Exodus 20:17; accompanying text: Matthew 22:34-40
The Desires of the Heart — Do Not Covet
Did you notice that when we read the second tablet commandments one was repeated? “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s spouse.” Normally when we repeat something we are either revealing our level of dementia or we are trying to make a point. I’m thinking that God was making a point! There’s a fruitless debate between one tradition which counts “You shall not covet” though mentioned twice, as one commandment. Those traditions which count, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house” and “You shall not covet your neighbor’s spouse” as separate commandments are making a spiritually significant point. I think they are telling us that the so called “big sins” start when our gaze falls on something that belongs to someone else.
There are two pretty clear Old Testament examples:
Let’s start with King David? The Bible says that one evening he got up off his couch and was walking around the roof of his palace and his eyes fell on his neighbor Uriah’s wife, while she was bathing. David wasn’t deprived of female companionship, he had a wife and access to other women who lived in the palace. But he decided he couldn’t live without having Bathsheba. And he had her. And when she came up pregnant he arranged for her husband Uriah and the entire company who was fighting David’s war to be slaughtered. And it all started with a little lustful coveting (II Samuel 11-12).
Then there was King Ahab and Jezebel. Right near their palace, a faithful fellow named Naboth had his household and vineyard. The king offered to buy the vineyard or swap the land for a better stretch of land. Naboth wasn’t interested as so refused. Jezebel brought false charges against Naboth and paid two men to perjure themselves by testifying falsely against Naboth. In the end Naboth was dead and Ahab and Jezebel got the vineyard. And it all started with a little coveting (See 1 Kings 21).
The prohibition of “You shall not covet” is, in one way, a fence or boundary keeping us at a safe distance from the very serious sins that may result from it and that may cause very serious harm to others: theft, adultery, and – most serious of all – murder.
Were that all at work in this verse it simply results in one of the Ten Commandments being an auxiliary to the commandments that precede it – “You shall not murder,” “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not steal.” That could cause the prohibition of coveting to lose its own independent significance.
These prohibitions against coveting teaches us that a person may harm a neighbor even through mere thought. Your desire for “whatever belongs to your neighbor” represents a spiritual “encroachment” and although the damage is not visible, it can be even more serious. It may not be measurable in financial terms, nor can the coveter be sued in a court, but on a very basic level it can destroy what are potentially positive relationships among people and families.
The limitation that it places on a person’s internal, emotional world – gives rise to another possible explanation: this prohibition is meant to bring the person who finds themselves coveting to a higher level of spiritual purity, free of forbidden desires. It is not the “neighbor” that the Torah means to protect here. It’s actually a pretty sophisticated concept, especially since there are those who purposely dress, act or conduct themselves to arouse the envy of their neighbor.
There is another way of considering the implication of this commandment. It comes down to trusting God. When we are satisfied with our portion of the things of this life which God has entrusted to our use and care our heart does not covet what God did not wish for us to have. We cannot take it by force or by thoughts or schemes. We have faith in our Creator, that God will provide for us and do what is good in God eyes.
Trusting God to provide disarms the attraction of coveteousness to the point where we can look at anything that is pleasant to our eyes without such things arousing in us the desire to attain them. It is a religious prohibition. God has forbidden to us our neighbors spouse or house. Here’s a re-formulation of the commandment: “Do not covet that which God has forbidden to you or does not wish to give you. Rather, be satisfied with what you have, with the knowledge that this is the lot that God has assigned you.”
This law is meant to protect us from the harm of desiring and coveting something that is outside of our reach, and that the object of the prohibition is “all that belongs to your neighbor” – because it is the very ownership of the object by someone else that makes the desire for it a desire for the unattainable. It is an illegitimate, prohibited desire.
Philo of Alexandria declared that “You shall not covet” is a central pillar of moral instruction. There is the individual aspect of this command which intends the spiritual education and elevation of an individual, but ultimately concludes that that significance of violation of this command on the family, the land and all of mankind can ultimately be destroyed as a result of unbridled desire. The command “You shall not covet” therefore has the potential to save the world.
On a map of the Middle East drawn before 1917 you won’t see Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan or Palestine. The British and French created those political entities to maintain their own rule over what had been the Ottoman Empire, lands that had economic or strategic significance to them. France claimed the lands from the Lebanese border to Mosul; Britain got part of Palestine and Jordan and Southern Iran from Baghdad to Basra. France gave up northern Iraq in exchange for 25 percent of the oil revenues and took greater Syria which they divided up into Lebanon and Syria. Today’s winds of change are erasing those lines drawn a century ago in the Middle Eastern sands. The was growing interest in Great Britain at this time on using Palestine instead of Uganda as a Jewish state.
Environmental implications: selling our abundant coal which will pollute China’s air, indiscriminant drilling practices that destroy water sources; desecration of creation and fouling natural resources that belong to future generations for our own interests.
And think about the economic implications – what is slavery but the taking not merely the house or spouse but the whole life of another for our own self aggrandizement. And what of the use of our vast military establishment when it is used to secure for us access to oil for instance? God said: “You shall not covet…”