In "Debt: The First 5000 Years" by David Graeber, there is a claim on page 129:

Even in the Bible, the admonition in the Ten Commandments not to "covet thy neighbor's wife" clearly referred not to lust in one's heart (adultery had already been covered in commandment number seven) but to the prospect of taking her as a debt-peon -- in other words, as a servant to sweep one's yard and hang out the laundry.

The citation is to a short "Editor's Corner" article by L. Randall Wray appearing Summer 1999 edition of the Journal of Post Keynesian Economics. I found it here. (The claim is on internal page 685, page 7 of the pdf).

In this article, the claim is repeated, with attribution to

Michael Hudson, "How the debt overhead led to financial crises in antiquity: from Babylonia to Leviticus, Financial tensions between tax collectors and creditors," lecture, Jerome Levy Economics Institute, March 6, 1998

I don't know how to follow the trail from here. Can anyone confirm or deny?

I'm wondering how this claim could even theoretically be substantiated -- do we have historical records that could tell us how the Bible was understood "originally"?

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    It is going to be difficult to defintively answer this question with evidence rather than opinion. You may have more luck at Biblical Hermeneutics SE.
    – Oddthinking
    Apr 7, 2016 at 2:01
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    But theft was also already been covered by commandment eight. If those two commandments show the sin of those acts, then the last commandment might show the sin of desire even without acting on it. So the fact that adultery was already prohibited doesn't mean sexual coveting couldn't be in view in the tenth commandment. Apr 7, 2016 at 12:08
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    @curiousdannii: I agree, I don't think "adultery had already been covered in commandment number seven" is very strong evidence.
    – Eli Rose
    Apr 7, 2016 at 12:22
  • @curiousdannii And that commandments 1-3 are basically versions of "exclusionary worship" shows further that a commandment being about the same thing as another is not at all unusual.
    – user11643
    Jul 5, 2020 at 17:14
  • We have both a Christianity and Biblical Hermeneutics site that would accept this question as on topic. Jul 6, 2020 at 1:04

3 Answers 3


Context suggests that that commandment is more related to wealth than sex:

“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.” (Exodus 20:17, ESV)

Modern translations usually only render the Hebrew word here as covet about a half-dozen times, and those tend to also focus on wealth. Deuteronomy 7:25, for example, emphasizes the wealth connection:

The carved images of their gods you shall burn with fire. You shall not covet the silver or the gold that is on them or take it for yourselves, lest you be ensnared by it, for it is an abomination to the Lord your God.

In the NT, that connection is maintained; Jesus interprets the adultery commandment, not the coveting commandment, to refer to lusting after someone else's wife (Matthew 5:27–28). He too connects covetousness to wealth:

13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” 14 But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15 And he 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.” (Luke 12:13–15)

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    Interesting that women are considered to be property...
    – jamesqf
    Apr 7, 2016 at 5:12
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    @jamesqf Um, women being seen as property several thousand years ago is… old news.
    – Weaver
    Apr 7, 2016 at 8:31
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    @jamesqf This isn't even the worst example of this, not even close... Apr 7, 2016 at 10:28
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    Thanks for the response! I hadn't thought about the Hebrew that gets translated into 'covet'; that's interesting. However I'm not quite convinced -- I can certainly imagine a wife being seen as a posession and her being seen primarily as someone to have sex with.
    – Eli Rose
    Apr 7, 2016 at 12:37
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    @jamesqf I don't think this is the right time or place to explain why the religion is bad or whatever you're getting at. In any case, i think both lust and economics are wrong; it's about jealousy -- coveting is a mostly internal application of jealousy, like harboring a grudge would be to anger. And you can be jealous of your neighbors's connection with their wife wether you or they think he's an object or a person or whatever.
    – Weaver
    Apr 7, 2016 at 19:15

My take on this is that it's a misunderstanding based on the Protestant numeration of the 10 Commandments. The original commandments given to Moses, which number 17 or more distinct commands, were not numbered the "10 Commandments" as they are known today until many centuries after they were written down. The Catholic (and Lutheran) numeration of the 10 Commandments is based on Saint Augustine's numeration which separates "You shall not covet your neighbor's wife." (number 9) from "You shall not covet your Neighbor's goods." (number 10), whereas the Protestant numeration is based on Origen's numeration which combines "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house nor his wife nor anything that belongs to him." as number 10.

The numbering system doesn't matter all that much, except for when someone comes up with an erroneous interpretation/assumption based on how they are grouped.

The opening chapters of Genesis make it plain in the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden that a woman is not a man's "possession" like a horse or livestock. He is the "bone of his bones and the flesh of his flesh". (Genesis 2:23)

Do we have historical records that could tell us how the Bible was understood "originally"?

As far as how Christians have understood it, yes we do. Many of the early Christians (which are referred to as the "Church Fathers") have writings that have been preserved that we can refer to. Saint Augustine is considered one of these Church Fathers.



The New American Standard Bible (NASB) is considered the most literal translation of the original texts.

The NASB translation of Exodus 20:17 says:

17 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.

It's important to distinguish between Bible translations and Bible Versions, which may differ in content (leading to different sets of commandments).

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    Why is this a "No" answer? Isn't it a "yes" answer?
    – Avery
    Jul 5, 2020 at 13:46
  • @Avery: See the edit history. I reworked it to save the answer, and it was I, not the OP, who changed it explicitly into a "No" answer, but I think I have preserved the intent. Do you think I got it wrong?
    – Oddthinking
    Jul 5, 2020 at 14:16
  • Oh, I see! I read the original answer, but now I'm not sure what the original intent was. It's a somewhat incomplete statement and could really go either way...
    – Avery
    Jul 5, 2020 at 14:19
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    @Avery Just as the original language… it could go either way: [chamad: to desire, take pleasure in Original Word: חָמַד ](biblehub.com/hebrew/2530.htm) The problem with the edit is imo just that the NASB is certainly not "the most literal translation". It is neither interlinear, nor compares as 'more' to eg YLT, GLT or LSV. NASB is very far into the spectrum, but should really only read 'one of the more literal translations but still popular and somewhat easy to read' (or 'considered by some…') The language aspect alone cannot give an answer here. Jul 5, 2020 at 14:25

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