Lessons from the Law: No.20 : Laws of Theft
Ex 22:1 “If a man steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it, he must pay back five head of cattle for the ox and four sheep for the sheep.
In the Ten Commandments we have already seen, “You shall not steal” (Ex 20:15) but, as we have already commented, laws are not only to restrain sin, as that command does, they are also to legislate for when sin has occurred. Elsewhere in the Pentateuch we have laws for dealing with that sin before God (laws of sacrifice – see Leviticus) but here in today’s verses we have how to deal with that sin in society. It is a recognition that we live in a Fallen World where people will go contrary to the basic laws God laid down.
So, we now come to the law of straight-forward theft. Being an agricultural economy, theft of animals was clearly the worst sort of theft envisaged because it took away a family’s food or livelihood. Domestic theft is that sort covered here. The law here seems to have an element of deterrence in it. The assumption is, of course, that the thief has been found out. The thief has stolen an animal belonging to someone else and has either killed it or sold it on. “If a man steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it.” In other words, there is no possibility of giving it back. The original owner has lost his property and there is no way of returning it.
Now here comes the tough part for the thief: he is to pay back fivefold cattle or fourfold sheep to the man he stole from: “he must pay back five head of cattle for the ox and four sheep for the sheep.“ Without any doubt that is a strong penalty and a strong deterrent. A few verses on the possibility of the animal still being alive is dealt with: “If the stolen animal is found alive in his possession–whether ox or donkey or sheep–he must pay back double.” (v.4) In other words, he’s not going to get away with just giving back the animal; there is an element or punishment or deterrent about it, for he has to give double what he took. Yet there is a further element to be added: “A thief must certainly make restitution, but if he has nothing, he must be sold to pay for his theft.” (v.3b) This surely is the ultimate deterrent: if you steal and can’t pay the appropriate amounts you will end up working to pay for the debt. It is unclear whether this means slavery, which is unlikely in the light of our previous considerations, and so it probably means, more likely, that he will have to work as a servant, a little bit like our modern community service. It is interesting that our modern law is moving closer to the Law of Moses.
Next comes dealing with the situation of where a thief breaks in and the homeowner, defending himself or his home, kills the intruder: “If a thief is caught breaking in and is struck so that he dies, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed; but if it happens after sunrise, he is guilty of bloodshed.” (v.2,3) The law is very simple: if it happens after dark, the homeowner is not guilty; if it happens in the daylight, he is. Presumably there is a recognition that in the dark there is a greater likelihood of fear and great probability of violent defense, and greater difficulty in being careful to avoid over use of force that might result in death of the intruder. In the daytime presumably there is less fear and it is easier to control what takes place, and therefore the homeowner should do what he can to avoid seriously injuring the intruder. In recent years court cases have come more in line with this way of thinking. It is a recognition of the practical difficulty in carefully defending your home, especially at night.
For those who have the tendency to criticise the Law of Moses as either harsh or outdated, the consideration of these laws should provide an adequate rebuttal for both claims. In each law, that we have been considering in these laws of chapters 21and 22, there is a strong concern for the wellbeing of all the parties concerned. We have also seen that our own legal system now operates in very similar ways to the ways we have been considering. There is nothing haphazard about these laws. They are very down to earth, showing a clear understanding of the failures of the human race while at the same time seeking to provide the best possible guidance for how to deal with those failures. There is nothing ‘religious’ or ‘super-spiritual’ about these laws. To the contrary, they simply display the wisdom and compassion and understanding of the Lord.