Law,  Old Testament

You Shall Not Steal—Respecting Ownership

In the series of Ten Commandments, the 8th commandment often seems very simplistic. However, like the other commandments, the commandment, “You shall not steal” has an entire theology behind it.

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As we have seen in other commandments, one way we can helpfully discern the principle behind a commandment is to reverse it. If we reverse the negative command to a positive command we could summarize the prohibition “You shall not steal” as follows: You must respect the right of lordship in the created order.

Lordship carries the ideas of authority and ownership. A man is the lord of his household, and a boss is the lord of his company. In Genesis 3 Adam and Eve did not respect God’s lordship in His right to withhold the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They took, they sinned. In addition to the concept of lordship in the Creator-creature relationship, God has designed the created world so that there is a built-in lordship for individuals.  

Each individual has responsibilities and rights. Hence, the creation principle behind this commandment is that the world is structured in a way that people have rights which belong to them—they have lordship over their environment.

An example of this is private property. God has designed the world so that there are certain things (property, clothing, tools, etc.) which belong to the individual. To violate this lordship (ownership) over those things is a transgression against God’s design for human to human relationships.

For example, if I have $100,000, it is mine to do with it as I please. I have the right to exercise lordship over it. Ultimately I will give an account to God for how I exercise my lordship, but it is still my right to do so. But if you steal my $100,000, you are violating my God-given right and taking away what is mine.

This principle applies to more than inanimate property. For example, Israel is forbidden from kidnapping (Deut 24:7). The same word for stealing in the eighth commandment is found here. Here it is not property or tools but an actually person! By kidnapping someone and making him a slave, you are essentially taking away his lordship in a variety of ways.

Similarly, in a case where someone does not fulfill their vow before God, such action is considered sin because it deprives God of what was promised to Him (Deut 24:21-23). This same principle applies to charging interest (Deut 23:19-20), and taking too much food from your neighbor (Deut 23:24-25).

The creation principle that runs behind the eighth commandment and its prohibition against stealing applies today in a variety of ways. For example, a man and woman might go into a restaurant and order an “all-you-can-eat” meal which they share. Although “cost-effective,” this choice deprives the restaurant owner of what is rightfully due him. Two people are enjoying a service, and yet only one pays.

Additionally, in countries like America, in which some waiters rely on tips for their income, it would be wrong to withhold what they need to survive. By not giving an appropriate tip, there is a withholding of what is necessary for one’s livelihood. Both of these examples are violations of someone’s right to expect compensation for their services.

The eighth commandment specifically forbids stealing. However, the creation principle which runs behind that commandment has far broader application. It involves acknowledging that God has designed a world in which people inherently have rights, and when those rights are violated we are transgressing God’s created order and fracturing our human relationships.

photo credit: Stéfan via photopin cc

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He is a husband, father, and sports enthusiast.