From the start, God’s case laws show that his kingdom is not like the kingdoms of the world, because even the lowest in society have basic human rights. These rights affect the way we treat even one another’s property.
Observation of Exodus 21:33-22:15
Most repeated words: if (17 times), ox (11x), man (10), not (9), make (8), owner (8), beast (7), restitution (7), neighbor (6), sheep (6)
- The shift from slavery and violence (Ex 20:22-21:32) to non-human property is clear even from the repeated words
As with the previous section, the main unit of grammar remains the sentence, but sentences are grouped into paragraphs that give alternative situations.
The theme of this entire section is restitution: paying someone back for what was lost, broken, or stolen.
- Owners can be held liable for both active (Ex 21:35) and passive (Ex 21:33) negligence. It doesn’t matter whether they cause damage or simply fail to prevent it.
- The basic penalty for theft is to repay double (Ex 22:4).
- But high-handed profiteering from theft (killing or selling stolen beasts) requires much higher restitution, based on the profitability of the stolen goods.
- Allowing something in your care to steal from another is still a form of theft (Ex 22:5). Owners and managers cannot make the argument that they’re not responsible for the theft that occurred under their leadership.
- The issue of restitution can get complicated as it involves a “breach of trust” between one person and another (Ex 22:9).
- Borrowers are responsible to care for possessions in their care, but lenders assume a level of risk they cannot control (Ex 22:7-15).
- Sometimes there is not enough evidence to assign blame. In such cases, both parties must trust each other’s word and then God with the outcome (Ex 22:11).
- 3 cases of restoring damage from negligence (Ex 21:33-36)
- 7 cases of restoring damage from theft (Ex 22:1-6)
- 7 cases of restoring damage to borrowed property (Ex 22:7-15)
Interpretation of Exodus 21:33-22:15
Some possible questions:
- Why is it so important to hold people responsible for property damage? Why not just expect people to be generous and to share freely, overlooking any damage to their stuff?
- Why must thieves repay double what they stole?
- Why are there so many cases dealing with borrowed property?
- What are the implications for laws today about negligence or theft?
My answers (numbers correspond to the questions):
- From this text, I’m not sure there’s a complete answer, other than the fact that God cares about it. These case laws clearly apply the command “do not steal,” and thus highlight that command’s assumption of the right to hold private property. Of course God is generous, and he calls his people to be always generous and ready to share (1 Tim 6:18). But generosity is not at odds with the expectation that your neighbor will pay for the repairs if he backs his car into the side of your house.
- I can only guess at what the text implies, which is that the penalty for theft is to bring on you what you tried to bring on another. If you steal one sheep, you must pay back two sheep—which makes YOU the one who ends up down one sheep.
- Since the commands are applying “do not steal,” we might assume “stealing” means causing only intentional property damage. But the concept applies to many other areas, even when our negligence or failure to protect causes damage. God’s people don’t demand that others be generous with them; instead they pay what they owe and return borrowed items in the same or better condition. In fact, God’s standards for restitution involve a generous repayment not only for damaged property but also for lost time and trust.
- I’ll leave this question to the legislators, but it does make me wonder whether we’d better disincentivize fraud and theft if we followed these principles. Instead of flat fines, arbitrary fines, or even jail time, the threat of double restitution might cause more citizens and corporations to better count the cost of their negligent or fraudulent actions.
Train of thought:
- Pay back what you accidentally damage.
- Pay back what you intentionally damage.
- Pay back damage that occurs on your watch.
Main point: It is good and God-like to pay restitution for damage done to others’ property.
Connection to Christ: Jesus had everything taken from him (Luke 9:58, Matt 27:35), yet he never demanded payment (Luke 23:34). Jesus repays not double, but a hundredfold to those who suffer damages in his service (Mark 10:29-30).
My Application of Exodus 21:33-22:15
This may sound incredibly mundane, but this passage demands it: I must return the things I have borrowed from others, or pay to replace things damaged under my care. It is so easy for me to presume on the kindness of my friends and forget that I’ve borrowed their property. Eventually, borrowed items just become part of my collection once I forget who loaned them to me, but this is not okay.
Loving my neighbor as myself means I treat other people’s stuff as if it were my own. And I teach my children to do the same.
Yet at the same time, I truly can be graciously generous if others don’t do the same. Jesus is well able to repay whatever I lose in his name and for his service.
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