The 8th Commandment “You must not steal.”
“You must not steal.”
This comes across as an absolute requirement, with no ifs or buts! But one of the delightful features of the Old Testament is the fact that its final editors didn’t smooth out the inconsistencies and contradictions, nor remove the downright embarrassments. So it seems that God sometimes turns a blind eye to stealing, and even encourages it!
In the book of Genesis, Jacob and his mother, by lies and deceit, steal the paternal blessing that should have gone to Esau, the first-born son. There’s not a word of disapproval from on high about this – in fact it fits in just fine with God’s future plans. In the book of Exodus, prior to his people escaping, God tells them to go to their Egyptian neighbours and “ask for clothing and for gold and silver jewellery”, knowing perfectly well these will never be paid for or given back. “In this way,” as the ‘good book’ blithely states, “the Israelites carried away the wealth of the Egyptians.” Nice one! So when it comes to commandments about stealing, the message might seem to be, ‘Don’t do as I do, but do as I say.’
There are other kinds of stealing. Although the Old Testament says, ‘be nice to your slaves’, it doesn’t prohibit slavery, even though slavery steals someone’s personal and economic freedom as well as their dignity and self-respect. A major factor leading to slavery was poverty. Sometimes drought-stricken subsistence ‘farmers’, to survive, had to sell themselves and their bit of ground to a larger landowner, and sometimes debtors, unable to repay on demand, would sell a daughter or two into slavery.
This focus on poverty takes us into our 21st century world with its gap between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. Poverty may, or may not, be a justification for stealing, but it definitely provides a reason for why it happens, which challenges the justice of social systems in which massive disparity in income and wealth becomes the accepted norm. If you steal food because you can’t get a job, have no money left and your family is starving, how does that compare in relation to stealing through tax avoidance and evasion on the part of those already very rich?
Examples of stealing are countless, from pinching disabled parking spaces, to ‘sickies’ that aren’t. But one of the very worst is perpetrated by those who deny, and/or fail urgently to address, fossil fuel burning and global warming. To use an Old Testament phrase, they are stealing, from ‘their children and children’s children’, the right to enjoy a non-toxic, life-giving planet.
Perhaps the best ‘antidote’ to stealing is not the negative commandment, but Jesus of Nazareth’s positive expression of the ‘golden rule’ – “Whatever you wish that others would do for you” (which won’t include stealing) “do also for them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” Or to put it another way, “Love your neighbour as yourself”.