Just about every human civilization that has ever existed has recognized personal property rights. And with that recognition comes laws and regulations about stealing. This one should be familiar to everyone:
As a sin against God, stealing is directly forbidden in the Ten Commandments. Writing to the Corinthians, Paul includes thieves and swindlers among the people who ‘will not inherit the kingdom of God.’ (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).
- 1 Biblical Definition of Stealing
- 2 Who Does Stealing Affect?
- 3 Stealing from the Poor
- 4 Stealing from Parents
- 5 Stealing from Workers
- 6 Stealing from God
- 7 Does it Matter what is Stolen?
- 8 Stealing Means of Production
- 9 Stealing Money
- 10 Stealing Food
- 11 Examples of Stealing in the Bible
- 12 The Ultimate Thief
- 13 When You are Tempted to Steal
Biblical Definition of Stealing
Stealing, by definition, is the act of taking property that belongs to someone else. Criminal codes in the United States broadly recognize three categories of stealing:
- Larceny: Theft by taking
- Extortion: Theft by deception
- Robbery: Theft by force
The Bible similarly sub-categorizes stealing into these and other categories:
- Do not defraud or rob your neighbor. (Leviticus 19:13a)
- Do not trust in extortion or put vain hope in stolen goods. (Psalm 62:10a)
- If anyone sins… by deceiving a neighbor about something entrusted to them… (Leviticus 6:2a)
- …or if they cheat their neighbor… (Leviticus 6:2b)
- …or if they find lost property and lie about it. (Leviticus 6:3)
- Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due. (Proverbs 3:27a)
- “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. (Luke 3:13)
From this list, we see stealing encompasses more than just taking money or items. Keeping lost property, mismanaging entrusted property, overcharging, and failing to make payments are all forms of stealing that the Bible condemns.
Who Does Stealing Affect?
In addition to describing different methods and manners of stealing, the Bible addresses the dynamics of specific relationships where stealing is particularly problematic.
Stealing from the Poor
and do not crush the needy in court,
for the Lord will take up their case
and will exact life for life. ” Proverbs 22:22-23
It is a sin to steal from anyone. But stealing from the poor, who are already vulnerable, puts them at even greater risk of harm. By warning people not to crush the needy in court, this proverb implies that the poor were routinely slighted not only by individuals but by an unfair legal system.
Stealing from Parents
and says, “It’s not wrong,”
is partner to one who destroys. ” Proverbs 28:24
Theft from the elderly (and particularly from parents) was just as troublesome in ancient times as it is in our present culture. Too often, thieves justify taking from their parents on the basis that the property or money will eventually pass to the thief through inheritance anyway. But such thinking fails to account for the damage that stealing brings upon our parents while they are still alive and enjoying the use of their property.
Stealing from Workers
To hire someone to do a job and fail to pay him is theft. Not only is the worker left without the promised money, but his time has been taken from him. And that is time that he could have used to work for someone who would pay him.
Stealing from God
“But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’
“In tithes and offerings… Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Malachi 3:8, 10a
When we withhold from God what we’ve pledged to Him, whether it is our offerings, our service, or our hearts, He counts that as a form of theft. We must always be mindful of our commitment to God in all aspects of life, including our finances.
Does it Matter what is Stolen?
Our legal systems do not treat all theft the same way. One determining factor is what (and how much) was stolen. Stealing a car is more serious than stealing a candy bar. And some possessions are considered so necessary to a person’s life and livelihood that they are exempt even from legal seizure.
The Bible also gives different weight to the theft of different types of property:
and houses, and take them.
They defraud people of their homes,
they rob them of their inheritance. ” Micah 2:2
In an agrarian society, taking someone’s field not only affected that person’s life, but it altered the trajectory of their family line. Such theft robbed a person’s heirs and future generations of the enjoyment and productivity of the family’s estate.
Stealing Means of Production
If the stolen animal is found alive in their possession—whether ox or donkey or sheep—they must pay back double. ” Exodus 22:1, 4
Restitution was steep for the theft of livestock because the animal was worth more than its actual cost. Since the animals were used to do work and thus produce a harvest, stealing an animal was the equivalent of stealing a person’s future earnings.
Money was often stolen through force, extortion, or coercion. Stealing money has an immediate impact on a person’s means to provide for themselves, as well as a long-term effect of damaging the victim’s credit and/or savings.
to satisfy his hunger when he is starving. ” Proverbs 6:30
Even though stealing is always a sin—and always punishable—the Bible recognizes a natural empathy for people who steal because they are starving. This is why laws were instituted in the Old Testament to ensure that food was available for the poor (Leviticus 19:9-10), so they would not have to resort to stealing.
Examples of Stealing in the Bible
A number of stories in the Bible record instances of theft. Some of the more prominent thieves in the Bible are:
- Zacchaeus: As a tax collector, Zacchaeus used a corrupt system to extort extra from the people. He confessed to cheating people and promised to repay them when he met Jesus (Luke 19:8).
- Judas: Though he is best known as the disciple that betrayed Jesus, John’s gospel also tells us that Judas used his position as the disciples’ treasurer to skim from the group’s money bag (John 12:6).
- Jacob: Jacob stole his older brother’s birthright (inheritance) by taking advantage of Esau’s desperation. When Esau was weakened with hunger and came to Jacob looking for food, Jacob bought his birthright for the measly price of a bowl of lentil stew (Genesis 25:29-34).
- Achan: When the Israelites conquered Jericho, God instructed them to not take the sacred possessions of the conquered people (Joshua 6:18). Achan disobeyed and kept some of the plunder for himself (Joshua 7:20-21), a crime for which he was stoned to death.
- King Ahab: Ahab had sought to purchase a vineyard from a man named Naboth whose land was near the royal palace, but Naboth refused to sell the land. Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, then arranged for Naboth to be falsely accused of a capital offense and stoned to death. After Naboth’s death, King Ahab claimed his vineyard as his own (1 Kings 21:1-19).
The Ultimate Thief
Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers…The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. John 10:1-2, 7-10
Jesus uses the image of a thief breaking into a sheep pen to describe the way that Satan attempts to lure believers away from Jesus through deceit, extortion, and trickery. In this way, Satan is the most insidious of all thieves, as he has the capacity to steal the one thing that people cannot steal from one another: the soul.
When You are Tempted to Steal
All theft, great and small, is an affront to God. So He calls us to turn from unlawful taking—in all its forms—and replace it with joyful giving: