What Does “Thou Shalt Not Covet” Mean? And How Can the Torah Prohibit Wanting Something?

In most translations, the tenth commandment of the Decalogue reads, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, or his male or female slave, or his ox or his donkey, or anything that is thy neighbor’s.” This passage has long troubled Jewish commentators reluctant to accept a prohibition that seems to apply to a feeling rather than action; most have suggested that the commandment is not violated until covetousness is acted upon. Analyzing other uses in the Hebrew Bible of the root, ḥ-m-d, normally rendered as covet, Leonard Greenspoon finds evidence for this reading:

The root ḥ-m-d . . . is often paired with an active verb, such as “taking.” [Consider, for instance], Deuteronomy 7:25: “You shall consign the images of their gods to the fire; you shall not covet the silver and gold on them and keep it for yourselves.” . . . Similarly, the pilgrimage law in Exodus states: “I will drive out nations from your path and enlarge your territory; no one will covet your land when you go up to appear before the Lord your God three times a year.” The point is that traveling to appear before God leaves the land vulnerable, giving an outsider the opportunity to covet and take the land while the owner is away. Thus, God promises that the land will be safe during the owner’s pilgrimage.

A particularly telling source is the passage in the book of Micah that describes how those who covet other people’s property go about robbing them of it: “Ah, those who contemplate iniquity and design evil on their beds; when morning dawns, they do it, for they have the power. They covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away. They defraud men of their homes, and people of their land.” Here contemplating evil and implementing evil stratagems go together the same way that coveting and theft do. It seems likely, therefore, that [there is] an assumption in the biblical text that coveting entails acting on this emotion. In this reading, biblical coveting does not refer to a person just desiring something in the abstract, but to planning or taking concrete steps with which to acquire that object.

This shade of meaning, writes Greenspoon, is lost in the Septuagint—the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that has informed Gentile readers for centuries:

The Septuagint translators employ the verb epithumeo [for “covet”], which the Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint translates as “to set one’s heart upon, to long for, to desire.” The Greek verb epithumeo is different from the English verb “covet” since it can be used for positive as well as negative desires. . . . For this reason, readers interpreting the Greek Bible (as opposed to the Hebrew version) were likely to miss the specific connection between ḥ-m-d and “taking.”

Welcome to Mosaic

Register now to get two more stories free

Register Now

Already a subscriber? Sign in now

Read more at theTorah.com

More about: Hebrew Bible, Septuagint, Ten Commandments, Translation

 

To Today’s Cosmopolitan and “Oikophobic” Left, Israel Can Never Be Acceptable

Aug. 23 2019

On the day the Knesset passed its nation-state law last year, Benjamin Netanyahu proclaimed, “This is our state—the Jewish state. . . . This is our nation, language, and flag.” This declaration, argues Wiliam Voegeli, points precisely to what the American left finds so unpalatable about Israel:

Sign up to read more

You've read all your free articles for this month

Register

Sign up now for unlimited access to the best in Jewish thought, culture, and politics

Already have an account? Log in now

Read more at Claremont Review of Books

More about: Anti-Zionism, Leftism, Nation-State Law, Nationalism