“You Shall Not Steal,” Exodus 20:15.

Moses with the Ten Commandments
by Rembrandt (1659)

In his book, Written in Stone: The Ten Commandments and Today’s Moral Crisis (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2003), Philip Graham Ryken gives a broad application of the Decalogue to the moral crisis facing society in the twenty-first century.

I have selected a brief section from the book, a section in which Ryken applies the teachings of the eighth commandment, “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15) to some of moral issues people and society face today. It is a long section, but a section worth reading. For the sake of space, I have removed the footnotes that appear in this section. The footnotes are fully documented in the book.

In his study of the eighth commandment, Ryken wrote (pp. 170-173):

Everyone knows that stealing is wrong. Even people who don’t read the Bible know the eighth commandment, which says, “You shall not steal” (Exod. 20:15). To steal is to take something that doesn’t belong to you. The Hebrew word for stealing (ganaf) literally means to carry something away, as if by stealth. To give a more technical definition, to steal is to appropriate someone else’s property unlawfully.

What the eighth commandment forbids seems very simple. However, most people fail to understand its full meaning. Like the rest of God’s law; the prohibition on stealing is comprehensive:

Ganaf-stealing-covers all conventional types of theft: burglary (breaking into a home or building to commit theft); robbery (taking property directly from another using violence or intimidation); larceny (taking something without permission and not returning it); hijacking (using force to take goods in transit or seizing control of a bus, truck, plane, etc.); shoplifting (taking items from a store during business hours without paying for them); and pickpocketing and purse-snatching. The term ganaf also covers a wide range of exotic and complex thefts … [such as] embezzlement (the fraudulent taking of money or other goods entrusted to one’s care). There is extortion (getting money from someone by means of threats or misuses of authority), and racketeering (obtaining money by any illegal means).

This is only a partial list of the countless ways people violate the eighth commandment. They pilfer public property, stealing supplies from hospitals, building sites, and churches. In fact, one hotel reported in its first year of business having to replace thirty-eight thousand spoons, eighteen thousand tiles, three hundred and fifty-five coffee pots … and one hundred Bibles!

Citizens steal from the government by underpaying their taxes or making false claims for disability and Social Security. The government teals too. With its huge bureaucracy, the federal government commits theft on a national scale by wasting public money and by accumulating debt without fully planning to repay. Deficit spending is really a way of stealing from future citizens.

There is theft at work. Employees fill in false time cards and call in sick when they want a day off. They help themselves to office supplies, make personal long-distance phone calls, and pad their expense accounts. Sometimes they go so far as to embezzle, but a more common workplace theft is simply failing to put in a full day’s work. Instead workers idle away their time, sitting in their offices and surfing the Internet, sending e-mail to friends-even playing computer games. Whenever we give anything less than our best effort, we are robbing our employer of the productivity we owe.

These are not victimless crimes. Employee theft of time and property costs American businesses and their investors more than two hundred billion dollars a year. This affects all of us. According to some estimates, as much as one-third of a product’s cost goes to cover the various forms of stealing that occur on its way to the marketplace. This “theft surcharge,” as analysts call it, is a drag on our whole economy.

For their part, employers often steal from their workers. They demand longer hours than contracts allow. They reorganize their workforce to improve their profits, and then the workers who still have jobs end up doing all the work that used to be done by the people who got laid off (plus their own of course)! This is just a sophisticated way for companies to steal from their best employees.

Large corporations steal from the general public. They keep some of their transactions off the books. They hide their losses in offshore accounts. They manipulate securities by providing false information. One of the worst offenders in recent history was Enron, the vast energy company whose spectacular collapse in 2001 injured the whole U.S. economy and cost some people their life savings. Enron’s faIl was quickly followed by a series of others as Arthur Andersen, WorldCom, Rite-Aid, and other well-known corporations were caught cheating the public. The nefarious executives from these companies knew all the tricks, but this is hardly a recent phenomenon. Martin Luther identified certain men of his day as “gentlemen swindlers or big operators. Far from being picklocks and sneak-thieves who loot a cash box, they sit in office chairs and are called great lords and honorable, good citizens, and yet with a great show of legality they rob and steal.” And John Calvin said, “It follows, therefore, that not only are those thieves who secretly steal the property of others, but those also who seek gain from the loss of others, accumulate wealth by unlawful practices and are more devoted to their private advantage than to equity”

Many common business practices are immoral, even if technically they are not illegal. This is especially true in marketing. What many business people consider good salesmanship actually violates the eighth commandment. There is price gouging, in which the laws of supply and demand are used to take advantage of helpless consumers. There is false advertising and deceptive packaging, which is designed to make a product look bigger and better than it actually is. Salesmen exaggerate the value of their products, trying to sell people things they really don’t need. Before the sale, every car is touted as the finest vehicle in automotive history; but once the sale is made, and it’s time to talk about a service contract, suddenly the car is going to need all kinds of repairs that ought to be paid for in advance! And so it goes.

These practices are all violations of the eighth commandment. Calvin was right when he said, “Let us remember that all those arts whereby we acquire the possessions and money of our neighbors–when such devices depart from sincere affection to a desire to cheat or in some manner to harm-are to be considered as thefts.” Similarly, Luther said that we break the eighth commandment whenever we “take advantage of our neighbor in any sort of dealing that results in loss to him.” How much business falls to measure up to that simple standard?

Then there is all the theft that is tied up with credit. There is usury, the lending of money at exorbitant rates of interest in order to make unjust profits. Today the most blatant offenders are the credit. card companies that charge interest at nearly 20 percent. The same sin is committed
on a larger scale when international banks hold debtor nations in fiscal bondage. This is only one small aspect of a much wider problem, which is that a small minority uses the vast majority of the world’s resources– and does everything they can to protect their advantage. But the Bible teaches that the poor need our help and that they should receive loans free of interest, at least within the community of God’s people (Lev. 25:35-38; Deut. 15:7-8). There is another side to this, of course, which is that some people buy on credit without ever intending to repay. No doubt this helps explain why in recent decades credit card debt has risen from five billion to more than five hundred billion dollars.

The list goes on. There is insurance fraud, the filing of false claims. There are the deliberate cost overruns that make up the difference between the estimate and the final price whenever work is contracted. There is the theft of intellectual property, the violation of copyrights, including the unlawful duplication of music and videos. There is plagiarism, the misappropriation of someone else’s work. Then there is identity theft, in which personal information is stolen off the Internet and used to run up outrageous charges.

There are countless ways to steal.

I have read Ryken’s book and I recommend it. Right now, a Bible study group in my church is reading and discussing the book and they are enjoying it. If you are preparing a series of sermons on the Ten Commandments or if you have a study group looking for a good book to read, Written in Stone may be the book they are looking for.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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