Kidnappers and Hostages and the Eighth Commandment
A Serious Case of Robbery
While we have enjoyed free holidays, people are being held as hostages in more than one place in the world. I mention the best known ones: the American hostages in Lebanon. Not long ago an American reporter, Charles Glass, was kidnapped by an organization which calls itself "Organization for the Defence of Free People." (He escaped in August — AG.) Every reader will understand that kidnapping is contrary to the teachings of the Bible. Less known is the fact that kidnapping is condemned in the Old and New Testament as the stealing of people. It is a sin against the eighth commandment.
Stealing takes place in various ways. In the Bible, we read about stealing of precious materials, like gold and silver. Consider Achan, who, after the fall of Jericho, stole goods which were dedicated to the Lord (Joshua 7). Consider the stealing of cattle, which was a serious offence in the agrarian society of Israel (cf. Exodus 22:1ff.). Consider the property stolen by Ahab from Naboth (1 Kings 21). I also can mention the kinds of stealing listed in the Heidelberg Catechism: false weights and measures, deceptive merchandising, counterfeit money, and usury.
By comparing the forms of punishment for theft in Israel to those handed down in surrounding nations for similar offences, it has been concluded that a thief in Israel usually received milder punishments. Prof. Dr. J.L. Koole, in his booklet De Tien Geboden, assumes that the reason for the less severe forms of punishment is the fact that the Lord is the Owner of all goods, while the Israelites, as stewards, have only relative rights to property.
One kind of sin against the Eighth Commandment was punished severely, however: the stealing of people was to be punished with death. "Whoever steals a man, whether he sells him or is found in possession of him, shall be put to death" (Exodus 21:16). A similar commandment is given in Deuteronomy 24:7.
Out of the House of Slavery, and not Back into It
Why was kidnapping to be punished severely? From the text which I just quoted, the reason can be easily deduced. People were stolen in order to keep them or sell them as slaves. But this was contrary to what the Lord had given Israel: deliverance from Egypt, the house of bondage. One must speak about the Eighth Commandment in connection with the opening words of the Ten Commandments: "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage." Therefore it was impossible for an Israelite to be allowed to force one of his fellow Israelites into slavery, or even to sell him into slavery. He had been delivered from slavery and should not return to it! In older commentaries on the Eighth Commandment one always reads a warning against kidnapping and often an application for the time in which it was written. I mention, for example, G. Voetius, who discussed the Eighth Commandment in his book Catechisatie over den Heidelbergschen Catechismus. This well-known 17th-century theologian, in explaining the Eighth Commandment, was opposed to slavery, for it was the stealing of people. Traders from the United Netherlands were involved in this activity in East and West. One who sells slaves, Voetius said, robs them of their most precious possession, namely, their freedom.
This was not the only application of the commandment not to "steal people" which Voetius offered. In his time the Jesuits were guilty of kidnapping, because they took children away from their parents and brought them to a monastery or made them members of the Jesuit Order. Furthermore, there were people who stole children and used them as beggars. Adults show pity to children much more quickly, and that is the reason they were used as beggars to get money.
I am not going to discuss the very special forms of "stealing people" which are mentioned by Voetius, because I want to concentrate on the matter of slavery. It is true that slavery, as it occurred in Voetius' time, hardly exists anymore. The old colonialism with its openly practised slave trade has disappeared. But in a broader sense slavery still occurs in our time. Every time people lose their freedom for the purpose of using them against their will to reach a certain goal, it is a matter of "stealing people." Terrorism is a clear example. Buildings are occupied and people are kidnapped for the purpose of extorting certain demands. If the demands are not met, revenge is taken on the hostages, who are at the mercy of the terrorists. We have already experienced situations in which hostages have been the victims of a political strategy for more than a year, like pawns, who can be moved around at will. It is the most serious transgression of the Eighth Commandment which we can imagine!
An "Old" Discovery
It is regrettable that what has been clearly explained in older commentaries, was neglected later on. Around 1950 Bible scholars again paid attention to this matter. The Old Testament exegete, A. Alt, published an essay in which he wrote that the Hebrew word for stealing means stealing of people. Alt exaggerated, because he claims that the original text of the Eighth Commandment refers exclusively to the "stealing of people." The Commandments, "You shall not kill, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal," all refer to the so-called human rights: the protection of man's life (the Sixth Commandment), the protection of marriage (the Seventh Commandment), and the protection of his freedom (the Eighth Commandment). The Tenth Commandment deals with stealing of land, cattle, and other possessions, according to Alt.
I am convinced that the Eighth Commandment warns against stealing of all kinds of possessions. But I am also of the opinion that Alt has pointed to a very important aspect of the Eighth Commandment. It is interesting to note that many thought that the explanation of Alt was original, and that the Eighth Commandment for the first time was understood properly. Those who taught ethics thankfully accepted the exegesis, and they claimed that the Eighth Commandment could not have been properly explained in previous centuries, because slavery, exploitation, discrimination on the basis of race, and apartheid were considered to be normal.
But ... much that is presented as new is already very old. Soon after Alt's "discovery," someone pointed out that already in the Jewish explanation of Scripture, the Talmud, a similar explanation can be found: "You shall not steal. Scripture speaks here about stealing of people."
When studying the Eighth Commandment (and not only there), I was time and again struck by the knowledge and wisdom which is found in age-old explanations. I already referred to Voetius, who knew very well that the Eighth Commandment included slavery. I also want to refer to a contemporary of Voetius, namely, Curcellaeus (a Remonstrant), who also was familiar with the Talmud and he, too, knew about the old Jewish exegesis which connected the Eighth Commandment completely with the stealing of people. But, he says, the Eighth Commandment speaks about more than the stealing of people.
Long before Alt, therefore, Curcellaeus had said: the Eighth Commandment speaks about "stealing people," but not exclusively about this.
In this manner we maintain a proper balance. Swindling with the el, measures, and money are included. Those who dodge taxes are guilty, and so on. One can steal in various ways. But it is also true: one who steals people hits the very core of the Eighth Commandment. The God of Israel has delivered us in Jesus Christ from all slavery. Terrorists, who kidnap people, have not understood any of this.