“Thou Shall Not Covet” Is Not a Defense of Capitalism (It’s Actually an Indictment of It.)
(Note: For those who are new to my website, when I critique capitalism, I am in no way suggesting we should embrace the wicked economic/political system known as socialism.)
I recently saw a tweet admonishing Christians not to engage in the politics of envy (which the author ascribed to socialists) because to do so violates the 10th Commandment. I saw another that said God is the ultimate capitalist. These sentiments are not disconnected. In fact, those who think capitalism is “God’s ordained economic system” usually attribute envy (as the primary motivation) to anyone who challenges their worship of capitalism.
Does every Christian who uses the “envy card” to defend capitalism worship capitalism? Of course not, but some do. I make this bold charge of worshiping capitalism because some Christians ascribe to capitalism qualities and purposes reserved solely for God, forgetting that God does not give his glory to another person or thing. I’ve heard some speak of a capitalist paradise; others describe capitalism as the only moral system. In their world, it seems, wealth inequality always occurs as a natural consequence of laziness versus hard work or because of government intervention into the economy and never occurs as a natural consequence of sinners operating in a free market. In their world, wealth accumulation should be one’s goal, the more the better. So anyone who mentions inequality or who challenges capitalism engages in the politics of envy and acts wickedly. And, according to them, the 10th Commandment proves their point.
Here is what the 10th Commandment says:
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. —Exodus 20:17
We should be suspicious of any claim that envy violates the 10th commandment when the word doesn’t appear in the verse. The KJV, NIV, NASB and ESV all use the English word covet to translate the Hebrew word chamad which means to desire or to delight in something.1 So we must ask, why didn’t the translators use the word envy?
The English word envy comes from the latin word invidere which literally means “’to look askance at,’ or ‘to have hatred or ill will toward another’ because of their possessions or advantages.”2 If Bible translators thought this was the meaning of chamad, they would have used the word envy instead of the word covet when translating the 10th Commandment into English. But they didn’t.
The Hebrew word chamad, used in the 10th Commandment, means to desire intensely anything that becomes a substitute for love and devotion due to God. The intensity of this desire overpowers the moral demands of the law so that the coveted object must be attained by any means.3
When Jewish scholars produced a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (called the Septuagint) they used the Greek word epithumeo for the Hebrew word chamad when translating Exodus 20:17. Epithumeo means to set your heart upon, long for, covet, desire.4 It can be used to express evil desires opposed to the will of God. Exodus 20:17 forbids this kind of desire because it represents a heart not fully devoted to God.5 Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.
Covetousness ≠ Envy
Well, you might say, the 10th Commandment does refer to envy because the English words envy and covet are synonyms and are interchangeable in common usage. Doesn’t matter. What matters is the meaning of the biblical text in the original language. What matters is what sin does the 10th Commandment prohibit.
The problem with using envy and covetousness interchangeably is that the Hebrew words translated into covet and envy do not have the same meaning. As noted above, covetousness is the desire for something in place of God while envy is the resentful dislike (or hatred) of another who has something we desire. Envy seems to describe socialists very well, problem is, that’s not the word used in the 10th commandment.
Covetousness = Idolatry
Both Colossians 3:5 and Ephesians 5:5 label covetousness as idolatry:
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.
—Colossians 3:5 (ESV)
For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.
—Ephesians 5:5 (ESV)
Covetousness fits well within these lists because, in the Bible, idolatry is often compared to sexual immorality. See Ezekiel 6:9; Jeremiah 3:6-10, 19:5; Isaiah 57:5-8; Ezekiel 16:15-19; Hosea 3:1-5.
So we see that the 10th commandment prohibits desiring the things of the world to the point of being unfaithful to God. Those who violate the 10th Commandment fail to love God with all their heart, mind, soul and strength and instead lust after the things of the world, thereby becoming enemies of God (James 4:4).
An Indictment of Capitalism
Whenever we don’t make a distinction that the Bible makes, we will miss something important. And that “something” will likely convict us of our own sin rather than bolster our argument about someone else’s sin.
The Hebrew Bible uses the word qana to denote the concept of the English word envy. Qana denotes jealousy or to blush from strong emotion.6 As previously noted it is not used in the 10th Commandment. Proverbs uses qana to warn against envy of evil men (not righteous rich capitalists!) (Proverbs 3:31; 23:17; 24:1,19. See also Psalms 37:1 and 73:3).
Inserting the concept of envying the rich into the 10th Commandment to argue for the morality of capitalism is both tragic and wicked. It is tragic because it blinds those who do it to their idolatrous love affair with capitalism. It is wicked because it seeks to persuade others to follow them into their sin.
It is wicked, because instead of warning others to flee the world system and to not envy evil men, it encourages others to remain in the world system and admonishes them to not envy the rich.
The 10th Commandment stands as an indictment against any world system that seeks to make us unfaithful to God (1 John 2:15-17). Capitalism is one such system. Christians are called to come out of the world system (Revelation 18:4-5) not to defend it.
Did you like this article? For more on economics and the Bible, check out my book, The Narrow Road: Loving God In a World Devoted to Money, on Amazon.
- Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible
- S. Barabas, “Envy,” in The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, ed. Merrill C. Tenney (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 2:314.
- W. White, Jr., “Covet, Covetousness,” in The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, ed. Merrill C. Tenney (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 1:1016-1017.
- Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible
- H. Schonweiss, “Desire, Lust, Pleasure,” in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. Colin Brown (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 1:456-458.
- V. Cruz, “Envy,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 357.