First, a bit of housekeeping. Trying to maintain two blogs – this one, as well as my site for Ten Essential Words – proved overly ambitious. So I have chosen to focus my energies on one site with more content. I have brought over the posts from the Ten Essential Words site, and thus you will notice a lot of new content here. Part of combining sites is completing the chapter previews. What follows is to that end.
The Tenth Commandment reads, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” The following is an excerpt from Chapter 10 of Ten Essential Words.
So this Tenth Commandment differs from the other nine in two distinct ways. First, it prohibits an inner attitude, and not an external action. If we revisit our heart-word-action pattern, it is the one commandment that focuses on a heart attitude and not a specific action. It is difficult to point to someone and shout, “Aha, I caught you coveting!”, though it may happen often enough. Yet it is precisely this heart attitude of coveting that the Hebrew Scriptures seem to indicate will lead to the eventual violation of the other commandments. By listing it tenth, they are almost acknowledging that it is the least enforceable, yet it is the one we should take away and contemplate the most. If I had just heard the Ten Commandments read, I probably would not walk away thinking, “I better not kill or steal today,” but I might leave thinking, “I wonder if there is any way I am guilty of coveting?”
Second, it is the only commandment that does not have a corresponding punishment. Each of the other commandments has a punishment associated with its violation. We have discussed the principle of reciprocity, but without an outward action associated with coveting and the difficulty in identifying when coveting occurred, there is nothing to reciprocate. Again, the Law seemed to assume that the punishment would be incurred if coveting led to breaking one of the other commandments.
Because of these reasons, it is also the one commandment that has no real equivalent with other Ancient Near East law codes. It is the one commandment that explicitly points to God’s desire that these laws not simply be obeyed, but that their intent should transform the human heart. It would separate those in Israel who truly understood this intent from those who merely sought to conform to a legal code.