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Coveting Homework

For those who wonder what we spend our days and weeks doing here at Ridley, here’s an example of a homework exercise I put together for Old Testament. We do one of these a week in OT and the aim of this one was to take one of the Ten Commandments and work out what the underlying principle was and how it apply it in a modern context. This follows a particular model that we looked at in class and which I haven’t included here but hopefully it’s still intelligible. Thanks Devan, for the idea to blog this!

The Command

You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.

The Principle

There are two underlying possible underlying principles here:

Firstly, In the context of the God who has provided faithfully for his people in rescuing them from Egypt, one would have to wonder why a person would ever covet. Won’t God provide? Thus this law seems to carry with it a call to trust God and a condemnation of covetousness as a sign of either not trusting God or being discontent with what he gives.

Secondly, the word neighbour continues to be repeated. You are not to covet something because it belongs to your neighbour. God has given it to him. Therefore respect the sanctity of his possession and household.

Working it out

The second may be the same principle at work in earlier commandments, for example, those regarding adultery and stealing. Indeed, it could be suggested that this 10th commandment is a summary of what has come before. Perhaps each commandment is about people having what is rightly theirs, whether that be worship in God’s case, honour in parents’ case or possessions. Is this the case, that the tenth commandment is merely a summary? Or is there something more going on here? It is for this reason that I favour the first suggestion of what the underlying principle is. This command asks what your motivation for coveting is. It’s about your relationship with God.

This seems to be supported in the OT. A quick word search for ‘covet’ and ‘content’ brings us Achan’s covetousness in Joshua 7 leads him to disobey God, not trusting that his plan is best. Likewise Prov. 19:23 ties fearing the Lord to contentment. The theme comes up in the New Testament too, for example when John the Baptist calls those who extort money and accuse people falsely to contentment. However it’s James 4:2 that pulls it together for me: “You kill and covet but you cannot have what you want… You do not have because you do not ask God.” I think this is pretty plain – covetousness is a symptom of not trusting in a good God to provide all out needs.

Applying it

So how might this apply in the modern context? The principle at stake is that we covet because we do not trust God to provide for our needs. The Bible speaks clearly about working hard and not being a sluggard so this is not to suggest that we are to sit around waiting for God to provide. But there are questions we need to ask ourselves of whether work, promotions and social climbing are a provision for our families to live simply or whether they are driven by a desire to provide what God has (or think will) not provide. This is often also manifest in a lack of generosity in giving. This comes back to the earlier issue raised of taking something that doesn’t belong to you. After all, is not the world and everything it in God’s? It’s not ours to hoard, as though we think God won’t generously provide.

So I think there are some good diagnostic questions when it comes to identifying covetousness and lack of trust in God. Here are two that I came up with: Are you greedy because you do not trust God to provide? Do you want other people’s stuff because ultimately you think you’re ‘hard done by’ by God?

Categories: Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

1 reply

  1. Calvin has an insight into interpreting the commandments which i like – it is better theology than exegesis – but useful I think. Luther shares it too.

    The idea is that the commands have an ‘elliptical’ intent. Their meaning goes beyond mere prohibition. obeying a law does not mean refraining from breaking it but determining the positive intention underlying that law and fulfilling it. (so Jesus’ sermon on the mount)

    In the case of the 10th commandment Calvin suggests that charity toward our neighbour. ‘were your mind wholly imbued with charity, no portion of it would remain for the entrance of such thoughts [of covetousness]’ (institutes, 2.VIII.50)

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