Does the Decalogue Prohibit Stealing?
Stealing or Kidnapping?
The question of whether the Decalogue prohibits stealing in general hardly seems a topic worth pursuing. After all, the verb ganav, which appears in the Decalogue (Exodus 20:15; Deuteronomy 5:19), is commonly translated as “to steal.” So why should there be a question about the meaning of the verb when it appears in the Decalogue?
Most rabbinic commentary interprets the law of the Decalogue as prohibiting kidnapping. Three factors likely motivated this rabbinic interpretation:
- What we might call “The Redundancy Rule”;
- The laws in in Parashat Misphatim (chs. 21-23), which come on the heels of the Decalogue, are connected to it, and may be used as guidance for interpreting it;
- The Decalogue itself is filled with capital offences.
Let us explore each factor individually.
1. The Rabbis and the Redundancy Rule
Leviticus 19:11 reads, “lo tignovu,” which is virtually identical to the law in the Decalogue, though it is in the plural, while our law is in the singular. This command appears in Leviticus alongside the prohibitions on lying and on deceiving your neighbor, which are good company for thieving in general—nothing in its context suggests that it is a capital crime, or refers specifically to kidnapping.
Following the classical rabbinic concern with redundant phrases in the Torah, this apparent repetition raises questions. If we have already been told elsewhere, namely in the Decalogue in Exodus, not to steal, why is this prohibition repeated here? Indeed Rashi, following precisely this line of reasoning, assumes that the text in Leviticus is intended as a general prohibition against stealing property. He then goes on to note that the verb in the Decalogue, for reasons of context (see below), refers to kidnapping.
Alternative Reasons for Redundancy
The ‘redundancy’ argument of the rabbis fits the rabbinic view of the Torah as a perfect harmonious text. Yet, no evidence exists that the compilers of the Hebrew Bible actually thought in these terms, and such repetitions may be the result of editorial activity, namely of bringing together law collections that overlapped to some extent.
In other cases, even a single legal collection may repeat the same law. For example, within Leviticus 19 itself the phrase “you shall do no wrong in judgment (לא תעשו עול במשפט)” appears twice, once in connection with the need for impartial judgments in a court of law (19:15) and once in connection with the need for accurate weights and measures (19:35-36). This repetition serves as a kind of subheading within the chapter, introducing in each case a series of examples of correct practice. As a subheading, however, it also links the idea that is common to both, that of the necessity for just actions and behavior in all aspects of society.
In short, from a historical-critical perspective, as distinct from a rabbinic understanding, laws such as “do not steal” may be redundant, and each case need not be interpreted in a distinct fashion. A single author may be redundant, or a text may be redundant as a result of the completion of partially overlapping collections.
2. Stealing in the “the Covenant Collection”
Whether the laws listed in Exodus 21-23 are meant to expand upon the Decalogue is a matter of debate. Many ancient and modern scholars believe that the placement of the laws immediately after the Decalogue and in the middle of the covenant ceremony between God and Israel at Sinai (chs. 19-24) is intended to suggest that they expand upon the Decalogue.
The Covenant Collection (Exod. 20:22-23:33) includes property theft (Exodus 21:37; 22:1-3), but first it discusses kidnapping (Exodus 21:16).
וְגֹנֵ֨ב אִ֧ישׁ וּמְכָר֛וֹ וְנִמְצָ֥א בְיָד֖וֹ מ֥וֹת יוּמָֽת:
One who steals a man and sells him and [the victim] is found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death.
The presence of this law so close to the usage in the Decalogue, is at least circumstantial evidence it may be intended to be the elaboration of the principle enshrined in the Decalogue, “you shall not steal [a man].”
This perception is strengthened when taking into consideration the fact that kidnapping is the first example of theft in the Covenant Collection, and the one that carries the harshest penalty (death).
גנב as Kidnapping in Other Biblical Contexts
The Covenant Collection is not the only place that uses the term גנב to descry kidnapping. The law is itself repeated in Deuteronomy 24:7:
כִּי יִמָּצֵ֣א אִ֗ישׁ גֹּנֵ֨ב נֶ֤פֶשׁ מֵאֶחָיו֙ מִבְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְהִתְעַמֶּר בּ֖וֹ וּמְכָר֑וֹ וּמֵת֙ הַגַּנָּ֣ב הַה֔וּא וּבִֽעַרְתָּ֥ הָרָ֖ע מִקִּרְבֶּֽךָ:
If a man is found stealing a person from one of his brothers of the children of Israel and mistreats or sells him, then that kidnapper shall die and you shall purge this evil from among you
Moreover, this use is attested earlier in Genesis with Joseph. While imprisoned in Egypt, he interprets the dream of the chief butler and asks that the man remember him when he is restored to favor. Joseph then tells his story saying כִּֽי־גֻנֹּ֣ב גֻּנַּ֔בְתִּי מֵאֶ֖רֶץ הָעִבְרִ֑ים “I was kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews.”
3. The Decalogue Deals with Capital Offenses
The Decalogue is often depicted as early ancient Israelite law. But most laws have punishments, which are completely lacking in both the Exodus and Deuteronomy version. Some scholars, modern and ancient, have solved this problem by suggesting that indeed the Decalogue contains laws all of which are capital in nature—any Decalogue infringement is punishable by death. Edward Robertson, in his essay “The Riddle of the Torah” offers the following evidence for this contention:
|1. No other gods||God kills those who went after Ba’al Peor (Deut 4:3).|
|2. No idols||God will destroy those who worship idols (Deut 4:23-28).|
|3. Misuse of God’s name||Death penalty for cursing God (Lev 24:15-16).|
|4. Shabbat||Death penalty for violating Shabbat (Exod 35:2, Num 15:35).|
|5. Honoring parents||Death penalty for cursing parents (Lev 20:9) [or hitting them (Exod 21:15)].|
|6. No murder||Death penalty for murder (Lev 24:17).|
|7. No adultery||Death penalty for adultery (Lev 20:10).|
|8. No theft||Death penalty for kidnapping (Exod 21:16).|
|9. No false witnessing||Punishment in kind for false testimony, could be death depending on the case (Deut 19:16-21)|
|10. No coveting||Death penalty for sorcery or consulting with sorcerers [coveting = casting the evil eye] (Lev 20:27, Exod 22:17).|
Robertson overall makes a strong case that the laws appearing in the Decalogue are treated as death penalty offenses in other parts of the Torah, although he had to “stretch” in his interpretation of coveting and of the first two laws. Still, his observations suggest that ג-נ-ב in the Decalogue likely refers to kidnapping.
Furthermore, it is unlikely that a general law against theft fits the context of the Decalogue. What is a mere thief—not even a mugger (violent theft is ג-ז-ל not ג-נ-ב)—doing in such disturbing and potentially life-threatening company?
Rashi, quoting Mekhilta (Bachodesh 8), summarizes the argument as follows:
לא תגנב – בגונב נפשות הכתוב מדבר לא תגנבו בגונב ממון… אמרת דבר הלמד מענינו, מה לא תרצח, לא תנאף, מדבר בדבר שחייבין עליהם מיתת בית דין, אף לא תגנוב דבר שחיב עליו מיתת בית דין.
“You shall not steal” is a warning against stealing people, whereas “do not steal (pl.)” (Lev 19:11) is about stealing money… This can be learnt from the context: Just as “you shall not murder” and “you shall not commit adultery” speak about a matter for which the penalty is death by decision of the Beth Din, so too does “you shall not steal” refer to something for which the penalty is death by the decision of the Beit Din.”
The argument from context is another important rabbinic, and indeed general literary, hermeneutical principle.
Kidnapping – An Assault on the Person’s Status
A main concern of the Decalogue is protecting a person’s status. Kidnapping is thus included in the Decalogue since it a very serious offence—it robs people of their individuality and free-choice, of control over their own lives. The difference between the status of freeman and that of slave was so essential in the ancient near east that law codes, like that of Hammurabi, generally divided along the lines of citizen (awilum) and slave (wardum).
Deciding between Translation Options
In trying to determine the meaning of lo tignov in the Decalogue we are faced with the need to make a choice between two competing options. Of the 55 appearances of the root ganav in the Hebrew Bible, the vast majority refer to theft in general rather than kidnapping. On the other hand, the three principles above—redundancy, the connection with the Covenant Collection’s laws, and most significantly, the context of the prohibition in the Decalogue that is filled with death penalty offenses—point towards the law here being about kidnapping and not general theft of property.
Granted, in this case, the principles don’t entirely work: the Torah is redundant at times, the Covenant Collection discusses property theft as well, and not all of the laws in the Decalogue have clear death penalties. Nevertheless, reading lo tignov as “do not steal a person,” namely, do not kidnap, remains likely, even if it is less certain than the Rabbis wished us to believe.
Modern Kidnapping: The Fight Against Human Trafficking
How to interpret this prohibition in the Decalogue is not a moot, academic point. As we have seen, a serious case can be made for the (main) rabbinic interpretation, that it meant to prohibit kidnapping, which it views as a capital offense. Human trafficking was and remains today one of the greatest of crimes against humanity, robbing people of their home, their freedom, and even their lives. If the rabbinic interpretation לא תגנב is correct, then it is not merely our modern sensibilities that find this practice abhorrent—it is already banned in one of the Bible’s most central texts. Indicating this in the translation of the Decalogue by translating lo tignov as “you shall not kidnap” places its significance at the forefront of our religious and moral obligations.
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January 26, 2016
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Prof. Rabbi Jonathan Magonet is the former Principal of Leo Baeck College and Emeritus Professor of Bible. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Heidelberg and his ordination from Leo Baeck College. Magonet is the author of A Rabbi Reads the Torah, and is the editor of ‘Seder Ha-Tefillot‘ Forms of Prayer: Daily, Sabbath and Occasional Prayers as well as the journal, European Judaism. His latest book is, How Did Moses Know He Was a Hebrew?: Reading Bible Stories from Within (Hakodesh Press, 2021).
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