Just what is being described here has been a longstanding matter of dispute. The older Covenant Code, as well as the Talmud (a collection of Jewish religious traditions), explains the verb translated "steal" (ganab) as referring to the stealing of persons, what we would call "kidnapping," with the intention of selling them as slaves: "Whoever kidnaps a person, whether that person has been sold or is still held in possession, shall be put to death" (Exodus 21:16, emphasis added). Joseph, also, describes his brothers' selling him into slavery as "kidnapping," using this verb (Genesis 40:15; compare Deuteronomy 24:7). There are, however, several instances where the verb means what we would call "theft." Obviously, there has been a development within the Bible with regard to this concept. How do we decide?
One way would take seriously the fact that there is no object expressed, just as there is no object expressed in the previous two commandments regarding murder and adultery. For centuries it has been argued that these objectless deeds are committed against one's fellow Israelite, one's "neighbor," as explicitly stated in the following commandment concerning the bearing of false witness. In addition, we have seen that these so-called "commandments" are all concerned with spelling out the relational nature of those involved in covenant with God. This would seem to imply that in the relational context of the covenant, to which the Decalogue refers, "stealing" does not refer to the theft of property as much as it is concerned with the value of persons in relationship. Is traditional "theft" then allowed? Of course not. But property rights are dealt with in another context (for example, Exodus 22:2; Leviticus 19:11).
19 Neither shall you steal.
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org