“Do Not Covet…” – What the Bible Really Says

David gazing upon a naked Bathsheba

In Exodus 20:17 God instructs each of us that, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

But is this what Bible Really Says? If so, then it is one of he few verses in the Bible in which an emotion (envy) is prohibited[1].

In this commandment, the Hebrew word translated as ‘covet’ is תַחְמֹד (tach’mode) is probably better translated as ‘take’ or ‘choose’. Moreover, whether tach’mode is good or bad depends on how or what one tach’modes. For example, tach’mode can be used in a negative sense…

  • to use-without-permission or to use-surreptitiously (Exodus 34:24)
  • to take-, to borrow-, or to command-without-authority (Proverbs 12:12)

… or in a morally neutral sense

To better understand the meaning of tach’mode, let’s examine this commandment (Exodus 20:17) without translating the word in question:

Do not tach’mode the house of your neighbor. Do not tach’mode the wife of your neighbor or his servant or his house-maid or his oxen or his donkey or anything that belongs to him.

In Holladay’s “Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, tach’mode is described as “try to acquire“, i.e., an overt, active attempt to take possession for one’s personal use. This is quite different than to covet (to desire intensely but take no overt action to fulfill that desire). According to Holladay, tach’mode describes an action, not an emotion. For example, let’s look at two contemporary examples of prohibited tach’mode:

When the parents go away for the weekend, the son hosts a kegger for friends knowing that his parents would not approve (Do not tach’mode thy parent’s house).

When the husband of an attractive woman leaves on an extended business trip, his next door neighbor invites the wife over for dinner with hopes of seducing her (Do not tach’mode thy neighbor’s wife)

These examples illustrate a positive action taken to fulfill a desire. In the first example, tach’mode refers to using the parent’s house against his parent’s wishes. In the second example, tach’mode refers to a willful act in the hope of satisfying a [lustful] desire. We see the latter acted out in the story of David and Bathsheba. David violates the ninth commandment when he invites Bathsheba to his palace knowing she was married to someone else. The invitation violates the 9th commandment. But then David subsequently compounds his transgression by violating the 8th commandment when he commits adultery with her. In neither example (nor in the story of David and Bathsheba) is the motivation behind the wrongful act in view.

How could this mistranslation have come about? The most probable explanation arises from the observation that when the Hebrew was translated into the Greek Septuagint, the Hebrew words tach’mode (see above) and אִוָּהּ (ivah – to desire intensely) were translated using the same Greek word ἐπιθυμήσεις (epithymeo). However, unlike tach’mode, ivah really does mean covet, lust after, or strongly desire.

But ivah isn’t used in the 9th commandment (nor in its counterpart in Deuteronomy). Thus, where the biblical Hebrew makes a clear distinction between the desire motivating an act (ivah) and the act itself (tach’mode), the Greek does not. Since the LXX was the Bible used by the earliest Christians (and all the Greek Jews) including Paul and the Apostles, it’s little wonder that this [mis]understanding was carried forward in virtually all of the English Bibles we have available to us today.

Here, then, is my translation (what the ancient Hebrew listener would have understood) of the ninth commandment:

Do not use the house of your neighbor without his permission. Do not command the wife of your neighbor. Do not command his servant or his house-maid or his oxen or his donkey or anything that belongs to him without his permission.

More generally, this commandment can be enlarged to an admonition against taking advantage of those who are not in a position to refuse. To do so is akin to theft.

(For a more detailed explanation of this (and other) mistranslations, see Joel Hoffman’s book, And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning).

  1. [1]In Leviticus 19:17 we are commanded not to hate our brother in our heart lest we incur sin because of him. This can certainly be interpreted as a prohibition against hate, but the wording suggests that when you hate someone you may be more likely to commit a sinful act. Hence the qualification …”lest you incur sin because of him.”
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1 Response to “Do Not Covet…” – What the Bible Really Says

  1. Pingback: Is Lust a Sin? | Thus Said The LORDThus Said The LORD

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