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D'varim/Deuteronomy 24:7 If a man is found kidnapping someone from his brothers, from the children of Israel ... and he shall die, that kidnapper
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Much of our text turns on the meaning of the root , used twice in the text above: firstly as the Qal ms participle, , 'kidnapping'; secondly as an ms noun, , 'the kidnapper'. David Clines tells us that is used 40 times in Tanakh;1 most frequently translated by some part of the verb "to steal". In the verse, "He who kidnaps a man -- whether he has sold him or is still holding him -- shall be put to death" (Shemot 21:16, NJPS), and here, it is translated "kidnap". It is also used with the idea of appropriating someone - "Then all the men of Israel came to the king and said to the king, 'Why did our kinsmen, the men of Judah, steal you away and escort the king and his family across the Jordan, along with all David's men?'" (2 Samuel 19:42, NJPS) - or deceiving someone: "And Ya'akov deceived Laban the Aramean, by not telling him that he was fleeing" (B'resheet 31:20, NASB). In the latter case, the Hebrew literally says that Ya'akov stole the heart of Laban. Mattityahu Clark links phonetically with the root , to cover, suggesting a cognate meaning "to hide".2
In both the verses where is translated as 'kidnap', its direct object is the word , soul or life. While stealing some material possession or physical article - even animals, such as sheep - is exactly that, theft, stealing the soul or life of a person is kidnap. Gunther Plaut points out that "the Rabbis applied the commandment 'You shall not steal" (D'varim 5:17) to the theft of persons and 'You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another' (Vayikra 19.11, NJPS to the theft of property." When you kidnap someone and then either enslave them for yourself or sell them into slavery elsewhere, you are stealing their life, their soul. RabbiHirsch explains that this is not just about someone's "material requirements, it is the whole personality, the freedom and human rights which in Jewish society is to stand untouchable by anybody else ... just as a murderer of physical life is to have his life ended by beheading, so does the murderer of spiritual life have to forfeit his life." Targum Onkelos emphasises this by change the verb 'die' to "be killed". The one who kidnaps must be killed.
It would appear, as Christopher Wright points out, that this law is the only exception to the Tanakh's rule that theft is not punishable by death.3 Could this be, as Jeffrey Tigay suggests, because kidnapping is considered to be a capital crime, therefore seen by the Torah on a level with murder? Walter Brueggemann says that the kidnapping and selling of a person crosses an immutable red-line: "such economic transaction treats such a person as a commodity and not as a neighbour."4 It reduces people - made in the image of G-d - to nothing better than three bags of coal or half a sack of potatoes, something to be bought and sold, traded at the whim of the markets. He continues, "kidnapping may here be understood as any manoeuver or economic practice that reduces human dignity and human freedom to cause human persons to become an instrument or a statistic in economic management."5
Peter Craigie explains that kidnapping is a form of murders - social murder - cutting a person off from his home community and hence from G-d: "The theft would be followed by sale into slavery, either for a direct payment of money, or in exchange for merchandise. Stealing the life - the crime is social murder, for thought the victim does not literally die, by being sold into slavery he is effectively cut off from the covenant family of G-d. Hence the penalty for the crime is severe - death! To cut a man off from the covenant community was to cut him off from sharing in the blessing of G-d for His people in the promised land."6 Being cut off from being a part of the people is perhaps the direst penalty for disobeying Torah: a person is excised from the covenant and promises of God, including not just this world and its blessings, but the world to come!
The prophet Ezekiel voicesHaShem's anger towards the shepherds who were supposed to be taking care of His people but were, in fact, abusing the people for their own gain. He writes, "Ah, you shepherds of Israel, who have been tending yourselves! Is it not the flock that the shepherds ought to tend? You partake of the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, and you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not tend the flock" (Ezekiel 34:2-3, NJPS). These leaders had not been taking care of the people, doing what shepherds are supposed to do - "You partake of the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, and you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not tend the flock. You have not sustained the weak, healed the sick, or bandaged the injured; you have not brought back the strayed, or looked for the lost" (vv. 3-4, NJPS). Because of their repeated failure to act as shepherds, HaShem is going to remove them and replace them by someone who will care for the sheep: "I will appoint a single shepherd over them to tend them -- My servant David. He shall tend them, he shall be a shepherd to them" (v. 23, NJPS).
It seems that there are plenty of examples of kidnapping in our modern world, whether people who have been openly stolen - off the streets, so to speak - and those who have been trafficked after innocently seeking a way to migrate for economic or social reasons. Refugees are particularly vulnerable but, whatever the original point of contact, people are seized by powerful criminal forces and transported where they did not want to go, then forced by various forms of blackmail to work in various ways - often in the sex trade - being bought and sold by gang-leaders as if they were cattle or sheep. Perhaps the Scripture's most obvious example is Yosef, kidnapped and sold by his brothers, taken to Egypt by the Midianites and sold as a domestic slave on the open market to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh's senior officials. There, Potiphar's wife - at least - considered sexual services to be part of his household duties.
More sinister, however, even than physical slavery is spiritual slavery. This is where a person has been been captured or deceived into believing the lies of the enemy. Yeshua pointed to the difference between Himself and the enemy: "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly" (John 10:10, ESV). The enemy is constantly looking to draw us away from our relationship with G-d - "your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour" (1 Peter 5:8, ESV) - and will use any means, fair or foul, to distract us, lead us into error and sin, or to tie us up in knots. Rav Sha'ul warns the Colossians, "See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Messiah" (Colossians 2:8, ESV). As believers, we must stand firm in the freedom Yeshua has given us and "not submit again to a yoke of slavery" (Galatians 5:1, ESV).
Part of this is the times in which we live; Sha'ul reports that "the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons" (1 Timothy 4:1, ESV). We are already living in the last days, waiting for Yeshua's return, so we should not be surprised when this happens around us. The time is coming, he says, when "people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths" (2 Timothy 4:3-4, ESV). At this juncture, not only must we be vigilant lest we get drawn into error, but we must "hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught" so that we may be able to "give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it" (Titus 1:9, ESV). In particular, we must be aware of those who practice heavy shepherding, of those who always tell others what to think or do, not tolerating discussion and allowing no room for individual conscience guided by the Spirit. This too is a form of kidnapping, stealing souls from following Yeshua alone.
When we are guided by the Spirit, we will "not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach", correcting those who do not rightly understand with gentleness, so that "G-d may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will" (2 Timothy 2:24-26, ESV). We are called, as Sha'ul encouraged Timothy, always to be "sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry" (4:5, ESV). This is our calling: to share in Yeshua's simple ministry - "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 3:2, ESV) - praying for people, comforting those who mourn, sharing and demonstrating the kingdom of G-d, declaring freedom for captives and release for the oppressed in the name of Yeshua, until He returns. May it be soon and in our days!
1. - David J. A. Clines (ed.) The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), page 69.
2. - Matttyahu Clark, Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew (Jerusalem, Feldheim, 1999), 41.
3. - Christopher J. H. Wright, Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012), page 257.
4. - Walter Brueggemann, Deuteronomy Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001), page 237.
5. - Ibid.
6. - P. C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, NICOT, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976), page 307.
Further Study: Isaiah 30:20-21; Zechariah 10:1-3; Matthew 9:36-38; 2 Timothy 3:1-5
Application: Are you fulfilling your calling as a follower of Yeshua to proclaim and demonstrate the kingdom of heaven in your daily walk with Yeshua? Touch base with the Boss today to see what more you can do to make His calling in you secure, full and fruitful!
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© Jonathan Allen, 2023
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