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This question is prompted by a question in which "software piracy" and copyright issues come up. (See: What's Christians take on pirating authors books, software, movies etc?)

Some suppose that the commandment refers to stealing as defined in UK law, that is taking something with the intent of permanently depriving the owner of something. Others suppose that it refers simply to taking something that does not belong to one, even if it does not permanently deprive the owner of it.

This is something that has come up in relation to the question, but not the main point, so it would not be appropriate, I think, to migrate the question.

Can Biblical Hermeneutics shed any light on the meaning of steal in the commandments?

3 Answers 3

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Benson comments as follows:

Exodus 20:15. Thou shalt not steal — This command forbids us to rob ourselves of what we have, by sinful spending, or of the use and comfort of it, by sinful sparing; and to rob others by invading our neighbour’s rights, taking his goods, or house, or field, forcibly or clandestinely, overreaching in bargains, not restoring what is borrowed or found, withholding just debts, rents, or wages; and, which is worst of all, to rob the public in the coin or revenue, or that which is dedicated to the service of religion

The operative verb in Ex 20:15 is גָּנַב imply means to take possession of something without the consent of the owner, either temporarily or permanently; that to deprive someone of anything that is unjust. The verb occurs about 40 times in the OT in places like: Gen 30:33, 31:19, 20, 26, 27, 30, 32, 39, 40:15, 44:8, Ex 20:15, 21:16, 22:1, 7, 12, Lev 19:11, Deut 24:7, Josh 7:11, 2 Sam 15:6, etc.

The verb is used in interesting and very diverse ways:

  • In Gen 40:15, Ex 21:16, Deut 24:7, the same verb is used of kidnapping.
  • In Gen 31:16 it is used to describe stealing the truth from someone, ie, deceiving them.
  • In 2 Sam 15:6 it describes stealing of "the hearts" of people; ie, stealing their affection in preparation for usurping the throne
  • In 2 Sam 19:3 it describes someone "stealing into the city", ie, entering by stealth. There is a similar meaning in 2 Sam 19:3

That is, the verb describes stealing in a very broad sense.

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  • In 2 Sam 19:3 the verb is יִּתְגַּנֵּב, which uses the reflexive form hitpaˈel (הִתְפַּעֵל). So the different meaning "to make one's self stolen" is imbued by the form.
    – Jonathan
    Commented May 14, 2023 at 7:35
  • @Jonathan - agreed.
    – Dottard
    Commented May 14, 2023 at 13:01
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The ancient world did not have a legal concept of intellectual property, so despite containing over 600 commands, the Torah unsurprisingly does not include an explicit prohibition on taking thy neighbor's IP.

However, the verb translated "steal", גָּנַב ("ganab") is a fairly broad concept. Strong's Concordance lists the following English equivalents:

carry away, indeed, secretly bring, steal away, get by stealth A primitive root; to thieve (literally or figuratively); by implication, to deceive -- carry away, X indeed, secretly bring, steal (away), get by stealth.

When Paul recites a series of commandments to the Romans (see 13:9), including the prohibition on stealing, he uses the verb κλέπτω ("klepto").

Both the Hebrew and the Greek verbs used in "thou shalt not steal" regularly convey a dimension of stealth - the idea being that one is taking something without the owner's knowledge or permission.

The manner of the taking is not particularly relevant. The focus is that the owner is being deprived of their right to decide how their possession is used.

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Stealing, as others have posted, involves taking something that belongs to someone else. In the Biblical usage of the word, it never applies to something that could belong to a second party as well; i.e. it applies to concrete subjects which are indivisible and can belong to only one entity at a time.

Example items of theft referenced in the Bible:

  • Images/idols/gods (Genesis 31:19,30)
  • A man/brother (Exodus 21:16; Deuteronomy 24:7)
  • Ox or sheep (Exodus 22:1)
  • Money or stuff (Exodus 22:7)
  • Hearts/allegiance (2 Samuel 15:6)
  • Bones (2 Samuel 21:12)
  • Treasures/valuables (Matthew 6:19)

None of the items in the list could be, at one and the same time, mutually owned. For example, if you steal my money, the money is no longer mine; I have been deprived of it.

The word "steal" is not compatible with "copy" or "clone" or "share"--each of these being applied to something that can be mutually owned without depriving the original owner.

With respect to copyrights, the Bible has two balancing principles which would apply, outside of stealing.

  1. "Obey them that have the rule over you" (Hebrews 13:17)
  2. "We ought to obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29)

Essentially, we are to obey the government as long as its demands do not conflict with any of God's commandments. If or when God's requirements conflict with a law of the land, we are to obey God instead.

Examples of God-blessed "theft" (it isn't really theft when God sanctions it) include Jacob's benefiting from the growth of the flocks and herds of Laban. The story indicates that Jacob took certain measures to unnaturally and disproportionately influence the coloration of the herd's offspring so as to advantage himself. But Laban had been dishonest with Jacob, and God was on Jacob's side in this. (See Genesis 30.)

Jacob's earlier "theft" of the birthright blessing of his brother Esau had been by God's design, but not by God's method. He had resorted to lies and deception when he should have simply trusted God to work things out, as God had said he should have the birthright.

Another so-called "theft" (the Bible does not use this word for it) might be the example of Abigail, who secretly took food from her home against her husband's wishes, and gave it to David and his men. (See 1 Samuel 25.)

Two interesting texts that seem nearly opposite at first glance:

Men do not despise a thief, if he steal to satisfy his soul when he is hungry; (Proverbs 6:30)

Lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, Who is the LORD? or lest I be poor, and steal, and take the name of my God in vain. (Proverbs 30:9)

In fact, taking the food when one is hungry may not be despised, but is still wrong. On the other hand, two wrongs do not make a right, and the Bible is clear that those who do not offer fair wages to their workers are defrauding them (see James 5): if they had been properly paid, they would not need to steal to obtain their food.

Land owners were commanded by God not to harvest their entire crop: they were to leave the field's margins and corners to be gleaned by the poor.

9And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest. 10And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather every grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and stranger: I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 19:9-10, KJV)

If one were poor, it was not stealing to glean from the field of another. This was a plan that was commanded by God to provide the necessities of the poor.

There is no example in Scripture of God recognizing any copyright law, nor the concept of plagiarism. All good things come from God, including all wisdom and knowledge. Man ought not to attempt to take credit for that which belongs to God. Many Biblical authors quoted or borrowed from the words of other authors without giving them any credit, nor acknowledging them in any way. There was no such thing as "plagiarism," as the messages were from God, not from the prophet who wrote them. In fact, to claim that one prophet "plagiarized" another would be to say the message had not originated with God--robbing God of the recognition due Him.

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  • So if two men went into partnership, their money could not be stolen? I think you need to back that assertion up.
    – Mary
    Commented May 13, 2023 at 0:06
  • @Mary That's why I had used the word "entity" in saying "one entity at a time". Their partnership would be an "entity"--which can be a family, a group, or a company. "Entity" and "individual" are not the same concept. But if one partner takes that which belongs to the both of them, then it is stealing, isn't it?
    – Biblasia
    Commented May 13, 2023 at 1:40
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    I didn't downvote but I think the main problem with this answer is it doesn't address the actual question of what the meaning of the word is.
    – barbecue
    Commented May 13, 2023 at 20:56
  • @barbecue Perhaps my answer is of a different metal than others here, but I choose to let the Bible interpret itself. Rather than relying on dictionaries and concordances, which are second-best, I prefer to let the Bible's own usage provide the definition. That said, I did summarize what that definition appears to be in the opening paragraph before detailing the usage...did you miss it?
    – Biblasia
    Commented May 14, 2023 at 0:49
  • @Biblasia No, I just found the "only belongs to one party" definition weak. I don't see how that is derivable from the examples you provided, because anything that belongs to any given group or set of beings also automatically belongs to the set of beings as an entity. It's not a meaningful distinction. I think Dottard's answer did a better job of giving the actual meaning of the word (and that meaning is broader and more inclusive than yours.)
    – barbecue
    Commented May 15, 2023 at 17:57

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