I cannot claim any originality in commenting upon this law–it forms the basis of a very learned and somewhat lengthy analysis on the topic of godly self-defense by a friend of mine, Steve Martens. That said, I would like to continue my series of posts on biblical law by looking at this law on thievery and its consequences for Christians today, especially as it provides an excellent examination of the subjects of vengeance, self-defense, and restitution.
Let us therefore examine and analyze these four verses of laws protecting property and property owners, and making some very careful distinctions in behavior. Exodus 22:1-4 reads as follows: “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. If the thief is found breaking in, and he is struck so that he does, there shall be no guilt for his bloodshed. If the sun has risen on him, there shall be guilt for his bloodshed. He shall make full restitution; if he has nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft. If the theft is certainly found alive in his hand, whether it is an ox or donkey or sheep, he shall restore double.”
This verse suggests a type of thief that is much encountered in life, but is seldom discussed. Many thieves and robbers steal and exploit people for their own personal profit, whether it means robbing people of their worthy wage, exploiting cheap workers in foreign countries in sweatshops, stealing possessions to sell at a pawn shop, or stealing antiquities from nations to provide museums and personal collections with rare and notable objects d’art. These types of thieves range from night burglars to wealthy businessmen to gentleman thieves and explorers. Yet they are all counted here as thieves seeking to steal that which belongs to others for their own personal profit, and shown in this passage as stealing sheep and oxen, the animals necessary for the life and livelihood of a farming and herding population as was found in ancient Israel.
Next we see that if this thief and robber was found seeking to rob possessions in the night, and he was fatally struck down by the resident, there was to be no bloodguilt. A thief in the night was assumed to be well-armed and possessed of a murderous intent, knowing that there were innocent people sleeping soundly in their homes. A householder was not required to determine if a thief possessed deadly intent or weapons at night, and was clearly assumed to be in mortal danger upon the illegal entry of the thief, with no avenging and no bloodguilt, so long as the thief attempted to enter at night.
This is a very profound point, as bloodguilt is a major (if usually hidden) aspect of the Bible. Genesis 9:1-7 set up the renewed dominion covenant for man to be fruitful and multiply, commanding the death penalty against murderers (blood for blood) so that violence did not fill the earth as it did during the preflood days (and, it should be noted, as it fills the earth now on account of lack of fear about the enforcement of biblical law). Though we are used to seeing this “power of the sword” to slay evildoers in the hand of the civil authorities, the Bible places ordinary citizens within this civil governmental infrastructure through the office of the go’el, or kinsman redeemer.
This kinsman redeemer was the family’s official avenger of blood, and an entire system of Cities of Refuge (see Numbers 35:9-34) to allow for the survival of those guilty of manslaughter in what amounted to long-term house arrest, and the punishment of those guilty of murder. Therefore, what we assume to be a barbaric system of law was in fact a well-developed way of providing citizen involvement in the justice system, increasing “buy-in” to the system, lowering the costs of enforcement, and even providing for distinguishing of levels of severity of killing. In the case of killing a thief in the night though, there was no “blood” in the thief, and therefore no bloodguilt or avenging. His life was forfeit as a result of him seeking to rob innocent Israelites during the night.
Immediately after this profound point, though, the passage immediately distinguishes that such a thief, if killed in the day, would have blood, as a result of the ability to better determine harmful intent in the daytime as opposed to the darkness. With less risk comes greater responsibility to determine before taking action. At that point an unarmed thief would be avenged by his kinsman redeemer, while an armed robber could be killed in self-defense. The passage seems to assume an unarmed robber, though, showing that the decisive factor was sunlight–an unarmed thief was only safe from murderous self-defense in the light of day, which showed his defenseless state. In the nighttime, no matter that he was unarmed, he was assumed to be armed and possessed of hostile intent, and therefore his death would go unavenged in biblical law.
If the thief was caught, he would have to pay full restitution for his crimes. There was none of this business about “paying his debt to society.” The debt of a thief is not to society, but to his victims. The same is true for the debt of murderers, rapists, kidnappers, false witnesses, and adulterers, and any other sort of criminal. It was the victim (or the family of the victim) who was wronged by the crime, and it was they who were to receive, automatically, restitution for their losses from the criminal. If the criminal was unable to pay, he was to be sold into slavery to pay his debt to the victims. Incidentally enough, within American law, this is still allowable under the Thirteenth Amendment, a reflection of a noteworthy agreement between constitutional and biblical law. The commission of a sin or crime leads to a debt that is to be paid by the criminal/sinner unless the debt is forgiven by the victim. Ultimately, God is the victim of all crimes and sins (which amount to the same thing; see Psalm 51). A sin or crime could therefore easily lead to slavery, the loss of freedom because of the lack of righteousness and obedience to God’s law.
It is noteworthy as well to examine the restitution owed. If the thief was found with the property in hand, he was not only to return it but to repay double in addition to the restoration of that which was taken. If he had sold it or destroyed it for his own use and profit, he owed either four or fivefold restitution, depending on what was stolen (oxen were worth more, presumably because they were not only used for food and drink, but also used as equipment or “machinery” for plowing fields, and thus were a heavier loss than a sheep). This debt was owed to the victim, not to “society” or to the government. The lack of expensive systems of justice in biblical times meant a greater citizen involvement in the justice system, and also a greater restitution for their troubles in enforcement, which would serve as a very practical deterrent to theft.
Our society has no such deterrents to theft, and therefore it should not surprise us that our financial institutions should be filled with thieves robbing the government through ‘bailouts’ (and therefore the taxpaying citizens) to cover their losses from their own gambling and fraud. It should not surprise us that our towns and cities are filled with pawn shops selling stolen goods without risk of punishment and without shame. It should not surprise us that thieves who happen to return parts of their stolen proceeds to the people in the form of universities, libraries, and charitable foundations are praised as benefactors instead of condemned as merely partly repentant thieves and robber barons. It should not surprise us that our legislatures demand on “pay for play,” bribes or “donations” for doing their jobs like the common civil servants of corrupt third world African tinpot dictatorships. We get the sort of culture and society we deserve, and if we have refused to demand as an ordinary course of law restitution to victims, we should not be surprised that our justice system is widely derided. It should not surprise us that we have pastors and religious leaders who rob bank accounts, plunder tithes and offerings on a massive scale, and steal hymnals and sound equipment from their ‘brethren’. Where ordinary people have no stake and protection in institutions, those institutions have no support from the people.
Where we honor and elect thieves, we cannot expect such thieves to do otherwise than to write laws protecting their own thievery so that they and their cronies may escape justice. But let us not forget that we too are implicated in their thievery if we praise it, support it, and enable it. Clearly, the matter of a simple thief in the night is not as simple as it would appear on the face of it. The Bible gives us a law with a lot of nuance and importance for our own times, but will we be godly enough to put such a law into practice for ourselves? If we hate theft, will we cease to be thieves, or the supporters and companions of thieves, ourselves?