If a man gives his neighbour money or goods to keep for him and it is stolen from the man’s house, if the thief is caught, he shall pay double. If the thief is not caught, then the owner of the house shall appear before the judges, to determine whether he laid his hands on his neighbour’s property. For every breach of trust, whether it is for ox, for donkey, for sheep, for clothing, or for any lost thing about which one says, “This is it,” the case of both parties shall come before the judges; he whom the judges condemn shall pay double to his neighbour (Ex.22:7-9).
Conversion to Christ inevitably means a changed lifestyle, and Paul speaks of this. He says “he who steals must steal no longer: but rather he must labour, performing with his own hands what is good…” (Eph.4:28).
This highlights the changed life of Zaccheus. He said to Jesus, “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much” (Luke 19:8).
This shows us the centrality of ethics to the Christian faith. The Bible gives us guidelines to live by, and this is one of them. Without moral guidelines derived from scripture, men and women descend into anarchy. Policing is not cheap, and when individuals are frequently unable to sort out their personal disputes privately, it costs them and sometimes the community in money and lost time.
Personal trust is essential in any healthy society. When security becomes a serious concern for individuals, the costs to the community rise. This is one reason why individual responsibility is so important for a community, and is required in scripture.
Neighbours have an incentive to reduce crime in the neighbourhood… Rural neighbours are more dependent on each other than urban neighbours are… When neighbours can be trusted to care for each other’s goods, a society probably has a strong covenantal bond. Residents see the thief’s threat to the neighbourhood, and they cooperate in order to make the thief’s task more difficult.
Why is it that in this circumstance, only double restitution is required for losses incurred in safe-keeping? What about if sheep were stolen, which would normally require four-fold restitution (Ex.22:1)?
One of the reasons why there is a higher penalty imposed for stealing and destroying a sheep or ox (specially protected because of their symbolising mankind) is that it is difficult to locate and convict the unknown thief. In the case of a neighbour, there is greater ease (i.e., less expense) of conviction; the owner knows who had possession of it last. Since there is a lower risk of detection for a stranger who commits the theft, there are increased criminal penalties to offset this lower risk.