Thou shalt not steal
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"Thou shalt not steal" is one of the Ten Commandments of the Torah, which are widely understood as moral imperatives by legal scholars, Jewish scholars, Catholic scholars, and Post-Reformation scholars.
"Steal" in this commandment has traditionally been interpreted by Jewish commentaries to refer to the stealing of an actual human being, that is, to kidnapping. With this understanding, a contextual translation of the commandment in Jewish tradition would more accurately be reflected as "Thou shalt not kidnap", with kidnapping being a capital offence and thus included among the Ten Commandments.
Nevertheless, and especially in non-Jewish traditions, the commandment has come to commonly and colloquially be understood or interpreted to prohibit the unauthorized taking of private property, or theft, which is a wrongful action that does not ordinarily incur the death penalty and is prohibited elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible.
Significant voices of academic theologians (such as German Old Testament scholar A. Alt: Das Verbot des Diebstahls im Dekalog (1953)) suggest that commandment "you shall not steal" was originally intended against stealing people—against abductions and slavery, in agreement with the Talmudic interpretation of the statement as "you shall not kidnap" (Sanhedrin 86a).
The Hebrew word translated “steal” is “gneva” The Hebrew Bible contains a number prohibitions of stealing and descriptions of negative consequences for this sin. The Genesis narrative describes Rachel as having stolen household goods from her father Laban when she fled from Laban’s household with her husband Jacob and their children. Laban hotly pursued Jacob to recover his goods, and intended to do him harm, but Rachel hid the stolen items and avoided detection. Exodus 21:16 and Deuteronomy 24:7 apply the same Hebrew word to kidnapping (stealing a man) and demands the death penalty for such a sin.
The Hebrew word translated “steal” is more commonly applied to material possessions. Restitution may be demanded, but there is no judicial penalty of death. However, a thief may be killed if caught in the act of breaking in at night under circumstances where the occupants may reasonably be in fear of greater harm. The ancient Hebrew understanding honored private property rights and demanded restitution even in cases that might have been accidental, such as livestock grazing in another man’s field or vineyard.
If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and kills it or sells it, he shall repay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep. If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him, but if the sun has risen on him, there shall be bloodguilt for him. He shall surely pay. If he has nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft. If the stolen beast is found alive in his possession, whether it is an ox or a donkey or a sheep, he shall pay double. If a man causes a field or vineyard to be grazed over, or lets his beast loose and it feeds in another man’s field, he shall make restitution from the best in his own field and in his own vineyard. If fire breaks out and catches in thorns so that the stacked grain or the standing grain or the field is consumed, he who started the fire shall make full restitution. If a man gives to his neighbor money or goods to keep safe, and it is stolen from the man’s house, then, if the thief is found, he shall pay double. If the thief is not found, the owner of the house shall come near to God to show whether or not he has put his hand to his neighbor’s property. For every breach of trust, whether it is for an ox, for a donkey, for a sheep, for a cloak, or for any kind of lost thing, of which one says, "This is it," the case of both parties shall come before God. The one whom God condemns shall pay double to his neighbor.
— Exodus 22:1-9 (ESV)
In the book of Leviticus, the prohibitions of robbing and stealing are repeated in the context of loving one’s neighbor as oneself and the prohibition is expanded to include dealing falsely or fraudulently in matters of trade and negotiations. Wages owed to a hired worker are not to be withheld. Neighbors must not oppress or rob each other. Neighbors are to deal frankly with each other, protect the lives of each other, refrain from vengeance and grudges, and stand up for righteousness and justice in matters that go to court.
The law obliged the thief to pay seven times (if the thief steals because he is hungry) -).If the thief wasn’t able to pay compensation for his theft by selling his things, he was sold as a slave.
If the thief confessed his sin, he was allowed to return the object, adding a fifth of its price and he brought to the priest as his compensation to the Lord a ram without blemish out of the flock, or its equivalent, for a guilt offering; and the priest made atonement for him before the Lord, and he was forgiven
Poverty and greed are among the reasons for theft. Besides this, stolen things are sweet and the bread (food) eaten in secret is pleasant. The partner of a thief hates his own life; he hears the curse, but discloses nothing. Sometimes rulers are thieves or accomplices of thieves.
The book of Proverbs contrasts the response of a victim to a thief who steals to satisfy his hunger with the response of a jealous husband to adultery. The thief is not despised by his victim, even though the thief must make restitution even if it costs him all the goods of his house. In contrast, the jealous husband will accept no compensation and will repay the adulterer with wounds and dishonor, not sparing when his fury takes revenge. The book of Zechariah describes God as cursing the home of the thief and the home of those who swear falsely and Jeremiah describes thieves as being shamed when they are caught.
Jewish law enumerates 613 Mitzvot or commandments, including prohibition of stealing and a number of other commandments related to the protection of private property and administration of justice in related cases.
467. Not to steal money stealthily (Leviticus 19:11)
468. The court must implement punitive measures against the thief (Exodus 21:37)
469. Each individual must ensure that his scales and weights are accurate (Leviticus 19:36)
470. Not to commit injustice with scales and weights (Leviticus 19:35)
471. Not to possess inaccurate scales and weights even if they are not for use (Deuteronomy 25:13)
472. Not to move a boundary marker to steal someone's property (Deuteronomy 19:14)
473. Not to kidnap (Exodus 20:13) 474. Not to rob openly (Leviticus 19:13)
474. Not to withhold wages or fail to repay a debt (Leviticus 19:13)
475. Not to covet and scheme to acquire another's possession (Exodus 20:14)
476. Not to desire another's possession (Deuteronomy 5:18)
477. Return the robbed object or its value (Leviticus 5:23)
478. Not to ignore a lost object (Deuteronomy 22:3)
479. Return the lost object (Deuteronomy 22:1)
480. The court must implement laws against the one who assaults another or damages another's property (Exodus 21:8)
Maimonides (the Rambam) viewed stealing as one step in the progression from covetous desire to murder. When the person who owns a coveted item resists its unjust acquisition, the thief resorts to violence and may become guilty of murder.
Desire leads to coveting, and coveting leads to stealing. For if the owner (of the coveted object) does not wish to sell, even though he is offered a good price and is entreated to accept, the person (who covets the object) will come to steal it, as it is written (Mikha 2:2) [Micah 2:2], 'They covet fields and (then) steal them.' And if the owner approaches him with a view to reclaiming his money or preventing the theft, then he will come to murder. Go and learn from the example of Achav [Ahab] and Navot [Naboth].
Maimonides’ admonition to learn from the example of Ahab and Naboth refers to the narrative in 1 Kings 21 in which King Ahab of Israel tried to convince Naboth the Jezreelite to sell him the vineyard Naboth owned adjacent to the king’s palace. Ahab wanted the land to use as a vegetable garden, but Naboth refused to sell or trade the property to Ahab saying, “The LORD forbid that I should give up to you what I have inherited from my fathers!” Ahab’s wife Jezebel then conspired to obtain the vineyard by writing letters in Ahab’s name to the elders and nobles in Naboth’s town instructing them to have two scoundrels bear false witness claiming that Naboth has cursed both God and the king. After Naboth was subsequently stoned to death, Ahab seized possession of Naboth’s vineyard. The text describes the LORD as very angry with Ahab, and the prophet Elijah pronounces judgment on both Ahab and Jezebel.
New Testament view
The New Testament repeats the commandment not to steal, contains dire warnings about spiritual consequences of the practice, and upholds the basic ideas of private property rights and the proper role of governmental authorities in punishing thieves. Thieves are exhorted to steal no longer, but to work hard with their own hands so that they might have something to share with people in need. Government officials are commanded to be content with their pay and not to use their positions for unjust gain.
Zacchaeus brought salvation upon his house because he was decided to restore fourfold to those whom he had defrauded. The hypocritical thief is personified by Judas, who took secretly his part from the money Jesus and the apostles raised for helping the poor; he objected when Mary ointed Jesus with pure nard, pretending hypocritically it would have been useful if the nard would have been sold and the money given to the poor. There were some Pharisees like Judas: they stole, although preaching not to steal.
While private property rights are affirmed, the overriding theme in the New Testament is that one should trust and hope in God rather than in one’s material possessions, and there is an acknowledgement of a struggle in the heart between loving God and loving money.
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.
— Matthew 6:19-24
Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.
— 1 Timothy 6:6-10
The book of 1 Corinthians asserts that thieves, swindlers, and the greedy will be excluded from the kingdom of God as sure as adulterers, idolaters, and the sexual immoral, but that those who leave these sins behind can be sanctified and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus:
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
— 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 (ESV)
The command against stealing is seen as a natural consequence of the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” The prohibition against desiring forbidden things is also seen as a moral imperative for the individual to exercise control over the thoughts of his mind and the desires of his heart.
Teaching of the Roman Catholic Church
Catholic teaching regards the commandment “You shall not steal” as an expression of the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. This commandment is viewed to forbid the taking or keeping of a neighbor’s goods unreasonably and demanding respect for the right to private property.
The seventh commandment forbids unjustly taking or keeping the goods of one's neighbor and wronging him in any way with respect to his goods. It commands justice and charity in the care of earthly goods and the fruits of men's labor. For the sake of the common good, it requires respect for the universal destination of goods and respect for the right to private property.
— Catechism of the Catholic Church
Catholic teaching states that in economic matters, respect for human dignity requires practicing temperance, a virtue that moderates attachment to worldly goods; justice, a virtue that preserves our neighbors rights and renders what is due; and solidarity, in accordance with the golden rule. Even if it does not contradict explicit provisions of civil law, any form of unjustly taking and keeping the property of others is against the seventh commandment: thus, deliberate retention of goods lent or of objects lost; business fraud; paying unjust wages; forcing up prices by taking advantage of the ignorance or hardship of another. The following are also considered morally illicit: speculation in which one contrives to manipulate the price of goods artificially in order to gain an advantage to the detriment of others; corruption in which one influences the judgment of those who must make decisions according to law; appropriation and use for private purposes of the common goods of an enterprise; work poorly done; tax evasion; forgery of checks and invoices; excessive expenses and waste. Willfully damaging private or public property is contrary to the moral law and requires reparation. In addition, Catholic teaching demands that contracts and promises be strictly observed. Injustices require restitution to the owner.
Promises must be kept and contracts strictly observed to the extent that the commitments made in them are morally just. A significant part of economic and social life depends on the honoring of contracts between physical or moral persons - commercial contracts of purchase or sale, rental or labor contracts. All contracts must be agreed to and executed in good faith. Contracts are subject to commutative justice which regulates exchanges between persons and between institutions in accordance with a strict respect for their rights. Commutative justice obliges strictly; it requires safeguarding property rights, paying debts, and fulfilling obligations freely contracted. Without commutative justice, no other form of justice is possible.
— Catechism of the Catholic Church
Catholic teaching reminds that Jesus enjoins his disciples to prefer him to everything and everyone, and bids them "renounce all that [they have]" for his sake and that of the Gospel. Jesus gave his disciples the example of the poor widow of Jerusalem who gave out of her poverty all that she had to live on. Detachment from riches is portrayed as obligatory for entrance into the Kingdom of heaven. "Blessed are the poor in spirit" represents the expectation that those who do not receive all their physical longings are more inclined to seek fulfillment of their spiritual longings through Jesus Christ. “The Lord grieves over the rich, because they find their consolation in the abundance of goods.” "I want to see God" expresses the true desire of man. The water of eternal life quenches the thirst for God. Attachment to the goods of this world are a bondage. The Scriptural remedy is the desire for true happiness that is found in seeking and finding God. Holy people must struggle, with grace from on high, to obtain the good things God promises. Faithful Christians put to death their cravings and, with the grace of God, prevail over the seductions of pleasure and power. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, yet lose his own soul?
Reformation and post-reformation views
Martin Luther ascribes this commandment to God’s desire to protect private property rights. He views this commandment as prohibiting not only the taking of another’s property, but all unjust and fraudulent dealing in the marketplace, workplace, or any other place where transactions are conducted. Luther further describes negligence and dereliction of duty as violations of this commandment if such negligence causes one’s employer to suffer loss. Likewise, laziness and unfaithfulness in one’s paid employment are viewed as a fraud that is worse than the petty thefts that can be prevented with locks and bolts.
Furthermore, in the market and in common trade likewise, this practice is in full swing and force to the greatest extent, where one openly defrauds another with bad merchandise, false measures, weights, coins, and by nimbleness and queer finances or dexterous tricks takes advantage of him; likewise, when one overcharges a person in a trade and wantonly drives a hard bargain, skins and distresses him. And who can recount or think of all these things? To sum up, this is the commonest craft and the largest guild on earth, and if we regard the world throughout all conditions of life, it is nothing else than a vast, wide stall, full of great thieves.
Therefore they are also called swivel-chair robbers, land- and highway-robbers, not pick-locks and sneak-thieves who snatch away the ready cash, but who sit on the chair [at home] and are styled great noblemen, and honorable, pious citizens, and yet rob and steal under a good pretext.
— Martin Luther, The Large Catechism
Martin Luther taught that it is each person’s duty, at the risk of God's displeasure, not only to do no injury to his neighbor, nor to deprive him of gain, nor to perpetrate any act of unfaithfulness or malice in any bargain or trade, but faithfully to preserve his property for him, to secure and promote his advantage, especially when one accepts money, wages, and one's livelihood for such service. Those who trespass this commandment may escape the hangman, but he shall not escape the wrath and punishment of God. Luther held that it must be impressed upon the young that they be careful not to follow the old lawless crowd, but keep their eyes fixed upon God's commandment, “lest His wrath and punishment come upon them too.” 
John Calvin explains that since injustice is an abomination to God, the intent of the commandment against stealing is that one must render to every man his due. This commandment forbids us to long after other men's goods. Calvin holds that each individual’s possessions have not fallen to him by chance, but by the distribution of the sovereign Lord of all. Therefore, no one can pervert his means to bad purposes without committing a fraud on a divine dispensation. Calvin asserts that God sees the long train of deception by which the man of craft begins to lay nets for his more simple neighbor. For Calvin, violations of this commandment are not confined to money, or merchandise, or lands, but extend to every kind of right. We defraud our neighbors to their hurt if we decline any of the duties which we are bound to perform towards them. God’s wrath is incurred if an agent or an indolent steward wastes the substance of his employer, or does not give due heed to the management of his property; if he unjustly squanders or luxuriously wastes the means entrusted to him; if a servant holds his master in derision, divulges his secrets, or in any way is treacherous to his life or his goods. Likewise, a master incurs God’s wrath if he cruelly torments his household, because he is guilty of theft before God; along will all who fail to deliver what he owes to others, keeps back, or makes away with what does not belong to him.
Calvin further teaches that obedience requires us to be contented with our own lot. We should desire to acquire nothing but honest and lawful gain. We should not endeavor to grow rich by injustice, nor to plunder our neighbor of his goods, that our own may thereby be increased. We must not heap up wealth cruelly wrung from the blood of others. It should be our constant aim faithfully to lend our counsel and aid to all so as to assist them in retaining their property; or if we have to do with the perfidious or crafty, let us rather be prepared to yield somewhat of our right than to contend with them. Calvin further asserted that the individual Christian should contribute to the relief of those observed under the pressure of difficulties, assisting their want out of one’s own abundance. Calvin describe the commandment against stealing as requiring the unwavering delivery of any and all obligations:
Lastly, let each of us consider how far he is bound in duty to others, and in good faith pay what we owe. In the same way, let the people pay all due honour to their rulers, submit patiently to their authority, obey their laws and orders, and decline nothing which they can bear without sacrificing the favour of God. Let rulers, again, take due charge of their people, preserve the public peace, protect the good, curb the bad, and conduct themselves throughout as those who must render an account of their office to God, the Judge of all… Let the aged also, by their prudence and their experience, (in which they are far superior,) guide the feebleness of youth, not assailing them with harsh and clamorous invectives but tempering strictness with ease and affability. Let servants show themselves diligent and respectful in obeying their masters, and this not with eye-service, but from the heart, as the servants of God. Let masters also not be stern and disobliging to their servants, nor harass them with excessive asperity, nor treat them with insult, but rather let them acknowledge them as brethren and fellow-servants of our heavenly Master, whom, therefore, they are bound to treat with mutual love and kindness. Let every one, I say, thus consider what in his own place and order he owes to his neighbours, and pay what he owes. Moreover, we must always have a reference to the Lawgiver, and so remember that the law requiring us to promote and defend the interest and convenience of our fellow-men, applies equally to our minds and our hands.
— John Calvin
Matthew Henry sees the prohibition on stealing as applying to the unjust taking, sinful spending, and sinful sparing. One must not take another’s goods or encroach upon the boundaries of his property. One must restore what is lost. One must pay what is owed: debts, rents, wages, taxes, and tithes.
This command forbids us to rob ourselves of what we have by sinful spending, or of the use and comfort of it by sinful sparing, and to rob others by removing the ancient landmarks, invading our neighbour’s rights, taking his goods from his person, or house, or field, forcibly or clandestinely, over-reaching in bargains, nor restoring what is borrowed or found, withholding just debts, rents, or wages, and (which is worst of all) to rob the public in the coin or revenue, or that which is dedicated to the service of religion.
— Matthew Henry
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- Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible
- The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. 2007. Crossway Bibles, Wheaton, IL. ISBN 1-58134-379-5
- New Jerusalem Bible. 1985
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- Exodus 20:1-21, Deuteronomy 5:1-23, ‘’Ten Commandments,’’ New Bible Dictionary, Second Edition, Tyndale House, 1982 pp. 1174-1175
- How Judges Think, Richard A. Posner, Harvard University Press, 2008, p. 322; ‘’Ten Commandments,’’ New Bible Dictionary, Second Edition, Tyndale House, 1982 pp. 1174-1175; The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, 1988, p. 117; Renewal theology: systematic theology from a charismatic perspective, J. Rodman Williams, 1996 p.240; Making moral decisions: a Christian approach to personal and social ethics, Paul T. Jersild, 1991, p. 24
- b. Sanh. 86a; Commentary on Exodus 20:13, The Jewish Study Bible, Oxford University Press (2004), p. 150
- The NIV Complete Concordance, Zondervan, 1981
- Genesis 31
- Leviticus 19:9-17
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- Jeremiah 2:26
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- 1 Kings 21:4 (JPS)
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- 1 Corinthians 6:10
- 1 Peter 4:15, Romans 13
- Ephesians 4:28
- Luke 3:14
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- Matthew 6:19-24 ESV
- 1 Timothy 6:6-10 ESV
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- Luke 14:33
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- Mark 8:36
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- Tanakh (Holy Scriptures), Jewish Publication Society (JPS) 1917
- Explanation of Torah, Mishnah, Talmud versions
- Catechism of the Catholic Church
- Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible
- John Wesley’s notes on the Bible
- John Calvin’s commentary on the Bible