When folks attempt to read through the Bible in canonical order, they have a tendency to falter in Exodus. The narrative turns to legal material. No more extraordinary promises fulfilled or plagues to weather. Instead, one finds precepts and principles, rules and regulations. The end might be in sight, but the story aspect does not pick up again for quite some time. The narrative events which break the the lists of Law do not occur with regularity, and some of them evoke strange fear in the reader.
You already knew God outlawed thievery, right? Why expatiate on it here?
The question bears validity and merits discussion.
Simple thievery does not compose the entire scope of the instruction God provides through Moses here. Your Bible probably bears a heading saying something like ‘Property Rights.’ I will not go through the text line-by-line here (though such a method of teaching has great profit, and I encourage it); instead, I will discuss why God provides these regulations and others like them. Bible Gateway hosts a text here. If you do not prefer the NASB, the site also hosts more than a few other translations including the NKJV, ESV, and the new CSB.
In the NASB, the word “restitution” appears nine times in the text. The English word, “pay” appears five times. These two words translate the same Hebrew term, and their frequency indicates a main idea in the text. They answer the question: what sort of action or transaction can make legal peace between two individuals in the people of God?
When providing the Law, God recognized his people lived in space and time. They lived in a post-Eden society. Their lives bore the brokenness and corruption of sin. And what happens when a bunch of people broken by sin live together? They sin against one another, and they do so in ways unaccepted by social convention.
The Law has a personal aspect to it. Surely it bears a corporate aspect in its implementation, but it governed each individual in relation to his neighbor. The instruction does not have an “if” to it, but rather a “when.” It effectively says, “When your neighbor, Reuben, steals from you…” or “When you do harm to Reuben’s animals…” Rather than allow a sort of mob rule or personal justice free reign among his people, God implemented equitable standards to guide sinners relating to one another. He had the willingness to go where polite society would not. He knew sin would happen and he addressed it in a forthright way, directing the sinner to restrain himself and the victim to do the same.
A people reconciled to God also become reconciled to one another. The Bible has no category for the autonomous faithful, a sort of lone wolf believer. The only thing approaching the category of hermit believer arises from Elijah’s flight in 1 Kings 19, but even then Elijah does not enjoy his solitude and God reveals he has 7,000 compatriots who will not bow to Baal.
Being careful with just directly applying the Law as if Christians remain in the old covenant, we do gather insight here. God’s people reflect him and his character in their interactions with one another. The New Testament provides the same proposition, though its own new instruction goes deeper.
1 John 4:7-21 makes the case well. The people of God must love one another. Where the Law applied to the external man for purposes of governance and social reconciliation, the new covenant applies to the heart of man for total reconciliation with others covered by the blood of Jesus.
The ministry of Jesus himself also addressed the reconciliation of sinners to one another. In Matthew 18, Jesus provides terribly clear guidelines. In verses 15-17, he declares:
If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you
have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with
you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be
confirmed. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to
listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
Long before one could possibly seek to exclude a person from the covenant community, one needs to seek reconciliation in a way respecting the sinning individual. Jesus’s instructions here have such clarity that they stand as a guideline for a great many churches in sad situations of church discipline. Later, the following interaction occurs in verses 20-21:
Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven
times, but up to seventy times seven.
Once again, the people of God will suffer sins committed against them, by their own brothers and sisters. The lives of the reconciled and redeemed will bear the hallmarks of continuing reconciliation and redemption. Exodus tutored God’s people to understand their place under him, living among one another. Now, after the advent of Christ, we gain an even greater comprehension of God’s purpose for his people.
The reconciled to God shall reconcile with one another.