The ancient Near Eastern setting of the Mosaic Law further justifies that the specifics of the law were for a specific people in a specific time. The parallels between the Mosaic Law and the other laws of the time period show that there were common things occurring in that society which required specific laws to address. Examples of these types of laws are those relating to the theft of animals. Animals are not a significant part of many of our lives today (with the possible exception of pets), but the animals during this time period were either the owner’s livelihood or next dinner. Both are directly related to survival. Therefore, the penalty for stealing animals is severe compared to the value we would place on animals today. Exodus 22:1-4 states:
Hammurabi’s Code states:
If a man steals an ox, a sheep, a donkey, a pig, or a boat — if it belongs either to the god or to the palace, he shall give thirtyfold; if it belongs to a commoner, he shall replace it tenfold; if the thief does not have anything to give, he shall be killed.
Both of these laws give a higher value to the animals than we would today. The specific penalties do not apply to us today, but there are still things that the Christian can learn from this. First, Christians are commanded by Jesus not to steal (cf. Matthew 19:19; Mark 10:19; Luke 18:20) so the concept of stealing is still applicable to the life of the contemporary Christian even though the earthly punishment might be different.
Second, we know that the laws of the Old Testament do not apply to us today, but since God never changes and He is always the source of goodness and morality we can use the ancient Near Eastern setting to “peal away” the cultural factors involved with the law (in this case the value of animals) to get at the morality behind it.
It is important to remember, though, that this does not work under every circumstance so we should not read things into the text that are not there. In this case, though, once the incident is removed from its historical context by comparing it to the specific factors involved with the time period, we could have still come to the conclusion that stealing is wrong even if it was not specifically mentioned in the New Testament.
To prevent reading more into the Old Testament text when pealing back the cultural aspects of the laws and, even by accident, introduce rules and regulations that do not apply to the believer today, the best use of the method described above might be to find God’s unchanging nature through both the Old and New Testaments by finding laws that have remained throughout human history. This not only strengthens our faith through knowing that God does not change, but reveals the importance of these unchanging laws.