Restitution

Must you make it right? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

In our look at the Old testament Law, we come to Exodus 22:3b-6 which reads as follows.

“Anyone who steals must certainly make restitution, but if they have nothing, they must be sold to pay for their theft. 4 If the stolen animal is found alive in their possession —whether ox or donkey or sheep—they must pay back double.

5 “If anyone grazes their livestock in a field or vineyard and lets them stray and they graze in someone else’s field, the offender must make restitution from the best of their own field or vineyard.

6 “If a fire breaks out and spreads into thornbushes so that it burns shocks of grain or standing grain or the whole field, the one who started the fire must make restitution.”

In each of these, we have the eye for an eye principle. Thievery is taken seriously, but notice that it is not punishable by the death penalty. This is immediately after an account about someone breaking into your house. While in some societies, someone could be killed or even mutilated for stealing, it was not the same in the Israelite society. Possessions are to be treated as possessions and not as people.

For the first, why should a thief pay back double if the animal is live? For one thing, the thief would have the benefits of the animal and then he would have no cost after that. He got an ox let’s say and got the ox to do some work for him and maybe even do some mating for him and then he had to give the oxen back to its owner. It becomes a kind of borrowing that is done without permission and the thief still gets the benefit. If he has to pay back double, then he does lose. He may have some benefit that is not known about, but there is no doubt that he has a loss. Without this, there would be nothing to stop a thief from deciding to steal.

The next cases do not involve intentional thievery but damage to property. Note that the repayment must come from the best. You could not go and give rotten fruit to someone when their good fruit had been eaten. You had taken someone’s livelihood from them and you must give of your own to make sure that that person had enough. Such a practice would help to make sure that you did your part to take care of your animals.

What about a fire? This would point to carelessness. If you are careless, you pay the price. We could prosecute someone for starting a forest fire even if unintentional today. If you do, you must make restitution and in this case, this could mean making restitution to several different people depending on how powerful the fire is.

What does all this mean for us today? Many of us would by and large I suppose not have a problem with laws such as these. Today in our system of justice, we believe in such repayment. It can often be done in the form of community service or something of that sort since many of us do not have livestock in that way or garden the same way.

We can also appreciate that the biblical writers were concerned for the justice of each person in the Israelite society and making sure that any loss would be taken care of.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

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