What does the tenth commandment teach about desire?

This is the last post I will write in response to readers who have asked questions about a piece that I co-wrote with Rosaria Butterfield for The Public Discourse titled “Learning to Hate our Sin without Hating Ourselves.” You can read my answers to the first two questions here and here.

The third question is about the tenth commandment in Exodus 20:17. Here is the reader’s question in his own words:

In your reference to the desire of the 10th commandment (different than the action of the 7th), isn’t the sin desiring something that another person has?  I could desire a piece of cake, and that would be fine, gluttony aside… But if I want your piece of cake, that’s sin.  Or, to change the object, if I desire my wife – no problem.  If I desire your wife, that’s the 10th commandment.  The real question is what if I desire an unmarried woman.  Either way, that’s not breaking the 10th commandment, which is about desiring something another person has.  It seems that Exodus 20 doesn’t contribute to the argument of whether or not desire itself is sinful.

I think this is a great question. After all, weren’t we all taught that coveting is basically a synonym for envying? On that understanding, coveting seems to be more concerned with wanting other people’s stuff than with desiring evil in general. If that were so it may not tell us much about the ethics of desire, much less same-sex desire.

I think this perspective, however, involves a misunderstanding of the word translated as “covet” in Exodus 20:17. The underlying Hebrew term is khamad, which is a verb meaning to desire. The term “can be used in a very good sense (Ps 19:10; 68:16), but it has a bad connotation in contexts where the object desired is off limits” (NET Bible). It is a more general term for desire—desire which can be good or evil depending on its object. If someone desires a good thing, then the desire is good. If someone desires and evil thing, then the desire itself is evil. That is just how the term works.

The English translation “covet” doesn’t quite capture these nuances. In English, covet suggests desire for something that is not your own. The Hebrew term is actually more expansive than that sort of coveting. The Hebrew term can denote desire for something not your own, but it also can denote far more. That is why I prefer to render khamad with “desire.”

Commentators routinely make the very same observation. For example, Douglas Stuart writes,

Although it may seem to be belaboring the obvious to say so, the final commandment insists that God’s covenant people realize that wishing to have good and proper things is good but that wishing to have the wrong things is bad (p. 467).

The tenth commandment teaches us that sinful desire leads to sinful deeds. As Jay Marshall elaborates,

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.

If you miss this point, then you’ll also misunderstand Jesus’ exposition of the seventh commandment and its connection to the tenth (Matt. 5:27-28). You’ll also misunderstand Paul’s penetrating reflections on “desire” in Romans 7—reflections that are often obscured by the English translation “covet.” The word Paul uses is simply the standard Greek term for “desire,” which follows the Septuagintal rendering of the tenth commandment. A more accurate rendering, therefore, would use the word “desire”:

Romans 7:7-8
7 I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about desiring if the Law had not said, “You shall not desire.” 8 But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me desiring of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead.

When Paul speaks of “desiring of every kind,” he’s referring to the countless ways that desire fixates on evil objects. The tenth commandment gives a number of ways that desire fixates on evil, but there are far more ways than are listed there. And that is what Paul is getting at in describing his own personal experience with evil desire. That evil desire is the wellspring of sinful deeds because (Paul insists) the desire itself is sinful.

This usage also explains the overall New Testament teaching on the morality of desire. In my view, the New Testament writers are consistently alluding to the tenth commandment in their teaching on desire. They do so by using the very same word for desire that appears in the Greek version of the tenth commandment. When they do so, they are not limited to the specific evils listed in the tenth commandment. For example:

Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its desires. (Rom. 6:11-12)

Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly desires, which wage war against the soul. (1 Pet. 2:11)

As obedient children, do not be conformed to desires which were yours formerly in your ignorance. (1 Pet. 1:14)

Bottom line: The tenth commandment is not merely prohibiting a desire for someone else’s stuff. It does that and much more. In fact, it provides the basis for the rest of the Bible’s teaching about the morality of our desires. Jesus was not innovating when he said that looking at a woman to desire her sexually was tantamount to adultery (Matthew 5:27-28). As the master teacher, he was simply highlighting the connection that already existed between the seventh and tenth commandments. He was teaching us that desire for sin is itself sinful. This principle applies to all human desire, including same-sex sexual desire. That is why so many of us believe such desire to be sinful as well.

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