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You Shall not Covet: Is it Possible to Legislate a Feeling? Part 1.

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From Maimonides’ description, it is clear that the man who covets is someone who has an unhealthy soul and may not realize it. By being unconscious of this problem, his behavior embarks on a path of self-destruction and moral ruin. Based on this reading of Maimonides, it becomes clear the role of Nathan the Prophet played in confronting King David for his illicit affair with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11). From a purely Maimonidean perspective, Nathan acted as a physician of the soul for David by prescribing him a regimen for David’s complete moral and spiritual rehabilitation. It is always intriguing to see how Maimonides’ exposition of coveting compares with other famous Judaic thinkers of history. Some of these scholars also examined the psychological component in the negative imperative “You shall not covet.” Yet, it is strange Maimonides did not illustrate his point by mentioning this famous biblical story!

Abraham Ibn Ezra: Now I shall present a parable: Know that a peasant who is of sound mind, and who sees a princess who is beautiful, will not covet her in his heart, to lie with her, for he knows that it is impossible. Do not consider this peasant to be like a lunatic, who would desire wings to fly to heaven, even though it is impossible. Likewise, a person does not desire to lie with his mother, although she may be beautiful, for he has been accustomed since his youth to know that she is forbidden to him.

In the same way, an intelligent person must know that he will not find a beautiful woman or wealth because of his wisdom or knowledge, but only if God allows it to him… and therefore an intelligent person does not desire it or covet it. When he knows that God has forbidden his neighbor’s wife to him, then she is more elevated in his eyes than the princess in the eyes of the peasant. Therefore, he is satisfied with his portion and does not allow his heart to covet and desire something that is not his, for he knows that God does not wish to give it to him; he cannot take it by force or by his thoughts or schemes. He has faith in his Creator, that He will provide for him and do what is good in His eyes.”[1]

Philo of Alexandria: While Philo‘s explanation is similar to Maimonides, but he expands much further on the proscription’s psychological aspects:

This commandment aims to curtail desire, the fountain of all iniquity, which from it flows all the most serious offenses—whether of individuals or of states; whether important or trivial; whether they relate to one’s life and soul; or whether the coveting pertains just to external objects. Like fire consuming wood, desire expands, consuming, destroying everything that is in its path. Indeed, many other subordinate sins subsumed under this proscription. These laws exist in order to correct those persons who are receptive to improvement; these other laws also serve to chastise those stubborn people who dedicate their entire lives to the indulgence of passion.[2]

The law here aims to curtail desire, the fountain of all iniquity, which from it flows all the most serious offenses—whether of individuals or of states; whether important or trivial; whether they relate to one’s life and soul; or whether the coveting pertains just to external objects. Like fire consuming wood, desire expands, consuming, destroying everything that is in its path. Indeed, many other subordinate sins subsumed under this restriction. These laws exist in order to correct those persons who are receptive to improvement; these other laws also serve to chastise those stubborn people who dedicate their entire lives to the indulgence of passion.[3]



[1] Ibn Ezra on Exodus 20:17.

[2] The Decalogue 173-174.

[3] The Decalogue 173-174.