Coveting the Right Translation
I have been reading snippets of Dr. Joel M. Hoffman’s book God Didn’t Say That and have been particularly focused on the discussion surrounding his treatment of the Ten Commandments (handy chart here comparing the two OT passages). He says that “covet” never meant to merely desire to take what doesn’t belong to us, but to actually take it. The immediate objection is that there is already a commandment not to steal, so it can’t mean this. Yet I can’t help but notice that no other Commandments address the heart or intent but only outward actions; each one of them focuses on what people do, such as falsely accusing someone in court or murdering. So “covet” would be the lone exception, and thus is worthy of questioning. (Now of course nobody who so questions is to be accused of trying to make it okay to “covet”!) You can read some discussion here.
So if it can’t mean simply to steal, and it can’t mean simply to want to steal, what can it mean? Hoffman and others offer possibilities such as “take temporarily” or “squatter’s rights”. But I personally think the justification for such views require too much “stretching” and too little hard evidence. Perhaps a better fit would be something on the order of “confiscation”, where someone claims property as their rightful possession without due process. Stealing is when someone simply takes something without claiming it ever belonged to them, while confiscation is taking with the claim that it should not have belonged (or should no longer belong) to the other person. The thief knows it belongs to the victim, while the confiscator believes the victim is not the rightful owner.
Yet we must still wonder why two very closely related commandments are separated by an unrelated one (false witness); on the other hand, the last two have to do with “your neighbor”, a detail not specified for any other commandments. We could possibly understand this to mean that “coveting” is the cause of “bearing false witness”; that is, someone may lie in court in order to confiscate someone else’s property. But this too is speculation and going too far beyond the text, since we could use that same technique to meld together all the other commandments as well.
Of course I don’t believe we are under any part of OT law anyway, as I’ve written much about before, so solving this puzzle is not of paramount importance to me. My purpose today is to highlight the many difficulties facing translation, and thereby also to highlight the arrogance of anyone saying any particular translation is flawless or the benchmark of all others. It is also a reminder that even the experts can miss contextual clues or fail to see logical flaws in their claims, or at least the need to clarify.
Above all, it is a reminder to separate the primary from the secondary, the New Testament from the Old, and grace from the law. We should certainly study everything in the Bible, because the New is the culmination and capstone of the Old and loses much context without it. But we must not allow what is not binding upon us to weigh us down or divide us.
I applaud every effort to clarify and enlighten, but this must always be done under close scrutiny and cross-examination. Too often we consider a matter settled after hearing only one side of an argument or only hearing both sides once; this is what I believe is behind so many kids raised in Christian homes abandoning their beliefs in college. The colleges are clearly biased against Christianity and make sure to frame the debate to their advantage, giving the impression of thorough study of an issue but never allowing students to hear or see any “ugly facts” that might make them reject the professors’ views. Likewise, many Christians will take new ideas at face value because of the credentials of the author or teacher, but fail to do the kind of multiple-pass cross-examination we demand in courts of law. The result is people blindly swallowing whatever a popular author writes, because their reasoning seems so convincing. But per Prov. 18:17, matters of such importance deserve rigorous challenge. Hoffman is doing this to the status quo in Bible translation, but we can’t stop there; he too needs to be questioned, and both sides re-questioned.