2 If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him, 3 but if the sun has risen on him, there shall be bloodguilt for him. He shall surely pay. If he has nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft. 4 If the stolen beast is found alive in his possession, whether it is an ox or a donkey or a sheep, he shall pay double.
5 “If a man causes a field or vineyard to be grazed over, or lets his beast loose and it feeds in another man’s field, he shall make restitution from the best in his own field and in his own vineyard.
6 “If fire breaks out and catches in thorns so that the stacked grain or the standing grain or the field is consumed, he who started the fire shall make full restitution.
7 “If a man gives to his neighbor money or goods to keep safe, and it is stolen from the man’s house, then, if the thief is found, he shall pay double. 8 If the thief is not found, the owner of the house shall come near to God to show whether or not he has put his hand to his neighbor’s property. 9 For every breach of trust, whether it is for an ox, for a donkey, for a sheep, for a cloak, or for any kind of lost thing, of which one says, ‘This is it,’ the case of both parties shall come before God. The one whom God condemns shall pay double to his neighbor.
10 “If a man gives to his neighbor a donkey or an ox or a sheep or any beast to keep safe, and it dies or is injured or is driven away, without anyone seeing it, 11 an oath by the Lord shall be between them both to see whether or not he has put his hand to his neighbor’s property. The owner shall accept the oath, and he shall not make restitution. 12 But if it is stolen from him, he shall make restitution to its owner. 13 If it is torn by beasts, let him bring it as evidence. He shall not make restitution for what has been torn.
14 “If a man borrows anything of his neighbor, and it is injured or dies, the owner not being with it, he shall make full restitution. 15 If the owner was with it, he shall not make restitution; if it was hired, it came for its hiring fee.” – Exodus 22:2-15 ESV
These laws could be summed up with the simple adage: Honesty is the best policy. When it comes to human relationships, God puts a high priority on integrity and morality. He expects His people to do the right thing and, when they don’t, He demands that they make amends. God created human beings to live in a communal environment that requires close interaction and a sense of interdependency. The behavior of one affects all. So, when crafting the code of conduct that would regulate life within His covenant community, God included laws that would encourage honesty and mutual accountability. In His covenant community, no man was to be an island. Everyone’s individual behavior had corporate implications.
In giving the Decalogue, God covered the moral law concerning theft.
“You shall not steal.” – Exodus 20:15 ESV
This eighth commandment prohibited theft. Even within the communal context of the nation of Israel, people were allowed to own private property. It was not a collective, where everyone shared all things in common. Instead, individuals could own their own homes, possess flocks and herds, and enjoy the benefits and rights of ownership. But God knew this arrangement, in conjunction with the effects of the fall, would result in inequities that produced coveteousness and jealousy. The have-nots would become envious of the haves and be tempted to resort to theft to balance the playing field.
So, these commands are examples of the moral law (Don’t steal) applied as civil law. What were the people of Israel to do when someone was caught in the act of stealing? How were they supposed to respond when an individual damaged property belonging to someone else? The prohibition against stealing had to be nuanced and parsed out so that it made sense in a variety of different scenarios because human beings have an uncanny ability to justify their actions – even the bad ones.
The first case involves someone who breaks into a house with the intent to steal. But if the homeowner catches the intruder in the act and kills him, it is to be considered an act of self-defense. He will be considered innocent of murder. But the outcome is quite different if the homeowner kills the thief in broad daylight. In that case, the claim of self-defense is waived and replaced with a conviction of murder. There is no explanation given for this variance in outcomes, but it would appear that the difference has to do with the threat of bodily harm. A homeowner who catches someone breaking and entering in the middle of the night has no way of knowing the intentions of the intruder. Fearing the threat of personal harm, the homeowner has the right to defend himself, his family, and his property. But with the rising of the sun, a different light is shed on the very same scenario. It becomes easier to discern the perpetrator’s intentions. Theft does not justify murder. The threat of stolen property does not give the homeowner the right to take another man’s life.
Another way of interpreting this law is that if a man is killed in the act of breaking and entering, he will not be found guilty of theft. And there will be no restitution required because he has paid with his life. But if the thief accomplishes his mission and lives to see the next day, he will be held accountable. He will be required to pay for his crime. If he is unable to make restitution, he is to be sold and the proceeds used to reimburse his victim. If he is caught with the stolen property in hand, he will be required to compensate the aggrieved party at double its value.
Verses 5 and 6 deal with cases of criminal negligence. These two scenarios cover inadvertent and unintentional damage done to someone else’s property. In the first case, an individual is guilty of allowing his flocks or herds to damage another individual’s property. They have overgrazed the land of a neighbor. Since there were no fences in those days, it was easy for these kinds of accidents to happen. But this did not excuse one man from respecting the rights of another. If damage was done, the guilty party was expected to make restitution.
If a man started a fire to clear his own land, but it spread to a neighbor’s field, destroying his harvested and stacked grain, he was to be held accountable.
“…he who started the fire shall make full restitution.” – Exodus 22:6 ESV
An apology would not suffice. An admission of guilt was to be accompanied by an exchange of compensation. Harm was done and payment must be made.
The commands that follow have to do with cases of personal liability and responsibility. In a day when banks were non-existent, people were forced to depend upon others for the safekeeping of their valuables. So, if a man placed his personal property in the care of a friend and those goods were stolen, what was the proper protocol to follow? Who was responsible? There was no FDIC to cover the loss. So, what was the aggrieved party to do?
If the thief who stole the goods was caught, he was to make restitution. But if there was no one to pin the crime on, the matter was to be brought before God. In a case like this, it would only be natural for suspicion to arise concerning the trustworthiness of the one who had been entrusted with the goods. If the valuables disappeared while under his watch, should he be held responsible for the victim’s compensation?
In these kinds of cases, the matter was to be brought before God.
“…the owner of the house shall come near to God to show whether or not he has put his hand to his neighbor’s property.” – Exodus 22:8 ESV
The Hebrew word used here is ha’elohim and it can be translated as “the gods.” It is most likely a reference to the elders within the community who were assigned the task of judging these kinds of situations. This was the protocol established by Moses on the advice of Jethro, his father-in-law.
“…look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. And let them judge the people at all times. Every great matter they shall bring to you, but any small matter they shall decide themselves.” – Exodus 18:21-22 ESV
These trustworthy men were to assess the situation and determine the guilt or innocence of the one from whose home the goods were taken. If the judges arrive at a guilty verdict, the neighbor was to make restitution, paying the victim double the value of the stolen property.
If the missing property happened to be an ox, sheep, or goat, the same criteria were to be applied. If the judges deemed the neighbor did nothing wrong, the owner of the property was to accept their verdict as final and binding. But if they determined the neighbor to be guilty of theft, he was expected to make full restitution.
The final case involves responsibility for borrowed goods. If a man borrows anything of value from a neighbor, he will be held responsible for its care and ultimate return. If it is stolen, he will compensate his neighbor for its value. If it is damaged, he will make restitution. But God provides an important caveat. If the owner of the object is present when the item is damaged, the borrower is not to be held accountable. If it involves the case of an animal being rented out and the animal is injured or killed, the owner will receive compensation from the rental price he charged. Any loss he suffers is to be written off as the cost of doing business.
These laws, while quite specific, are not intended to be exhaustive in nature. They provide practical principles for dealing with the myriad of scenarios that might come up in daily life. Communal living can be difficult. Living in close proximity to others can lead to all kinds of conflicts and create a perfect storm of controversies that can do damage to the community and bring dishonor to the name of God. So, the Almighty went out of His way to establish clear criteria for how to live with integrity in the midst of community.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.