John Calvin's Commentary on the Bible

1 (Exodus 22:1)

Verse 1

Thus far God has proclaimed Himself the avenger of iniquities, and, citing thieves before His tribunal, has threatened them with eternal death. Now follow the civil laws, the principle of which is not so exact and perfect; since in their enactment God has relaxed His just severity in consideration of the people’s hardness of heart.

What God formerly delivered to His people the heathen legislators afterwards borrowed. Draco, indeed, was more severe, but his extreme rigor became obsolete by the silent consent of the people of Athens; and the Decemvirs borrowed from Solon part of their law, which they published in the ten tables, although there were some variations in the distinction of the double or quadruple restitution, and in process of time other alterations were afterwards made. But if all things be duly considered, it will be found that both Solon and the Decemvirs have made a change for the worse, wherever they have varied from the law of God. First of all, no distinction (132) is here made, such as the Roman laws decree, between manifest thieves and those that are not manifest; for by them the thief not manifest is condemned to a double amend, and the manifest to quadruple; and he is called a manifest thief who is caught before he has carried what he has stolen to the place of its destination. I suppose that the awarders of the punishment had this point in view, that the wickedness of that person was the more egregious who was so greedily and anxiously set on his prey as not to be afraid of disgrace; and undoubtedly he who has no fear of shame is more audacious ill sin. But, on the contrary, God condemns to a double amend those upon whom the stolen goods were found; and to quadruple, those who had killed or sold it; and deservedly so, because greater obstinacy in crime betrays itself where the theft is turned to profit, nor is there any hope of repentance; and thus by this further process the crime of dishonesty is doubled. It might be that, immediately after the offense, the thief should be alarmed; but he who had dared to kill the stolen animal or to sell it, is altogether hardened in his sin. Besides, the more difficult its investigation is, the greater is the punishment which a misdemeanor deserves. Meanwhile, it is to be remembered, that the pecuniary fine imposed upon thieves did not free them from guilt; for, as Marcellus says, (133) not even the president of a province can bring it to pass, that infamy should not pursue a man condemned of theft; and there was no need of establishing by law that in which all by nature are agreed. Thus, when God punished thieves by a fine, He left them still marked by infamy. I know not whether they (134) assign the true cause why he who had stolen an ox is fined to a larger amount than he who had stolen a goat, or sheep, or other cattle, who say that the loss of the owner is taken into account to whom the labor of the ox is especially useful in agriculture; for what is said as to an ox I extend to cows and the whole herd. Those seem to come nearer to the truth who say the audacity of the thief is punished who, when he stole the larger animal, did not fear being observed by witnesses; yet it seems to me more likely that the different sentence depended on the price of the article; for assuredly it is more reasonable that he who has done the most harm should be exposed to the greater punishment.

- John Calvin's Commentary on the Bible