Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Justice relating to accidental death and property damage. Part 2

Part 1 here.

The next passage concerns restitution in cases of theft.
If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and kills it or sells it, he shall repay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep.  If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him, but if the sun has risen on him, there shall be bloodguilt for him. He shall surely pay. If he has nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft. If the stolen beast is found alive in his possession, whether it is an ox or a donkey or a sheep, he shall pay double. (Exodus 22:1-4 ESV)
Compensation for stolen oxen is 5 fold and stolen sheep is 4 fold in the case of selling or destroying an animal, and 2 fold for keeping an animal. I make this to be
  • 1 animal for the stolen animal to restore the situation to the previous state (replace or return)
  • 1 animal as punishment for stealing
  • 2 further animals as punishment for trading in stolen livestock
  • 1 animal as punishment for loss of livelihood
A sheep provides for the farmer in terms of its meat, milk, and fleece. An ox provides in a similar way but is also a beast of burden. It is a farmer's tool, not just provision. The excess compensation reflects a greater offence been committed against the farmer. Not only does he lose provision, he loses the ability to produce.

A second animal as punishment is a deterrent. If a thief paid back solely what he stole then he benefits by gaining the items at times he is not caught. Leaving the thief worse off after stealing means that thievery leads to privation.

Further, to not force the thief to pay excess costs puts him in the same position as the man who inadvertently or negligently destroys the property of another.
If fire breaks out and catches in thorns so that the stacked grain or the standing grain or the field is consumed, he who started the fire shall make full restitution. (Exodus 22:6 ESV)
Clandestine removal of property is not to be equated with unintentional destruction of property.

An interesting situation arises here in that if a thief has sold or killed the animal he is punished more harshly. I am uncertain as to the exact reason here but will offer some speculation. Selling an animal suggests a higher level operation at play. The thief is not just stealing for himself due to laziness, his livelihood consists of trading stolen goods. He is becoming wealthy solely by the means of others' hard work, property, and in a way that leaves the owner with less wealth than he started with.

Concerning the increased punishment when stock are killed the interpretation may relate to whether such an action is meant to reflect hiding of evidence, destruction of property, or eating the animal. If the thief has eaten the animal I am uncertain why the payment is 4 fold. Eating the animal severely limits its use. A sheep provides ongoing milk and wool. A short term feast is short-sighted—the man will need to keep stealing to maintain food—and gluttonous—meat was not the mainstay of the diet, it was expensive and a luxury. In the case of the first 2 options, hiding evidence and destroying property, the man is making no use of the property, his thievery is to no end. I don't want your house but I will burn it down so that you do not have it.

What we establish from these verses is
  1. A thief cannot just return property, he must pay in excess of what he stole;
  2. It make a difference what people steal, stealing a man's method of income affects a man more than stealing his income, and needs to be punished more harshly; and
  3. It makes a difference why a thief steals, or rather what a thief does with stolen goods.
Criminal law can take all these aspects into consideration when punishing a thief.

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