Ex 20:15; Deut 5:19, “You shall not steal.”
Cf. Ex 21:16; Lev 19:11, 13.
This is the 4th of the horizontal commandments, given to encourage the respect of other people’s property, and is closely related to the 10th Commandment, “you shall not covet…” This too is an important element in a stable society to protect the freedoms, privacy, and property of each individual.
Just as adultery is a violation against one’s family, so theft is the violation of one’s property. The 6th Commandment spoke of the theft of life, the 7th, the theft of the purity and sanctity of the marriage relationship, and now the 8th, the theft of goods and possessions.
The Hebrew reads, LO GANAB, לֹא ָגּנַב, in the Qal Imperfect. GANAB is a verb that denotes, “to steal, rob, or sweep away.” It is used forty times in the OT.
“To steal” means, “to take without right or permission, generally in surreptitious way. Taking that which does not belong to you. To get or effect secretly or artfully. To move, carry, or place surreptitiously. To rob or commit a theft.”
Jer 7:9, “Will you steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and offer sacrifices to Baal, and walk after other gods that you have not known.”
Hosea 4:2, “There is swearing, deception, murder, stealing, and adultery. They employ violence, so that bloodshed follows bloodshed.”
In the OT, it indicates wrongfully taking objects or persons, Gen 31:19, 32; Ex 21:16, sometimes for a good reason, 2 Kings 11:2. It has the sense of deceiving when used with the word for heart, LEB, as when Jacob literally stole Laban’s heart, which meant he deceived him, Gen 31:20, 26. As such, it possesses a wider semantic range in Hebrew than the English concept conveys, and includes things like kidnapping, 2 Kings 11:2, or selling one into slavery without legal right, Gen 40:15. The word GANAB reoccurs in Deuteronomy only in Deut 24:7, in relation to kidnapping; a particularly serious violation of the 8th Commandment, because it typically resulted in slavery. The experience of Joseph being sold by his brothers, Gen 37, and Nehemiah’s charge, (which was very much later), that brothers were selling brothers, Neh 5:5-9, illustrate the selling of fellow Israelites for personal gain.
It also means stealing intangibles, (i.e., dignity, self-respect, freedom, or rights), which all are important. The word is also used for stealing in the sense of cheating; by cheating someone out of something, you are stealing from him. Finally, this verb is used even of robbers, who perpetrate violence upon their victims in the highway or the city street.
This command is reinforced by a variety of individual laws on stealing, Ex 22:1-16; Lev 6:2-5; 19:11, 13; Deut 24:7. Thus, taking anything human, animate, or inanimate without legal right is described by this verb, and it covers any type of deception or fraud, by which the offender takes unjust advantage of someone else, whether in the matter of money, business, or property.
This commandment even goes back to the beginning when man sought to take what did not belong to him, i.e., the fruit from the tree in the Garden of Eden. Therefore, there is obviously an inherent evil in the illegitimate appropriation of another’s property, but on an even higher covenantal and theological level, theft betrays an essential dissatisfaction with one’s lot in life and a covetous desire to obtain more than the Lord, the Sovereign who dispenses to his stewards what seems best, has granted already.
GANAB is first used in the OT in Gen 30:33, in the story of Jacob and Laban regarding the herd given and entrusted to Jacob, were it is the opposite of honesty, righteousness, or justice.
On the vertical plan, our Lord, YHWH, indicts false prophets for “stealing My words,” or performing slander, in attributing statements to Him which were not His, stamping them with a falsely authoritative, “Thus says Yahweh,” Jer 23:30.
God gave Israel an elaborate set of laws to govern their use of the land, because the land belonged to Him and they were but stewards, Lev 25:2, 23, 38. This fact is the basis for a sane ecology. Therefore, the opposite of stealing is to remember what God has graciously given us. Rather than stealing, we should have thankful hearts that rejoice in what God has provided for us. In addition, we should be good stewards with what God has given us. Otherwise, we may be more tempted to steal and commit sin against our Lord. We must remember that what we have is not our own, but it is the Lord’s. As He has given freely, so we too should give freely, cf. Psa 50:10; 104:24.
What God has given to you becomes your own legal possession, giving you personal ownership of things. This is implicitly permitted by this commandment, which assumes that stealing is possible, something that would technically not be possible in a completely communal society. There are, of course, no completely communal societies; ownership of things exists in all families and neighborhoods and entire societies, no matter what their economic organizational structure. But with ownership comes responsibility, and respect for ownership is a responsibility in itself as well. Therefore, this commandment speaks of the sanctity of each person’s own possessions. It says that people have a right to hold property that is distinctively theirs and that other persons do not have a right to take that property by force or stealth.
In the 3rd Commandment, man was forbidden to manipulate God for personal gain; here the attempt to use our fellow man for personal gain is prohibited. Thus, stealing threatens the social order and causes pain to others by undermining the ability to possess with sure access things that are useful and needful. The food thief makes others go hungry; the work animal thief interrupts farming; the kidnapper tears apart a family; the clothing thief makes another suffer from the sun or the cold. This property is typically gained through the expenditure of a person’s foresight, energy, and diligence. Thus, to appropriate another’s property is to also steal those personal qualities.
R.B. Thieme Jr. noted, “Both socialism and communism are characterized by the destruction of privacy and property. The concept of government ownership of property is contrary to the Word of God. The government does not have the right to own your property, nor does the government have the right to interfere with industry, much less own industry. The sanctity of private property is one of the most basic concepts of freedom. Therefore, at any time the government gets into industry or business, a nation is already in industrial slavery. We are in industrial slavery today in this nation because the government has violated this commandment through taxation of industry, through pressure upon industry and through legislation against industry. The result of such practices is economic disaster.”
Therefore, all theft is forbidden by this precept, as well as national and commercial wrongs, petty larceny, highway robberies, and private stealing. Even the taking advantage of a seller’s or buyer’s ignorance to give the one less and make the other pay more for a commodity than it’s worth is a breach of this sacred law. All withholding of rights and doing of wrongs are against the spirit of it.
This commandment also speaks of the Faith-Rest Life. Because you have entrusted your needs to the covenant Lord, you do not have to manipulate others to get your needs supplied. In fact, you can value and honor others. The Bible says that those who live by these principles not only will not need to steal, they will have abundance to give away, Deut 15:6-8; 28:10-12.
The penalty for stealing is milder in the OT legal codes than in other societies of the time. Death was the penalty for a number of types of theft in most other Ancient Near East societies, including the inability to make restitution, but this was not the case in Israel.
Death was the penalty for stealing humans, Ex 21:16; Deut 24:7.
Ex 21:16, “He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death.”
In all other cases of theft, restitution with interest was the penalty, Ex 22:1ff. This also involved the payment of a guilt-offering consisting of a ram, to be sacrificed upon the altar. The specific term for this is ASHAM, אָשָׁם in the Hebrew, which means “guilt-offering.” But, in the case of a rustler who had stolen livestock, it was required not only to bring the animal back to its owner, but also another one of the same kind, Ex 22:1, 4. But if he had gone so far as to kill or sell off the stolen animal, he had to replace four sheep for a stolen sheep, or five bulls or cows for the theft of large livestock, Ex 22:1.
The punishment for the transgression of theft went beyond the civil law codes. The flying scroll of YHWH in Zechariah’s vision was an embodiment of God’s judgment through the Holy Spirit who reveals sin. It was a written source for indictment on those who stole and those who took the Lord’s name in vain, Zech 5:3ff. A curse entered the house of the thief or by means of this scroll.
The reward of theft is a hollow one, as only a fool following the teachings of personified foolish-ness, contrasted to personified Wisdom, subscribes to the adage in Prov 9:17-18, “Stolen water is sweet, and bread that is eaten in secret is pleasant. 18But he does not know that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depths of Sheol.” Civil and Divine penalties negate the financial gain one reaps from this act.
New Testament Usage:
The protection granted by the 8th Commandment under the covenant provided freedoms that are still essential to a free society; the freedom from involuntary servitude and the right to hold property are protected by this law against theft.
Therefore, this command against stealing is reinforced repeatedly in the NT, and is a Commandment for the Church Age, Mat 19:18; Mark 10:19; Luke 18:20; Rom 2:21; 13:9; 1 Cor 6:10; Eph 4:28; Titus 2:10; 1 Peter 4:15.
The Greek word for “steal” is the verb KLEPTO, κλέπτω that means, “steal, embezzle, or cheat.” This is where we get our English word kleptomaniac from that means, “somebody with an obsessive urge to steal, especially when there is no economic necessity.”
KLEPTO is first used in Mat 6:19-20, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; 21for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Here we see that the Commandment is a heart issue regarding the mentality of your soul towards God versus the world, (i.e., Satan’s cosmic system). Jesus urges His followers to seek the kind of treasures they can store up and enjoy in heaven rather than those of this world. The desires of man, the focus of his life, what he loves, all depends on what he considers a treasure. For the believer, God and His Word, (i.e., the mind of Jesus Christ), should be the greatest treasure in your life. When they are, along with being filled with the Holy Spirit, Eph 5:18, you will perform Divine good, (i.e., the fruit of the Spirit, Gal 5:22-24), in life that is rewardable for both time and eternity, 1 Cor 3:10-15. God is always concerned about a man’s heart. If his heart is set on the things of this world, they will be lost, stolen. If his heart is set on God, his reward is everlasting.
The next three verses give the negative / sinful aspect of a man’s heart that is focused on the world.
Mat 15:19, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, (KLOPE), false witness, slanders.”
Mark 7:21-23, “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, (KLOPE), murders, adulteries, 22deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. 23All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.”
Rev 9:21, “And they did not repent of their murders nor of their sorceries nor of their immorality nor of their thefts.”
The Commandment is given in Mat 19:18; Mark 10:19; Luke 18:20; in a listing given to the rich young ruler by Jesus Christ to show that one is not saved by works of the Law, and in Rom 13:9, in Paul’s list of commandments that bring about a civil society that is summed up by “loving ones’ neighbor.”
It is used in Mat 27:64, regarding the Lord’s tomb where His body was laid, which the Pharisee thought Jesus’ disciples would rob to falsify His resurrection, cf. Mat 28:13.
In John 10:10, our Lord used it to compare Himself to the false teachers / Pharisees who were robbing people of salvation and eternal life; whereas, Jesus came to “give life” so that they could “have it abundantly.”
Similarly, Paul uses it in Rom 2:21, to rebuke the Pharisees of their false teachings regarding the Law.
Finally, KLEPTO is used in Eph 4:28, “He who steals must steal no longer; but rather he must labor, performing with his own hands what is good, so that he will have something to share with one who has need.”
There, Paul urges a change of heart and body from living a life of taking from others, to one of contribution, service, and sacrifice for others. This also teaches that there are only three ways to get wealth: work for it, have it given to you, or steal it, and stealing is wrong.
The issue is the misappropriation of goods or properties that God has sovereignly bestowed according to His own pleasure.
Ananias and Sapphira stole from the church and the Holy Spirit by holding back some of the proceeds from the sale of their land, yet saying they gave it all to the church, Acts, 5:2-3; cf. Titus 2:10. (The verb to “hold back” or “pilfer,” is NOSPHIZOMAI νοσφίζομαι that means, “to put aside for oneself secretly, misappropriate, pilfer, or embezzle.”)
To steal is to show discontent with what one has as a result of Divine disposition, cf. 1 Tim 6:8, “If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content.”
God is our provider. Because God gives His people everything they need, we do not steal and should be satisfied with what we have, 1 Tim 6:17, “Do not set their hope on the uncertainty of wealth, but on God, who richly provides us with all things to enjoy.”