“Respect your Neighbour’s Rights (Deut 19,14)”

by John Wijngaards, LAWS FOR LIFE Series in the New Leader, 14 October 1973; in Telugu Bharata Mithram, 16 November 1975

“You may not displace your neighbour’s boundary stone which has been set by your forefathers.” (Deuteronomy 19,14)

In anocient times the land had not yet been registered in an independent land survey. When buying or selling land, the parties would normally give a short description of the property. They would roughly indicate the size and refer to some landmarks. But generally speaking the limits of the property could not be proved from documents. They were indicated by the boundary stones that had been erected on the fields themselves. We know from ancient Middle East literature that it was compara.tively easy to change the border stones and so steal an extra few feet of land. When ploughing the land, the farmer could remove the stone and take an extra furrow on his own side. The displacement was often difficult to prove. And especially if the owner was a weak member of society, such as a widow or a poor man, his protests could easily be ignored.

Divine Guarantee

Since the rights of ownership depended on the boundary stones, it was clear to the people of those ancient days that it was diffioult to protect a man’s rights with purely human means. Which human being could guarantee that an unjust person might not come at night and change the border stones! Only God for whom night is like the day and who knows the hearts of people, could definitely prove the misdeed. Consequently, all over the ancient Middle East boundary stones were considered to be under God’s special protection. When they were erected they were dedicated to God. Once a year this ceremony of dedication was renewed. Frequently boundary stones would carry curses addressed to any person who might attempt to displace them._AIso the Jews considered boundary stones safeguarded by God’s special guarantee. God would defend the case of the person whose border stones had been unjustly displaced (Prov 23, 10.11).

In human society we take recourse to God when we find that we cannot defend ourselves against an unjust aggressor. To make sure that a person tells the truth, we place him under oath, In this way we force him to take God as his witness so that we know he is telling the truth. Since life or’ death may depend on the truth of a. person’s words, we make God himself the guarantor or protector of the truth that is spoken. Similarly. we affirm important obligations of vows with an appeal to God as the ultimalte Judge of the intentions of our hearts.

Today we no longer have the vulnerable system of boundary stones, Yet, there are many other situations in which we can easily encroach on the rights of our neighbour without his being able to protect himself. There are ways of doing harm to our neighbour without anyone knowing who is the culprit. There are ways of withholding from our brother what is his due, but he may not able to claim restitution from us.

In instances of this sort. we have to respect the rights of others on their own merit. We have to honour the “boundary stones’ which our forefatbers have set. We have to remember that it is ultimately to God that we are responsible. Even if our neighbour cannot defend himself, God will protect his rights. God will punish the kind of people wbo remove boundary stones (Hos 5, 10; Is 5,8), He dislikes them intensely.