The Eighth Commandment reads, “You shall not steal.” The following is an excerpt from Chapter 9 of Ten Essential Words.
This Eighth Commandment is an example of how we tend to move right into the spiritual dimension of something we read in scripture and overlook the functional dimension. (Another mistake is to simply separate the spiritual and the functional to begin with.) Remember that with the giving of the Law at Sinai, God was forming nation. The Israelites would need a structure and a set of beliefs to guide this nation. The Ten Commandments would help serve that purpose. These commandments would set forth the ideas that would be inherent to being the nation of Israel, and not just being the people of Israel. Like today, this commandment prohibiting stealing offered some legal and enforceable protection of property. Ironically enough, up to this point the people were still wandering in the desert without a land to call their own.
Laws prohibiting stealing can be found almost as far back as we can find cultures that recorded laws. Like murder, stealing is an offense that strikes at the very foundation of what it means to be a society. As far back as the seventeenth century B.C., the Code of Hammurabi stated, “If a man commits a robbery and is caught, that man will be killed.” Hittite laws of roughly the same time period corresponding to Sinai dealt with stealing, especially as it related to livestock. Even minor thefts were often punished harshly. In the Middle Assyrian Laws of this same time period, we read that a woman who was caught stealing from an individual would have her ears cut off by her husband and her nose cut off by the victim. Laws forbidding stealing are among the most common laws found in the Ancient Near East.
It is no surprise then, that stealing is included on the list of things prohibited in the formation of the nation of Israel. Initially, this commandment may have referred more to the stealing of other people with the intention of selling them into slavery. In the Hebrew language, the noun form of this verb “to steal” refers to a thief, or more specifically, a slave-dealer. Kidnapping and the selling of the victim into slavery was a very real issue in the ancient world. Rabbinic thought actually regards kidnapping as the act forbidden in this commandment, while other forms of stealing were covered elsewhere in Mosaic Law. Among various laws regarding Hebrew servants found in the chapter following the Ten Commandments, the Law specifically stated, “Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death, whether the victim has been sold or is still in the kidnapper’s possession” (Exodus 21:16). So the immediate application of this commandment very well may have been to curb slave trading, essentially setting the tone that as this nation developed there would be no enslaving of one another.
If the immediate application was to prohibit kidnapping, then the Hebrew Scriptures quickly moved to cover all forms of stealing under this Eighth Commandment. In the book of Leviticus, where the Ten Commandments are reiterated and expounded upon, the Law expands on this commandment prohibiting stealing, “‘Do not steal…. Do not deceive one another…. Do not defraud your neighbors or rob them. Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight’” (Leviticus 19:11, 13). Other forms of stealing expanded upon in Mosaic Law included the stealing of livestock and animals, allowing ones’ animals to graze on the property of others, and property that was damaged or stolen while under the safekeeping of a neighbor. Taken collectively, it becomes obvious that this commandment provides for the protection of property in all its forms.