Law,  Old Testament

You Shall Not Covet (Commandment #10)

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)

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

small__7937748108Interestingly, Exodus 20 uses the same word both times (covet), while Deuteronomy uses two different words (covet) and (desire). Both of these verbs 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 that they must never desire the things that God has forbidden.

Exodus and Deuteronomy also differ in how they describe the objects of coveting. Exodus uses house (at the beginning of the verse) in broad terms by explaining it more specifically as wife, servants, ox or donkey, (or anything really). Deuteronomy switches the order and puts house second so that you know its the actual building and not the household that is in view. Deuteronomy also adds field. The reason for these small changes is (like commandment #4) 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.).

The theology behind this final commandment 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.

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. This is a needed message in today’s marketing-driven culture, where the main goal is to make the consumer dissatisfied so that he or she will want something else. As Christians, we should model contentment. This is difficult since it is an inward disposition and it is hard for people to help us be accountable. Yet, God will help us as we ask Him for help.

photo credit: thenotoriouskcg via photopin cc

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.