Finders and Owners: Appreciating Laws as Laws, Not Advanced Ethical Concepts

In this post, I’ll use as my starting-point Deuteronomy 22:1-4, which I will quote in the King James Version:

“(1.)Thou shalt not see thy brother’s ox or his sheep go astray, and hide thyself from them: thou shalt in any case bring them again unto thy brother.  (2.)And if thy brother be not nigh unto thee, or if thou know him not, then thou shalt bring it unto thine own house, and it shall be with thee until thy brother seek after it, and thou shalt restore it to him again.  (3.)In like manner shalt thou do with his ass; and so shalt thou do with his raiment; and with all lost thing of thy brother’s, which he hath lost, and thou hast found, shalt thou do likewise: thou mayest not hide thyself.   (4.)Thou shalt not see thy brother’s ass or his ox fall down by the way, and hide thyself from them: thou shalt surely help him to lift them up again.”

Exodus 23:4 has a similar rule, only it’s about returning the ox or ass of an enemy: “If thou meet thine enemy’s ox or his ass going astray, thou shalt surely bring it back to him again.”

The notion that finders have an obligation to the owners of what’s found occurs elsewhere in the ancient Near East.  The Intervarsity Press Bible Background Commentary states regarding Deuteronomy 22:1-3: “The laws of Eshnunna and Hammurabi also deal with lost property, but they broaden the legislation to include both the responsibilities of the finder and the legal rights of the owner when property is resold.”

I have heard sermons and have read religious writings that wax eloquent about the laws in Exodus 23:4 and Deuteronomy 22:1-4, saying that the laws reflect God’s perfect will that we be considerate of others.  Some, who want to point out against Christian detractors that the Hebrew Bible itself teaches love for enemies, appeal to Exodus 23:4 as an example of this concept.

But are we dealing with a dramatic, divinely-inspired ethical concept in Exodus 23:4 and Deuteronomy 22:1-4?  I would say that we’re dealing with an important concept, and I’d even acknowledge that the concept ultimately comes from God (in some manner), but I believe that I appreciate the laws in a different manner from those who wax eloquent about them.

Essentially, I’d say that the laws in Exodus 23:4 and Deuteronomy 22:1-4 are just that, laws, just like the laws of Eshnunna and Hammurabi about finders and owners.  I may have to qualify that thought a bit, for there are scholars who dispute that the laws in the Hebrew Bible and the Code of Hammurabi were ever applied to society.  Perhaps they’re right.  But I can think of practical reasons that laws on finders and owners would exist in a society.  Suppose that a person lost something and somebody else found it and decided to keep it.  Unless the owner is exceptionally generous, the two would probably dispute over who now owns the item of property: the owner would say that it’s his because, well, he owns it, and the finder could say “Finders keepers, losers weepers!”  Maybe the dispute would get violent!  Consequently, it makes sense that there would be a law that would resolve or prevent this particular situation.  That’s why we have laws: to keep order and to resolve disputes.

What about the law in Exodus 23:4 about returning a lost item that belongs to an enemy?  Is that an exalted religious and ethical teaching, demonstrating the divine-inspiration and moral advancement of the Bible as far back as Hebrew Bible days?  Not necessarily.  I don’t know offhand what other ancient Near Eastern laws say about love of enemies, but, on a practical basis, it makes sense to me that the law on returning lost items would entail returning the lost item of an enemy.  Why?  Because the law is supposed to apply impartially to all.  Just because I don’t like a person, or a person does not like me, that doesn’t excuse me from my legal obligations to that person.  (And, yes, I recognize that the Code of Hammurabi mandates different treatments of people based on their socio-economic status, but, as far as I know, it does not excuse people from their legal obligations to somebody else on the basis of that other person being an enemy.)  If we can use “that person is my enemy” as an excuse not to keep the law, then we wouldn’t have much of a law, would we?  For the law to be valid, it would have to apply to everyone, even those with whom we have problems.

At least when it comes to the laws about finders and owners, I’m skeptical that the Bible was more advanced than other ancient Near Eastern nations.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the biblical authors were somehow influenced by other ancient Near Eastern law codes, as they looked to those foreign codes to see what a law code looked like.  Or perhaps it was common-sense that led the biblical authors and the authors of foreign law codes to include a law about finders and owners, since they realized that a society to be orderly would have to address this issue.  Acknowledging this point does not detract from my reading of the Bible, but rather it leads me to appreciate the value of law, both the order that it brings and its impartial application even to those who may not like me, or whom I may not like.  And maybe such legal values are ultimately from God.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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