may encounter a people completely different from you, evil to its core, worthy of being destroyed completely. Don’t be naive! Genocide was never commanded.
In any case, the great Maimonides explains that we can let Amalek off the hook if it is willing to honor God, Jews, etc.
The Ten Commandments
The Ten Commandments don’t say ‘Don’t kill.’ They say ‘Don’t murder.’ There is an enormous difference. Sometimes we are commanded to kill (see above).
But sometimes, we are even obligated to murder. The Tradition is so protective of our attitude against murder that we study this Commandment as ‘Don’t murder.’ Only in some readings in the synagogue, it is read differently: ‘Don’t … murder.’ The dots stand for: but sometimes you must. For instance, to kill someone swiftly before he is about to murder someone else. When someone sets out to murder you, you murder him first. You stop a terrorist, even if you thereto need to kill him. This is part and parcel to Judaism but we shouldn’t dwell too much on it.
Whenever the Torah wants us to kill or murder, it is always to warn us how bad certain violations are or to have us wake up how bad some people are.
The essence of a Jew is to abhor killing and to fight God against any decree on any person dying. In very bad cases, repentance is still a better option.