Reflections on Ethics 65
The Tenth Commandment:
The Hidden Meaning of Coveting
by: Joseph Lewis
Joseph Lewis (1889 - 1968) was an American freethinker and atheist who was born in Montgomery, Alabama. At the age of nine he left school to find employment and became mostly self-educated. Lewis developed his ideas from reading, among others, Robert G. Ingersoll and Thomas Paine. (Wikipedia)
Editor's note: In my discussion of the 10th Commandment, I concluded with: "The only reason for this particular commandment is to make it impossible to follow the rules. It makes everyone a sinner. This is a complete denial of our human nature. It has nothing to do with morality." That conclusion was based on what "covet" means in current English usage. The following article, which is the opening section of Chapter 10 of Lewis' 1946 book, The 10 Commandments, provides an assessment of what "covet" meant to a primitive wandering tribe three millennia ago. If you accept this hypothesis, clearly, the 10th commandment is irrelevant today.
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"Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's."
If the previous Commandment alone was sufficient to invalidate the Decalogue as a divine revelation, this Commandment offers conclusive proof that the Decalogue is a series of taboos based on the primitive belief in animism and sympathetic magic.
This Commandment was never intended to prevent envying another’s possessions, but rather to avoid the evil consequences of “coveting” in the magical sense.
Coveting was not mentioned as an undesirable trait to be avoided because it is unethical, immoral or antisocial; it was recorded and made part of the Decalogue because the superstition prevailed in Hebrew tribal society that envious thoughts would bring ill luck and misfortune, through sorcery and witchcraft, to the person against whose property the “coveting” was directed. Covetous desires, they believed, would call into existence the malevolent spirits of the “evil eye,” which by devious and diabolical methods would cause the loss of the coveted possessions.
This Commandment is identical in purpose with, and differs only as to subject matter from, the Second Commandment, which prohibits the making of graven images, and the Third Commandment, which forbids the mentioning of taboo names. It also furnishes additional and pertinent testimony as to the clannish and tribal application of the Decalogue. Just as in the previous Commandment, to bear false witness was prohibited only against one’s neighbour (i.e., a fellow tribesman, a compatriot), so coveting, as mentioned in this Commandment, is restrained only against “thy neighbour’s” possessions, “his house, his wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his ass,” and “any thing that is thy neighbour’s.” This restrictive prohibition is tantamount to a non-prohibition against those outside the clanship of the Children of Israel, as was so conclusively proved in the analysis of the other Commandments.
The narrow, proscribed application of this Commandment, and the specific details of the things not to be coveted, even to “anything that is thy neighbour’s,” is also significant evidence that the word “coveting,” as used in this Commandment, had an altogether different definition from the modern one. The real meaning of the word can only be apparent if one understands the primitive mind. Is it conceivable that “coveting” anything,” no matter how small, insignificant or valueless, could be so strongly and definitely prohibited unless some mysterious danger would result? If this were not so, does the boy who “covets” his friend’s bicycle violate this Commandment? Does the dimple-cheeked, blue-eyed little girl who “covets” her playmate’s curly-headed doll violate this Commandment? And, if so, is she to suffer from the wrath of this jealous and vindictive Bible Deity all the days of her life? This is so obviously ridiculous that one wonders how such an edict could ever have been imposed on millions of people as an infallible precept in a divine code of morals. If a Commandment of this kind could have been accepted as an eternal truth, is there, in the dogma of a creed, anything too improbable for religious people to accept?
Coveting, as used in this Commandment and as it was originally understood, was a secret treason, a hidden danger from which no member of the clan was safe. The Bible is replete with references not only to this belief among the primitive Hebrews, but the penalties provided for its practices are numerous, definite and ruthless. All stood in mortal fear of the sorcerer, and no punishment was too severe for so diabolical a person. At the time this Commandment was formulated, coveting was considered one of the greatest of evils, and to counteract its effect was of major concern to the people who lived in continual fear of the terrible results they believed inevitably followed its practice.
Lévy-Bruhl, one of the foremost authorities on the thinking processes of primitive peoples, says: “Covetousness is of itself not merely a feeling of desire but a positive and effectual action of the soul of him who covets upon the thing coveted.” To covet, in the primitive meaning of the word, is just as effective as a physical action, and in many primitive communities it is closely associated or synonymous with stealing. Casalis, another authority, says that “covetousness has its own proper meaning.” Among primitive tribes its power was a dreaded force of evil, as they knew only too well the “ungoverned desires of the heart.”
This primitive concept of the word “coveting,” as used in this Commandment, is verified by the use of similar words among the Biblical Hebrews. For instance, keshep, the Hebrew word for “coveting,” means, according to one authority, “a thing done in a secret manner.” It also means “poisoner,” or “to cast a spell.” This same authority says that “there is no doubt that the real meaning of this ‘magic’ is exactly witchcraft.” Kishif, another Hebrew word meaning “coveter” or “sorcerer,” is defined as “witchcraft” in the Talmud. Another authority tells us that the medieval Hebrew believed that a man and his wife could be so bewitched by envious persons that they would be unable to cohabit. The Hebrew word asar, meaning “to bind,” occurs frequently with the meaning “to tie somebody by a knot-charm so that he cannot enjoy relations with his wife.”
There are numerous Hebrew words that have similar connotations, The language of the Biblical Hebrew contained countless words denoting and characterizing the evil spirits which inhabited the provincial universe in which he lived. The Hebrew word shedim means “mystical harmer”; the word rubin or ruhotraot means “evil spirit”; lilil means “night spirits”; telane, “shade [or evening] spirits”; tiharire means “midday spirits”; zafrire means “morning spirits,” as well as “demons that bring famine and cause storms and earthquakes.” So numerous were these spirits of destruction that if man could see them “he would lack the strength to face them, though he could see them by casting the ashes of the fetus of a black cat about his eyes or by sprinkling ashes around his bed he could trace their cock-like footprints in the morning.”
In many languages, as well as in Biblical use, the words “coveting,” “enviousness,” “sickness,” “death” and the “evil eye” are synonymous. The English word “envy” actually means malignant or hostile feeling that is said to arise from natural jealousy. This is illustrated by the action of Saul in his envy and jealousy of David as recorded in Book 1 of Samuel, Chapter 18, verse 9:
9 And Saul eyed David from that day and forward.
The word “eyed,” as used in the Bible, had a far more significant meaning than merely to “see” or “look after.”
The Safer Hasidim gives a clue to the Biblical Hebrews’ dread of coveting, as used in this Commandment, and its relationship to the evil eye ; it says: “The angry glance of a man’s eye calls into being an evil angel who speedily takes vengeance on the cause of his wrath.” The Talmud also refers to this important phase of the religion of the Hebrews, stating: “One-should never open his mouth to Satan,” meaning that evil talk will produce evil results.
Perhaps the most illuminating reference to the meaning of coveting, as used in this Commandment, and the seriousness with which the Children of Israel regarded it, is the words of Micah, Chapter 2, verses l-3:
1 Woe to them that devise iniquity, and work evil upon their beds! When the morning is light, they practise it, because it is in the power of their hand.
2 And they covet fields, and take them by violence; and houses, and take them away: so they oppress a man and his house, even a man and his heritage.
3 Therefore thus saith the Lord; Behold, against this family do I devise an evil, from which ye shall not remove your necks; neither shall ye go haughtily: for this time is evil.
Not only was personal property subject to coveting” but so menacing was this iniquity that those who possessed the power could “work evil upon their beds”; they could “covet fields and take them by violence.” A man’s house and even “his heritage” could be taken away by coveting! Those found guilty of this practice could not escape the penalty, for the Lord had said: “Against this family do I devise an evil, from which he shall not remove your necks. . . .”
Coveting was definitely the weapon of the sorcerer, the concealed means of exercising the malign influence of the “evil eye.” It was witchcraft in its most diabolical form, and that is why it was prohibited among the Hebrews. That is why envious thoughts of “thy neighbour’s” property were taboo. That is why strict and stringent penalties were provided for coveting.
There cannot be the slightest doubt that the Biblical Hebrew believed in witchcraft. Not only did Saul visit the Witch of Endor and seek her advice, but the Biblical injunction “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” is conclusive proof of the prevalence of this belief among the Children of Israel. So great was the fear of bewitchment that anyone guilty of its practice was to be put to death! And this injunction carried with it the same authority as any of the Commandments of the Decalogue.
The belief in witchcraft is one of the most damnable the Bible is responsible for perpetrating on mankind. The fear of sorcerers was so great that even the law took cognizance of it, and judges certified to the existence of witchcraft by Biblical authority! To the pages of the Bible belongs the guilt for the innocent blood of the hundreds of thousands of victims shed as a result of this mad superstition. Men, women and children were subjected to every conceivable infamy and every conceivable torture for merely having been accused of committing crimes of which they were utterly incapable. This devilish superstition has persisted almost up to our very day, as is proved by the statement of John Wesley that “the giving up of witchcraft was in effect the giving up of the Bible.”
The fear of uttering anything that offers the slightest possibility of doing harm or exercising the slightest detrimental influence accounts for the numerous prophylactic expressions and measures prevalent among the orthodox Hebrews. Even today they are resorted to as a means of avoiding this kind of bewitchment. “Don’t beashrei me” is frequently heard. The use of this expression reveals how deeply rooted was this superstition in nationalistic Hebrew life. It means, in effect, “Thou shalt not covet,” or “No evil eye.” The prevalence of this expression in Hebrew culture is additional proof that the real meaning of the word “coveting,” as biblically used, is “employing witchcraft.” Orthodox Hebrews still avoid mentioning the words “evil eye,” and substitute a reverse expression, gut-oig (“good eye”), so as to avoid the implications and dangers involved in uttering the dreaded words. This taboo against mentioning the dreaded words is identical with the one which forbids mentioning the name of the Hebrew Deity and calls for the use of a substitute, as revealed in the analysis of the Third Commandment.
- Lévy-Bruhl, Primitive Mentality, p. 350.
- Hastings, Encyclopedia, Vol. 8, p. 301.
- Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition, p. 127.
- Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, p. 516 (see same for other material).
- Hastings, op. cit., Vol. 5, p. 608.
- See also Deuteronomy, Chapter 28, verse 54.
- An authoritative Hebrew book.
- Trachtenberg, op. cit., p. 56.
- 1 Samuel, Chapter 28. For additional evidence of the belief in witchcraft among the Biblical Hebrews, see: 2 Chronicles, Chapter 33, verse 16; 2 Kings, Chapter 9, verse 22; Micah, Chapter 5, verse 12; Deuteronomy, Chapter 18, verse 10; Nahum, Chapter 3, verse 4.
- Exodus, Chapter 22, verse 18.
- For details of the influence and prevalence of witchcraft, see Lecky, History of Rationalism in Europe, Vol. 1, pp. l-50.
- A. A. Roback, Psychological Aspects of Jewish Protective Phrases, p. 5.