When you spend a lifetime reading the bible, there are always parts of it that are intriguing but make absolutely no sense, until they do. There is a thread in the Old Testament, rooted in the Torah, mentioned in the prophets (Hosea 5:10), and echoed in the writings (Proverbs 22:28), that has intrigued me since I first fell upon it as a child. I was the goofy, bookish, slightly macabre child that found cemeteries fascinating. If you ask me why, I think it was just the mystery. The biggest hill in town that nobody talked about. Markers stretching back to “times before”. In the closest cemetery, that “before” would simply have been before IL was a state, but in the big town, before the US was a country. This was an actual weight of time, combined with all the epitaphs people used on stones. My pious favorite, “In the hope of the resurrection”. The touching “beloved mother”. The cryptic masonic and other odd symbols. Proud obelisks, and the sentimental despair of weeping angels or cloak draped urns. So when I ran across this:
“You shall not move your neighbor’s landmark, which the men of old have set, in the inheritance that you will hold in the land that the Lord you God is giving you to possess.” – Deuteronomy 19:14.
It peaked the imagination. Why would God or Moses give such a commandment? Why did God seem to care about stones? And why are they connected with that important biblical word neighbor? Just who is my neighbor?
In our modern formatted texts, that verse is probably set apart like its own little sense bubble having nothing to do with what came before or after. I think it would be a mistake to treat it as such. The first piece of context is Deuteronomy itself. These are the commands given right before Israel takes the promised land. Israel is going to take the land, expel the Canaanites (or they are supposed to do so), and parcel it out. They will be making new boundary lines. God isn’t telling Israel to not make new boundaries, but they don’t get to remove the old owner’s boundaries. Strange. The second piece of context is the law immediately before it which concerns sanctuary cities. These sanctuary cities are to be established to protect those guilty of accidental manslaughter from revenge killing. They do not protect the murderer, they simply create a neutral court to determine the motive. “If anyone hates his neighbor” the lex talionis is in full effect. The third piece of context is the law immediately after which regulates witnesses. A single witness shall not suffice. Also, a malicious witness (i.e. a false one) shall fall under the punishment he tried to procure for his brother. Again the lex talionis is invoked. Again, neighbor and brother.
Landmarks are part of discerning judgment and refuge. Landmarks give a dual witness. They judge and the give refuge, and it is up to us to understand both from the witness of those not present. And that witness moves in both directions. They witness to us their judgments, but they also elicit from us our judgments. They witness where they found refuge, and ask where we find ours. If we are righteous we enact justice in our own day. We provide to the living refuge and judgement. That is the point of the invocations of the lex talionis. Moses knows that there will be many times we don’t wish to do so, but in both cases, the murderer and the false witness, he says “your eye shall not pity”. Landmarks often become what Jesus chides the Pharisees over. “Woe to you! You build the tombs of the prophets your father’s killed (Luke 11:47).” Landmarks can be witness to the times we did not do justice. The landmarks of a people no longer in the land, like the Canaanites, can be a witness to the fragility of our hold of it. “God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones (Luke 3:8).” Landmarks can be a refuge in a troubled time. This is the toughest to maintain in a sinful world, but I think it is the point of Jesus’ cry “My house was supposed to be a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it into a den of robbers (Mark 11:17).” If a place is consecrated to the worship of the Father in spirit and truth, it should remain so, for all nations. If they don’t, they witness against us. If those consecrated places do, we find the peace of Christ resting on them. But even the grandest Cathedral is but a temporary refuge, a landmark which points to our eternal refuge.
If we go about in spasms of iconoclasm moving landmarks, it is not that that their witness it no longer true, but that we can no longer discern its voice. “Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing (Luke 11:44).” We become even more unclean, because we have removed that which would have witnessed to someone who might have heard, and understood, and repented. We ourselves are cursed, and our actions curse others.
I wish I could take down every statue of Robert E. Lee. I wish I could remove the markers of a racist past. I wish that I didn’t know now what I didn’t then about Sally Hemmings. I wish that I could return to the graveyard of my childhood awash in mystery. But when we become men, we put away childish things. The most childish of those things is believing that anything straight was ever made from the crooked timber of humanity. It is such a tempting fantasy that we can remake the world in our image. That by moving a few landmarks we can make the land new. That by taking the body off the cross, we can return to divine impassibility. That by taking the crucifix off the altar we can have our best life now. That by whitewashing the tombs everything will be beautiful.
But the Lord says, “You shall not move your neighbor’s landmark.” Why? Because the Canaanites, the racists, the slaveowners, the crucifiers, these are my neighbors and my brothers. If they can’t be saved, neither can I. But Christ came for sinners. Even the stones cry out. Every landmark gives a witness – some soft and some brash, some welcome and others a scandal. This land we held, which is yours now, is fleeting. This land is not the promised land. Don’t wait, don’t hold on to it. Do justice now, love righteousness now, walk humbly with God now, that you might enter into eternal dwellings.