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Eighth Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Steal

Analysis of the Ten Commandments

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The Eighth Commandment reads:

    Thou shalt not steal. (Exodus 20:15)

Another of the shorter commandments, this is one of those where the simplest and most obvious understanding may actually be the most correct one — but not necessarily. Most people read it as a simple prohibition against stealing and this is not unreasonable, but it may also not be the way that everyone understood it originally.

Some have argued that the original meaning of the Eighth Commandment was actually a prohibition against stealing slaves or kidnapping people and forcing them into slavery unlawfully. These actions, like murder and adultery, were capital crimes whereas simple theft was not. This would make its inclusion with adultery and murder understandable.

Of course, slavery is not only illegal today but also considered morally abhorrent, so such a reading would no longer work for either Jews or Christians. It is probably because of that, at least in part, that the commandment has acquired a broader and more general meaning. People today regard it as a prohibition against any theft of any sort of real property.

Does it, however, also include theft of non-real property, like intellectual or creative properties? Does this commandment even allow for the possibility of someone “owning” a creative work and having copyrights over it? Most religious scholars today probably agree that it does, though in doing so they are accepting modern understandings of the nature of property. There were no copyrights or patents among the ancient Hebrews and such oral cultures probably wouldn’t have understood the concepts.

This is not to say that the inclusion of intellectual property in with “do not steal” is invalid. The point is to underscore the fact that people’s understanding of how the commandments are to be applied is derived at least as much from contemporary political, cultural, and social beliefs as they are from the original text itself. This is inevitable, I think, but it is also often ignored.

People seem to believe that however they interpret a biblical text, they are doing so without being constrained by their cultural or political assumptions and are instead relying solely on the text itself. The Eighth Commandment is just one example of how that isn’t and can’t be true. There is nothing wrong with drawing upon one’s cultural background in deciding (for example) whether “do not steal” should incorporate intellectual property; there is, however, something wrong with not recognizing or acknowledging that you are doing it.

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