We all need material things; we need furniture, a roof over our heads, clothes to wear and many other things. However, when does this need to have things turn into just wanting things for the sake of having it? When is wanting stuff covetousness? In the epistle to the Colossians, Paul said that covetousness amounted to idolatry. When I read this, I felt convicted, because I like nice things. I do really want a beautiful garden and a cozy, nicely decorated home. I want good home school resources to teach our children and many other things. Does this mean that I practice idolatry? Does this mean that we are not to look at material things or want them for ourselves? Are we required to look away when we see something nice in order not to want it? This is indeed a tricky question. Let us look what is taught in scripture.
The commandment not to covet, is found in Exodus 20.
7 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
However, this Hebrew word “hamad” is used for the first time in the book of Genesis.
9 Out of the ground YHVH Elohim caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Here it has a positive context.
Before we look at other references, let us look at the Dictionary of Biblical Languages to see where and how this Hebrew word “hamad” was also used.
2773 חָמַד (ḥā·mǎḏ): v.; ≡ Str 2530; TWOT 673—
1. LN 25.12–25.32 (qal) covet, lust, desire, i.e., strongly desire another’s possessions (Ex 20:17; 34:24; Dt 5:21[MT 18]; 7:25; Jos 7:21; Pr 6:25; 12:12; Isa 53:2; Mic 2:2+);
2. LN 25.102–25.115 (qal) delight, i.e., to be fond of and take pleasure in an object or action (Ps 68:17[EB 16]; Pr 1:22; Isa 1:29+); (nif) be pleasing, be desireable, be choice to the eye (Ge 2:9; 3:6; Ps 19:11[EB 10]; Pr 21:20+); (piel) delight (SS 2:3+);
3. LN 57.25–57.35 (qal pass.) treasure, wealth, formally, coveted, i.e., pertaining to a collection of objects which constitute far more that normal in society (Job 20:20; Ps 39:12[EB 11]; Isa 44:9+)2
From this, and the first verse we quoted, we learn that the word is not always used in a negative context. “Hamad” can mean to take delight or pleasure in something. “Hamad” can also refer to having a strong desire for another’s possessions, and it furthermore seems to indicate having far more than normal.
There seems to be a differentiation between finding something pleasing or desirable and coveting it. Alternatively, you may say there seems to be good and bad coveting. We need to know the difference. So when is something desired and when is it coveted?
When is something desired and when is it coveted?
Let us look at other references to see if we can find the answer to this question. We find the second reference also in the book of Genesis.
6 When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate.
YHVH put two trees in the middle of the garden, of one, the tree of knowledge of good and evil they were prohibited to eat of. It belonged to YHVH, and they were told that if they eat of the fruit, they will surely die. Satan came along and told Eve that this tree would not cause them to die, but will, instead, make them wise. She desired that wisdom so much that she disobeyed YHVH… This may have been the very first example of coveting. This seems to be the difference, she had to disobey YHVH in order to acquire that which she desired. Let us test this theory.
The third reference is Exodus 20:17 as quoted above. In this verse, we are commanded not to covet anything that belongs to another. Why? Because, we will have to do unrighteousness to acquire it…
This is quite interesting, let us look at some of the other references. The next two references are related in a way.
25 “The graven images of their gods you are to burn with fire; you shall not covet the silver or the gold that is on them, nor take it for yourselves, or you will be snared by it, for it is an abomination to YHVH your Elohim.
Here, YHVH gives the instruction not to covet the silver and gold that are on idols. Why? The answer is found in Leviticus 27:28. Here, we learn that anything devoted to destruction is most holy to YHVH. So, the silver and gold deemed for destruction belongs to YHVH.
In the next reference, we read about how Achan took some of the things that were under the ban, thus belonging to YHVH.
21 when I saw among the spoil a beautiful mantle from Shinar and two hundred shekels of silver and a bar of gold fifty shekels in weight, then I coveted them and took them; and behold, they are concealed in the earth inside my tent with the silver underneath it.”
I can see a thread running through all references where “hamad” is used in a negative context. Have you seen it? It seems that desiring something is coveting when acquiring that which you “desire” involves disobedience to YHVH in any way.
In the case of Achan, the gold, silver and the mantle belonged to YHVH. Similarly, with Eve; she desired the fruit that belonged to YHVH and had to be disobedient to obtain it. Furthermore, when you desire something that belongs to your neighbor; his wife, house or any other thing that belongs to him, it is considered coveting. How would you obtain it other than in disobedient ways like adultery, murder, theft or fraud?
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia defines coveting as follows:
So when is desiring something, coveting? When you can only obtain it through unrighteous means. Did you know that scripture teaches us that, whatever is obtained after coveting, will not endure?
What was coveted and acquired, will not endure
It is interesting to note that whatever was obtained after coveting, will not endure. The Hebrew word “hamad” was translated as desires, but could have been translated as coveted, in my opinion.
19 “For he has oppressed and forsaken the poor; He has seized a house which he has not built. 20 “Because he knew no quiet within him, He does not retain anything he desires.
The reference in Micah confirms this as well.
2 They covet fields and then seize them, And houses, and take them away. They rob a man and his house, A man and his inheritance.
When you read the rest of the passage, you will see that in this case also it did not endure for the one who coveted. We see the same in the case of Achan; he did not retain what he coveted and took. It cost him his life as well as the lives of his family members.
There is another facet to coveting which we found in our definition of “hamad” as well, it is referred to “the collection of objects far more than normal.” This is a very subtle way of describing it for this is actually synonymous with greed.
6 The righteousness of the upright will deliver them, But the treacherous will be caught by their own greed.
The Hebrew word “hawwah” is a synonym of “hamad”
2094 I. הַוָּה (hǎw·wā(h)): n.fem.; ≡ Str 1942; TWOT 483a—LN 25.12–25.32 evil desire, wicked craving, i.e., strong, bad, yearnings (Pr 10:3; 11:6; Mic 7:3+)2
So, covetousness is not only wanting that which belong to another, it also means wanting more than we need, greed in other words. When we study the Apostolic writings for coveting, you will see how the focus is more on this facet of covetousness.
The Apostolic writings on covetousness
Let’s first look if Y’shua said anything about it.
21 “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, 22 deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. 23 “All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.”
It is interesting how this is worded, it seems like Y’shua is listing and summarising in one sentence. We have seen how coveting is the root of many other sins like fornication, theft, murder and adultery. Here Y”shua lists these sins and summarizes it as “deeds of coveting.” Coveting starts in the heart as a thought, an evil thought and may lead to fornication, theft, murder and adultery.
15 Then He said to them, “Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.”
In this verse the word “pleonexia” is translated as greed
It is interesting to note that this word “pleonexia” is different to the Greek word that was used in the Septuagint for “covet” in Exodus 20:17. The word that was used in the Septuagint is:
ἐπιθυμέω epithymeō desire; long for; lust for
to long for
✪ ἐπιθῡμέω, set one’s heart upon a thing, long for, covet, desire, c. gen. rei, Hdt.2.66, A.Ag.216, etc.: also c. gen. pers., Lys.3.5, X.An.4.1.14 (later c. acc. pers., Tab.Defix.Aud.271.45 (Hadrumetum, iii A.D.)); of political attachments, τῶν ἡμετέρων πολεμίων And.4.28; ὀλιγαρχίας Lys.20.3, w. acc. of thing, μηδὲ βελόνης ἔναμμʼ ἐπιθυμήσῃς Men.fr.683.11 K.-Th., Telesp.42.12 H: c. inf., desire to do, πλῶσαι Hdt.1.24; ἀπικνέεσθαι ib. 116; περισσὰ δρᾶν S.Tr.617, etc.: abs., desire, covet, Th.6.92; ὁ ὰεὶ –ε͂ν Pl.Prt.313d, etc.; τὸ ἐπιθυμοῦν τοῦ πλοῦ, = ἐπιθυμία, eagerness for it, Th.6.24:—Pass., to be desired, τὰ ἐπιθομούμενα Pl.Phlb.35d. 5
These words are synonyms, so it does not make such a difference except for the fact that “pleonexia” seems to lean more towards the meaning of “greed” or “a desire to have more.” This word choice rules out any possibility of it referring to something positive as this word is always used in a negative context.
Paul also used this word in Colossians, he went a step further and likened covetousness to idolatry. How are we to understand this?
Covetousness likened to idolatry
5 Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry.
It makes sense if you think about it. Covetousness or greed is so all-consuming that all reason is lost. A person who covets is only focused on that which is coveted. It becomes so important to him or her that even YHVH would take a second place, and that makes it idolatry.
Paul admonishes us to be content with what we have…
1 Timothy 6:6–10
6 But godliness actually is a means of great gain when accompanied by contentment. 7 For we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either. 8 If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content. 9 But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.
We are to keep our eyes on YHVH, not turn aside to futile things, which cannot profit.
1 Samuel 12:21
21 “You must not turn aside, for then you would go after futile things which can not profit or deliver, because they are futile.
Obsessing about futile things ultimately leads to destruction as it draws us away from YHVH. We have many examples in Scripture of the results of coveting. The result is destruction. Consider King David, what did he profit from coveting the wife of another man, or Achan?
You just have to look at statistics to understand that people are not content with what they have, they always want more. Did you know that there are more cars than drivers licences, and self-storage units have become one of the biggest businesses? Is that a sign of contentment?
We are to be content with what we have not spent our time obsessing about what we want next. Always busy with what we want instead of being thankful for what we have, takes the focus of being thankful to YHVH, for what we have, off and change it to being bitter about what we don’t or can’t have. Also, if a desire to have something is so strong that you would do anything to get it, even commit sin, then you know you have a problem.
Is it wrong to want nice things? I will answer this question with another one. Where does YHVH fit into your life? What is your priority, the things you want or your relationship with YHVH? What do you pursue? Riches, possessions or YHVH’s kingdom and living righteously? How do you spend your time?
Covetousness is very personal. Only you would really know if you are guilty of this sin as it is a sin of the heart, a secret sin. We must search ourselves to see if there is covetousness in us, repent of it and return to YHVH. We will not take anything with us when our time on earth is up. However, our relationship with YHVH will determine what happens after that. Where do you want to spend eternity? YHVH is our salvation, and He is to be our priority, not possessions. I want to leave you with this:
1 John 2:15–17
15 Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. 17 The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of Elohim lives forever.
- All quoted passages are from the New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update. LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995. We have substituted YHVH for LORD and Y’shua for Jesus.
- Swanson, J. (1997). Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
- Evans, W. (1979–1988). Covet; Covetousness. In (G. W. Bromiley, Ed.)The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised. Wm. B. Eerdmans.
- Vine, W. E., Unger, M. F., & White, W., Jr. (1996). Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. Nashville, TN: T. Nelson.
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