“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.” -Exodus 20:17
“Covet” isn’t a word you hear every day. In fact, it’s one of those religious words that tends to have currency only in religious contexts. The dictionary defines “covet” as wrongful or inordinate desire. It comes from the Latin word for greed. The underlying Hebrew for the word means desire. It is the same word used of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis 3:6 (“desirable to make one wise”). To covet, then, is to desire, to want.
The commandment does not forbid desire in general. That would be to make following it impossible. It forbids a specific desire. “Don’t desire your neighbor’s stuff.” What is it about wanting what your neighbor has that is so reprehensible that it made God’s Top Ten List?
Sin always begins with desire, and desire begins with contemplating what is good or beautiful or pleasing. How does something good lead to evil? The serpent told Eve that the fruit she ate would make her like God, knowing good and evil. God later affirms that what the serpent had said was true.
“The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil.…” Genesis 3:22
Becoming like God. Didn’t Jesus teach us to aspire to be like God? He said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). So what Eve desired was not evil in and of itself. What made it evil was that she distrusted God. The serpent implied that God had forbidden the fruit because he was holding out on them. That distrust was the thin edge of a wedge that split us all from our Creator. Sin is not trusting God.
We are all God’s children, and like children everywhere, we expect our Father to treat us all the same. The bible tells us that God has no favorites and can’t be bribed. Wanting my neighbor’s stuff is an implied criticism of God’s fairness. Like a petulant child I complain that my neighbor got more than I did. His house is bigger. His wife is more charming. His servants are more obedient. His cow gives more milk. He has a nicer car. His lawn is greener. He gets all the breaks, and I’m stuck in this dead-end job. It’s not fair, God! Then God replies—and if we’re lucky we can hear him—”Oh, I thought you were going to trust me from now on. If there’s something you want, just ask.”
How different God’s message is from the messages we hear all around us! Wanting my neighbor’s stuff is the engine of capitalism. It drives our economy. Watch the commercials on TV. Look at the ads. Aren’t they all telling you that other people have better things than you have? Look how happy they are with their stuff! I want to be happy too. I want what he’s got. I want what she’s having.
Footnote. There are disturbing things about this commandment, things I have so far ignored so I could get at the spirit of the law. One of the most disturbing is the way it classes women and slaves as personal property alongside houses, oxen, donkeys, and other possessions. Does this mean God regards women as the property of men or that slavery is okay with God? No. The commandment addresses people in their own cultural milieu, so it uses examples they understand. The law is replete with statutes designed to protect the rights of women and slaves because of the oppressive society in which they lived.