“If a man causes a field or vineyard to be grazed, and lets loose his animal, and it feeds in another man’s field, he shall make restitution from the best of his own field and the best of his own vineyard.” Exodus 22:5
We’ve entered into a section of the laws God gave to Moses, for the children of Israel, where we’re dealing with animal control laws and other kinds of property laws. The question that’s being answered by the different specific laws in this section is, “What penalty is reasonable and appropriate for the different kinds of situations presented?”
The severity of the punishment was often determined not by the extent of the owners loss but by the motives and actions of the party considered most responsible in regards to the loss.
For example, in the section on animal control laws, if an oxen was known to be a creature that was prone to being aggressive towards people and other animals and the owner had not taken appropriate measures to prevent the creature from being a harm to others, the owner was held more accountable and the punishment was more severe than it would have been if this animal had not been known to be aggressive in the past.
The same kind of scaling of consequence was applied in the laws pertaining to other kinds of property loss. In these cases the issue bringing the most weight to the balance for the judgement was, “What was the attitude and intention of the most responsible party when it came to the loss?”
If a theft had occurred the consequences were much more severe than if the loss had not been because of stealing. If the loss had been the result of negligence or carelessness then the consequence was more severe than if all reasonable measures had been taken to ensure that no property damage or loss would occur. In several cases, if the accused party was found to be innocent of both theft and negligence then no penalty would be given regardless of the extent of the loss.
It’s almost as if God’s saying that part of the package of property ownership is the risk that at some point that property could be lost or damaged. What’s more, that risk is carried by the owner of the property and is not transferred when the property is given into the care of another, provided that the party responsible for the properties care has taken all appropriate precautions to safeguard the property.
In the end people and their relationships are given the priority over property. Stealing, being irresponsible, careless, and negligent are all ways that one person can demonstrate a lack, or absence, of respect and consideration for others. By the same token, being too severe in a punishment, or at times imposing any punishment at all, can demonstrate the same attitudes towards others.
God’s laws give us some specific applications of the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”