by John W. Ritenbaugh
Exodus 20:15 commands everybody on earth simply and bluntly, "You shall not steal." By itself, it seems clear enough, but it has important ramifications to life. It affirms God's mind regarding a right Americans may take for granted because we live with this right without thinking about it very much—until someone steals from us. This commandment is God's affirmation that every human being has the right to private property and that others have no right granted by God to take that property from them without lawful permission.
In contrast, communists tell the world that owning property is theft. In other words, everything belongs to everybody! Not so by a long shot. The earth is the Lord's and all its fullness (Psalm 24:1), and He gives it to whoever He pleases. In addition, He extends the right to all men to work lawfully to pursue ownership of their own private property. Once we understand this commandment, it removes all doubt that communism, in which all property is actually owned collectively by the state, is a form of government that does not have God's approval.
In every nation on earth, in every village, the possession of property is proof of a person's material worth. Whether the property is wives, cattle, chickens, sheep, autos, houses, land, or businesses, people can see the property and say, "He must be somebody—look at what he owns."
In every community, there are those who are clever, industrious, and careful, and due to these qualities, they always seem to be on top of things and at the right place at the right time. Sometimes they become owners of substantial amounts of property. In the same community at the same time, others are disadvantaged for whatever reasons; they are lazy, unintelligent, undisciplined, or "turned off," and rarely ever possess, let alone accumulate, substantial amounts of property.
In his heart of hearts, everybody wants property, but how to get property is all too often a critical issue. Those who have little or no property do not generally deny the rights of those who have property to possess it. However, they may seriously question how or by what means the property holder came into possession of it in the first place. Serious, deeply emotional, and bloody national revolutions have been waged over such matters.
In such cases, the disadvantaged accuse the advantaged property holder of acquiring his property using questionable "legal" means to gain it. The disadvantaged then feel justified to use any means at their disposal to take property from the advantaged. Yet, in Exodus 20:15 and Deuteronomy 5:19, God says, "You shall not steal"—the commandment contains no "ifs," "ands," "buts," or "maybe under certain conditions."
In addition to affirming the right to own property, this commandment, in its spirit, also covers the principle of generosity more directly than any other, and it does this by condemning its opposite. From this commandment therefore arises the principles of the give and get ways of living life. Which will we follow in our lives?
This commandment covers much more than mere thievery. It includes deliberate and accidental damage done to another's property, as well as fraudulent retention of it through carelessness or indifference. It also delves into the questions of whether wealth was acquired fairly in business and whether people are getting a fair share of the good things of life. In addition, it poses the question: Is the rich man wealthy due to merit, or have the rules of the game been cleverly, avariciously, and unlawfully tilted in his favor so that the few privileged can continuously steal from the powerless? This latter principle is a central theme of the book of Amos, showing that abuse of this commandment is a major reason God's wrath is falling on the people of Israel.
Leviticus 25:23 clearly establishes who the ultimate Owner of all land is: "The land shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine." However, Numbers 33:53-54 reveals His will more specifically, showing that He fully intends that we share ownership with Him: "You shall dispossess the inhabitants of the land and dwell in it, for I have given you the land to possess. And you shall divide the land by lot as an inheritance among your families." God fully intended that each family own property, especially land. He consistently shows that land is fundamentally the basis of material wealth. Further, Numbers 27 shows that private ownership of land, and therefore wealth, is not restricted to males.
Leviticus 25:8-10 adds a vital factor concerning God's attitude toward the accumulation of wealth:
And you shall count seven sabbaths of years; and the time of the seven sabbaths of years shall be to you forty-nine years. Then you shall cause the trumpet of the Jubilee to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement you shall make the trumpet to sound throughout all your land. And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you; and each of you shall return to his possession, and each of you shall return to his family.
These verses define when a Jubilee year occurs. This law covers the restoration of land to its original family owners when it has been lost because of misfortune or mismanagement. It thus gives the original family the ability to accumulate wealth once again through disciplined work.
Some Categories of Thievery
In addition to the Jubilee, other laws scattered throughout Leviticus 23—27 cover specific situations in which property has been lost or sold, or even when it has been set apart to earn money for God (Leviticus 27:16-24). In this law, God warns against a landowner failing to follow through on his promise to devote to God the profits of a field.
In I Samuel 8:9-18, God strongly forewarns Israel about the painful future they were creating for themselves by desiring a king to rule over them. God had previously said in Deuteronomy 17 that the time would come when Israel would have a king, so their wanting a king is not the issue. The problem is that the Israelites desired a king who would be like the Gentile kings, not one whom God would appoint from among themselves.
God warns them that their request would open the door for their self-appointed king and his government's bureaucracy to steal their hard-earned wealth from them systematically. He tells them that it would be a curse beyond their imagination and that the king would take their wealth "legally" and then use it for his own political ends to extend his power.
Thus, at one extreme end of the thievery cycle, the state assumes the right to steal indirectly because it has taxing power to use anything and everything to its own ends. In the process, the government ceases to be the servant and instead becomes the master. Nowhere, under any circumstance, does God give either government, business, or individuals the right to steal another's property—regardless of how one feels the other came into possession of it or how greatly one feels justified in appropriating it.
The public attitude toward the keeping of the Ten Commandments is perhaps most clearly seen in the overwhelming disrespect for keeping this particular commandment. When I worked at the steel mill, thievery was a constant occurrence. It seems that most employees functioned under the assumption that anything not welded down was fair game. The most common justifications for this attitude were, "What difference does it make? If I don't take it, somebody else will"; and "The company is so rich it won't miss this little thing I'm taking." One standout example was a man everybody called "Brassy," a pipefitter's helper. Summer and winter, he wore an overcoat. He earned his nickname by stealing some small fitting made of brass virtually every day, carrying it out of the plant in his overcoat pockets.
The statistics on this crime from The FBI Uniform Crime Report are appalling. These statistics can in no way be totally accurate, as it is estimated that no more than 50% of this type of crime is ever reported because of people's frustration with police and the courts. The FBI includes under the thievery heading robbery, burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft, fraud, and embezzlement:
Robbery is stealing or taking anything of value from the care, custody, or control of a person by force, violence, or putting in fear. Robbery takes place in the presence of the victim.
Burglary is any breaking or entering of a structure with the intent of committing a theft. It includes housebreaking and safecracking.
Larceny is unlawful taking, carrying, leading, or riding away of property from the possession of another without the use of force, fraud, or violence. Larceny includes shoplifting and pocket-picking, thefts from motor vehicles, and theft of motor vehicle parts and accessories.
Motor Vehicle Theft seems self-explanatory, but includes buses, trucks, motorcycles, motor scooters, and snowmobiles.
Fraud is the conversion and obtaining of money or property by false pretenses, including deliberately written bad checks and counterfeiting.
Embezzlement is the misappropriation or misapplication of money or goods entrusted.
Statistical Comparisons, 1960 and Today
The U.S. Justice Department's system making statistical comparisons per 100,000 inhabitants helps us get a better picture of the relative impact of various crimes. It takes population growth into consideration and gives a clearer picture of the intensity of criminal activity happening to us or around us. The ratings figure is national in scope, so any community's rating might be higher or lower.
» In 1960, the robbery rate was 60.1, while it was 147.6 in 2007, a 136% increase in 47 years.
» The burglary rate in 1960 was 508.6; in 2007, it had climbed to 722.5, reflecting a 42% increase since 1960.
» In 1960, the larceny rate was 1034.7; in 2007, it had more than doubled—a 110% increase—to 2177.8.
» In 1960, the motor vehicle thefts rate was 183; in 2007, the figure grew to 363.3, an increase of 98% since 1960.
Clearly, thievery crimes are not diminishing. Perhaps a different configuration of thievery totals will provide a better angle on these horrendous statistics:
» In 2006, the total number of robberies reported to police was 445,125, or one robbery committed every 69 seconds.
» Total burglaries in 2007 were 2,176,140, or one burglary every 14 seconds.
» Total larcenies were 6,568,572 in 2007, or one every 4.8 seconds.
» In 2007, motor vehicle thefts numbered 1,195,769, or one every 26.4 seconds.
In sum, a stealing crime occurs every three seconds, amounting to 20 every minute or 1,200 every hour or 28,800 every day! Do not forget that this figure may represent only 50% of what actually occurs!
According to the Justice Department, in 2003, the average loss to a private citizen during a burglary invasion of his home amounted to $1626.00. In the same year, the average loss of a motor vehicle theft was $6797.00. The total nationwide loss due to automobile theft, including such things as police costs and insurance company costs in addition to personal losses, was a staggering 8.6 billion dollars. As huge as this figure is, it represents a crime in which the overall numbers are in decline. Motor vehicle theft is by far a big city crime, as the rate is several times higher in major cities than in small towns.
In that vein, there are two-and-a-half times more burglaries in metropolitan areas as in rural ones, but rural law enforcement agencies in general—and the South as a region—have the best record for apprehending and convicting perpetrators of theft. The worst month for crimes of thievery is August, and the safest is February.
As mentioned earlier, these statistics are considered a conservative reflection of the actual impact of this sin because, of all crimes, stealing is least likely to be reported. Overall, the FBI reports that one index crime—this would also include acts like murder and aggravated assault—occurs every two seconds!
God, too, apparently categorizes at least to some extent. Notice I Corinthians 5:10: "Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world." An extortioner indicates a robber who steals by violence; the Greek word, harpax, means "to obtain by violence, threat, oppression, or abuse of authority." It is an adjective that literally describes a grappling iron used in warfare, and so it means "grasping that to which one has no right." It is also translated as "ravening" in Scripture.
I Corinthians 6:10 uses another Greek term: ". . . nor thieves . . . will inherit the kingdom of God." "Thieves" is translated from kleptes, a stealer or one who uses stealth. Kleptes is the root of our word "kleptomaniac." Interestingly, Jesus uses it metaphorically for false ministers, those who secretly steal away salvation from unsuspecting people.
A Sin and Crime of Opportunity
In God's scheme of things, though He wants us to have property, there are only two right ways to come into possession of anything: as a gift from God or man, or by honest labor. Any other means is sin.
People tend to commit crimes within the range of their opportunities. Bankers rarely rob banks at gunpoint but stealthily embezzle millions. The armed robber steals by violence; the banker, by clever intrigue and manipulative bookkeeping. However, one way is just as much a sin as the other. Thus, stealing can disguise itself in the respectabilities of a grand home in a gated neighborhood, fine clothing, and luxurious furniture of the corporate boardroom.
Such white-collar crime reveals the broad extent of social corrosion even more than crimes of violence. An example we recently witnessed through the news media was the case of Bernie Madoff. Many called him a genius, but through an elaborate Ponzi stock scheme, he bilked thousands of unwary investors of $65 billion dollars! His victims were among those many would consider the best and brightest from the business world, charities, his own relatives, and celebrities from entertainment and athletics. He even bilked his own defense attorney! At 73 years of age, he received a 150-year jail sentence.
Embezzlement, stock manipulation, bribery, tax fraud, stealing business supplies from the company, consumer fraud, and the like dwarfs all crimes of a more violent nature combined. To put it bluntly, the real thief wears a white collar. For instance, one website primarily intended for lawyers listed 24 different kinds of fraud: telemarketing fraud, Internet fraud, identity theft, false advertising, false billings, pharmaceutical fraud, bankruptcy fraud, scams against business and against the elderly, insurance fraud, etc.
In one day, a white-collar criminal may bribe a policeman or a building inspector, short-weight his product, entertain his wife at company expense, receive a kickback in a business deal, buy personal gifts with company money, cheat on his income tax, fail to pay the maid's Social Security, do his personal shopping on company time, type a personal letter using company time and stationery, bribe a purchasing agent, email friends and surf the Internet for personal business, or overcharge on a government contract.
Embezzlement is technically a fraud. A fraud committed by a person in a position of trust who takes—usually money—from his employer for his own use. It is a more sophisticated employee theft.
To give an idea of how huge the losses can be, consider that in January 2008, it was discovered that a young hedge-fund trader working for a French bank, Société Générale, defrauded the bank and its customers of $7.2 billion through a scheme he concocted. According to 1984 U.S. government statistics, white-collar embezzling amounted to in excess of $5 million dollars per day ("White Collar Crime is Big Business," The Nation, June 8, 1985, p. 703)! The same source stated that employee theft alone in 1984 amounted to about $30 billion; by 1990, it was in excess of $50 billion.
In addition, employee theft is responsible for 30% of all business failures and about 15% of the retail costs the consumer pays for manufactured goods. Fifty percent of all inventory shortages is due to employee theft. Banks consistently lose over twice as much to employees internally as to robbers and burglars. The IRS estimates that currently in excess of $50 billion per year of taxable income goes unreported.
Americans have a tendency to look at this crime in a strange way. Regarding fraud, many people look at this sin as, if the guy got away with it, good for him for being so clever. We seem to have a twisted admiration for crooks of this sort—until one targets us directly. Our judicial practices support this: In 1985, the average shoplifter stole $17 per year and the average embezzler, $1,500, yet they both received the same sentence! Also, a convicted embezzler receives an average of 1.58 years in prison for a first offense. However, his second offense he receives 1.16 years. The average sentence is reduced!
This exposes a rather cavalier attitude toward theft. In a previous article, we saw in the book of Amos that, though God accuses the Gentile nations of violence, He illustrates Israelites as being irresponsible, unwilling to keep their word but very quick to take advantage of fellow Israelites, especially those without the power to defend themselves (Amos 2:6-8). The historical record in the Bible shows that being trustworthy and loyal to God and to each other is quite difficult for Israelites. We can be glad that God is loyal to us and His purpose despite our many flaws.
A recent statistic revealed that over one billion people worldwide access the Internet, and so Internet fraud has become a huge business. Interestingly, according to the FBI, those who have a college degree, as well as those who have some college-level education, are the most vulnerable to it. Internet scams alone amount to a reported $40 billion a year. However, according to the FBI, 71% of that fraud originates in the United States. This seems to fit right into the book of Amos and our national character.
Just Weights and Measures
God says in Leviticus 19:35-37:
You shall do no injustice in judgment, in measurement of length, weight, or volume. You shall have honest scales, honest weight, and honest ephah, and an honest hin: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. Therefore you shall observe all My statutes and all My judgments, and perform them: I am the Lord.
Deuteronomy 25:13-16 puts God's standards in slightly different words:
You shall not have in your bag differing weights, a heavy and a light. You shall not have in your house differing measures, a large and a small. You shall have a perfect and just weight, a perfect and just measure, that your days may be lengthened in the land which the Lord your God is giving you. For all who do such things, all who behave unrighteously, are an abomination to the Lord your God.
God states things so simply. Manufacturers have the responsibility to produce high quality, fairly priced products. According to a report from the National Journal, dangerous or misused products result in 28,000 deaths and 130,000 serious injuries each year. Certainly, the manufacturer has a rightful claim to a profit, but he should not attempt to increase his profits improperly at the expense of the consumer, the public at large, or nature.
Many will recall what happened at the Ford Motor Company several years ago. Even after fairly low-speed rear-end crashes, the Ford Pinto was known to burst into flames. Internal memos showed that Ford knew of the danger yet refused to recall the cars and install a $10 shield because the total fleet-wide cost would exceed the cost of an occasional lawsuit. However, 27 people died in rear-end crashes involving the Pinto.
Notice how clear and insistent God is that businessmen deal fairly with the public: "Diverse weights and diverse measures, they are both alike, an abomination to the Lord. . . . Diverse weights are an abomination to the Lord, and dishonest scales are not good" (Proverbs 20:10, 23). Proverbs 16:11 adds, "Honest weight and scales are the Lord's; all the weights in the bag are His work [margin, concern]." Why are they His concern? Because the sin of stealing is involved, and as we have just seen, even death can result.
Micah 6:10-12 sets this sin in a historical context, showing that sly cheating by businessmen is no minor affair to Him:
Are there yet the treasures of wickedness in the house of the wicked, and the short measure that is an abomination? Shall I count pure those with the wicked balances, and with the bag of deceitful weights? For her rich men are full of violence, her inhabitants have spoken lies, and their tongue is deceitful in their mouth.
Amos 8:5-7 adds further evidence that, in His judgment, secretive business thievery that takes advantage of the unwary is in no way beneath His notice:
[The people say,] "When will the New Moon be past, that we may sell grain? And the Sabbath, that we may trade our wheat? Making the ephah small and the shekel large, falsifying the balances by deceit, that we may buy the poor for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—even sell the bad wheat?" The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: "Surely I will never forget any of their works."
Ezekiel 45:9-12 extends the sin of thievery into the realm of religion as God makes charges against those involved:
Thus says the Lord God: "Enough, O princes of Israel! Remove violence and plundering, execute justice and righteousness, and stop dispossessing My people," says the Lord God. "You shall have just balances, a just ephah, and a just bath. The ephah and the bath shall be of the same measure, so that the bath contains one-tenth of a homer; their measure shall be according to the homer. The shekel shall be twenty gerahs; twenty shekels, twenty-five shekels, and fifteen shekels shall be your mina."
God demands clearly set and well-advertised standards, and He expects people to conform to them. We must understand, too, that the spirit of the principles involved in dealing fairly with one's neighbor reach out to include things like false advertising, doctors who perform unnecessary operations (a third are unnecessary, according to the American Medical Association), and lawyers who enter into unnecessary, and in many cases, frivolous litigation in behalf of a client.
In a New Testament setting, James 5:1-6 voices God's condemnation of wealthy, grasping employers who take advantage of powerless employees through various forms of robbery:
Come, now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you! Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have heaped up treasure in the last days. Indeed the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. You have lived on the earth in pleasure and luxury; you have fattened your hearts as in a day of slaughter. You have condemned, you have murdered the just; he does not resist you.
All of this sneaky thievery adds to the destruction of the nation's morality. Stability and peace in a family or nation are founded in reciprocal trust. The consistent breaking of the last six commandments—upon which community trust is founded—has eroded mutual reliance, creating cynicism and leaving fear in its wake. Hosea 4:1-3 notes what occurred in his day, a parallel to our own:
Hear the word of the Lord, you children of Israel, for the Lord brings a charge against the inhabitants of the land: "There is no truth or mercy or knowledge of God in the land. By swearing and lying, killing and stealing and committing adultery, they break all restraint, with bloodshed after bloodshed. Therefore the land will mourn; and everyone who dwells there will waste away with the beasts of the field and the birds of the air; even the fish of the sea will be taken away."
All of this mounting sin is common knowledge in our day. Regarding thievery, the warning caveat emptor, "Let the buyer beware," is a common watchword. We are experiencing living within an atmosphere of cynicism and distrust.
Work, Wealth, Sharing, and Stealing
Ephesians 4:28 charges, "Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need." Paul's command is clear and straightforward. We are to gain property and possessions by honest work—hard work, as the verb "labor" indicates exertion to the point of exhaustion. In addition, we are not to work merely to satisfy our personal desires and needs, but that we can freely give any excess to the needy.
Besides mere survival, Acts 20:35 reveals an additional reason for working: "I have shown you in every way, by laboring like this, that you must support the weak. And remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'" Stealing runs totally against the grain of God's way of life. In the spirit of God's law, a person not only steals by taking another's possessions, but by the refusal to work hard and honestly in order to share and give to others in need.
Romans 12:10, 13 helps to clarify this purpose: "Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; . . . distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality." Love has no meaning unless it is demonstrated by giving, and having the ability to give in this manner comes from sacrifice and labor. Paul is writing about total commitment to what is good, an undiminished devotion to kindness regardless of the recipient's response.
Our God sets the example for us. Jesus says in John 5:17, "My Father has been working until now, and I have been working." We are driven by self-concern, and all too often, that concern degenerates into greed. That desire, however, must be overcome. We are to become like God. He is a Creator, and He works. A major characteristic of His Kingdom is that it is a producing, working, creating Family that sacrifices itself to give and to share.
Using Christ's example, Philippians 2:4-8 urges us to become like Him:
Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.
God warns in Proverbs 28:20-22 that stealing, which appears so tempting and easy to do, actually produces the opposite of what the thief hopes for:
A faithful man will abound with blessings, but he who hastens to be rich will not go unpunished. To show partiality is not good, because for a piece of bread a man will transgress. A man with an evil eye hastens after riches, and does not consider that poverty will come upon him.
An important lesson of life to learn is that wealth is a means, not an end in itself. Get-rich-quick schemes, cutting corners to get more for the self, and taking unfair advantage of another's ignorance will in the end destroy the perpetrator. Those who do these things to get rich are in reality seeking death because they are breaking the spirit of the eighth commandment.
God admonishes those who resort to violence in order to steal that they will be caught in the net of their own evil schemes. Their deliberate choice of evil means to achieve wealth saps their willpower to live honestly. A person who sets his will to work patiently and steadily will find his prosperity steadily increasing because God oversees the well-being of those who keep His commandments. This proverb is not a deprecation of the value of wealth but an exhortation to appreciate its proper value and to share it as God instructs.
Proverbs 30:7-9 contains excellent advice for the sons of God:
Two things I request of You (deprive me not before I die); remove falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches—feed me with the food allotted to me; lest I be full and deny You, and say, "Who is the Lord?" Or lest I be poor and steal, and profane the name of my God.
Stealing, like idolatry, murder, and lying, profanes God's name. As His children, we bear His name—we must bring honor upon it! The author requests of God that He keep him at an even keel, lest he either deny his dependence on God or steal and justify himself by blaming God for not supplying his need.
Proverbs 14:23 provides a succinct and fitting reminder for those tempted to pursue thievery as a shortcut to prosperity: "In all labor there is profit, but idle chatter leads only to poverty." It is work—not words or lustful dreams—that builds prosperity. Thievery leads only to despair and death.