Law,  Old Testament

Israel’s Prohibition against Coveting and the Need for Contentment

As noted in other articles dealing with the Ten Commandments, the first four commandments relate to God’s relationship with man, a vertical component. The next six commandments pertain to man’s relationship with man, a horizontal component. The tenth (and last) of the Ten Commandments is a little different than the others, specifically targeting an attitude, not an action. The Tenth Commandment prohibits a wrongful desire, “You shall not covet.”

  • You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
    Exod 20:17
  • You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, and you shall not desire your neighbor’s house, his field or his male servant or his female servant, his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
    Deut 5:21
picture of man coveting money

Coveting in the Old Testament Compared to the Ancient World

It is interesting that other ancient Near Eastern civilizations did not have laws prohibiting an attitude like coveting. There were many laws prohibiting wrongful action, but none that prohibited a desire for something that was prohibited.

Coveting can be thought of as internal desire for something forbidden. It is not the action that is in view in the tenth commandment, but the implicit desire for what does not belong to you. This law shows that it is not just conformity of action that God wants, but conformity of desire on the inside.

Interestingly, Exodus 20 uses the same word both times (covet), while Deuteronomy’s version of the tenth commandment uses two different words (covet) and (desire). Both of these verbs in Deuteronomy come from Genesis 3 where Eve looked at the forbidden fruit and saw it was desirable (v. 6). Moses may be intentionally using language which reminds the Israelites of Genesis 3, calling to mind the lesson that they must never desire the things that God has forbidden.

Exodus and Deuteronomy also differ in how they order the objects of coveting. In Exodus, the word for house is used at the beginning of the verse, presumably as a title of sorts. Exodus then defines what makes up the “household” of the neighbor more specifically as wife, servants, ox or donkey, (or anything really). In contrast, Deuteronomy switches the order and puts house second so that you know its the actual building and not the household that should not be coveted. Deuteronomy also adds field while that is absent in Exodus.

The reason for the small changes that Moses makes in Deuteronomy is that Deuteronomy addresses Israel while they are on the plains of Moab, as they anticipate the inheritance of the land and all the possessions which will go along with that (houses, fields, etc.). Their focus is slightly different as they have a real tangible expectation to inherit fields, houses, and land now. They will soon be living in the land of Canaan! These changes are similar to why there are slight changes in the fourth commandment.

The Principle and Application behind the Prohibition Against Coveting

The theology behind this prohibition against coveting recognizes that God sovereignly gives to His people, and they must trust God that what He has given to them is adequate for them. To desire more than what God has given is to throw back in God’s face what He has graciously given. Also, this commandment demonstrates the reality which we have pointed out again and again—there is an internal component to the laws God gives. In other words, external obedience was never enough. Conformity of the inner man is what God expects.

While it is true that Christians are not bound to the Ten Commandments, the tenth commandment continues to demonstrate the pattern which God instilled into creation. Namely, that His creatures are not to greedily desire more for themselves than what has been given to them. We are to be content with what God has given to us, and to guard our hearts from desiring the things which are off-limits to us.

A strong warning against coveting is a needed message in today’s marketing-driven culture, where the main goal is to make the consumer dissatisfied and discontent so that he or she will want something else. As Christians, we should model contentment. This is a difficult area for growth since it is an inward disposition and thus hard for people to help us be accountable. Yet, God will help us as we ask Him for help. May the prohibition against coveting remind us there is more to pleasing God than just the externals.

Photo: Envato Elements

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs The Bible Sojourner podcast and Youtube channel.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *