The Church and God’s Law (15)

If a man steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it, he shall pay five oxen for the ox and four sheep for the sheep (Ex.22:1).

Despite what Plato and other humanists have claimed over the centuries, man is not primarily a political creature, but a religious one. It is the Christian emphasis that true religion is the only legitimate basis for every godly society which will ultimately prevail. In relation to this case-law, Jordan’s comments are lengthy but helpful:

Restitution involves both compensation and retribution. The man robbed is compensated for his loss, and then the thief is punished by having to pay double or more. He must forfeit exactly what he sought to gain. There are three degrees of restitution in scripture.

Voluntary Restitution.

If a thief comes to his senses and voluntarily seeks to make restitution, he is to add a fifth part to what he stole when he returns it (Lev. 5:14-16; 6:1-5; 22:14; Num. 5:5-8). Thus, if a man steals a sheep, he has an incentive to return it before he is caught; the penalty is less.

Ordinary Penal Restitution.                                                                                                             

Double restitution is the normal rule. A stolen animal found alive is returned, plus another (or its value, Ex. 22:4). Inanimate stolen property is paid back double, whether the stolen piece is destroyed or not (Ex.22:7).

Special Penal Restitution.                                                                                                               

There are three cases of multiple restitution set out in Scripture. First of all, if a man steals an ox, signifying a revolutionary attack upon authority which entails the destruction of property, he must pay five-fold.[1] Second, if a man steals a sheep, signifying the use of power to oppress and rob the poor, he must pay four-fold…

Restitution is clearly seen in the New Testament in the history of Zacchaeus (Lk. 9:8-9); Jesus said that salvation had come to his house when he declared his intention to make restitution. Also, in Philemon, Paul declares (v.18) that he will make restitution for anything Onesimus has stolen.[2]

If a criminal is compelled by law to make restitution of at least twice what he stole, there are two important outcomes. Firstly, the victim of the crime is compensated for his loss of time and inconvenience in having to pursue the criminal to justice. Time is money. His normal life has been interrupted by criminal activity; should he not be compensated?

Secondly, the person considering criminal activity is warned: he will know he’ll have to pay at least double if he is caught.

Thirdly, the convicted criminal in paying money to his victim and not being gaoled, is relieved of something of great significance: guilt.

Why is it that God places sheep and oxen in a special category? The Bible tells us that “a righteous man has regard for the life of his beast…” (Prov.12:10). North’s comments,

We think of the criminal’s victims as being people who have lost their animals or money. But there are other victims: the animals themselves. This is analogous to the crime of kidnapping. The restitution system that the Bible establishes for oxen and sheep reflects this special concern by God for helpless animals. What makes sheep and oxen special is their status in the Old Testament as symbolically helpless animals. So, Biblical law protects both the animals and their owners.[3]


The thief who steals a specially protected beast must suffer greater risks for stealing it when compared to any other kind of property. The sheep or ox can easily be slaughtered and eaten. This makes it far more difficult for the civil authorities to discover who the thief is and then prove it in court. Thus, the thief who steals an ox or sheep seems to have a greater likelihood of getting away with the crime. The law therefore imposes far higher penalties in case of ox-stealing or sheep-stealing.[4]

[1] Paul (I Cor.9:9-18; I Tim.5:17-18), uses the illustration from the law of Moses of the working oxen being able to eat while he works, in relation to the legitimacy of  payment for Church leaders.

[2] James Jordan, “The Law of the Covenant,” 1984, p.131-132.

[3] Gary North, “Tools of Dominion,” 1990, Vol.2, p.519.

[4] North, p.537.

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