“If someone steals an ox or a lamb and slaughters or sells it, the thief must pay five cattle in place of the ox and four sheep in place of the lamb. If the thief is caught while breaking in and is hit hard and dies, there is no bloodguilt. But if it happens after daybreak, there is bloodguilt.
“A thief must make full restitution for what is stolen. The thief who is unable to pay is to be sold for his thieving. If caught red-handed with the stolen goods, and the ox or donkey or lamb is still alive, the thief pays double.
“If someone grazes livestock in a field or vineyard but lets them loose so they graze in someone else’s field, restitution must be made from the best of the owner’s field or vineyard.
“If fire breaks out and spreads to the brush so that the sheaves of grain or the standing grain or even the whole field is burned up, whoever started the fire must pay for the damages. (Exodus 22:1-6)
Payback hurts. Better not to owe it. When Nathan the prophet first confronted David for his affair with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah, he told him a story about a man stealing a pet sheep from his neighbor and slaughtering it. David reacted angrily and pronounced that the man must pay back “four sheep” for the one stolen.
The only place God gave the penalty for a stolen sheep was here, in this single passage. Clearly David knew the Bible well—though it did not necessarily prevent him from sinning. Christians have the law written on their hearts and usually know the Bible pretty well. And yet we are daily guilty of any number of sins.
God made restitution the method for dealing with any sort of theft, whether intentional or accidental, as in the “theft” caused by letting one’s animals get loose to steal grain from someone else’s field, or allowing a fire get away and burn up the property of a neighbor. The principal envisioned was the practical outworking of the golden rule, to do to others as you’d have them do to you: if someone caused a loss, you’d wish that they’d restore it to you. The law, in all its varied detail, merely serves as a commentary explaining in specific circumstances how to love your neighbor as yourself.