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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

You Shall Not Steal – That Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

In modern American Christian culture private property is held as a sacred right.  It is inviolable, sacrosanct, holy.  “Thou shalt not steal!” says the bible.  Private property is one of the foundations of the modern capitalistic system, and American Christianity seems almost inextricably intertwined with capitalism.  So much so that I think professor Robert Gnuse’s bookYou Shall Not Steal: Community and Property in the Biblical Tradition will be completely ignored by most and loudly condemned by some.  And this is unfortunate for, if read and appreciated, Gnuse’s book could help us to better understand the biblical values that are actually enshrined in that command against theft.

The command “You shall not steal,” is not primarily a protection of private property, says Gnuse.  The command finds its origin in the pastoral Israelite community whose ethos was grounded in the memory of their liberation from slavery in Egypt by Yahweh, and who valued persons over property.  While some property was privately owned, the important things – things that benefited the whole of the community were held in common, owned by the entire tribe, or by the family. Things like land did not belong to one individual, but were held in trust for the entire community. In this context the command against theft, “You shall not steal,” was a command actually a command against the accumulation of private property by taking what was to be held by the community. 

Gnuse follows the way that this idea was implemented, ignored, reformed and idealized through the long history of the Israelites.  He shows how the communal ethos was lost as they moved into close contact with Canaanite communities – and how their settled, mercantile, polytheistic societies influenced the Israelites.  He describes how the Israelite ethos (of communalism, people > property) was further corrupted during the monarchical period, widening the gap between the rich and the poor - a gap that would not have existed if the Israelite ethos had been maintained.  Gnuse shows how the prophets arose to criticize the people of Israel and Judah for their twin and intertwined sins – 1) the worship of foreign gods and 2) the exploitation of the poor. 

“The legislation of Israel adds a new perspective to the concept of theft.  Laws and moral imperatives about loans, interest, debts, slaves, land, wages, and justice in general indicate that the first concern of Israel was for human need, not ownership.  Laws mandated the relinquishment of wealth by the rich for the sake of the poor.  Laws called for the economic restoration of individuals who had suffered economic reversal.  The ancient Israelite legislator realized what too few of our contemporaries are willing to acknowledge:  if a healthy society prioritizes the economic integrity of its citizens, it will stay a healthy society.  The maintenance of property and possessions must come second to human need” (Gnuse 48).

This is a powerful little book, and I wish it were being read by more people, but it is not a revolutionary attack on capitalism. Neither is it a call for the immediate implementation of a statist socialism. It is a balanced evaluation of the biblical command, and a call for a re-evaluation of our priorities.  Any system that values privately held property over the needs of the people of the community is contrary to the spirit of the law that says, “You shall not steal.”

Gnuse, Robert. You Shall Not Steal: Community and Property in the Biblical Tradition. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1985.


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