The Hebrew Bible gives two lists of the ten commandments, one in Exodus and the second in Deuteronomy. Many of the faiths that stem from Judaism follow the guidelines given by these fundamental sets of rules, also known as the Decalogue. Despite the common origination, the Ten Commandments have been changed or molded to represent the core principles specific to religions such as Christianity. The common operation for each faith is to have a set list for the Ten Commandments. Unlike other faiths, Judaism maintains the original order for the Ten Commandments, but uses both locations in the Bible to allow a broader interpretation for each commandment. According to the Jewish tradition, the Tenth Commandment is the commandment with the most leeway for interpretation. Although Jewish and Christian interpretations of the law differ, the Tenth Commandment serves as a guide and check on desires, thought, and actions.
The first half of the Ten are commands that deal with the relationship between man and God, and the second half set the limitations for relationships between man and man. The first step to understanding the Tenth Command is to recognize the differences in forbidden actions detailed in Exodus and Deuteronomy. In Exodus the commandment forbids the action of coveting, whereas in Deuteronomy the commandment specifies that a person shall not “desire” (Kuntz 4-5). Rambam describes the difference in wording as steps that lead to doing wrong against a fellow man. Any man may desire, but the transgression occurs as soon as “he begins to meditate on how he can achieve his goal” (Feuer 60). Rambam’s interpretation allows for a man to desire anything another man has, but the man cannot act on that desire nor can he take actions to steal from someone else. Contemporary society thrives on this interpretation. After seeing someone else with a desirable object, modern-day man has the option to go purchase the same type of object.
Additionally, the Talmud explains that coveting is a step taken beyond desire; coveting is when a man acts upon the desire to take from someone else. Rambam adds that if a man wants something so badly that he influences the other person to sell an item that was not otherwise for sale, the man has violated the command forbidding him to covet (Feuer 60). When a person uses any type of influence or prestige to force someone into selling an item, then he is breaking the commandment. The commandment’s parameters do not restrict all thought, but provides guidelines that determine when desirous thought crosses a boundary into covetous thought and action. Taking action on such thought clearly violates the commandment.
Furthermore, if yearning after another man’s lot in life is breaking the Tenth Commandment. HaKemach draws a connection between the Tenth Commandment to the First Commandment. HaKemach concludes that a man that accepts God, must never doubt His will (Feuer 61). God provides man with a specific lot in life and places man on the path to fulfill that destiny. If a man is jealous of someone else’s lot in life, then that person is inherently disagreeing with the existence of an all-powerful God who provided the person with a particular fortune and fate in life. Thus, the breaking of the Tenth Commandment is the automatic breaking of the First Commandment.
The second important difference between the Tenth Commandment in Exodus and in Deuteronomy is the arrangement of things that may be yearned for in order of importance. The command in Exodus lists the following: home, wife, servants, animals, and things (Kuntz 4). Deuteronomy provides the following: wife, house, field, servants, animals, and things (Kuntz 5). Ibn Ezra provides an explanation for the order of items in Exodus via a logical saying, “an intelligent person will first acquire a house, then marry a wife” (Feuer 61). After traveling in the desert, the highest necessity for building a future is a home – shelter and protection – followed by a wife who the man is then able to support and who will assist the family in becoming prosperous.
In addition, Rambam gives a social reason for not desiring another man’s goods. Rambam says that if a man desires, that may lead him to covet which may lead him to break into the other man’s house and steal from him (Feuer 60). While in the act of stealing, the man who owns the house may try and defend himself and get killed in the process (Feuer 60). The situation may sound farfetched, but Rambam’s train of thought is logical as he outlines the chain reaction of crime that follows a strong desire. If a man owns a rare artifact that can be worn for decoration, then any man that desires the artifact may want the specific item. The only way to acquire the artifact is to break into the man’s house, where the man is willing to defend himself to the death. In this situation, not only has the intruder broken the tenth commandment, but he has also broken the first and the sixth commandment.
Consequently, the only thing that may be desired without limit is knowledge and wisdom. R’ Bachya says that the tenth commandment deals with material items, but “jealousy among Torah scholars increases wisdom” as taught in the Talmud (Feuer 62). Wisdom is so important in the Talmud, that it encourages men to be jealous of each other’s knowledge in hopes that they too may learn more. As far as the rabbis are concerned, the desire for wisdom seems to be the only example of approved covetous thought and action. The envy of another man’s intelligence only drives man to further his own knowledge, a desirable outcome.
While Jewish tradition focuses on the wording of the texts, Christianity uses the broad ideas of the commandments to reduce confusion as to what is right and wrong. Paul Kuntz analyzes a few interpretations of the Ten Commandments through various Christian principles, specifically guided by the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. Saint Gregory of Palamas created a code of ethics based off the Ten Commandments, then provided an interpretation of the Commandments. Ramón Lull reordered a few of the Commandments, while breaking up the tenth Commandment into two commandments. Saint Gregory displays the principles taught in Greek Orthodoxy through his interpretation of the Tenth Commandment.
The first difference derives from the idea of coveting another’s house, which extends to the man’s “money or glory” (Kuntz 34). Saint Gregory expands the object of desire to include intangible objects. Glory is an ambiguous term when applied to religion, but it can be interpreted to include actions that have been carried out by the individual. In this context, Saint Gregory’s interpretation seems to follow along the same lines as the interpretation given by HaKemach. The act of desiring another man’s success is similar to desiring the other man’s lot in life, both of which are tantamount to disagreeing with what God has provided to each individual.
Unlike in the Jewish tradition, Saint Gregory gives an answer as to how a person may be forgiven for the aforementioned transgression. Breaking any of the Ten Commandments is a grievous sin, and therefore, any man who commits a sin must repent to save his soul. As Saint Gregory says, “the soul that sinneth shall die … charity [will] reconcile him” (Kuntz 34). Greek Orthodoxy makes the commandments easier to break by encompassing thought and intangible objects, but provides anyone who breaks one of the commandments with a way to attain salvation – pentenance. Judaism, within the context of the Ten Commandments, does not allow people to fix their wrongs, but instead Judaism focuses on encouraging people to avoid violating the religious law in the first place. Based on the Christian ethic of repenting, a person does not fear making mistakes and, thus, learning from them. The only negative aspect of the avenue of repenting is that man no longer fears divine punishment for severe transgressions, as all is forgiven by giving “charity” and repenting.
In Jewish culture, the manner in which the Ten Commandments are placed on the tablets and the wording of the commandments, have a deep meaning that give insight into the way in which the commandments must be followed. Ramón Lull, disregarded such an idea, as he reordered the commandments and separeated the tenth commandment into two commandments. Lull made the commandment against coveting a man’s wife a commandment of its own, the ninth commandment, to emphasize “[how] envy divides the friendship of men” (Kuntz 60). Even Rambam viewed the wanting of another man’s wife as one of the most serious offenses against another man (Feuer 60). An example of the havoc that covetous lust may wreak is found in the epic tale of the Trojan War began; the opposing sides fought for the love of a married woman, Helen. God knows the heart of man and realizes the jealousy of which man is capable. God, via the Ten Commandments, warns man of the self-control that must be exhibited.
Lull’s interpretation of the Ten Commandments presents the Tenth Commandment as forbidding man from coveting another man’s things. Unlike any of the other faiths examined in Kuntz’s book, Lull explains that a man should not flaunt his riches; if a man does ostentatiously display his wealth he will receive nothing but envy and charity will overcome such envy (Kuntz 61). In other words, Lull says that the blame is not always placed on the envious party. The situation is a double-edged blade; on one side it is acceptable to desire an increase in your fortune, but once that desire starts to take over all thoughts, the wanting becomes a transgression.
The tenth commandment has many interpretations. The different renditions allow for religions to express various ways to follow God’s law. The Christian belief systems tend to focus on repentance for transgressions, whereas the Jewish tradition provides strict guidelines to prevent any transgressions from occurring in the first place. The Jewish tradition focuses on God’s words, encouraging deeper meanings to be sought and followed. The Christian counter-parts wish only to reduce envy and stress forgiveness. The different approaches provide for a variety of ways to follow the Tenth Commandment and provide some level of guidance to both Jews and Christians.
Kuntz, Paul. The Ten Commandments in History. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004. 4-5 34 60-61. Feuer, Avrohom. Aseres Hadibros. 2nd. Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, Ltd., 2010
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