This is a paper I wrote for my Old Testament class on the Tenth Commandment, which is thou shall not covet. I have removed all footnotes so future students can learn as much as I did by doing their own researching. This was my first university paper, and looking back I have no idea what citation style I was using. It seems to be a mix of MLA and Chicago. This was originally written in 2012.
“Moses said to the people, ‘Do no fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin” (Exodus 20:20
The Ten Comandments have held an important place in Judeo-Christian society since Moses was given them over four thousand years ago on Mount Sinai. The Ten Commandments were kept within the Tabernacle, which was the central place of worship and society within the Hebrew Camp. Placed within the Holy of Holies, the place where God Himself resided among his people, the Ten Commandments were, the centre of Jewish culture. They were placed within the golden Ark of the Covenant and was symbol of God’s covenant with Israel forever. Although, throughout history, they were in the hands of invading armies, lost and forgotten, and eventually destroyed and lost forever in the destruction of the Second Temple. They still today hold a special place in Jewish society, with many Synagogues having them displayed in Hebrew at the front, being the focus of the eyes. Within the Ten Commandments, also known as the decalouge which literally translated means “ten words” (asert hadevarim; aseret hadibrot)), we find that the commandments cover most, if not all of the social, moral, and spiritual problems that humans have faced since the start of time and because of this, they are the basis of the legal code of most countries in the west. Within these ten commands we find one that is vastly different from the ones that preceded it. The final commandment tells humanity to not covet and the difference from all the others is the fact that it is not a physical act like the ones before, but rather, is an issue of the heart. Through careful examination of the text, we will highlight and dissect the tenth commandment, find similar laws found elsewhere in the Torah, and look at historical examples of coveting and the consequences within the biblical narrative.
The tenth commandment, which is found in Exodus 20:17, is very different from the ones that precede it because those are all wilful, physical actions such as bowing down to an idol or taking someones life. The tenth commandment deal with the heart. As stated by Rev. Ezekiel Hopkins “For God had it in his other commandments forbidden the acts of sin against our neighbour he well knew that the best means to keep men from committing sin in act would be to keep them from doing so in their heart”. Due to the placement of the commandment at the end of the decalouge, a person can go down the list and say that they have not committed any sin, reached the final commandment, and realized that they too have sinned. This is what happened to the apostle Paul in Romans Chapter Seven, after going through the law he saw he had not committed any of the outward sins, but once he read the tenth commandment not to covet he knew he had sinned. The tenth commandment is a “motus primo primi” which means the first shadow of an evil thought. These evil thoughts, or desires can come from Satan, which if we can resist them, help us to bring glory back to God, which is the purpose of each of these commandments. These covetous thoughts can lead us to even a greater sin if we act on the desires of the heart, which might lead to violating the other commandments. The focus is not on the items that are listed, but in the act of coveting, as stated by John Peter Lange in his Commentary on the Holy Scriptures, “The emphasis lies on coveting, not on the several objects of coveting. The emphasis of the inward state is made secure by reckoning the commandment as one”. The law is also found else where in the scripture which highlights it’s importance in the way that humanity is called to live their life.
The decalouge is restated in Deuteronomy chapter five, but the order of the things that they are told to covet changes, with Deuteronomy listing coveting your neighbour’s wife first. One reason this could happen is as the generations wandered the desert, the covenant had to be renegotiated. The emphasis on coveting certain things might have needed to be made more clear as time went on to keep it relevant to the issues of the time. Another hypothesis for this change in the order is the most important thing was thought to be the house which was the total sum of domestic life, that the family unit is more important that the individual, but in Deuteronomy, the wife is felt to be superior to the house, making the wife the sum of domestic life.The biggest change in the retelling of the Ten Commandments in the actual word that the writer chose to use instead of covet. In Exodus, the original Hebrew word that is used is means to covet, but in Deuteronomy, the word that is used means to desire. The decalouge lay the foundation for the covenantal relationship between God and Israel which is the central message of Deuteronomy. In Deuteronomy, the Tenth Commandment places emphasis on the desire of wanting things that are not ours, without needing to act on the desire, showing that the actions of the heart are just as important as the actions of the body. The reasons for coveting are for self gain, which would have been detrimental to a close knit society such as the nomadic tribe when Israel wandered the desert, which can be seen in the last five commandments which all talk about how to treat your neighbor, and then ending with how to think about your neighbor. The clearest indication of coveting your neighbor’s possessions can be seen in 1 Kings, chapter twenty one, with the story of Naboth and his Vineyard.
Naboth had a vineyard that was beside King Ahab’s palace and the king wanted it, but because it was not his to have, he was coveting. His wife then created a plot against Naboth, setting up a feast and having two people accuse him of treason in front of the elders. At the feast, two people brought charges against Naboth and he is taken outside and stoned, giving Ahab the possession of the land because the king received the land that was owned by the executed criminal. Ahab then recieved the vineyard he was coveting, but this did not come without consequences. God sent the prophet Elijah down to visit Ahab in Naboth’s vineyard with a dire message for him. Elijah went the the vineyard and told him “In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick up your blood”. The consequences for killing a man for another man’s possessions carried heavy consequences as seen by the curses laid out, even if the killing was not done by the person who was coveting. As noted earlier in the paper, these sinful desires can bring about the breaking of the other commandments but we also see in this passage that those who humble themselves before the Lord and have authentic repentance are able to stave off the curses that have been set against them as Ahab turns to fasting, wearing sack cloth, and walking around dejected to show his remorse in his actions. The act of coveting, or desiring what is not ours is a theme throughout Israel’s history which can be seen in many narratives including David and his coveting and ultimate adultery with Bathsheba and after the fall of Jericho Achan coveted some of the belongings and these sinful desires caused him to break another commandment and steal them.
In closing, coveting is a very different commandment from the rest of the ones found in the telling of them in both Exodus and Deuteronomy because of the way it deals with an issue of the heart, rather than dealing with an actual physical action. These sinful desires can sometimes lead to sinful actions, as was illustrated by the story of Ahab coveting to have Naboth’s vineyard, where the covetous actions lead to the death of an innocent man. We also see that the tenth commandment is repeated in Deuteronomy in a slightly different form, renegotiating the law to make it relevant to the society in which it was being used to govern, showing the changes that had been made in ancient Hebrew society in the short time they had wandered in the desert. The Ten Commandments had and are still currently having a large influence in not only the Jewish society and culture, but most of the western world. These timeless commandments are the foundation of the legal system and have set the moral law into stone.