Biblical Studies Biblical Theology

Don’t Covet Your Neighbor’s…?


Having last looked at the two versions of “keeping the Sabbath,” now I want to turn our attention to the tenth commandment, “Thou Shalt Not Covet Your Neighbor’s….” which will seque into my next post.

Two Purposes of the Ten Commandments

As I’ve mentioned before, Block says that the Decalogue has a two-fold purpose:

(1) to provide the Israelites with a clear understanding of YHWH’s view of the appropriate response to salvation; and (2) to instill in the redeemed a respect for God and other members of the community. And herein we discover the Mosaic understanding of ‘love’: total commitment to the well-being of others, whether God or one’s fellow being, demonstrated in acts that seek the well-being of the next person — rather than self-interest (146-147).

The Tenth Commandment

Exodus 20.17

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.

Deuteronomy 5.21

You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife; and you shall not desire your neighbor’s house, his field, his male servant, his female servant, his ox, his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.

Where’s the Beef?

A few questions you might ask after reading these might be, “Why isn’t ‘wife’ first in the Exodus command?” or “So it’s okay that the man owns everyone, even his wife? Even his servants?” or “Is this difference really that important?”


Block says that there are actually two commands in the Hebrew. Here in the Exodus version one is not to covet “the house of your neighbor” and one should also not covet “a catalogue of items claimed by own’s neighbor: his wife, his male servant, his female servant, his ox, and his donkey, and ending with a catch-all expression, ‘anything that belongs to your neighbor’” (154).

As a result, these commands “distinguish coveting the neighbor’s real property (the house) from coveting the human beings who make up the economic unity, the household” (155).


In Deuteronomy, Israel (though really this is pointed to the men who are the head of their houses) is commanded not to covet, first and foremost, their neighbor’s wife. Now, the command not to covet “‘[y]our neighbor’s house’ is dropped down to the second command” (155). Now house is paired with field, male with female servant, and ox with horse.

But why would Moses switch these two words? Moses, being the pastor he is, wants to “ensure the elevated status of the wife in a family unit and to foreclose any temptation to use the Exodus version of the command to justify men’s treatment of their wives as if they were mere property, along with the rest of the household possessions” (156).

Egypt, the House of Slavery

Ending the Ten Commandments with this command might actually create a frame that reminds the Israelites of the freedom they have in worshiping YHWH. Switching the places of “wife” and “house” does not mean that they represent “the interchangeability of women with other items of property” (156). Block notes,

The opening preamble [Deut. 5.6] portrays the land of Egypt as [a] “house of slavery”… from which YHWH had rescued Israel. The last command refers to the home by the same term; this is the male head of the household’s domain, in which his style of leadership may be just as oppressive as the bondage under Pharaoh. Indeed, the Old Testament narratives are rife with accounts of abusive men who treat women as property that may be disposed of at will for the sake of male honor and male ego (156).

Cultural Glasses?

But could it be that Block is reading this commandment through 21st century gender-equality glasses? Would the Israelites really see Moses raising the status of all wives simply because “wife” is placed as the first object which is not to be coveted in the command? Though it is possible Block is wearing “women-first” glasses, I’m not so sure. Block reinforces his interpretation by saying, 

[Moses] reinforces this distinction [between wife and property] by reserving the verb [covet] for the illicit lust of a man toward another man’s wife and substituting it with [desire] when speaking of the desire a man might have for another man’s household property…. In Sivan’s words, the Deuteronomic version ‘elevates women as the most desirable objects of coveting. It also implies that covert coveting of other women’s wives is more pervasive and more complex than the rest of the listed inventory’ (157).

We just have to think of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5.27-28,

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.


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