Calvin on Property and Business Ethics in Exodus 21-24
Exodus 21-24 provides commentary and amplification on what God intended for the law. The Lord here, like a merciful parent, takes the 10 commandments and expands them; he applies them, taking the time so the original and subsequent audiences would not miss the message. He provided instructions almost like a long suffering parent gives rules to a group of teenagers, who very soon they act like they do not know what you mean. They rapidly begin to look for loopholes. They may even take the letter of what a parent has said and ignore the spirit of the law.
Calvin’s view of business and property matters will be most clearly detected when he comments on an amplification of the 8th commandment. Other glosses from his commentary in this section will also, however, delineate his views further. Calvin, in a format that is somewhat sophisticated compared to most commentaries, provides a harmonization of the pentateuchal commentary by collating verses from Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy as they amplify each of the commandments.
Exodus 21:2-11 contains laws applying to Hebrew servants/workers. This is largely an amplification of property laws. Not surprisingly, neither Calvin nor these authors advocate slavery. Neither Calvin nor Scripture treats persons, slaves or others, as sub-human or lacking the image of God. Abuse or murder of slaves or any other persons was wrong and excluded by the 6th commandment. However, this and other OT passages do allude to a pattern of working relationships that allowed servanthood for ancient Israel. No passage from the Hebrew Scriptures later outlaws slavery. It was an accepted practice. What the Bible does, however, is to show how God wanted humane treatment, and this issue rests at the intersection of business and property matters.
There is a Sabbath-pattern to this servanthood. The Lord did not want Hebrew slaves to be forced to slavery indefinitely. A person could buy a Hebrew for up to 6 years (v. 2), but in the 7th year, the worker was to be freed. Verse 3 of this passage also illustrates how God wanted the society to respect the family. If the indentured servant came alone (even if he got married during this 6 year period), then he would leave alone. Or if he came with a wife, when freed, she would be freed with him.
However, v. 4 says, if his master provided a wife and she bore children, then the wife and children could remain with the owner. Why? Because each worker was valuable and essential to the estate. This case law was given to prevent this scenario: Suppose a worker became a temporary slave and he married a girl. When he was freed, he would take something of value/earning potential away from the owner. Of course, if he brought his own wife with him and left in year 7, he would not take away something that the Owner originally had. But if the worker came in, took an asset, and then claimed “we’re family,” someone was out of an asset. This casuistry illustrated how loss of property, even if a human resource, could decrease one’s assets.
Obviously, “you shall not steal” is not only about physical property but also about things that had value and earning potential. God, in his law, knew that human beings would look for and quickly find loopholes—we are ingenius about finding ways to sin—so the Lord gave some protection to those who needed it. God seems serious about fairness to those who have farms, vineyards, and flocks. To allow workers to be taken away would hurt the farmers, vintners, and shepherds. So while foreign to our working relationships, please note that this is God’s attempt to provide fairness to those who owned and worked. Early on, at least, God is not a practicing socialist.
Similarly, if a man bought her for his son, then once married, she was no longer under slave laws but to be viewed as a daughter, part of the family. (v. 9) And those rights to care, including food and clothing, were permanent—they could not be cancelled even if a man took on other wives. The principle that is being supported here: Don’t diminish an estate but at the same time, treat people fairly that work for you or that are part of your family. When the Owner benefited from work, that gave him an obligation to care for the worker. It was a two-way street. “If the owner does not provide her with these things,” the contract is nullified, (v. 11) and she “is to go free without any payment” back to the owner. There are mutual burdens in the marketplace.
All of these the Lord gave in order to protect workers and owners. Calvin understood the divine law or the moral law as anticipating depravity and treated these OT precepts as moral stringents against the theft of property. His presupposition of human depravity, along with its tendency to seek to circumvent the law, led him to many other conclusions, one of which was a groundbreaking view of usury.
The next chapter of Exodus deals with the 8th commandment in more detail. There, “thou shall not steal” means that physical property is under private ownership and is to be protected. Indeed, Exodus chapter 22 shows how the Lord wisely protects personal property by a series of fines.
In the first instance, if a man steals a farm animal, and either slaughters it for personal consumption or sells it for profit, since he has taken someone else’s property, then he must pay back 5 times the amount, certainly a stiff penalty. Note that this penalty is not one-for-one, as in accidents or liability cases (habitual goring). In a case of theft, the thief must repay 5 times the amount he stole. That is not only to keep the owner from losing, but also to deter him from future crimes.
Verse 2 requires that if a thief is caught breaking in at night, and is struck and dies, that is classified as legitimate self-defense, not intentional murder, and the defender is not deserving of the death penalty. God does not mind if we protect our property. However, v. 3 provides the balanced fairness: if the home invasion occurs in daylight, then the owner could be chargeable with a capital crime. He can, in other words, use lesser measures and avoid killing the thief.
What if the thief pleads bankruptcy or claims not to be able to pay? The end of v. 3 teaches that he must make restitution; and if he cannot, he can pay with his own service—he will be sold into slavery. See how God closes and anticipates so many loopholes?!
Verse 4 has a slightly different case and sentence. If a stolen animal is found alive in a thief’s possession, that animal is returned to the owner and the thief has to pay back 2 times the cost of the animal. Thus, he is restored, and a 200% damage claim is assessed. Calvin and his followers see in these statutes additional support for private property ownership.
There are very many ways to steal, too. V. 5 envisions two neighboring farms. If cattle or sheep stray from their field, and graze on the neighbor’s land, then the offender must repay “from the best of his own field or vineyard.” Not the fringe grass but the best of the offending neighbor’s field could be confiscated.
In v. 6, if a fire breaks out and destroys a neighbor’s grain, the one who started the fire must make restitution. God holds us responsible and does not want our neighbor’s to suffer our irresponsibility. If harm is done, someone has to make it up. That, God knew, is how life works.
Note how sophisticated vss. 7-9 are. This was not an unenlightened society. If a person places some goods with a neighbor for safekeeping, and a thief steals those, once the thief is caught he must pay back double. Notice again, the disincentive legislated.
However, what is to keep an owner from faking such a loss? After all, a lot of money can be made off of fraud. If the thief is never found, the safekeeping neighbor must appear before the judges to determine if there is a real theft or if the holder of goods is profiting (v. 8). This is early fairness, and God knew that human beings would take from others if not properly legislated.
Moreover, as v. 9 shows, in any claim of illegal possession, both parties must appear before judges. This assumes an early legal system. And when the trial is over, the guilty person must repay double. That was the deterrent.
In verse 10, the Lord also provided for a case in which an animal is entrusted for safekeeping to a neighbor. And if that animal dies, is injured, or disappears, then the two parties must appear before the Lord (via judges) and swear by oath that “the neighbor did not lay hands on the other person’s property.” (11) In this case, a man’s word is his bond; and his oath must be accepted. If he is later found to be untruthful, other consequences will follow.
However, if it is determined that the animal was stolen, then the thief must make restitution. (12) Still, if it was a genuine accident, then the remains are to be presented as evidence, and he will not be required to make restitution.
Finally, in this section, if a neighbor borrows an animal, and it is injured or dies during his loan, he is responsible to repay the owner. Again, the owner would be harmed by the loss; so the borrower is responsible. All of these and other similar verses unite to form the Calvinistic (and capitalistic) view of free markets and private ownership. Calvin’s commentaries on this subject consistently support these ideas and do not undermine the major aspects of private property ownership.