January 5, 2006

Stealing and Coveting

I've been thinking about the relationship between the 8th and 10th commandment, or the commandments not to steal or covet. At first glance they seem redundant. Behind my reflections is also the question of whether or not the Decalogue functioned as civil law. I don't know whether or not I agree with everything in the following quote, but it provides some thought provoking ideas.
With the tenth commandment, questions frequently arise about the relationship between stealing and coveting, since their territory seems to overlap. There is one primary difference. Stealing is linked completely to the act itself, in which someone takes that which belongs to another. Coveting (hamad), however, has to do with an attitude deep within. It involves desires that are so strong one is willing to reach out and take, or commit other unacceptable acts, to satisfy those desires.

After nine commands that either focus on God or outer behavior, the tenth command enters the realm of the heart and mind. This prohibition does not focus on outward, visible actions. It concentrates instead on a person's thoughts, motives and attitudes. Covetous thoughts motivate and inspire, frequently producing action that will violate one of the previous nine commandments.

Laws legislate actions, not thoughts or attitudes, precisely because the former can be monitored whereas the latter cannot. The act of coveting cannot be witnessed, only becoming visible when that internal craving is acted upon. This tenth commandment's shift to the interior dimension of the human life lessens the probability that the Decalogue functioned as an actual set of laws in ancient Israel. It does, however, demonstrate that God's covenant never depends solely upon adherence to external details. The Decalogue begins with a command that insists there be no God before Yahweh. Like coveting, one's loyalty to God also begins as an internal posture that only secondarily becomes evident in external practice. Thus two commandments that are essentially rooted in the heart and mind of the covenant people encircle a set of principles that properly order worship and community relationships.
J. W. Marshall, "Decalogue," in the Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, eds. T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2003), 178–179.

NKJ Romans 7:7 What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, "You shall not covet."

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