27 June 2011

A Survey of the Old Testament Law--Statutes Concerning Theft

Last week we covered the statutes and ordinances that dealt with the command “You shall not kill.” And they were a way of closing loopholes that people would try to get through when their actions caused the death of another. For example, a person with an ox that was known to “thrust with its horn in times past”—if that ox killed a person, the owner could no longer claim, “Well, it’s an animal, that’s what an ox does, I'm not responsible.” God said “Oh yes you are! You knew that animal was out of control and you did nothing about it. You are just as guilty of killing that person as the ox is.” Today we are going to look at a set of statutes that deal with property rights, whether it is livestock that has been stolen, or the accidental loss of property, or property that has either been borrowed from a neighbor or has been hired out.

Before we start, I really think most translations didn’t quite get it right when they split up the verses in this section. If you look at this passage carefully, I really think the last part of verse 3 should be at the beginning of verse 4. And you could almost read verses 2 and 3 as being in parentheses. So that’s how we’re going to read it. Exodus 22:1, 3b, 4“1 If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, he shall restore five oxen for an ox and four sheep for a sheep…3 He should make full restitution; if he has nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft. 4 If the theft is certainly found alive in his hand, whether it is an ox or donkey or sheep, he shall restore double.” The first principle is real simple. If you steal an ox or a sheep, you restore what you stole—and then some. In the day that we are living in, most of the time when a person steals something, it is a thing of relatively little importance. If someone breaks into your house and steals your PlayStation, is your life going to come to a screeching halt? Are you going to suffer any long-term harm if someone steals your 52” plasma TV? You are going to be out the money you paid for it, but really, can you live your life without it? And if you’ve got homeowner’s insurance, it will probably cover a replacement. But do you think Allstate or Progressive existed when the book of Exodus was being written? That being the case, there were statutes covering the punishment of those who were caught stealing by whatever means they used. If you had slaughtered it or sold it, you gave me five oxen for my one. What would happen if you stole five of my oxen and had sold them or slaughtered them? How many would you have to give me? If the animal was found alive, and in your possession, you gave me two for each one. So if you stole 5 sheep, and they were found alive, you would give me 10 of yours. So the thief, if he was found out, could wind up paying a huge amount of restitution. Because, when these commands were being given, were sheep and ox slightly more important than a PlayStation?

Why was the theft of an ox or sheep or donkey so atrocious? Well, because that was how the person made their living. I might make my living raising and selling sheep, either for their wool or their meat. I would raise oxen to plow my land. I would raise donkeys to sell as beasts of burden. So if someone steals one of my ox or sheep or donkeys—they are taking money out of my pocket and food off my family’s table. If you had sold it or slaughtered it, you gave me more than if it was found alive in your hand. Why do you think this penalty was greater than if they were found alive in your hand? Because if you sold it or slaughtered it, it was gone. There was no getting it back. But, if you still had it with you, I could get it back, so you give me what’s mine and you also give me one of yours. But what happens if you don’t have anything? Look at the end of verse 3. He shall be sold as a slave. And how long would he serve as a slave? Six years at the most. He would go free the seventh year.

Now, let’s look at the verses in between these, Exodus 22:2-3“2 If the thief is found breaking in, and he is struck so that he dies, there shall be no guilt for his bloodshed. 3 If the sun has risen on him, there shall be guilt for his bloodshed.” And now that we have separated these verses properly, I think we can see why it makes more sense this way than reading verse 3 to say “If the sun has risen on him, there shall be guilt for his bloodshed. He should make full restitution.” If someone breaks in to steal from me, and I kill them, how are you going to make restitution? And in fact, some translations put the restitution clause at the end of verse 1. Basically, if you break into my house at night to steal from me, I can strike you so that you die and I will not face any criminal charges. BUT, if the sun had risen—if it happened during the daylight hours—you had the responsibility to NOT kill him. Why? Well, because at night, it’s dark. I don’t know what your intentions are. I can't see if you have a weapon in your hand. I'm scared. And I have the right to do whatever I feel is necessary to defend my family from any possible harm. So I could kill you and not worry about it. But, during the daylight hours, you can see the man. You can see whether he has a weapon or not. Not only that, but are there going to be more people awake and about during these hours? And you can call them for help. So even though this man meant to steal from me, it was not likely that he meant to kill me, and even the life of the thief must be spared in such a case.

So now that we've dealt with theft from the one raising work animals and food animals, and we've covered the theft of personal property, now we come upon statutes covering the loss of grain to the crop farmer. Exodus 22:5“If a man causes a field or vineyard to be grazed, and lets loose his animal, and it feeds in another man's field, he shall make restitution from the best of his own field and the best of his own vineyard.” If you were out taking your cattle to graze, and one of them wandered into your neighbor’s field or vineyard and started chomping away—again, taking away from another what rightly belongs to them and is their livelihood—you not only compensated them for their loss, you gave them from the BEST of your field or vineyard. John Calvin—
“This kind of fraud is justly ranked among thefts…For if a person makes improper use of his servant to steal by him, the master is deemed guilty of the offense, even though he may have touched nothing with his own hand. A man is no less in the wrong who has caused injury by means of a brute beast.”
What he’s saying is that if I send my servant to go steal from someone, I am just as guilty of theft as my servant is. The fact that I have gained wrongly because of a dumb animal does not make my offense any less punishable. This was another way of reminding you to keep your animal under control. Because for however much your animal ate of my crops, you gave me the best of yours. And you may have had a really good crop growing. The best harvest you’ve had in years. Tough luck. Next time, take someone with you to help graze your animal.

The next ordinance covers accidental loss of crops. Exodus 22:6“If fire breaks out and catches in thorns, so that stacked grain, standing grain, or the field is consumed, he who kindled the fire shall surely make restitution.” What do you get when you combine a dry desert climate, a wheat field, and a spark? Oh, and there was no such thing as Rural/Metro. There was no Sinai F.D. Here’s what would happen: the farmer would be harvesting his crop. Once he separated the wheat from the chaff (the outer covering), he would take the chaff and burn it. Now, in the area where they were at—in fact, throughout much of the Middle East—fields were often bordered by thornbushes. Thorns caught fire and burned real easy. So when you started a fire to burn something, you better be careful. Because all it took to get a thorn bush burning was just a little spark, especially in a dry desert climate. And as hard as animals are to control, how much more difficult is it to control a fire—especially when you don’t have a vast supply of water at your disposal. The best you could do was a cistern, and even then all you could do was scoop it out by the bucket. You might as well spit on it. Well, guess who was responsible for that fire destroying their neighbor’s crop? Since the person who started the fire did not benefit from the fire—What do I gain by burning your crops?—he would simply make restitution.

Now we get to a principle we studied when we were going through the Ten Commandments. Exodus 22:7-8“7 If a man delivers to his neighbor money or articles to keep, and it is stolen out of the man's house, if the thief is found, he shall pay double. 8 If the thief is not found, then the master of the house shall be brought to the judges to see whether he has put his hand into his neighbor's goods.” You're going out of town, and you don’t want anybody stealing your car. You ask me if I can keep it at my house until you get back. I say “Sure, you bet!” Well, you get back and my car is gone. If someone stole it from your garage, the thief brought my car back to me—and bought me another new car to boot. Now, suppose your car winds up missing and nobody can find it. KPD calls around to all the junkyards and chop shops around Knoxville, and what do you know they find it. I am brought before the judges—who are acting by the authority of God—and they determine whether I stole your car or if someone else did.

Now, there was a way of what we would call “settling out of court.” Exodus 22:10-12“10 If a man delivers to his neighbor a donkey, an ox, a sheep, or any animal to keep, and it dies, is hurt, or driven away, no one seeing it, 11 then an oath of the LORD shall be between them both, that he has not put his hand into his neighbor's goods; and the owner of it shall accept that, and he shall not make it good. 12 But if, in fact, it is stolen from him, he shall make restitution to the owner of it.” Here we see two of the Ten Commandments being brought into the matter. First, of course, “Thou shalt not steal.” The second being what? “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain.” If I accuse you of stealing something, and you vehemently deny it, and we are standing before the judges, then you have the option of taking an oath in the name of Almighty YHVH, saying that you did not steal those goods, and that is that. We see this principle restated in Hebrews 6:16For men indeed swear by the greater, and an oath for confirmation is for them an end of all dispute. And the owner of the stolen property had to be satisfied with that. And if you think about it, if the person did in fact steal from you and they stand before God and swear an oath to God, then they have a far greater problem than repaying you what they stole. What they are doing, in essence, is calling God as a witness. “I call YHVH as a witness, and He will testify that I did no wrong!” You better be telling the truth. Because guess what? Exodus 20:7“You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.”

Now, suppose something happened, and a pack of wolves, or a lion or a bear got into my sheepfold and got after the sheep you had given me to hold on to. There was a provision for that. Exodus 22:13“13 If it is torn to pieces by a beast, then he shall bring it as evidence, and he shall not make good what was torn.” You come before the judges, and you say “I have his ox right here. And here. And they're bringing some more in right now.” It wasn’t enough to say that it had been torn by beasts. You had to prove it. And you proved it by bringing in the various parts. Now, if could be determined that the animal was indeed torn by wild beasts, then there was no penalty incurred by the keeper. Sometimes nature just acts like nature, and there’s nothing you can do about it. You don’t need to risk your life for my animals.

Now we get to statutes dealing with borrowed property and the presence of the owner. Exodus 22:14-15“14 And if a man borrows anything from his neighbor, and it becomes injured or dies, the owner of it not being with it, he shall surely make it good. 15 If its owner was with it, he shall not make it good; if it was hired, it came for its hire.” I need to borrow an ox to plow my field. You say “Here, you can use one of mine. Just make sure you have it back before Thursday, and make sure you top off the gas tank.” And then you go home. And while I am out plowing my field with your ox, it stumbles in a rut, breaks its leg, and is now useless. My bad, I give you another ox to make up for it. But suppose I borrow your ox and you are helping me plow my field with your ox. That ox steps in a rut, breaks its leg—the owner was with it, there is no restitution. Matthew Henry—
“If a man lent his team to his neighbour, if the owner was with it, or was to receive profit for the loan of it, whatever harm befell the cattle the owner must absorb: but if the owner was so kind to the borrower as to lend it to him freely, and put such a confidence in him as to trust it out of sight, then if any harm happened, the borrower must make it good. Let us learn therefore to be very careful not to abuse any thing that is lent us; it is not only unjust, but base and deceitful, inasmuch as it is rendering evil for good; we should much rather choose to suffer loss ourselves than that any should sustain loss by their kindness to us.”
Have you ever let somebody borrow your car, and sat at home the whole time asking yourself “What in the world was I thinking letting him borrow my car?” If I'm with you when you're driving my car, and we wreck, it’s my fault. If I lend you my car while I'm at work and you wreck that car, you pay for it.

Now, let’s tackle a sticky situation. Suppose Bo buys that car from me. He didn’t know I stole it. He bought it from me thinking he was getting a good deal. That is where the next word comes in, Exodus 22:9“For any kind of trespass, whether it concerns an ox, a donkey, a sheep, or clothing, or for any kind of lost thing which another claims to be his, the cause of both parties shall come before the judges; and whomever the judges condemn shall pay double to his neighbor.” Sorry, Bo. You owe my friend two cars. Bo tells the judges, “Hey, now wait a minute—I bought it from him!” (That is, me. The thief) I am found out, therefore I am the one who owes the neighbor I stole from two new cars. This is getting expensive, isn't it? That’s why we now have rackets like fencing stolen merchandise; money laundering. Criminals have gotten smart and they go through other parties to get rid of any trace of evidence that they had anything to do with that theft.

Now, let’s fast-forward to the NT. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us something peculiar. In Matthew 5:40“If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also.” The NASB reads like this, and this is closer to what we would be familiar with today, Matthew 5:40 (NASB)“If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also.” The context of this verse is Jesus teaching about taking vengeance. And He’s saying that if someone wants to take you before the judges and take away your shirt—give him your coat as well. Do not go after the person to take vengeance on him, because who does vengeance belong to? Romans 12:19-21 (NASB)19 Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay," says the Lord. 20 "But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head." 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. The point of the penalties in the OT Law, and the point of Christ’s teachings about vengeance, and Paul’s teachings about vengeance, all spring from the same principle: that is, all sin will be punished. God will make sure of that. We may never see justice done to evildoers here on earth. but remember that the Great and Glorious Judge is sitting on the bench, as we speak, and He will make sure His docket is cleared and that justice is done to those who deserve it. Vengeance is whose? Vengeance belongs to God. And He knows how to dish it out a whole lot better than we do.

Jesus is Lord. Amen.