“You shall not steal.”
The 8th commandment comes after prohibitions against murder and adultery. Although stealing is not as serious as these two sins, the 8th commandment strikes at something very deep in humanity’s sinful nature.
To understand stealing, let’s look at the first theft.
God told Adam and Eve they were free to eat of everything in the Garden, except the fruit of one tree. The tree of knowing good and evil was off limits. God commanded them, “…but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17)
On this basis, the devil tempted Eve to think God a liar and a thief. Satan said, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:4-5). In other words, the devil was saying, “God is playing you for a fool, Eve; he knows that if you eat from this tree you’ll be as great as he is. He’s lying to you and stealing what’s rightfully yours.”
When Eve saw the fruit’s beauty and appeal, it seemed to affirm Satan’s words. She and Adam believed Satan’s lie.
Ironically, by taking what didn’t belong to them, Adam and Eve became thieves. They took God’s right to decide good and evil. They claimed good and evil as something they could decide as on their own. They became thieves because they thought God was a thief, keeping something good from them and exploiting them for his own advantage. But they were the real thieves, not God.
The first theft shows us that stealing is something core to our sinfulness. Sin means trying to live apart from God, to live autonomously and independent of Him. Stealing was the way that humanity stepped into sin.
In the 10 Commandments, the probation against stealing is very short, just two words in Hebrew, לֹ֣֖א תִּֿגְנֹֽ֔ב / lo tignov. But there are many applications. Elsewhere, the Torah specifies that “You shall not steal” applies to things like: moving a neighbor’s boundary line to steal their land (Deut. 19:14); stealing livestock (Ex. 22:1-4); stealing anything belonging to a neighbor (Ex. 22:9); charging interest on loans to poor neighbors (Ex. 22:25).
These specific applications against stealing are alike, because they forbid people from profiting off someone else’s loss. One example shows this clearly.
When an Israelite owed a debt, he could hand over his cloak as a pledge. The creditor had the right to hold the cloak, but for a limited time: “If ever you take your neighbor’s cloak in pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down” (Ex. 22:26). To keep the cloak any longer would be considered stealing. Why? God explains, “…for that is his only covering, and it is his cloak for his body; in what else shall he sleep?”
This example shows that, in principle, stealing means reducing another person to a tool, a means to getting something else. In the specific case of pledging with a cloak, the creditor must not keep the cloak past sundown, because that would cause the debtor to be without warmth in the night. The creditor should consider the warmth and wellbeing of the debtor as more important than insuring payment.
In God’s view, stealing is not just about taking another’s belongings. Fundamentally, it’s about exploiting another person or using others for one’s own advantage. We can see this if we consider the worst form of stealing, kidnapping or enslavement. Consider what The Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible says about the 8th commandment:
“The worst form of theft is “manstealing” (somewhat equivalent to modern kidnaping); that is, taking a person (presumably by force) and selling him or her into slavery. The crime and the related law are stated more fully in Deuteronomy 24:7. The commandment is thus not only concerned with the preservation of private property, but is more fundamentally concerned with the preservation of human liberty, freedom from such things as slavery and exile. It prohibits a person from manipulating or exploiting the lives of others for personal gain.”¹
To enslave someone is the worst kind of theft. In Israel, the punishment was death: “If a man is found stealing one of his brothers of the people of Israel, and if he treats him as a slave or sells him, then that thief shall die. So you shall purge the evil from your midst” (Deut. 24:7).
Looking at both extremes of theft–taking someone’s belongings vs. taking someone’s freedom–we see that stealing is mainly about exploiting other people. Stealing reduces others as tools, using them as means to some other end.
But, in God’s view, people are people, not tools. As such, others deserve my giving, rather than my using or exploiting.
God is not a thief–contrary to Satan’s lie–but a generous giver. He is the Giver. James writes, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights…” (James 1:17a). Quite contrary to what the devil said to Eve, the Lord doesn’t want to hold back wisdom or any good gift: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5).
Generous giving comes out of the heart of God, not stealing. And, as God’s image-bearers, the same should be true of all humans. We should see others as those who deserve our help, love, and generosity. We should not merely seek our own interests, but the interests of others.
Yet, this is a tall order for the human heart. Can humans who’ve been stealing from the beginning learn to give like God?
There was a wee little man who climbed a sycamore tree. Who was this man? He was a rich man. He was a tax-collector. He had defrauded others in his business; he was a thief. But he knew it.
So, when Zacheus heard Jesus was coming near, he climbed the tree. He was hoping to see who Jesus was. I think, in his heart of hearts, he was also hoping Jesus would see him. Jesus did see him, and he said: “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.”
Spending time with Jesus transformed this thief. Instead of greed and selfishness continuing to shrivel his heart, he finally experienced joy and generosity filling him. He said, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus replied, “Today salvation has come to this house.”
If salvation can come to Zacheus, it can come to anyone. It came to David, after he stole Bathsheba from Uriah. It came to a thief hung up next to Jesus, dying on a cross. Salvation can come to thieves who recognize themselves as thieves, and ask forgiveness.
God is not a thief himself. He does not consider payment more important than people. Whoever asks his forgiveness, he readily accepts. And, what about the debt? Will it go unpaid? No, he pays it himself. “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45).
I recently took my family to a theme park in Florida. This theme park is very successful at what it does, i.e., getting people to feel like they’re escaping everyday life to experience something awesome. In other words, to cease from all work and just enjoy. To enjoy what, though?
I noticed that, for many people at the park (including me), the enjoyment was either gotten from experiencing something (e.g., a show, beautiful or nostalgic scenery) or consuming something (e.g., turkey leg, gift shop item). My normal sense of enjoyment went on steroids as I rode an exhilarating roller coaster or ate a huge waffle cone. And the nagging fear of not having enough went on mute as I bought up stuff, dismissing my scarcity mindset, because “I’m on vacation after all.”
After 4 straight days in this theme park, however, something happened. And I was reminded of my scarcity mindset.
We were leaving the park for the last time, and stopped at a donut place conveniently located near the exits. We had to wait in a long line. (No problem, we’d been conditioned for that all week.) Finally, out came that pink box of donuts. (Why pink? The tagline explained, “Because good things come in pink boxes.” Of course.)
Just then one of my kids needed something from my fanny pack. (I’m very secure.) I had to set the donut box down, and put it on a low wall nearby. As I turned to help the kid, I suddenly felt anxious about those donuts. What if someone tried to nab them? What if I was robbed of that lovely pink box of joy?
All week, my theme-park conditioning primed me to be a consumer. To enjoy and experience, without having to work or give of myself. I noticed I was hyper-afraid of others who might try to steal that away. And, thus, that I was a little less willing to part with things, or give them away.
Our culture in America is often a theme park culture. Other cultures do the same, though maybe without the theme parks. Human sinfulness–no matter the particular culture–does not cultivate generosity, but greed. It does not cultivate serving, but being served.
That is one reason the church needs the 8th commandment in its life and liturgy. To be a light to the world, Christians need to search themselves and ask, “Who am I taking advantage of? Who do I reduce as a means to my ends, instead of loving as a fellow child of God? Who do I exploit?” The church needs to be like Zacheus, seeking Jesus and opening up to love and generosity. When Christians live out of Jesus’ abundance, their scarcity mindset is mortally wounded, not merely muted.
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us, consumers, exploiters, and thieves.”
¹ Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Ten Commandments, The. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 2, p. 2044). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.