Do gods exist? 29 Thou shalt not steal

Picture adapted from Rembrant’s Moses Smashing the Tablets of the Law

The eighth commandment of the Christian god is that you should not steal things or people owned by your fellow tribesmen.

According to the Bible, the eighth commandment is

“Thou shalt not steal.” (Ex 20:15, Deut 5:19)

You cannot cheat or steal from your neighbour (Lev 19:13). If you steal a person and sell him, you will be put to death (Ex 21:16, Deut 24:7). If you catch a thief, you can either kill him, make him pay restitution, or sell him as a slave (Ex 22:2-3).

“19:13 ‘You shall not cheat your neighbour, nor rob him.”

“21:16 He who kidnaps a man and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, shall surely be put to death.”

“22:2 If the thief is found breaking in, and he is struck so that he dies, there shall be no guilt for his bloodshed. 3 If the sun has risen on him, there shall be guilt for his bloodshed. He should make full restitution; if he has nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft.”

The first thing to note here is that you can buy or sell or steal a person. Israelites could buy foreign slaves, and own them for ever, and pass them on to their children as inheritances (Lev 25:44-46). They could forcibly take foreign women and children after battles (Deut 20:14, Deut 21:10-14).

“25:44 And as for your male and female slaves whom you may have—from the nations that are around you, from them you may buy male and female slaves. 45 Moreover you may buy the children of the strangers who dwell among you, and their families who are with you, which they beget in your land; and they shall become your property. 46 And you may take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them as a possession; they shall be your permanent slaves. But regarding your brethren, the children of Israel, you shall not rule over one another with rigour.”

“20:14 But the women, the little ones, the livestock, and all that is in the city, all its spoil, you shall plunder for yourself; and you shall eat the enemies’ plunder which the Lord your God gives you.”

“21:10 “When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God delivers them into your hand, and you take them captive, 11 and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and desire her and would take her for your wife, 12 then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and trim her nails. 13 She shall put off the clothes of her captivity, remain in your house, and mourn her father and her mother a full month; after that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. 14 And it shall be, if you have no delight in her, then you shall set her free, but you certainly shall not sell her for money; you shall not treat her brutally, because you have humbled her.”

Israelites could also buy and sell Israelite slaves, and could own the wives and their children of these slaves, but they had to release Israelite slaves after six years (Ex 21:2-6). Men could sell their daughters as slaves (Ex 21:7). A man could have sex with a female slave without being stoned to death, even if she was engaged, because she was not free (Lev 19:20).

“21:2 If you buy a Hebrew servant, he shall serve six years; and in the seventh he shall go out free and pay nothing. 3 If he comes in by himself, he shall go out by himself; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. 4 If his master has given him a wife, and she has borne him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out by himself.”

“21:7 And if a man sells his daughter to be a female slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do.”

“19:20 Whoever lies carnally with a woman who is betrothed to a man as a concubine, and who has not at all been redeemed nor given her freedom, for this there shall be scourging; but they shall not be put to death, because she was not free.”

The second thing to note is that this law only applied internally within the Israelite tribe. Their god encouraged them to steal the treasures, animals, women and children of enemy tribes (Deut 20:14-15). After one battle against the Midianites, they plundered about 200kg of gold, 800,000 livestock and 32,000 virgin women. As an aside, Moses and Eleazer the priest took about one per cent of all of these spoils, as an offering to God (Num 31:25-54).

“20:14 But the women, the little ones, the livestock, and all that is in the city, all its spoil, you shall plunder for yourself; and you shall eat the enemies’ plunder which the Lord your God gives you. 15 Thus you shall do to all the cities which are very far from you, which are not of the cities of these nations.”

“31:25 Now the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 26 “Count up the plunder that was [b]taken—of man and beast—you and Eleazar the priest and the chief fathers of the congregation; 27 and divide the plunder into two parts, between those who took part in the war, who went out to battle, and all the congregation. 28 And levy a tribute for the Lord on the men of war who went out to battle: one of every five hundred of the persons, the cattle, the donkeys, and the sheep; 29 take it from their half, and give it to Eleazar the priest as a heave offering to the Lord. 30 And from the children of Israel’s half you shall take one of every fifty, drawn from the persons, the cattle, the donkeys, and the sheep, from all the livestock, and give them to the Levites who keep charge of the tabernacle of the Lord…”

The Israelites also stole the land of other tribes. Their God told them to drive out all of the inhabitants, take possession of the land and settle in it, and divide it up according to their clans (Num 33:50-54, Deut 2:31-34, Deut 20:16-17). Indeed, stealing the land of other tribes was the whole point of the covenant between the Israelites and their God.

“33:50 Now the Lord spoke to Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan, across from Jericho, saying, 51 “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘When you have crossed the Jordan into the land of Canaan, 52 then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, destroy all their engraved stones, destroy all their moulded images, and demolish all their high places; 53 you shall dispossess the inhabitants of the land and dwell in it, for I have given you the land to possess. 54 And you shall divide the land by lot as an inheritance among your families; to the larger you shall give a larger inheritance, and to the smaller you shall give a smaller inheritance; there everyone’s inheritance shall be whatever falls to him by lot. You shall inherit according to the tribes of your fathers.”

“2:31 “And the Lord said to me, ‘See, I have begun to give Sihon and his land over to you. Begin to possess it, that you may inherit his land.’ 32 Then Sihon and all his people came out against us to fight at Jahaz. 33 And the Lord our God delivered him [k]over to us; so we defeated him, his sons, and all his people. 34 We took all his cities at that time, and we utterly destroyed the men, women, and little ones of every city; we left none remaining.”

“20:16 “But of the cities of these peoples which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance, you shall let nothing that breathes remain alive, 17 but you shall utterly destroy them: the Hittite and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite, just as the Lord your God has commanded you.”

This law is not about universal values of right and wrong. It is about protecting the stability and interests of one tribe at the expense of members of other tribes.

So that is commandment number eight. I will examine the ninth commandment in my next post.

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