Thursday, September 08, 2005

Looting and Proverbs 6:30

Here and there on the web, one may occasionally find a discussion of looting in New Orleans together with a citation of Proverbs 6:30: "Men do not despise a thief, if he steal to satisfy himself when he is hungry." The proverb nicely captures a widespread moral intuition (which I fully share) that "looting" by the hungry or thirsty is not morally culpable, or is less culpable than looting out of sheer greed.

There is, however, a minority report on this verse (in various commentaries) that takes it as a question: "Do not men despise a thief, even if he steals to satisfy himself when he is hungry?" I think this is an unlikely reading of the Hebrew, and no widely used English translations that I've seen have followed this understanding. Still, the fact that it has been made means that the majority report contains at least a modicum of interpretation. (Note also the LXX version: "It is not surprising if a thief is caught, when he steals," etc. The translator apparently departed altogether from the text in the beginning of the verse.)

Three other points about the verse: (1) It appears to be descriptive, not prescriptive. The writer is describing what in fact people do, not necessarily how they should behave. Otherwise he would have written al tavuzu, "do not despise," instead of lo yavuzu, "they do not despise." (2) The real point of the paragraph in which the verse is embedded (Prov. 6:20-35) is: Don't commit adultery. Thievery is mentioned, by way of contrast, as an offense that can be forgiven in some circumstances, and compensation can be made (v. 31), but adultery is never forgotten or forgiven. (3) This larger context makes an implicit appeal to the habits of a "village culture" where everyone pretty much knows everyone else's business, even their most intimate misdeeds. The weight of the exhortation lies not on culpability as such, but on avoiding shame, dishonor, and reproach.

I guess my point is this: It's hard to simply lift verses out of the Bible and use them as ethical prooftexts or simple moral guidance for a situation. They don't come away cleanly, ready for re-use elsewhere; even the plainest of them are stuck to their literary and cultural contexts in persistent and unexpected ways. This is true even of this verse of Proverbs, which in isolation seems to say pretty much what we agree with in any case. I'm not saying the Bible is not a source of moral understanding, just that the raw text needs to be cooked up with some historical and critical understanding before it is ready to be used.

For a rational-theological approach to the question, Thomas Aquinas deals with "Whether it is lawful to steal through stress of need?" here.

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