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Moses' second speech, Part 11

Jul 30, 2012

Deuteronomy 5:19 gives us the Eighth Commandment: "You shall not steal."

As with all the Commandments, this is a simple statement of principle that is explained by many other laws defining theft and the judgments for various kinds of theft.

Exodus 22 is perhaps the most basic chapter that gives us the mind of God in regard to theft. Those who are found guilty of theft are to repay their victims double restitution (Ex. 22:4). That is, he is to return what is stolen and then pay his victim a second item (or its monetary equivalent). Hence, what he intended to steal from his victim comes back upon his own head, as if his victim had stolen the same item from him.

In a way, it is a reverse Golden Rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." The victim, in essence, does to the thief what the thief did to him. That is how God measures justice. The greater the crime, the greater the restitution payment. The judgment always fits the crime.

If, however, a thief cannot return what has been stolen, either because he has already sold it or killed it, then the thief must repay fourfold (Ex. 22:1). The law is revealed in terms of sheep, because that was easily understood in those days.

The law also says that if a man steals an ox, he was to restore fivefold (Ex. 22:1). This was because an ox represented the tools of a man's trade. In those days the ox was a man's tractor, and without it he was unable to perform his field work. Therefore, to steal a man's ox did more damage than to steal a sheep.

In case of burglary, a householder was not held liable if he killed a thief at night (Ex. 22:2, 3), because it was likely that he could not see if the thief was armed and dangerous. Furthermore, it was more difficult to identify the thief, even if he may have encountered him in the act. But if the thief was encountered during the day time, it was not lawful to kill him--unless, of course, he posed a direct threat, in which case he could be killed in self-defense.

These are the basic laws of restitution found in Scripture and in the mind of God. In the New Testament, a tax collector named Zaccheus repented of his sin of charging more tax than was owed. Luke 19:8 says,

(8) And Zaccheus stopped and said to the Lord, "Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much."

Zaccheus understood the law in Ex. 22:1, and knew that this was how a man should repent of his sin of theft. In today's lawless church world, we have come to expect grace without repentance or repentance without restitution. But Jesus recognized the faith in Zaccheus' heart:

(9) And Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house; because he, too, is a son of Abraham."

If, however, a thief refused to pay restitution as required by the law (and, of course, if the victim demanded restitution), the thief was liable to be put to death for his lack of repentance (Deut. 17:9-13). Such a man was not put to death for the original theft but for contempt of court, which is refusing to repent. Of course, it is not likely that a man would persist in his refusal to pay restitution if he truly understood that the consequence would be the death penalty. That is why verse 13 says,

(13) Then all the people will hear and be afraid, and will not act presumptuously again.

There may be a man who is convinced of his innocence and who refuses to pay restitution on that principle. The proper procedure, however, would be to submit to the court's decision, but appeal the case to the Divine Court and let God investigate and render a verdict from His Throne. Jesus did this when He submitted like a lamb to the slaughter, knowing that the Father would justify Him by means of resurrection and ascension to the throne.

Most cases of theft are obvious to people today, but there are some cases that are more obscure without studying the law. For example, what if a campfire gets out of control and burns property owned by others? This is not exactly theft (unless it is done deliberately, of course), so Exodus 22:5 and 6 tells us that in case of such accidents, the one who started the fire was liable only to replace or pay for the damage.

Specifically, he who lit the fire was responsible for as long as the fire was alive. As its owner, he was liable for all damage to other men's property.

Another case is where a man might entrust his neighbor with his goods while going out of town. If a thief came and stole that entrusted property, should the neighbor be held liable? Ex. 22:7 says no, because the thief should be held liable. However, if the thief is not caught, it might be that the man might suspect that his neighbor actually stole the property himself. If there is any question about this, the victim had the right to appeal to the Divine Court for justice. Verse 11 says,

(11) an oath before the Lord shall be made by the two of them, that he has not laid hands on his neighbor's property; and its owner shall accept it, and he shall not make restitution.

As Hebrews 6:16 says, "an oath given as confirmation is an end of every dispute."

Such oaths of innocence were administered by the judge to allow the all-seeing God to judge the case. If the man were actually guilty of the crime, then he is guilty of perjury and liable before God for blasphemy. In Acts 5, Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead by God Himself after lying to God. Peter says in Acts 5:4, "You have not lied to men, but to God."

Another case is if a man borrows his neighbor's equipment, and that equipment then breaks. Who is liable to fix it? Exodus 22:14, 15 says that the neighbor must fix the equipment and restore it whole to its owner, unless the owner was present at the time that it broke. When the owner is present, he is responsible to direct the use of the equipment and to watch for situations or objects that might break the equipment.

Exodus 22:25 tells us that usury is theft. Also, in Ex. 22:29-31 God lays claim to all the firstborn male offspring of man or beast. They are to be given to God on the eighth day. If men fail to do so, it is a crime of theft against God. Few follow this law today, because they have not heard this law. But if one hears the voice of God and obeys the command, then we can say with Paul, "faith comes by hearing," (Rom. 10:17), and we know that the word for hearing is the same as the word for obeying.

In Deut. 22:1-3 if a man loses something, and another man finds it, the finder cannot lay claim to what he has found. He must return it to the rightful owner. If the rightful owner cannot be located, he is to take care of the property until the owner comes to find it. This law is given in terms of oxen, sheep, donkeys, and even items of clothing.

We are fortunate to have this law, because God Himself has many "lost sheep" (Ezekiel 34:16). When we find them, we are to care for them until God comes to seek and find them. Churches or denominations who lay claim to God's sheep as if they were their own are guilty of theft. They are to consider themselves to be stewards and not owners of the lost sheep. Ezekiel 34 speaks of the shepherds who fleece and eat those sheep as if they owned them.

We gain much insight into a serious church problem by understanding the laws of lost sheep and the laws of theft. Those who refuse to study the law usually find themselves lacking in wisdom and understanding that is offered to us in the law and in the Eighth Commandment.

This is the eleventh part of a series titled "Moses' Second Speech." To view all parts, click the link below.

Moses' Second Speech

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Category: God's Law

Dr. Stephen Jones

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