Coveting as the Root of the Other Sins

Coveting as the Root of the Other Sins February 7, 2018

The Jewish scholar Leonard Greenspoon of Creighton University (a Catholic institution) explores the concept of “coveting” in the Ten Commandments.  He undertakes a close analysis of the Hebrew word and the different understandings in the Jewish tradition. 

What struck me is his quotation from Philo of Alexandria (25 B.C.-50 A.D.), who said that coveting–that is, illicit desire–is the root of all of the other sins in the second table of the decalogue (the sins against our neighbors):

The fifth [in the second list, which equals the tenth in the full listing] is that which cuts off desire, the fountain of all iniquity, from which flow all the most unlawful actions, whether of individuals or of states, whether important or trivial, whether sacred or profane, whether they relate to one’s life and soul, or to what are called external things; for, as I have said before, nothing ever escapes desire, but, like a fire in a wood, it proceeds onward,consuming and destroying everything.

Philo, On the Ten Commandments (De Decalogo XXXII, 1.173-174; Yonge trans.)

Comments Greenspoon, “For Philo, craving what is not one’s own is the root of all social evil. Why else does one murder, commit adultery, steal, or bear false witness?”

Luther said the First Commandment comprehends all the others, that if we have the God revealed in Scripture as our God, and no other–that is, if our faith in God is right–our faith will bear fruit in keeping all of the other commandments  (First Commandment, Large Catechism).  Clearly, the First Commandment summarizes the First Table of the Law, our duties towards God, but, as Luther shows, it also relates to the Second Table, our duties towards our neighbor.

Similarly, Greenspoon quotes a rabbi who sees the prohibition against coveting to relate to the First Table as well:

Following a rabbinic tradition in which a commandment from the second list is paired with a commandment from the first,[7] Rabbi Yakum reads the tenth and the first together as if they state in a sentence “do not covet Me.” In other words, not only are social sins such as adultery and theft committed because the person desires what a fellow human possesses, but “religious sins” between humans and God, are committed because a person covets being God or having divine power/authority. If God is the master of the world, how can a person desire to have that which God did not give, or act in a way God does not permit?

At any rate, the first and the last commandments serve as bookends:  we must have genuine faith in the true God, and we must obey him in our inmost desires.

Greenspoon’s says that the Hebraic tradition sees coveting as both desire and the taking of action based on that desire.  Though Jewish teachers sometimes focused on either desire (as Philo does) or action, he says that the rabbinic tradition settled on the notion that we are not responsible for our inner feelings, just on our actions.  In this, he admits, they were advocating the opposite of what Jesus taught.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).  He goes on to say that not just the external act of murder, but the feeling of anger against one’s brother violates the Commandment.  That not just extramarital sex but lust in the heart constitutes adultery.

For Jesus, sins of the heart are equivalent to sins of action, and in this way, he argues, his interpretation of Torah is stricter and more righteous than that of the Pharisees. . . .The rabbis’ position is the exact opposite of that taken by Jesus.

In the Rabbis’ view, it is unrealistic to prohibit feelings of attraction. For a feeling to be prohibited, it must be something the person thinks about realistically. Such a “craving” leads to active planning, in which a person works to take the desired object away from his fellow. It is this plotting that the Torah forbids in the tenth commandment of “do not covet your neighbor’s house,” as such behavior is destructive to society, the concern of the latter half of the Decalogue.


Philo, though, agrees with Jesus, as does Luther.  Righteousness is not a matter of mere external compliance, as important as that is.  Somehow, the heart needs to be changed.  That happens when the Law and the Gospel creates faith, which has the power to re-order our desires.


Illustration, Philo of Alexandria, by  André Thévet [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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