Theft (in the Bible)

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Theft is forbidden by the strongly negative precept of the Decalogue, "You shall not steal" (Ex 20.15; Dt5.19; Lv 19.11). Some authors (R. Devaux, Ancient Israel, Its Life and Institutions, tr. j. mchugh 83) propose the possibility that it originally forbade the heinous crime of man-stealing, an evil so frequent, principally to supply the slave trade, that it incurred the death penalty (Ex 21.16; Dt 23.7; see Ez 27.13; Am 1.6; 1 Tm 1.10). Exodus 20.17 would have governed regard for property. The precept of Ex 20.15, however, is usually taken to be a prohibition of theft and that of v. 17 as dealing with the interior movements of the heart. The moral force of these precepts arises from God's command. Thus to steal is to dishonor God (Prv 30.9) and is one of the injustices that lead to God's destruction of the Temple (Jer 7.9). Even one who steals from want is under full penalty, though men excuse him (Prv 30.9; 6.3031). The accomplice shares in the guilt of the thief (Lv 5.1).

The same moral condemnation appears in the New Testament. Theft is in the catalogue of sins that exclude from the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6.10) or for which a Christian should never be guilty (1 Pt 4.15). It is conduct that grieves the Holy Spirit of God (Eph 4.28, 30).

The juridic outlook on theft is more concerned with civil equity than criminal punishment, although the excessive retribution imposed is probably penal. To steal and slaughter an ox demands five in return; a sheep, four (Ex 21.37; 2 Sm 12.6). A stolen animal recovered alive demands twofold restitution (Ex 22.3). A thief caught stealing from a depositary makes twofold restitution (Ex 22.6); if he escapes, the depositary must swear his innocence before God (Ex 22.7, 1011). Disputed ownership of stolen property is judged by God (either by ordeal, oracle, or swearing); the guilty one pays twofold (Ex 22.8).

These regulations are more humane than those of other Oriental laws that demanded exorbitant restitution and frequently death. The only permissible death for theft mentioned in the Code of the Alliance was the death of a housebreaker caught at night in the act of stealing; if he was killed after daylight, the householder was liable to blood vengeance (Ex 22.12; see Nm 35. 3134). Even though theft was looked upon as so great an evil, in the New Testament Christ's Second Coming is likened to the coming of a thief in the night (1 Thes 5.2, 4; Rv 3.3;16.15; See the metaphors in Jer 23.30 and abd 1.5).

Bibliography: h. cazelles, Dictionnaire de la Bible, suppl. ed. l. pirot, et al. (Paris 1928) 5:497530. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, translated and adapted by l. hartman (New York, 1963) 2431. j. greenberg, g. a. buttrick, ed., The Interpreters' Dictionary of the Bible, 4 v. (Nashville 1962) 1:739742. w. j. harrelson, ibid. 4:570571.

[j. a. fallon]