Daily Proverbial, 17 June 2011

Do not move an ancient boundary stone set up by your forefathers. Proverbs 22, verse 28.

Good fences make good neighbors, or so the saying goes. I’ve only built one new house from scratch (ok, Richmond Homes built it…), but I remember one of the first things I wanted to do when I moved in was build a fence. I knew and liked my neighbors, but I couldn’t wait to build a fence around my postage stamp sized piece of Colorado by fencing them out (and me in). Maybe it was to put limits and protection around what was mine; maybe it was selfishness; maybe it was definition: only a short time passed before six foot cedar pickets separated my sandy dirt from the sandy dirt owned by my neighbors.

There’s nothing new in that, you know. For Godly purposes, boundaries are ancient. When the Israelites were camped at Sinai, one of the things God commanded Moses to have them do was erect piles of boundary stones at the foot of the mountain. God had his reasons for it. He wanted His people to learn respect and self-discipline. He wanted them to be self-controlled. He wanted them to be separate and distinct from the people they would conquer to take possession of Canaan. A few years ago, I read a book where the author claimed to have discovered those boundary stones just off Mount Sinai in Midian. If his story is true, even thousands of years later the markers are still in place.

Just goes to prove that you shouldn’t mess with a good thing.

Did you know that one of George Washington’s early jobs was as working as a surveyor? In a new land, such a job was important, identifying to settlers where the boundaries of lands began and ended, providing reference, direction, and structure to society. Even today, most of 300 years later, some of those township, county, and property line boundaries are still in use: evidence that ancient boundaries still matter in a so-called modern world. Again, it proves you shouldn’t mess with a good thing.

What’s the point in all this? Whether it is lines surveyed by the father of our country or boundary stones built by Moses, the markers serve as reminders to us. They are limits on our property, our freedom, and our abilities. We have to have boundaries. We need them. Humans need definition; humans need limits, if for no other reason than to define how far we can go. We need to know how far we can push before we are over the line; we need to learn the tolerance of others; we have to understand where the white lines are and what the consequences are if we cross them.

But if you take it a bit farther, precedents and discoveries are kinds of boundaries, aren’t they? New knowledge expands the limits of what humanity understands. New discoveries extend the boundaries of what we knew before. They don’t necessarily invalidate the boundaries laid down by our fathers, but they push them, usually in constructive ways. Windows 3.1 is an operating system that’s nearly 20 years old; Commodore 64s are even older, but you can still (slowly) run a computer on them if you’re willing to understand their limits. Not only that, but the super-fast Windows versions that Mr. Gates sold to us were built on the structure and lessons from those great-grandfather operating systems. ENIAC and Watson computers may be different in speed and complexity, but they’re both still computers, and you couldn’t have the latter if the former hadn’t been built when it was.

So is the verse contradicting this? It’s saying “do not move” the boundary. I don’t think it’s contradictory at all. In the context of a legal boundary, it’s establishing the precedent that we should leave in place what is good and right from our forefathers. It’s not saying we shouldn’t challenge it, but that we shouldn’t overturn it. They are historical benchmarks. In terms of knowledge, I read the verse to mean that we shouldn’t disregard the teachings of the past just because we learn new things. I think every generation thinks its knowledge is brand new; that, generally, our appreciation for history goes only as far back as the day we were born. That’s pretty short-sighted. After all, good teaching never goes out of style. What is old isn’t necessarily bad just because it is old. I read this verse to mean just that.

If you go to Asia, Africa, or Europe (or, for that matter, New England), you can travel down roads that have been in existence for hundreds of years; travel to Jerusalem and you can bump that clock back by thousands. You can run your hands along walls built hundreds or thousands of years ago by men whose names are long lost to history. The walls are still standing even if they bodies of the craftsmen are long gone to dust. The boundaries, the roads and walls are still solid today. There’s a good reason for that: it’s because God ordained it to be so.

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