Of the ten commandments, the one we know least about may be the tenth. In the NIV it reads as follows: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor,” Exodus 20:17.
The word “covet” is chamad in Hebrew. It means “desire, take pleasure in – an ungoverned, selfish desire,” (Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew Lexicon – p. 326b). The word implies more than mere feeling or emotion – it is fulfilled in action. If we set our thoughts to desire what belongs to another, we are likely to begin scheming to acquire it. Coveting is the root from which many crimes spring. Illicit desire gives rise to sinful acts and those qualify us for the divine death penalty (James 1:13-15).
Coveting can take place at the national level or at an individual level. For example, nations may covet islands or waterways belonging to other sovereign nations because they offer some strategic or material advantage. Conflicts are now brewing between China, Japan and other Southeast nations over various islands and territories. Argentina is again casting covetous eyes on the Falkland Islands (which they refer to as the Maldives).
God gave Israel the right to dwell in certain territories once belonging to the sinful Canaanites. He delineated the boundaries and set tribal limits (Deuteronomy 3:12-18). Today, the surrounding Arab peoples do not recognize Israel’s right to dwell in the lands God deeded to it. They seek to drive Israel into the sea and possess those lands for themselves. Their covetousness is creating a dangerous tension in the Middle East.
Covetousness can take place on an individual or a national level. James, the half brother of Jesus, wrote, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask you do not receive because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures…” (James 4:1-3).
Coveting is a universal, but largely unrecognized, issue. We can learn much from two Biblical examples, the first of which is King David.
II Samuel 11 provides us with an account of David’s covetousness and its consequences. “Late one afternoon, David rose from his couch and strolled on the roof of the royal palace; and from the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful, and the king sent someone to make inquiries about the woman. He reported, ‘She is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam [and] wife of Uriah the Hittite. David sent messengers to fetch her; she came to him and he lay with her – she had just purified herself after her period – and she went back home. The woman conceived, and she sent word to David, ‘I am pregnant.’” (II Samuel 11:2-5, Tanakh).
Was it just the woman’s beauty that aroused passion in David, or perhaps a sense or royal entitlement? Many people of wealth and power feel that they are entitled to the best of everything and they will go to great lengths to get it. Perhaps both factors were involved here, but the main emphasis seems to be on her physical appeal.
The account of these events is very spare. It is interesting to note, however, that men tend to be visual when it comes to lust, while women are more attracted to men of prominence, power and wealth. Men find a “sexy” woman almost irresistible – especially if she projects availability. On the other hand, Bathsheba may have been dazzled by David’s power and status as king of Israel. We read nothing of her objecting to his advances.
When Bathsheba announced her pregnancy, David’s first instinct was to cover up the whole affair. To do so, he became malevolently creative. He arranged for her husband Uriah to be killed in battle (II Samuel 11:14-15). In other words, the king resorted to murder to cover up his adultery and create the impression that the child was Uriah’s and not his. It would also free Bathsheba up to marry David.
Covetousness led to adultery – and that led to murder.
God was watching from above. Nothing is hidden from his sight. He sent Nathan the prophet to rebuke the king on his behalf. (Read II Samuel 12 for the whole account and its result.) The child of adultery died.
David bitterly and deeply repented of his triple sin. His prayer of repentance is found in Psalm 51. Enough said. Let us now view another account of a covetous king.
The Case of Ahab
David was not an evil man; he was a good man (I Samuel 13:14) who lapsed into evil behavior on one occasion because his covetousness got out of control. He repented and paid a price for his sins. King Ahab, on the other hand, was evil to the core.
“Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him,” (I Kings 16:30). One example of Ahab’s evil takes place in the context of his coveting a neighbor’s vineyard. “…there was an incident involving a vineyard belonging to Naboth the Jezreelite. The vineyard was in Jezreel, close to the palace of Ahab king of Samaria. [Ahab was the seventh and worst king of the northern house of Israel, the capital of which was at Samaria. He reigned 22 horrific years – 875-854 B.C.E.] Ahab said to Naboth, ‘Let me have your vineyard to use for a vegetable garden, since it is close to my palace. In exchange I will give you a better vineyard or, if you prefer, I will pay you whatever it is worth,’” (I Kings 21:1-3).
Naboth did not give Ahab the response he wanted: “The Lord forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers,” (verse 4).
Ahab became sullen and angry because he’d been refused what he coveted. He sulked like a spoiled child and hit the sheets in a hunger strike (verse 4b). His petulant demonstration drew the attention of the notorious Jezebel, his Baal-worshiping Sidonian wife (I Kings 16:31-32; 21:6). She joined him in his coveting and vowed to get Ahab the vineyard he wanted (verse 70. They were co-conspirators in a plot to practice an ancient equivalent to “eminent domain.”
She began by “honoring” Naboth at a day of fasting and flanking him with false witnesses who would bear false witness (9th commandment) that he had cursed both God and the king (I Kings 21:9, 10). Power was on the side of Naboth’s oppressors and the hapless vineyard owner was stoned to death. Conscience-free, the wicked Jezebel flounced in and announced to the king that Naboth was dead and the vineyard was his.
Ahab’s covetousness had led to the violation of four of the Ten Commandments. One sin leads to another (James 1:15). Covetousness led to false witness, then to murder and finally to theft.
Just as God had sent the prophet Nathan to rebuke David for his sin over Bathsheba, God now sends Elijah to rebuke Ahab. Unlike David, Ahab refused to repent and he viewed God’s anointed prophet as an enemy. He said, “So you have found me my enemy” (verse 19).
Elijah pronounced a dire fate on both Ahab and his wife: “…because you have sold yourself to do evil in the eyes of the Lord. ‘I am going to bring disaster on you. I will consume your descendants and cut off from Ahab every last male in Israel – slave or free. I will make your house like that of Jeroboam son of Nebat and that of Baasha son of Ahijah because you have provoked me to anger and have caused Israel to sin.
“And also concerning Jezebel the Lord says: ‘Dogs will devour Jezebel by the wall of Jezreel. Dogs will eat those belonging to Ahab who die in the city and the birds of the air will feed on those who die in the country,” (I Kings 21:20-24).
Ahab left behind a legacy of wickedness. He was the very personification of evil during his 22-year reign. His worst sin was leading the nation into idolatry, urged on by Jezebel, who was herself a study in evil (verse 25).
Elijah’s words of God’s judgment put the fear into Ahab: “When Ahab heard these words, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and fasted. He lay in sackcloth and went around meekly,” (I Kings 21:27).
God noted this show of repentance and rewarded it by postponing the fall of the divine hammer until Ahab’s son’s reign (verse 29). Later, Ahab died an ignominious death in a battle with the king of Judah, the southern kingdom. “They washed the chariot at a pool in Samaria (where prostitutes bathed) and the dogs licked up his blood, as the word of the Lord had declared,” (I Kings 37-38).
Covetousness is a slippery slope. It starts with desire and ends in sin that leads to death. One sin leads to another. It is when desire turns into plotting to get the desired object that the trouble begins. Two kings – David and Ahab – provide us with object lessons about the tenth commandment.
In the case of Ahab, he was overwhelmed with illicit desire but he didn’t have the guts or the ingenuity to get what he wanted. Jezebel became his enabler. Ahab was a weak man – he lacked a backbone. Jezebel provided one.
David came up with his own action plan and then bitterly repented of his multiple sin when God’s prophet rebuked him. His prayer of repentance is found in Psalm 51.
The Sin of Covetousness
The sin of covetousness is actualized when desire gives way to a scheme to acquire that which belongs to another. This is made clear in Deuteronomy 7:25: “The images of their gods you are to burn with fire. Do not covet the silver and gold on them, and do not take it for yourselves…”
The prohibition applies “…only to putting the desire into practice. It has thus been made clear …that this Negative Commandment forbids us to scheme in order to acquire anything belonging to our brethren which we covet, even if we buy it and pay its full price,” The Commandments by R. Dr. Charles B. Chavel, p.250.
As we noted earlier, Ahab offered to pay full price but was turned down.
It is one thing to admire the beauty of that which belongs to another; it is quite another to scheme to acquire it. Admiration can be supplanted by desire, and that can be the beginning of a slippery slope ending in sin. If David had seen Bathsheba, noted that she was beautiful, and then gone his way, he would not have sinned.
If Ahab had admired his neighbor’s vineyard, and even offered to buy it, he would not have sinned. Unfortunately, he could not take no for an answer.
Both Uriah and Naboth paid with their lives for the covetousness of kings. In today’s world, we can witness the sin of covetousness on a grand scale as nations seek to acquire and rule other sovereign nations that have said no to their advances. Wars of conquest often start in covetousness. The erosion of property rights often leads to governmental covetousness.
We see, and even experience, covetousness on a more personal scale in areas of eminent domain, unjustified foreclosures, kidnappings, sex slavery, adultery, seizure of property, and even in the play of children who seek to possess another child’s toys. Covetousness is ubiquitous in the world. Godly people seek to understand and avoid it – including becoming its victims.