Is It A Sin To Covet Your Neighbor’s Husband?

Thomas McAdam

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No, this is not a story about the sex lives of certain members of Louisville’s Metro Council (iLocal News aspires to a higher level of discourse than that). This is a question that popped into our mind the other day while we were reading an essay lamenting the absence of any neuter pronoun in English to replace the cumbersome his/her construct.

Feminists and other officers of the P.C. police are insisting that “A driver should look in his rearview mirror before pulling out of a parking space” be rephrased to the legalistic, “A driver should look in his/her rearview mirror,” or the illiterate, “A driver should look in their rearview mirror.” Sure, one could write, “A driver should look in its (notice, no apostrophe in “its”) rearview mirror,” but use of the ungendered “it” is ordinarily confined to references to newborn babies of whose gender one has yet to be informed, and those transvested or transgendered former Olympic athletes about whose gender one could care less.

Which brings us to the Decalogue that Moses brought down to us from Mount Sinai (or Mount Horeb, if you prefer). Obviously the Author of these ten admonishments was concerned about the sexual behavior of His/Her flock. Adultery seems to have been just as much of a problem in the olden times as it is today. Only, today, we call problems “issues.”

But the injunction against coveting the wife of one’s neighbor presents myriad “issues” in a modern context. Your pastor may have told you that the clear meaning of this prohibition is that ------- after your neighbor’s spouse is calculated to bring down heavenly wrath upon you. And that noted philosopher, Mister Rogers, has explained to us that just about everyone is your “neighbor,” so it will little avail one to slip over into the next county to pursue one’s lust.

But your pastor may be exceeding his/her portfolio when he/she suggests that “your neighbor’s wife” should be interpreted as gender neutral. Clearly, the ancient legal maxim of Expressio unius est exclusio alterius (The express mention of one thing excludes all others) should apply here. A vague law prohibiting, say, “lewd dancing” could be interpreted many different ways by a court. But a law specifically requiring naked dancing women (or men) to remain at least ten feet apart from the men (or women) in her/his audience could not reasonably be construed to prevent naked dancing at a distance of eleven feet. As we recall, it was Lord Blackstone himself, who coined the phrase, “I wouldn’t touch her with a ten-foot pole.”

Exodus 20:2–17 expands upon the rule against coveting, to include your neighbor’s “male or female slave.” Skipping over the question of how slavery became such a moral “issue” in the 1860s, when it was evidently O.K. with Moses, we see that the Ten Commandments are pretty darn specific about the genders of the objects of our wrongful lusts. Seems like the Author/Authoress of the anti-coveting commandment would have clearly stated “your neighbor’s wife or husband” if that was His/Her intent.

The great Jewish philosopher and theologian Moses Maimonides (no relation to Charlton Heston) was of the opinion that “one does not violate the Exodus commandment unless there is a physical action associated with the desire, even if this is legally purchasing an envied object.” Sort of like, “You can look, but don’t touch.” And purchasing is definitely out of the question.

The great American philosopher and theologian (albeit, mediocre president) Jimmy Carter, on the other hand, tells us that “------- in one’s heart” is just as serious a transgression as actually “doing the dirty.” Former newspaper writer Mark Twain (not his real name), on the other hand, seemed to lean toward Maimonides’ view, when he said that he understood that looking at a woman (he probably should have said “person”) with lust in your heart was the equivalent of committing adultery in the eyes of the Lord (Lady?), but that, although he’d never committed murder, he’d read a few obituaries with a degree of concealed pleasure.

Our Moslem friends have less difficulty with this conundrum. Qur'an 20:131 instructs us: "And do not covet what we bestowed upon any other people. Such are temporary ornaments of this life, whereby we put them to the test. What your Lord provides for you is far better, and everlasting." One can find no sort of gender ambiguity in the Qur'an: Surah 4:34 says nothing about allowing wives to beat their husbands.

We are informed that most recent biblical scholarship suggests that the Hebrew word “chamad”—usually translated as “covet”—is better understood as “take;” as in, “Thou shalt not take thy neighbor’s wife.” This, of course, leaves unanswered the questions of just where one is not supposed to take one’s neighbor’s old lady; and whether it’s O.K. to take her, so long as one returns her in time to cook thy neighbor’s dinner.

Then, there’s the whole problem (issue) of just what constitutes “your neighbor’s wife.” If the couple next door is cohabitating “without the benefit of clergy” (the term, “shacking up,” being offensive to progressives), may one covet one’s neighbor’s girlfriend? (Another anachronism, we suspect; the preferred term now being “paramour.”) And, what about two same-sex lovers? Which one is the wife we need to quit thinking about?

Finally, we feel that Exodus 20:2–17 goes a little too far, when it expands upon the anti-wife-coveting prohibition to include “…or ox, or donkey…” There are some topics that are unfit to be discussed in a licit and respectable publication such as iLocal News, and we adamantly refuse to go there.

NOTE: Please, no comments about this article having nothing to do with Downtown Louisville Community. If you really don’t see any connection, you need to get downtown more often.


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