I’ve always thought that the rule against coveting my neighbor’s wife was a good one. It seems like a very useful sort of prophylactic measure against adultery. Coveting a neighbor’s wife is probably the initial act in many (or most) cases of eventual adultery. But as salutary as a find this commandment, I also wish it were phrased in a less misogynistic way.
The commandment is clear, both the good and the bad:
17 Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.
What a problematic formulation! The rule is a great idea and a very useful rule — possibly the best defense against the greater sin of adultery; a foreshadowing of Christ’s statement that men are not to lust unlawfully after women. But it is phrased in a way that suggests that the real purpose is not protection against adultery, but simply property-rights protection, where the neighbor’s wife is just one of his more interesting or useful pieces of property. And so “neighbor’s wife” is certainly on the list . . . right after “neighbor’s house,” prior to “manservant,” and as a component of a list that ends with “nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.” In addition, the list appears to go in descending value order, suggesting not only that the neighbor’s wife is a piece of property, but also that she’s less important than the real estate. (No Monty Python jokes about “tracts of land,” please). What a way to make clear the worth (or lack thereof) of women!
Finally, the ugliness is compounded by the authorship of the phrase. There’s little room to quibble about misinterpretations or ideas of men; this is part of the Ten Commandments, directly from the finger of God. Not only does tribal, patriarchal Israelite society think that women are worthless, God apparently agrees. Or rather, they aren’t entirely worthless — they’re simply a man’s second-most-valuable piece of property, directly following his house. Lovely.
Of course, modern church leaders adapt this rule to its present use, which is as a general building block for the law of chastity. We know that coveting is part of a package that includes sexual sin in general, in its many manifestations — adultery, fornication, pornography, and so on. And without disagreeing with that adaptation — which seems like a great reading — I must admit that the original formulation of the rule still bugs me. Yes, I know that it can be put to a very good use. But it seems like, as originally given, it wasn’t put to that use. So I’m wondering — should I just be happy that we can cheerfully apply a modernist, non-offensive reading to this rule without too much violence to the text? Isn’t that a bit disingenuous? How much should I let the problematic framing of the original rule bug me?