What Does Covet Mean in the Bible?


Coveting is an important concept in the Bible because it can harm individuals and their communities. It’s so critical that avoiding dangerous forms of it is one of the 10 Commandments, making it the only behavior on the list that refers to an inner state of being, not an action. Yet, the New Testament also affirms the potential sinfulness of coveting. So what is it?

Sinful coveting describes an excessive and unhealthy desire to have what someone else possesses. It’s not simply wanting or needing something but a selfish, greedy, uncontrolled longing to have something that belongs to someone else. Sinful covetousness lacks wisdom, love, and contentment.

Why is coveting included in the 10 Commandments? What does it lead to according to the New Testament? What did Jesus say about it? What is an example of positive and negative forms of it in each testament? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.

coveting in the Bible
What does coveting lead to, according to James? See below

Unholy desires are evil and destroy relationships

In the book of Romans, the Apostle Paul wrote that all people sin and fall short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23). Sin affects all areas of a person’s life, including their desires.

Christian author Jerry Bridges writes, “Covetousness – the evil desire for something belonging to another – is one of the most deeply rooted emotions in the human heart.” [1]

Sin may entice someone to desire the wrong thing or the right thing the wrong way. The Bible teaches that people should acquire the right things the right way.

People sometimes desire good things like peace, justice, and fulfillment. Yet, there are also evil forms of desire, which are permeated with sins like lust, greed, and envy.

The Bible forbids evil forms of desire because when people act on them, they are fulfilled through sinful means (e.g., theft), and they destroy relationships and communities.

Still, even desire without action can be sinful. For example, Jesus said, “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (ESV).

Coveting leads to fighting and quarreling

James 4:2 reads, “You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask” (ESV). The Greek word translated as “covet” is epithumeó (ἐπιθυμέω) and describes a negative longing or lusting after something.

One James commentator writes that the Greek word implies “a strong and unhealthy craving to secure something not currently one’s own.” [2] Sadly, coveting is common to the human experience in a fallen world. People want what others have, leading to horrible outcomes, from broken families to world wars.

Coveting is such a powerful sin it’s included in the 10 Commandments (more below).

covet 10 commandments
When did Eve covet? When did Achan? See below

What the Old Testament Teaches About Coveting

Many Bible readers associate the word “covet” with the 10th commandment. The verse reads, “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 is your neighbor’s” (Exod. 20:17, ESV).

Like most English translations, the NIV, NLT, NASB, KJV, and NKJV each use the word “covet” in the 10 Commandments passage. An example of one of the very few translations that don’t is the CEV, which reads, “Do not desire to possess anything that belongs to another person.”

Coveting in the 10 Commandments

The Hebrew word translated as “covet” in the 10 Commandments is chamad (חָמַד). It means to take pleasure in or desire something. When it’s used negatively in the Bible, and people are warned not to do it, the idea connotes greediness, selfishness, and jealousy.

For example, in Genesis 3, the word has a negative connotation. When Eve saw that the tree “was a delight [chamad] to the eyes,” she ate it (Gen. 3:6). Another example is in the story of Achan’s sin. When Achan sees a beautiful cloak, silver shekels, and a bar of gold, he says, “I coveted [chamad] them and took them” (Josh. 7:21, ESV).

Concerning the 10th commandment, instead of loving one’s neighbor (Lev. 19:28; Mark 12:31), a covetous person feels an unhealthy lure toward what they have and may even want to dispossess them of it. While not all pleasures and desires are evil in the biblical worldview, the kind that accompanies coveting is.

Exodus scholar Douglas Stuart explains, “The commandment does not say ‘do not covet,’ which would make no sense since much coveting is permissible or even commendable as long as the thing being coveted is something a person should desire and not something that already belongs to someone else exclusively…”

He continues, “Therefore the commandment is necessarily worded with objects for the verb ‘covet,’ these objects being things that one should not desire because they already belong to someone else.” [3]

Positive covetousness in the Old Testament

An example of the positive form of chamad is Genesis 2:9, where the word is translated as “pleasant.” The verse reads, “And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant [chamad] to the sight and good for food” (Gen. 2:9, ESV; also NIV, NLT, NASB, KJV, NKJV). The trees God made glorified him.

The most positive use of chamad is when it describes God. For example, Psalm 68:16 reads, “Why do you look with hatred, O many-peaked mountain, at the mount that God desired [chamad] for his abode, yes, where the LORD will dwell forever?” (ESV)

Because chamad describes God in this verse, it implies a desire that is pure, righteous, and holy. There is nothing evil or sinful within it.

Covetousness
What did Jesus say about coveting? See below

Coveting in the New Testament

Coveting has positive and negative uses in the New Testament.

Luke 12:15 reads is an example of a negative use: “And [Jesus] said to them, ‘Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions'” (ESV). The Greek word translated as “covetousness” (KJV, NKJV) is pleonexia (πλεονεξία). Some translations render it “greed” (NIV, NLT, NASB).

Yet, the negative form of this desire is so bad that Paul equates it to idolatry. Ephesians 5:5 reads, “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” (ESV).

Coveting can be idolatry because that which a person desires takes priority over loving one’s neighbor and being content with what God has provided.

A positive use of the word coveting in the KJV

The KJV Bible uses the English word “covet” once in a positive way: “But covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31). Like other modern translations, the NKJV modifies the description: “But earnestly desire the best gifts. And yet I show you a more excellent way.”

The Greek word the KJV translates as “covet” is zéloó (ζηλόω). It can also have negative connotations related to envy, resentment, and greed.

For example, Acts 17:15 reads, “But the Jews were jealous [zéloó], and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason, seeking to bring them out to the crowd” (ESV).

References:
[1] Trusting God by Jerry Bridges. p. 64.
[2] James by Craig Blomberg and Miriam Kamell. ZECNT. p. 188.
[3] Exodus by Douglas K. Stuart. NAC. p. 466.

Daniel Isaiah Joseph

Daniel's seminary degree is in Exegetical Theology. He was a pastor for 10 years. As a professor, he has taught Bible and theology courses at two Christian universities. Please see the About page for details.

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