The Sin Behind the Crimes

We are used to thinking of the 10 commandments in the category which scholars call “moral law.” By this is meant that they are universal to all of humanity and thus universally applicable as a moral code. Whatever merits this might have, the ancient Hebrews understood that these 10 commandments were given explicitly to them as a nation under covenant. True, as a royal priesthood, Israel was to demonstrate the righteousness of their God to the nations by living by these laws. For them, these laws would better be understood as “criminal law” in the context of their culture, for breaking any of them meant drastic punishment.

All except the last commandment ─ coveting. Coveting is certainly a sin, but it is by its very nature not punishable by law. However, we see that without coveting, which we here are loosely defining as inordinate desire, the four previous crimes of murder, adultery, stealing, and bearing false witness cannot happen. Israel’s history displays examples of this disease of coveting in key passages of Old Testament history. Achan confesses that he coveted the beautiful garment, silver and gold, which led to his thievery (Josh. 7:21). Because the covenantal community was a whole and not individual, the crime was considered a national failure. The debauched inhabitants of Gibeah covet (lust for) the Levite, but he threw out his concubine instead, whom they murder (Judges 19-21). This in turn spurred on the unholy fratricide between Benjamin and the other tribes, and Israel became a murderous nation. David’s adultery with Bathsheba is the parade example of coveting turning to the double crime of adultery and murder (II Sam. 11). Because David was King, his crime had national consequences. Finally, we find King Ahab incapacitated with covetousness over Naboth’s orchard, which Naboth could not sell to him because the property inviolably belonged to his family. Jezebel arranges for his murder through false witnesses (I Kings 21). One scholar, David Noel Freedman, believes that the whole of Israel’s history from the moment the 10 commandments were given in Exodus to the fall of Israel in the book of Kings, chronicles a progression of breaking each of the commandments; when the last one, the ninth, was broken, it was only a matter of time when the kingdom would fall (“The Nine Commandments: Uncovering a Hidden Pattern of Crime and Punishment in the Hebrew Bible.” Doubleday, 2000).

Be this as it may be, coveting with its companions of greed and lust is the unseen, interior origin of all crime. Hence this 10th commandment stands last of all as the emphatic warning that keeping the law is a matter of the heart. Jesus tells us nothing new when He teaches us that adultery happens in the heart, for the great 10th commandment interiorizes the previous four. One will not be punished if one covets his neighbor’s wife, but if he does, he stands before God as if he actually committed the act of adultery. This was clear as day in the law for the Old Testament believer. What was new about Jesus and His teaching was that He actually lived the law to perfection, and in fact was the law incarnate, whereas Israel as a nation failed. The amazing good news of the Gospel is that Jesus now mysteriously dwells within the hearts of His people like Yahweh dwelt in the most holy place of the Temple in Old Testament times. This places the law of God in the most interior depths of our being, enabling us to aspire to Christ’s perfection. We now might boldly say that if Christ did it, we can do it too. This attitude is called perfection, and we will spend some time this Advent contemplating what this means for us.

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