David and Bathsheba

I had intended to move on to the ninth commandment, but since writing about the tenth, I’ve been thinking a lot about the story of David and Bathsheba. It’s a perfect story for illustrating the prohibition on coveting your neighbor’s wife. If you haven’t read the story or need a refresher, you can find it at 2 Samuel 11–12. It’s the sort of salacious story you expect to find in the tabloids.

David, strolling on the roof of his palace one evening, sees a woman bathing on her own roof nearby. He sends to find out who she is and learns that she is the wife of Uriah the Hittite, one of the thirty warriors of unquestionable loyalty who acted as David’s personal guard. David sends for her and has sex with her. His coveting leads to adultery, an attempted cover-up, and then murder—killing not only Uriah, but others who were with him on the field of battle.

The story includes almost nothing about Bathsheba. She appears only as the object of David’s desire. It could be argued that this is because she is a woman and not worthy of consideration as a active agent in the story. Yet there are other stories in 1 and 2 Samuel of strong, wise women such as the story of Abigail, another of David’s wives who exhibits great initiative in saving herself and her family from David’s wrath. You can read about her in 1 Samuel 25. Even Bathsheba shows herself capable of taking matters into her own hands when the need arises. So the story does not ignore her agency because she is a woman.

Rather, the reason for the story’s silence on Bathsheba is because of the power differential between her and David. David is her king. She dare not refuse him. Even to remonstrate with him would be to take her life in her hands. So the question of Bathsheba’s culpability is moot. Whether she desired David or not, the power was all on his side, and so no blame attaches to her. Like the woman raped in the country, she is regarded as innocent because she could not resist or cry out. David uses his privilege as king to take Bathsheba, regardless of her desire. That’s rape even if he did not use physical force. By breaking the tenth commandment, David also became guilty of much more—of despising the word of the Lord and showing utter contempt for him.

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10. No Coveting

“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

“Covet” isn’t a word you hear every day. In fact, it’s one of those religious words that tends to have currency only in religious contexts. The dictionary defines “covet” as wrongful or inordinate desire. It comes from the Latin word for greed. The underlying Hebrew for the word means desire. It is the same word used of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis 3:6 (“desirable to make one wise”). To covet, then, is to desire, to want.

The commandment does not forbid desire in general. That would be to make following it impossible. It forbids a specific desire. “Don’t desire your neighbor’s stuff.” What is it about wanting what your neighbor has that is so reprehensible that it made God’s Top Ten List?

Sin always begins with desire, and desire begins with contemplating what is good or beautiful or pleasing. How does something good lead to evil? The serpent told Eve that the fruit she ate would make her like God, knowing good and evil. God later affirms that what the serpent had said was true.

“The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil.…” Genesis 3:22

Becoming like God. Didn’t Jesus teach us to aspire to be like God? He said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). So what Eve desired was not evil in and of itself. What made it evil was that she distrusted God. The serpent implied that God had forbidden the fruit because he was holding out on them. That distrust was the thin edge of a wedge that split us all from our Creator. Sin is not trusting God.

We are all God’s children, and like children everywhere, we expect our Father to treat us all the same. The bible tells us that God has no favorites and can’t be bribed. Wanting my neighbor’s stuff is an implied criticism of God’s fairness. Like a petulant child I complain that my neighbor got more than I did. His house is bigger. His wife is more charming. His servants are more obedient. His cow gives more milk. He has a nicer car. His lawn is greener. He gets all the breaks, and I’m stuck in this dead-end job. It’s not fair, God! Then God replies—and if we’re lucky we can hear him—”Oh, I thought you were going to trust me from now on. If there’s something you want, just ask.”

How different God’s message is from the messages we hear all around us! Wanting my neighbor’s stuff is the engine of capitalism. It drives our economy. Watch the commercials on TV. Look at the ads. Aren’t they all telling you that other people have better things than you have? Look how happy they are with their stuff! I want to be happy too. I want what he’s got. I want what she’s having.

Footnote. There are disturbing things about this commandment, things I have so far ignored so I could get at the spirit of the law. One of the most disturbing is the way it classes women and slaves as personal property alongside houses, oxen, donkeys, and other possessions. Does this mean God regards women as the property of men or that slavery is okay with God? No. The commandment addresses people in their own cultural milieu, so it uses examples they understand. The law is replete with statutes designed to protect the rights of women and slaves because of the oppressive society in which they lived.

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God’s Top Ten List

The Ten Commandments are widely regarded as the foundation of Western jurisprudence. But they are also regarded as hopelessly archaic and old-fashioned. Some of them (Don’t murder. Don’t steal.) seem like common sense rules for people living in any kind of community. Others (Don’t commit adultery. Don’t desire what belongs to your neighbor.) seem to run counter to modern sensibilities. Still others (Don’t misuse God’s name. Don’t work on the Sabbath.) just seem pointless now. I propose taking a look at the Ten Commandments structured as a top-ten list, which allows me to start with number 10 and end with number 1.

The Ten Commandments are sometimes called the Decalogue, literally ten words. They were originally given to people who were mostly shepherds and nomads, without much use for the sort of tomes that get passed into law by Congress nowadays. They had to be succinct and clear. Most of them can be thought of as a two-word prohibition. Here they are rendered as briefly as I can:

  1. No other gods
  2. No images
  3. No misusing God’s name
  4. No work on Sabbath
  5. Honor parents
  6. No murder
  7. No adultery
  8. No stealing
  9. No lying
  10. No coveting

Of course, there’s a good deal more to the Law than this. There are regulations for all kinds of things, some with no discernible relation to these ten. (What possible reason could God have for prohibiting wearing clothes made from two different materials? Lev 19:19). Yet a good deal of the Law seems to be exposition of these ten. You can almost here the objections people have: “Is it murder if I accidentally kill someone in a fight when I was only trying to seriously injure him?” “Is it stealing to take something I find abandoned in a field, even if it’s not mine?” As soon as someone makes a law, someone else will be right there trying to find a loophole, and the law will get a little longer and a little harder to understand but hopefully more just. There will be judges whose job it is to interpret the law and determine whether a particular loophole is in keeping with the intent of the law. And the judges decisions will become precedents and affect how the law is interpreted going forward.

In fact, it was just this sort of process that culminated in a law so fraught with traditions and human interpretations that it was no longer recognizable, and Jesus rejected it and sought to cut through the layers of interpretation to the spirit of the Law. So he tells his followers that hatred is the equivalent of murder, that looking at a woman with lust is the equivalent of adultery, that the Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath. Again and again he confronts the religious leaders who were condemning the poor while excusing their own violations of the law on technicalities. So I’m not much interested in the traditional interpretations of the commandments. I would like to get at the spirit behind them.

Next time, I’ll start with number 10: No coveting.

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