After the flood God makes a covenant with Noah and his family. Although God will eventually make a covenant with the Jewish people at Sinai, He enumerates seven laws not only for Noah and family but also for all non Jews. They are the basis of morality and the foundation of a principled society. One of the laws mentioned is murder.
He who spills the blood of man, through man (i.e. witnesses in court) shall his blood be spilled, for in the image of G-d He made man. (Genesis 9:6)
Noah is warned that someone who murders a human being ought to be killed. This seems logical since every member of society understands that murder is wrong. If it’s so simple that murder is immoral, how do we understand the end of the verse, which gives a reason for why the murderer should be killed. The reason is not merely a heinous act of moral depravity, the reason is for in the image of G-d He made man. Why must the Torah reveal such a lofty reason for the need to kill a murderer; isn’t it logical? Doesn’t everyone know that murder is wrong?
When we look at the most civilized civilizations of antiquity we see that human life had little or no value. In the book Hardness of Heart/Hardness of Life Dr. Larry Milner documents that “Infanticide has pervaded almost every society of mankind from the Golden Age of Greece to the splendor of the Persian Empire.” (With, of course, one exception; he writes that infanticide was “never socially accepted by the Jews.”). In addition to infanticide the Romans had gladiators, events in which tens of thousands of people watched as people were killed on a mass scale. In 107 CE the Roman Emperor Trajan had a gladiator competition in which 10,000 gladiators fought. If you stayed for the entire competition you would’ve witnessed 5000 deaths. Furthermore, some civilizations, even advanced cultures such as the Incas, offered human sacrifices to placate their gods. Clearly, the value of life didn’t seem to have too much significance years ago.
The reason why a murderer is put to death is specifically because “for in the image of G-d He made man.” History has demonstrated that pure logic of the moral evil of murder in a world without G-d does not prevent entire societies from sanctioning murder. Therefore, the Torah needed to give a reason prohibiting murder: the only reason we don’t do it is because humans are createdin the image of G-d. Rabbi Akiva explained, “Anyone who spills blood is considered as (s)he has diminished the Image of G-d!” If left to the human logic, people will murder-this is not a point of argument, history bears witness to it.
People will surely rationalize and justify why killing the people they kill is not murder. One of the most extreme examples was during WWII. The Germans, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Poles, and most of the rest of Eastern and Western Europe justified targeting a specific religion because that is what seemed logical to them. The Jews were responsible for their problems and therefore they dealt with them the same way one would deal with rabid rodents in the house endangering the lives of your family; you need to exterminate them. The Torah needs to give us a reason not to murder that transcends the boundaries of human intellect; murder is destruction of the image of G-d. We learn from here that without the ‘God concept’, nothing is sacred; even murder can be justified.
One might say, let us not be naïve; how about the destructive consequences of religion – intolerance, hatred, division, inquisitions, persecutions of “heretics,” holy wars. Yes, there have been awful consequences of certain religions over the years but what one almost never hears described are the harmful and even toxic consequences of secularism. Although students are taught about the evil brought about by religion and belief in G-d, for every thousand students who learn about the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials, maybe two learn to associate Gulag, Stalin causing a famine in the Ukraine to destroy the people there seeking independence, Auschwitz, Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the Cambodian genocide with secular regimes and ideologies. The ideology that lead to the mass murderers of the 20th century were not motivated by G-d or religion; there was no G-d in any of those ideologies.
Imagine how different life would be if we looked at each person as being created in the image of G-d? We’d treat them with deference and dignity and we certainly wouldn’t murder them. Every image of God has purpose and a role to play in the world. As Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch wrote in 19th century Germany, “…he who kills a man destroys all the activities in him which he could have contributed to the physical world in the service of G-d. Hence, our Sages say, man was created singly in order to teach that he who kills a man destroys a whole world.”
We need to give people dignity simply because they are created in the image of G-d. The more we acknowledge this idea, the more we allow them to make their unique contribution to the world.
(Sources: Midrash Aggada, Emes l’Yaakov, Horeb)