Deuteronomy 5:21

The book of Deuteronomy is the fifth and last book of the Torah (“law”). It continues the story of the first 4 books and picks up exactly where the book of Numbers ends (with the people on the plain of Moab). Therefore, as we set the context for the book of Deuteronomy, it is important that we briefly summarize the theme of the previous books to see how the story of God unfolds.

Genesis describes God’s plan to bless the Israelites and the world through one man named Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3). Exodus focuses on God’s loving act by which He rescued the Israelites from Egypt in order to have a covenant relationship with them. Once the children of Israel are redeemed, Leviticus instructs them to live a holy life that reflects the life of their covenant redeemer (cf. Lev. 19). Since the first generation of the Israelites failed to obey God wholeheartedly, the book of Numbers displays a strong contrast between God’s faithfulness and the nation’s failure. That is why the book of Deuteronomy reiterates and expands on the covenant to a new generation of Israelites poised to enter and conquer the Promised Land. The message of the book is centered around two key terms: love and loyalty (Deut. 6:4-5).

Deuteronomy 5 begins the exposition of the covenantal principles by which the Israelites were to live in the Promised Land as vassals or servants of Yahweh. This chapter is divided into three parts.

• The first part deals with Moses’s exhortation to Israel to obey God’s commandments. Here, Moses reminds the people of God’s manifestation at Mount Horeb (Sinai) where He established a covenant relationship with them and promised that if they walked in obedience as a nation, they would serve a priestly function to other nations (vv. 1-5).
• The second part deals with Moses’s restatement of the Ten Commandments God gave to Israel at Mount Sinai after redeeming them from bondage in Egypt (vv. 6-21).

• The third part focuses on exhorting Israel to fear God and walk in obedience by reminding them of the time when their elders asked Moses to be the mediator between the LORD and His people, because the Israelites were afraid upon hearing God’s voice from the midst of the fire at Mount Sinai (vv. 22-33).

Essentially, this chapter serves to encourage Israel to be loyal to their Suzerain (Ruler) God by reminding them of their past commitments with Him at Mount Horeb (Sinai). It provides assurance that God will keep His part of the bargain and see to their success if they will walk faithfully, as well as reminding them that they experienced that God is a consuming fire (Deut. 4:24).

It also reminds Israel of the three pillars of self-governance set up by God as the social order for His priestly nation: rule of law, private property, and consent of the governed.

The Tenth Commandment

The LORD prohibits covetousness.

The tenth commandment is distinct from the others in a couple of ways. First, along with the fourth commandment regarding Sabbath, the tenth commandment has no parallel with ancient Near Eastern law. Scholars agree that there is no other law in the ancient Near East that addresses coveting. Second, whereas the previous commandments speak of one’s actions (outward acts), the tenth commandment speaks of one’s intentions (that is, his inner disposition).

The LORD began by saying, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.” Coveting describes a state of mind wrongfully directed at things that belong to others. It most often pertains to a desire that is stimulated by sight. Thus, someone who covets his neighbor’s wife consistently nourishes thoughts and cravings for her. Such a behavior can lead him to employ maneuvers in order to acquire his neighbor’s wife.

Furthermore, God said, “And you shall not desire your neighbor’s house, his field or his male servant or his female servant, his ox or his donkey.” The verb translated as “to desire” often refers to an evil thought that is contrary to the will of God. It pertains to a desire that arises from an inner need (Deuteronomy 12:20; 2 Samuel 23:15; Psalms 10:17). Yet both verbs (to covet and to desire) describe states of mind wrongfully inclined at things that belong to others.

Finally, God declared, “Anything that belongs to your neighbor.” The idea is that one should be content and satisfied with what the Suzerain (Ruler) Yahweh grants him. Coveting leads to adultery, stealing, and false testimony because it is directed by selfish desires. Thus, it seems reasonable to say that the tenth commandment encompasses the rest in that it begins with thoughts and cravings rather than actions. Actions are preceded by thoughts.

This command also emphasizes that God’s rule of law is the basis for a self-governing society. There is no possible way a human ruler could enforce this command. But in a self-governing society, God is the ultimate authority, and He is a discerner of “the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12).

Jesus emphasized the principle of the tenth commandment when He said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28).

The tenth commandment, which applies to heart, is very important because it is central to a righteous walk because it applies to the source of all actions — our thoughts. For, as Jesus says, “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders” (Matthew 15:19).

The Apostle Paul addresses this point extensively as well, emphasizing that the walk of faith of a believer begins with our hearts and minds. For example, in Galatians 5, Paul contrasts the “flesh” as an avid opponent of the “Spirit” with flesh advocating for us to choose it to rule over us, and the Spirit likewise. This is an internal battle that has external consequences. Paul states that we can determine which we are choosing by examining our actions.

Biblical Text:

21 ‘You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, and you shall not desire your neighbor’s house, his field or his male servant or his female servant, his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor.’

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