If a fire breaks out and spreads to thornbushes so that it consumes stacked or standing grain, or the whole field, the one who started the fire must make full restitution.
I. THEFT (vers. 1-5). The illustrations in the law relate to thefts of cattle. But the principles embodied apply to thefts generally (cf. ver. 7). Note -
1. The law which punishes the theft, protects the thief's life. It refuses, indeed, to be responsible for him in the event of his being smitten in the night-time, while engaged in the act of housebreaking (ver. 2) - large rights of self-defence being in this case necessary for the protection of the community. The thief might be killed under a misapprehension of his purpose; or by a blow struck at random in the darkness, and under the influence of panic; or in justifiable self-defence, in a scuffle arising from the attempt to detain him. In other circumstances, the law will not allow the thief's life to be taken (ver. 3). All the ends of justice are served by his being compelled to make restitution. Blood is not to be spilt needlessly. The killing of a thief after sunrise is to be dealt with as murder. We infer from this that theft ought not to be made a capital offence. English law, at the beginning of this century, was, in this respect, far behind the law of Moses.
2. Theft is to be dealt with on the principle of restitution.
(1) It calls for more than simple restitution. At most the restitution of the simple equivalent brings matters back to the position in which they were before the criminal act was committed. That position ought never to have been disturbed; and punishment is still due to the wrongdoer for having disturbed it. Hence the law that if the stolen animal is found in the thief's hand alive, he shall restore double (ver. 4); if he has gone the length of killing or selling it, he shall restore five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep (ver. 1).
(2) Penalty is proportioned to offence. Both as respects the value of the things stolen, and as respects the lengths to which criminality has proceeded.
3. If direct restitution is impossible, the thief shall be compelled to make restitution by his labour - "He shall be sold for his theft" (ver. 3). It would be an improvement in the administration of justice if this principle were more frequently acted on. The imprisoned thief might be made to work out an equivalent for his theft; and this, in addition to the hardships of his imprisonment, might be accepted as legal restitution.
II. DAMAGE (vers. 5, 6). The damage done, in the one case to a field or vineyard, by allowing a beast to stray into it, and feed upon the produce; in the other, by setting fire to thorn hedges, and injuring the corn-stacks, or standing corn, is supposed to be unintentional. Yet, as arising from preventible causes - from carelessness and neglect - the owner of the beast, or the person who kindled the fire, is held responsible. He must make good the damage from the best of his own possessions. We are held fully responsible for the consequences of neglect (cf. Hebrews 2:3).
III. DISHONEST RETENTION OF PROPERTY (vers. 7-14). Cases of this kind involved judicial investigation.
1. If the charge of dishonest retention was made out, the fraudulent party was to restore double (ver. 9).
2. If an ox, ass, sheep, or any beast, entrusted. to another to keep, died, was hurt, or was driven away, "no man seeing it," the person responsible for its safety could clear himself by an oath from the suspicion of having unlawfully "put his hand" to it (ver. 11). In this case, he was not required to make good the loss.
3. If, however, the animal was stolen from his premises, under circumstances which implied a want of proper care, he was required to make restitution (ver. 12).
4. If the animal was alleged to have been torn to pieces, the trustee was required to prove this by producing the mangled remains (ver. 13).
IV. Loss OF WHAT IS BORROWED (vers. 14, 15).
1. If the owner is not with his property, the borrower is bound to make good loss by injury or death.
2. If the owner is with it, the borrower is not held responsible.
3. If the article or beast be lent on hire, the hire is regarded as covering the risk. - J.O.
If fire break out.
I. This ancient law brings into view THE GENERAL DOCTRINE OF LIABILITY FOR THE CONSEQUENCES OF OUR ACTIONS AND NEGLECT. Nothing is more difficult than to raise in most men's minds a vivid sense of the widespreading results of their own character and conduct. They readily acknowledge the responsibility of others, but not their own. Men never take so modest a view of their own individuality, as when the object is to set forth the insignificance of their own contribution to "the evil that is in the world." But such calculations are founded on a gross delusion. The most commonplace sinner has a power of mischief in him which might sadden the blessed as they look at it.
II. The dormant sense of liability for the consequences of our conduct OUGHT SURELY TO BE AWAKENED BY CONSIDERING HOW WE HOLD OTHER MEN RESPONSIBLE IN COMMON LIFE.
II. THE RIGHT CONCEPTION OF JUDGMENT TO COME IS THE BRINGING TO THE CONSCIOUSNESS OF THE FINITE THE KNOWLEDGE OF THE INFINITE IN THIS REGARD. "This, hast thou done." He who subverts the faith or the conscience of one soul subverts in effect the faith and conscience of all souls, and "their blood will I require at the watchman's hand."
IV. These considerations should impress the mind with A NEW SENSE OF THE INFINITE BEARINGS OF OUR THOUGHTS, WORDS, AND ACTIONS; and should make us "swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath." Let to-day be the day of salvation by becoming the day of judgment, for "if we would judge ourselves, we should not be condemned with the world."
1. To be careful of your neighbour's material, intellectual, and spiritual interests, and do not damage them by a careless word or action.
2. In order that these interests may not be invaded, put a strong check on those loose and vagrant so-called interests of your own.
3. In order to prevent any possibility of the transgression of these interests, see that those passions of avarice, envy, and revenge which cause so much mischief in the world, are quenched.
4. If these interests are invaded, render a frank, manly, and ample restitution.(1) Confess your fault.(2) In the case of loss make it up.(3) In the case of injury to character, let the acknowledgment be co-extensive with the slander.(4) Let those who have been injured forgive as they hope to be forgiven.
(J. W. Burn.)
(J. Parker, D. D.)
1. If I invite a group of young men in my house to surround a card-table, I may simply design to furnish them an hour's amusement. But perhaps a lust for gambling may lie latent in some young man's breast, and I may quicken it into life by my offer of a temptation. There is fire in that pack of cards. And I deliberately place that fire amid the inflammable passions of that youthful breast. On me rest the consequences of that act, as well as upon him whom I lead into temptation. The motive does not alter the result by one iota.
2. Among social virtues none is more popular than that of hospitality. When bountifully practised toward the needy, it rises to the dignity of a Christian grace. And ordinary hospitalities may be set to the credit of a generous spirit. But here is the master or mistress of a house who spread their table with a lavish provision for the entertainment of their evening guests. Among the abundant viands of that table the lady of the house places the choicest brands of Madeira wine, and on a side-board she sets out a huge bowl of inviting punch. And among the invited guests of the evening comes a man who has promised the wife of his early love that be will never again yield to his awful appetite, and turn their sweet home into a hell. He sees the tempter in that accursed punch-bowl, and is pressed very courteously to "take a glass." The fire "catches in the dry thorns" in an instant. He drinks. He goes reeling into his own door that night, and his whole household is in a flame of excitement and terror, and agony and shame. Now, who kindled that fire? Let her who put the bottle to her neighbour's lips make answer.
3. The artillery of this Divine law against incendiarism has a wide range. It is pointed against that social nuisance, the slanderer. "Behold how great a matter his little fire kindleth." The utterance of evil reports may be well likened to playing with fire.
4. This law against incendiarism applies to every utterance of spiritual error and infidelity. He who utters a devilish suggestion to corrupt the innocence of chastity sets fire to passion, and becomes the incendiary of a soul. He who scatters a pernicious literature comes under the same condemnation. He who sows scepticism, by tongue or pen, sets fire to the "standing corn" of righteous opinion. Beware how you play with the sparks of falsehood. Beware how you play with the fire of wicked suggestion, that may kindle a blaze of sin in another's heart.
(T. L. Cuyler, D. D.)
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