Here is the second part of the Tenth Commandment from Ten Essential Words. 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.”
Today coveting also goes by many names and takes many forms, though the actual word has fallen out of use in our vocabulary. Our culture gives coveting more palatable names and even promotes some of these ways of thinking as good and healthy. “Greed is good” goes a famous line from the 1987 movie Wall Street and vestiges of that notion are still alive and well today. We are told that spending is good for the economy. We are not told what kind of spending; just spend. We are encouraged to overextend ourselves, from the homes we buy to the cars we drive. Yet we never encounter the word covet. It is a word that does not market well.
We encounter the modern equivalent of coveting most notably in two common ideologies: materialism and consumerism. Materialism as a philosophy teaches that there is nothing beyond the material world and reduces everything to a tangible and material substance. The soul, the heart, and the spirit, among other intangibles, are either discounted or denied altogether. While most may not wholly embrace materialism as a philosophy, many are deeply affected by its influence and give credence to the philosophy by their lifestyle. Materialism, in its prevalent form, places the highest good on present enjoyment and tangible possessions. To quote the rich man in Jesus’ parable: “eat, drink and be merry.” We are bombarded by messages on a daily basis that promote this philosophy, and it is deeply engrained in our western culture.
Materialism also leads to the second ideology of consumerism. Consumerism is one of those terms that mean many different things to different people. In its most innocuous form, consumerism is the economic notion that consumer choices should drive the economy, as opposed to a centrally-planned economy. In some forms, consumerism even encourages the consumption of material goods and holds that the increasing consumption of goods is economically desirable. However, as a growing ideology, consumerism is the idea that what we purchase will bring us some sense of satisfaction. At its worst, it is the lie that the next purchase will make us happy or bring fulfillment. Like materialism, many may deny holding such expectations, yet have spare rooms full of stuff that held out such promises.
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.
This morning, I was playing around with Google Alerts – a service that sends news stories to your email relating to specific key words. I had just set up an alert for “Ten Commandments” and sure enough, within the hour I got my initial list of of newly published stories that related to the Ten Commandments. Most were only loosely related, but there was one that caught my attention. Christopher Rollston at the Huffington Post wrote an article about how the Ten Commandments and the Bible in general are guilty of marginalizing women. Because his article both demonstrates the continued impact the Ten Commandments have on our culture and highlights something that I cover in Ten Essential Words, I wanted to use this oft-cited example to demonstrate a very fundamental mistake people make when talking about the relevancy of the Ten Commandments.
The Decalogue is a case in point. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male slave, his female slave, his ox, his donkey or anything which belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17; Deuteronomy 5:21). Because the Ten Commandments are so well known, it’s quite easy to miss the assumptions in them about gender. But the marginalization of women is clear. The wife is classified as her husband’s property, and so she’s listed with the slaves and work-animals. There’s also a striking omission in this commandment: never does it say “You shall not covet your neighbor’s husband.” The Ten Commandments were written to men, not women. … The Ten Commandments embody much that is foundational for modern society, but egalitarian they aren’t.
He goes on to assert how the Old and New Testaments continue this theme of the marginalization of women. Rollston is not wrong when he notes that in ancient Israelite society “the wife is classified as her husband’s property.” I write the same thing when addressing the seventh commandment: You shall not commit adultery.
It could be correctly supposed that the intent behind most of these laws was not the welfare of women or even the protection of marriage, but rather the safeguarding of property. For in most ancient cultures, a wife was largely considered to be the property of the husband; thus some form of protection was needed for that property. To commit adultery was to essentially steal what belonged to another man.
It should be noted that the laws I am referring to in the quote above are numerous Ancient Near East legal codes that address adultery and not simply the seventh commandment. Mosaic Law actually contains many safeguards for women who otherwise would have been left abandoned. But while Rollston concludes that the Bible marginalizes women, I reach a much different conclusion. So where do we differ? How do we reach quite the opposite conclusion?
- First, Biblical theology has long asserted that scripture reflects the commands of God – the words of God – and yet at the same time those commands were recorded by human beings. And those human beings resided in certain places and lived at certain times. The Bible can be both the words of God and yet reflect human opinions, different personalities and genres, human rebellion, and numerous ways that, despite our best efforts, humans fall short of God’s commands. In fact, the story of the Bible is largely the story of humankind struggling with and failing to live out these commands of God.
- Second, and similarly, while God’s commands transcend culture, their application will always resides within a distinct culture. The Old Testament is full of wars, kings and queens, prophets, and many other things that were normative in a culture three to four thousand years ago. The New Testament is set largely in the context of the Roman Empire. So the commands of God will necessarily reflect what was happening in those cultures. When God gave the Ten Commandments, those commands represented the timeless moral standard of God, but at the same time they had specific cultural meanings and applications when Moses received them on Mount Sinai. So, yes, the command “Do not covet” is a command from God, but at the same time coveting had different applications to an Israelite society 3,500 years ago than it does for us today.
- Third, the challenge for us then, is not to come up with a new set of Ten Commandments that reflect our day and age, but to properly apply the timeless truths of the original Ten. In other words, we don’t need to toss out the command against coveting because it may have been applied imperfectly in Ancient Near East culture. Instead, we are responsible to speak to what it means to covet today. This is exactly the cultural journey that Ten Essential Words navigates. What did each command mean in their original context, what light does Jesus shed on each command in his day, and how might we apply each command to our modern context.
It shouldn’t surprise us then, that the Ten Commandments don’t give women the right to vote any more than they don’t address iPhone etiquette. We can choose to see the marginalization that was present in every ancient culture (and many modern ones!) or we can see the ways the Bible actually gave women a voice they didn’t normally have at that time. Rollston barely acknowledges a woman named Deborah that served as a judge over Israel and fails to mention that Esther served as a deliverer of the Hebrew people, that Jesus’s prominent benefactors were women, or that women also served as the primary witnesses to his resurrection – all unheard of at that time. It could also be argued that the Apostle Paul calls women to tone it down in the new Christian movement because women had a new-found voice they hadn’t been given elsewhere and were taking many liberties with that voice.
If we fail to take these steps of moving God’s commands from an ancient cutlure to our own culture we will no doubt make the same conclusions that Rollston has made. And by his own standards, because no previous culture is as enlightened as our culture today, there isn’t much that any ancient history or religion has to teach us.