When considering each of the Ten Commandments, the eighth command, the command not to steal, appears to be the most straight forward. Many books and commentaries which discuss the Ten Commandments devote the smallest amount of space to discussing the command not to steal. Truth is, the command is straight forward. The Hebrew words are not complex. The underlying meaning is very clear, and once we get past the early toddler stage where every single object is thought of as “mine” most of us recognize that a basic function of living together, or even just being a decent respectable person, is to not take things that don’t belong to you. Stealing is wrong! It’s not hard to figure out.
Remember the context: God is trying to form a new community of people who have been rescued from slavery in Egypt. All Israel knows is Egypt, slavery, and Pharaoh. Egypt is not defined by a care or protection of others. Instead, everything is done for the greatness of Egypt. Even Joseph, a true hero of the faith, finds himself influenced by culture in a way where he works toward the glory of Egypt. When Joseph rises to power, his wisdom, foresight, planning, and faith in God are used to save not only Egypt, but the surrounding nations, from the severe famine. Yet, he saves Egypt by having all of the Egyptians sell themselves into slavery to Pharaoh for grain. Pharaoh gets richer during the famine. Joseph is influenced by his culture, all for the glory of Egypt.
The LORD our God, however, wants something different. God wants a community based on two fundamental principles: love God and love others. I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, out of the House of slavery, you shall have no other gods before me. God will and must be supreme in everything. But at the same time, part of the way we live out a love for God, is that we act like God becoming Image Bearers, who don’t just love ourselves, but love others. We honor and care for the aged. We don’t hurt or kill. We protect marriage. And we don’t steal that which doesn’t belong to us (we protect the belongings of our neighbors).
We must remember, however, God is always more concerned with issues of the heart than just outward actions. It’s the attitude, the motivation, that seems most important. Thus with stealing, it’s not just the outward action of taking that which doesn’t belong to me, it’s the notion of how can I love my neighbor enough to protect what they have and ensure my neighbor is cared for? What is my responsibility toward my neighbor’s property and things?
When thought of through this light, Moses’s expansion of the law in both Exodus and Deuteronomy become interesting. Among other items, consider Deuteronomy 22 when Moses reminds Israel that when they see their neighbors ox, sheep, or goat wandering away, they must not ignore the animal. Instead, they have a responsibility toward their neighbor to bring the animal safely back to their neighbor. If one ignores the animal, and harm comes to the animal, one becomes guilty and must provide restitution. Thus, it’s not just active stealing that Moses condemns, but any action that places the property or livelihood of another in danger.
This means we, as followers of the LORD our God who rescued us from slavery, are responsible for our neighbor’s property. We can’t just say, “that’s not mine so I don’t have to worry about it.” God is trying to form a community that acts differently. Not just a bunch of individuals, but a community. A community that is just as concerned for the neighbor’s well-being as my own. We must protect what belongs to our neighbors, just as we would hope our neighbors would protect what belongs to us.
If we go a step further, this has any number of social and economic ramifications. What does it mean to be concerned about the property of my neighbors? Not just the neighbors who look and act like me, but even the neighbors who look and act differently. What is my responsibility toward my neighbors who are socio-economically poor or who are uneducated and don’t have the training to work higher paying jobs? What is my responsibility toward undocumented workers or those who have suffered from racial persecution? How can I, one who has been rescued from slavery by the LORD our God, help to protect the ability of my neighbors to earn a living and provide for their families?
Scripture indicates that stealing is more than just not actively taking. Stealing also happens when we allow others to be harmed or taken advantage of, or when we don’t love our neighbors enough to protect their chance at a good future. God is asking us to act differently from the greater culture, to love our neighbors just as much, if not more, than we love ourselves. It’s only then that we become the community God is trying to form.