Israelite Plundering and a Missing Donkey
by Kyle Butt, M.Div.
Bert Thompson, Ph.D.
Numerous passages of Scripture teach—either explicitly or implicitly—about the sinfulness of thievery. One of the Ten Commandments that God gave to Israel was: “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15). In the book of Leviticus, one can read where “the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them… You shall not steal, nor deal falsely, nor lie to one another…. You shall not cheat your neighbor, nor rob him’ ” (19:1-2,11,13). If a thief was found breaking into a house and was struck so that he died, the old law stated that there would be “no guilt for his bloodshed” (Exodus 22:2). Under the new covenant, the apostle Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus, saying, “Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need” (4:28). And to the Christians at Corinth, Paul wrote that thieves “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). Thus, God obviously considers stealing to be a transgression of His law.
Skeptics, however, question the consistency of the above Bible verses when compared to other passages of Scripture, which they feel often are overlooked in a discussion on the biblical view of thievery. One of these alleged inconsistencies is found in the book of Exodus, and centers on how the Israelites “plundered” the Egyptians during the exodus. When God spoke to Moses at the burning bush about the exodus from Egypt, He said: “It shall be, when you go, that you shall not go empty-handed. But every woman shall ask of her neighbor, namely, of her who dwells near her house, articles of silver, articles of gold, and clothing; and you shall put them on your sons and on your daughters. So you shall plunder the Egyptians” (Exodus 3:21-22, emp. added). Then, as the exodus became a reality, the Bible tells how “the children of Israel had done according to the word of Moses…and plundered the Egyptians” (Exodus 12:35-36, emp. added). According to skeptic Steve Wells, “God tells the Hebrew women to break the eighth commandment…and encourages the Israelites to steal from the Egyptians” (2001).
A second Bible story frequently used by skeptics in defense of their belief in the errancy of Scripture is that of Jesus’ disciples allegedly “stealing” a donkey and a colt. According to the gospel of Matthew, before entering Jerusalem during the final week of His life, Jesus instructed His disciples, saying, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Loose them and bring them to Me. And if anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord has need of them,’ and immediately he will send them” (Matthew 21:1-3). Luke added: “So those who were sent went their way and found it just as He had said to them. But as they were loosing the colt, the owners of it said to them, ‘Why are you loosing the colt?’ And they said, ‘The Lord has need of him.’ Then they brought him to Jesus” (Luke 19:32-35). Regarding this story, Dennis McKinsey asked: “Are we to believe this isn’t theft? Imagine seeing a stranger driving your car away while claiming the lord needed it” (1985, p. 1). Another infidel by the name of Dan Barker commented on this passage in his book, Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist, saying, “I was taught as a child that when you take something without asking for it, that is stealing” (1992, p. 166). Did Jesus really encourage His disciples to steal a donkey and a colt? And what about the Israelites plundering the Egyptians? Can these passages be explained logically in light of the numerous statements throughout Scripture that clearly condemn thievery?
A PROPER PLUNDERING, OR AN UNHOLY HEIST?
Concerning the Israelites’ plundering of the Egyptians, the Bible student first needs to recognize that Exodus 3:22 is a reconfirmation of a prophecy made centuries earlier when God spoke to Abraham, saying, “Your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and will serve them, and they will afflict them four hundred years. And also the nation [Egypt—EL] whom they serve I will judge; afterward they shall come out with great possessions” (Genesis 15:13-14, emp. added).
Next, the honest Bible reader must concede that the Israelites’ “plundering” was not comparable to the forceful plundering that a mighty army might undertake. The kind of plundering done by the Israelites is described within the text. God told Moses, “I will give this people [the Israelites—EL] favor in the sight of the Egyptians…. But every woman shall ask of her neighbor, namely, of her who dwells near her house, articles of silver, articles of gold, and clothing; and you shall put them on your sons and on your daughters” (Exodus 3:21-22, emp. added). When it finally came time for the exodus, the texts states:
Now the children of Israel had done according to the word of Moses, and they had asked from the Egyptians articles of silver, articles of gold, and clothing. And the Lord had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they granted them what they requested. Thus they plundered the Egyptians (Exodus 12:35-36, emp. added).
Who but a biased skeptic would call this stealing? The actual circumstances were such that the Israelites merely requested various articles, which were then granted by the Egyptians. The “plundering” described in the book of Exodus was nothing more than receiving that for which the Israelites asked. [NOTE: The word “plundered” in these two passages is not the normal Hebrew term used for what soldiers do to the enemy at the conclusion of a battle. In Exodus, the word “plundered” (from the Hebrew word natsal) is used figuratively to mean that the Israelites accomplished the same thing as if they had taken them in battle—due to the extenuating circumstances of the plagues motivating the Egyptians to fear the Israelites and their God (see Archer, 1982, p. 110).]
But suppose for a moment that the Israelites had “plundered” the Egyptians (at the Lord’s command), in the sense that they took various possessions by force. Would this have been unjust? Surely not, since Jehovah recognized that the Israelites had provided slave labor for the Egyptians for many years. [NOTE: The descendants of Jacob (Israel) had been in Egypt for more than 200 years, see Bass, Thompson and Butt, 2002] During this time, the Egyptians afflicted them “with burdens” and made them “serve with rigor” (Exodus 1:11,13). Pharaoh “made their lives bitter with hard bondage” (1:14), and, upon seeing the tremendous growth of the Israelites, even commanded that every son born of the Israelites be killed (1:22). In reality, the “plundering” that took place at the end of Israel’s stay in Egypt (even had it been by force at the command of God), was a rather small compensation for the many years of agonizing slave labor they provided for the Egyptians.
WERE JESUS’ DISCIPLES COLT CROOKS?
Even if the skeptic is somewhat pacified by the above explanation of the Israelites’ plundering, he likely will still want to know about the case in the New Testament of Jesus instructing two of His disciples to go into a village, locate a donkey and a colt, and to bring them back to Him. “Are we to believe this isn’t theft?” asked Dennis McKinsey (1985, p. 1). Allegedly, “Jesus told people to take a colt…without the owners’ permission.” And that, says McKinsey, is “commonly known as stealing” (2000, p. 236).
Question: If I e-mailed my wife and asked her to walk to a neighbor’s house and pick up his truck so that I could use it to haul an old furnace to the junkyard, would someone who read this same e-mail (perhaps finding a hard copy of it crumpled up in the trash) be justified in concluding that I asked my wife to steal the truck? Certainly not. Since the e-mail had no other information in it than the request to my wife concerning a neighbor’s truck, a person reading the note would have to have access to additional information in order to come to the conclusion that my wife and I were guilty of theft. This person may be ignorant of the fact that I had prearranged such a pick-up with my neighbor the previous day. Or, perhaps my neighbor had told me at some earlier time that I could use his truck whenever I needed it.
What Mr. McKinsey and other skeptics never seem to take into consideration in their interpretation of Scripture is that the Bible does not record every single detail of every event it mentions (cf. John 21:25). The Bible was not intended to be a chronological timeline citing every detail about the lives of all of the men and women mentioned within it. The New Testament book of Acts covers a period of about 30 years, but it actually is only about some of the acts of some of the early Christians. There were many more things that Paul, Peter, Silas, Luke, and other first-century Christians did that are not recorded therein. For example, Paul spent three years in Arabia and Damascus after his conversion (Galatians 1:16-18), yet Luke did not mention this detail, nor the many things Paul accomplished during these three years.
The case of Jesus telling His disciples to go locate the donkey and colt does not prove thievery, any more than Jesus’ disciples inquiring about and occupying an “upper room” makes them trespassers (cf. Mark 14:13-15). When sending His two disciples to get the requested animals, Jesus told them exactly where to go and what to say, as if He already knew the circumstances under which the donkey and colt were available. Jesus may very well have prearranged for the use of the donkeys. Neither Mr. McKinsey nor any other skeptic can prove otherwise. Similar to how I am not obligated to go home from work every night and rehearse to my wife everything I did each hour at work, the Bible is not obligated to fill in every detail of every event, including the one regarding the attainment of two donkeys. No contradiction or charge of wrong is legitimate if circumstantial details may be postulated that account for explicit information that is given.
Furthermore, the innocence of Jesus and His disciples is reinforced by the fact that the disciples were able to leave with the donkeys. Had the disciples really been stealing the animals, one would think that the owners would not have allowed such to happen. Also, nothing is said in the text about what happened to the animals after Jesus road them into Jerusalem. For all we know, Jesus’ disciples could have immediately taken the animals back to their owners.
Skeptics who charge that the Bible contains contradictory teachings concerning the act of stealing have no firm ground on which to stand. The Israelites did not “steal” the Egyptians’ clothing and jewels; they “asked” for them, and the Egyptians “granted them what they requested” (Exodus 12:35-36). And until it can be proven that Jesus’ disciples took the donkeys by force (and without prior permission), justice demands that the accusations of guilt must be withdrawn. There is no justifiable contradiction here. Case closed!
Archer, Gleason L. (1982), An Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids: Zondervan).
Bass, Thompson, and Butt (2002), “How Long Was the Israelites’ Egyptian Sojourn”, [On-line], URL: http://apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=6&article=796.
Barker, Dan (1992), Losing Faith in Faith (Madison, WI: Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.).
McKinsey, C. Dennis (1985), “Commentary,” Biblical Errancy, pp. 1-2, January.
McKinsey, C. Dennis (2000), Biblical Errancy (Amherst, NY: Prometheus).
Wells, Steve (2001), Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, [On-line], URL: http://www.Skepticsannotatedbible.com.