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“Thou shalt not covet” is perhaps one of the most famous lines in the entire Bible. It is the last of the 10 Commandments and is so heavily emphasized that some denominations split the full version of the commandment into two pieces: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife” and “You shall not crave your neighbor’s house…or anything that is your neighbor’s.” Despite the importance of this commandment, the actual definition of “covet” is a source of debate. Understandably, Christians are determined to understand exactly what it means to covet in God’s eyes as their ability to obey the 10th Commandment hinges entirely on the definition of the word.

“Covet” is most commonly defined as “desire.” To covet something means to desire it and for a person to want to take it for themselves. Some people hold that chamad, the Hebrew word most often translated as “covet,” refers to a person’s desires instead of a person’s actions. This would make the 10th Commandment unique as it would deal solely with a person’s thoughts and emotions. The other commandments all deal with a person’s actions. 

One point that is used by those who argue that chamad should be used like “desire” is that chamad is often used with lakach, or “take.” Several passages in the Bible use both chamad and lakach in the same verse. Deuteronomy 7:25, for example, states “Do not covet (chamad) the silver….and take (lakach) it.” Take and covet are two separate, distinct actions. One covets then takes. Both actions are covered in the 10 Commandments: “do not covet” and “do not steal.” 

The fact that lakach and chamad are often used together, however, is sometimes used to argue that chamad does not deal with thoughts or desires at all. Instead, it is meant to refer to a person’s actions. Those who hold to this view argue that chamad refers to when a person takes, steals or schemes to get their hands on something that is not theirs to claim. The things listed in the commandment itself are things that a person could find a way to steal or trick their neighbor into giving them. A person could seduce or rape their neighbor’s wife. They could steal his livestock or slaves. They could trick him into giving up his house or manipulate him into a debt that can only be paid off with his land. To some people, having chamad deal with action makes far more sense than having a single commandment that deals with thoughts. The rest of the commandments are aimed at forbidding actions that would hurt other Israelites. Mere thoughts do not hurt a person’s neighbors until they are put into action.

That chamad appears near lakach in multiple passages is used for evidence by people who think chamad deals with action instead of thought. The two words are linked, they argue. The prohibition is not against wanting something, but about wanting something so much that a person tries to take it by force or guile. 

Exodus 34:24 and Proverbs 12:12 are both used by those that argue that chamad would be more accurately translated as “take” than “covet.” Exodus 34:22-24 dictates that the Israelites are to appear before God three times a year, and He will “drive out nations before [the Israelites] and enlarge [the Israelite’s] territory, and no one will covet (chamad) [the Israelites] land when [they] go up three times each year to appear before the Lord your God.” In this situation, chamad seems to deal more with theft than simple envy. It would not matter if someone desired the Israelite’s land. It would matter, however, if they would try to take it. 

Proverbs 12 is essentially a long list of opposites. Good and evil, righteous and wicked, foolish and wise are all placed in verses as opposites. One of the sets of opposites are “covet” and either “give” or “yield” depending on the translation. Some argue that this proves that chamad does not have to do with desire but with theft. “Give” does not contrast with “want,” but it is the opposite of “take.”

Not everyone is satisfied with this argument. Most Christians still hold that chamad or covet refers to desire and envy. The final commandment, then, is meant to keep not just believer’s actions holy but their thoughts as well. Christians who prefer “covet” as a translation instead of “take” point to the New Testament in support of their ideas as well as the Old Testament. In Matthew 5:27-28, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” This verse requires those who follow God faithfully to self-police not just their actions, but their thoughts. As such, it makes sense that God would have already set down one commandment that dealt with a person’s thoughts. After all, coveting something is not so different from looking lustfully at someone. Both occur when a person desires something that is not theirs. 

Unfortunately, what precisely chamad was intended to mean is still rather up for debate. Christians can argue whether it should be translated as covet, desire, take or steal, but the reality is that no one may ever know for sure. No doubt chamad made perfect sense to the ancient Israelites, but for those who translate the Scriptures today, it can be difficult to be certain that words are translated correctly. Even if the definition is the same, there may have been a connotation to an ancient word that has been lost. “Scrawny” and “thin” could both be used to refer to someone who is skinny, but they conjure vastly different images for those who read them. Whether chamad was meant to refer solely to a feeling of envy or to a feeling of envy that was acted on is still not certain. Christian tradition, however, is far less ambiguous. Either way, it is not a bad idea for the faithful to watch their thoughts. If they do not think envious thoughts, they are unlikely to steal out of envy. In which case, it really does not matter that much if chamad means “take” or “want.” The Christian has not done either one.