Listen to Exodus 20:17 – “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbour.” I love the beauty and simplicity of this verse. I say simplicity in the sense that it is straight forward and clear – but it is deceptively simple. For this is the commandment that brought Paul to his knees. If we understand it clearly, we will find in it a great terror and a great hope. So let’s gain a better understanding of this commandment in its ancient context, so that we can rightly apply it to ourselves. The focus of this command, as it was originally given, was on the desires and lusts that led to the theft of a neighbour’s property, the violation of his emotional life and deepest relationships, and the destruction of his ability to earn a living. Then, as today, a man’s house was a very important asset. A man’s wife was his most precious relationship and when God added servants and animals to the list, He was not making trivial additions. These things gave a man his economic opportunity and to some degree his social standing.
So this commandment, although straightforward, applies to many things. We are not to desire, scheme after, envy, or be consumed by the things that belong to our neighbour. We are to respect our neighbour and his property, his right to earn a living, his emotional life, and so on. This commandment pierces us deeply because it focuses on what is going on in our hearts and minds, where God fully knows us. It identifies the desires of our heart as the internal gateway that opens the breach in all our relationships. All of our actions – good or bad – find their source in the desire of the heart. So in God’s eyes we have not truly and fully embraced the 10th commandment until we judge the intentions and thoughts of our hearts.
There is a ‘confusing’ aspect of this commandment which stems from the English tradition of translating the Old Testament. To us the word ‘covet’ has negative connotations, but these are not present in the Hebrew. The word ‘desire’, which for us has much less negative baggage associated with it, is an equally valid translation of the Hebrew. Exodus 20:17 could say – “You shall not desire your neighbour’s house; you shall not desire your neighbour’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbour.” The very same Hebrew word that is translated ‘covet’ in the 10th commandment is used in some Old Testament verses to show that God Himself covets. David says in Psalm 68:16 – that God coveted Mount Zion as a place for His temple, and the prophet chides the surrounding mountains for being jealous of Mount Zion…‘Why do you look with envy, O mountains with many peaks, at the mountain which God has desired for His abode?’ A most revealing Old Testament usage of the Hebrew word for ‘covet’ is found in Genesis. When God made the Garden of Eden, He made trees that Adam and Eve were to covet…Genesis 2:9 – ‘And out of the ground the LORD God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.’ The word ‘pleasing’ is the same Hebrew word that the 10th commandment uses for ‘covet.’
God made those trees desirable and wonderful. He wanted Adam and Eve to love and care for them, but He also made another tree. Though it too was lovely, it was not an appropriate object of desire for Adam and Eve. It was the Tree of the Knowledge of good and evil. So we can see that God does want to use that part of us that DESIRES. He uses it to motivate and strengthen us, but He also insists on limits to our desires.
We know what happened next – but some of you may not know the role that coveting played in the tragic story of the fall of man. Eve was enticed by the serpent and she began to see the tree in a new way…here is what Gen.3:6 says…‘When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate.’ The tree was desirable to make one wise, or as the Hebrew makes it plain – Eve began to ‘covet‘ the tree. She crossed the line. She began to treat this tree as if it were in the same category as all the other desirabletrees that God had made. Things haven’t changed since that tragic moment – have they? We do the same thing today.
When we are confronted by a desire to possess something that is forbidden to us, we re-categorise the object of our desire.
We move it from the forbidden list and create an excuse or rationalisation that allows us to put it on the acceptable list.
This is the logic behind a child’s statement: ‘Well, Ruth got to have one’ or ‘Troy was allowed to go and see it.’ The object or event has been re-categorised in the mind, so the coveting becomes all right. We do the same thing as adults only we’re not quite as obvious about it. For example: A few years ago when I was returning home from India, the flight attendant at the boarding gate invited all the 1st Class passengers and those with small children to board first. Then the call came for those seat holders whose rows were in the back of the aircraft, as they were going to slowly seat people to the front. Well, it soon became clear to me that everyone was getting on board – and I heaved a few obvious sighs. Feeling a bit impatient, I decided that I wanted to make sure that I got my seat, and equally important, that I could get a place to stow my carry-on luggage. What was my justification for breaking the rule? Everyone else was getting on board and I didn’t want to be inconvenienced. Have you ever seen people in car-parks that are almost maxed-out? ‘This space is mine…I was here first…who do you think you are anyway?’
The New Testament follows the same path as the Old Testament on this subject. It is not desire in and of itself that is the problem – it is the object or source of the desire that determines its moral character. The closest Greek counterpart to the Hebrew word for ‘covet’ means simply – ‘desire.’ If we use ‘covet’ instead of ‘earnestly desire’ to translate Luke 22:15 – Jesus told His disciples that He ‘coveted with great covetousness to eat the Passover’ with them before going to the cross. So to summarise the commandment, ‘you shall not covet,’ it must not be understood as a prohibition against desire in and of itself. Rather, it prohibits those emotions, thoughts, plans, dreams, and inner promptings that lead us to want to have things which belong to someone else. Covetousness seeks life in what belongs to another and if sufficiently strong…will harm the other person to acquire it. You see the key word in this verse is ‘neighbour’ which is repeated three times. Coveting is a breach in relationships.
In Micah’s day, the prophet condemned the powerfully rich who formulated their dreams of prosperity and then stole from the poor. Such theft was not only a breach of covenant to the present generation but also future generations who were robbed of their inheritance. Listen to Micah 2:1-2…‘Woe to those who scheme iniquity, who work out evil on their beds! When morning comes, they do it, for it is in the power of their hands. They covet fields and then seize them, and houses, and take them away. They rob a man and his house, a man and his inheritance.’
In Amos’ day, unchecked coveting created such a relentless appetite among the rich that every possible kind of theft was practised at the expense of the poor – along with the desecration of the Sabbath and with it the gift of rest that GOD had decreed for all creation. Listen to Amos 8:4-6…‘Hear this, you who trample the needy, to do away with the humble of the land, saying, “When will the new moon be over, So that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath, that we may open the wheat market, to make the bushel smaller and the shekel bigger, and to cheat with dishonest scales, so as to buy the helpless for money and the needy for a pair of sandals, and that we may sell the refuse of the wheat?’
In our culture of affluence, marketing gurus prey on consumers to increase their appetites beyond what is reasonable to consume. Every week we receive in our post boxes, scores of unsolicited catalogues of things we don’t need. Marketers know that the key to awakening desire in the consumer to by a product is not based on whether one needs it, but whether someone else might buy it at a cheaper price. Putting a limited item on sale for a specified time guarantees pandemonium at the store. The great tragedy in all this is that, as our insatiable appetites drive us to keep pace with the Jones’ – it is the poor who are overlooked, dismissed, and trodden upon.