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The Eighth Commandment

Jun 02, 2010

The Eighth Commandment reads, "You shall not steal." This is one Commandment that I have not written about very much on the weblogs, simply because I already have a booklet on it called, God's Law on Restitution.

Yet because many of my weblogs provide summaries of my books, I think I can do this once again here.

It is hard to overestimate the importance of understanding the mind of God when it comes to theft and what to do about it if someone is caught stealing. The modern courts of justice in the Western world normally impose prison sentences upon those convicted of theft. Biblical Law has no use for prisons, except for "house arrest" until the trial.

The purpose of God's Law is to restore the lawful order by restoring to the victim that which he has lost. The secondary purpose is to rehabilitate the lawbreaker, not through torture or incarceration, but through restitution. If he has insufficient funds to pay restitution, then he is to work off the debt until it is paid, or until the year of Jubilee, when all debtors are set free. Exodus 22:3 says, "He shall surely make restitution; if he owns nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft."

In other words, the court will sell his labor to anyone who is willing to assume responsibility for the debt of sin that the thief has incurred. Such a buyer is known as a redeemer in biblical terminology. The redeemer assumes liability for the debt of the sinner, and in turn the sinner must work for him for a time specified by the judge.

The time of slavery is the time that the sinner is "under the law," as Paul says in Rom. 6:14. He is "under the law" until the debt is paid, and afterward he is "under grace," because he has no further debt to the law.

Paul applies these legal terms to the big picture, showing that "all have sinned" (Rom. 3:23), so "all the world may become accountable to God" (Rom. 3:19). Jesus came as the Redeemer, making Himself liable for the sin of the world, paying the debt to sin. All men, therefore, are duty-bound by the law to be His bondslaves (Lev. 25:53). He has purchased them and is their Redeemer.

Of course, the bondslave relationship is only the beginning of the story, because He loves us and wants to raise us up to the position of friends and even sons. But that is another study.

The law of restitution says in Ex. 22:4,

"If what he stole is actually found alive in his possession, whether an ox or a donkey or a sheep, he shall restore double."

Thus, if the stolen item can be returned intact or alive, then the Inverse Golden Rule applies. The thief is to give his victim precisely what he intended to steal from him. This is, of course, over and beyond restoring the original stolen item.

This law is closely related to the law of false witnesses found in Deut. 19:15-21. A false witness is one who intends to do harm to an innocent man by committing perjury. Let us say that he falsely testifies, "Yes, I saw him stealing $100 from John." If his testimony proves to be false, "then you shall do to him just as he had intended to do to his brother." (Deut. 19:19)

In other words, whatever liability the false witness intended to place upon his victim, that is the amount that the false witness would be liable to pay his victim. The judgment always fits the crime precisely, which is the meaning of verse 21, "life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot."

So also with liability for theft. The thief must return the stolen item and pay his victim an equal amount in restitution. The Inverse Golden Rule is: Others will do to you as you did to them. When applied in a court setting, this is the judgment of the law. Of course, keep in mind that the victim always has the right to set aside any portion (or even all) of the debt which the thief is told to pay. The judge is there to determine if there is guilt, and if so how much liability was incurred. He thus safeguards the rights of the victim to be compensated by restitution.

Only the victim has the right to determine the level of forgiveness and grace to extend to the thief. The law cannot do this. The judge can only determine precise liability. For a judge to forgive all or part of the restitution would violate the rights of the victim. Conversely, to charge the thief more than the law allows would violate the rights of the thief. The primary duty of law is justice, not deterrence. The recent invention of "Three strikes, you're out" is blatantly unjust by biblical standards.

Exodus 22 also tells us that if the stolen item could not be returned "alive" (or intact), then the restitution payment increases to fourfold. The exception in verse 1 is if an ox was stolen, for restitution in such a case is fivefold. The reason is that the ox was the tractor of the day. It represents the tools of a man's trade. Whereas sheep just exist and grow wool, oxen represent labor. This additional factor is valued in the law.

In Ex. 22:1 and 4, the Hebrew word translated "restore" is shalam, which means "to be at peace" or "in a covenant of peace."

This shows that the purpose of restoring double, fourfold, or fivefold is to make peace between neighbors. This is what it takes to restore the lawful order, or the peaceful order in the community. In this single word is the summary of the whole purpose of the law. When restitution is made, peace is restored, and when men greet each other, they can truly say, "Shalom" (or, "Peace be to you").

Finally, if a thief repents and confesses his crime, he is to restore the stolen item and pay just one-fifth of its value in restitution. This is according to the law in Num. 5:7,

"Then he shall confess his sins which he has committed, and he shall make restitution in full for his wrong, and add to it one-fifth of it, and give it to him whom he has wronged."

This is God's way of encouraging men to repent. It is part of the mercy built into the law, and it shows that the real purpose of God is to restore sinners. I like this law.

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Category: God's Law

Dr. Stephen Jones

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