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Debt and the Decalogue: The Tenth Commandment

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image of Vetus Testamentum

This article seeks to demonstrate that the question of debt is present in the Decalogue. It is included in the last (or the last two) commandments: “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife etc.” (Exod 20:17). Obviously, this commandment must have a meaning that differs from the commandments not to commit adultery and not to steal. The main means for taking over possession of the goods of others, besides stealing them, was debt. The loan of goods or money involved the handing over of a pledge. If the debtor was unable to repay the debt he lost fields and houses. Mic 2:1-2, where the same word “to covet” is used as in the Decalogue, is best explained by such mechanisms of the old Israelite debt system: the rich and powerful who “covet fields” do “seize” fields and houses because their current owners are not able to refund their debt. What is true for mobile and immobile goods is also true for persons. Neh 5:1-5 demonstrates that daughters and sons had to be given away as slaves because parents were “having to borrow money”. In dire straights, it was also possible that a wife could become the slave of another. In Elephantine a case is documented in which the wife of one man at the same time is the slave of another. So the commandment of the Decalogue not to “covet your neighbor’s wife” has nothing to do with sexual relations. It forbids the desire to take one’s neighbour’s wife as a slave in one’s own household.

Affiliations: 1: Philipps-Universität Marburg / Research Fellow in the Department of Old Testament at the Faculty of Theology at the University of the Free State in BloemfonteinSouth


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