Part I: Build A Fence Around the Law

Are fences good things or bad things? Do they exist to keep things in or to keep things out?

As most of you know, I grew up on a mountain top farm. In that area when I was a boy, most farms were 20 to 100 acres in size. Our farm was about 40 acres in size.

Compared to the Fort Smith area, farmers had a short growing season. It got warm enough to plant at a later time of the year, and harvest came much earlier in the year.

My mother still lives in the same house and on the same farm where I grew up. When I was a boy, I knew every inch of that place. Every inch of that place was in some direct way connected to my personal history and my personal development. I either plowed it with a mule, or chopped it with a hoe, or picked up sand stone off of it, or helped clear a overgrown area, or camped on it, or hunted on it.

When I was a boy, you could hunt and roam on any neighbor's land. So I knew the hills, hollows, and creeks in the area.

I usually go home twice a year. I sleep in the same house I slept in as a boy. The farmland is still there. I can see most of it from the back yard. Yet, it has been about a decade since I have walked the farm and taken a stroll down memory lane.

Why? Fences! There are no longer gates where there used to be gates. Now if you want to climb a line fence, it is built like three fences with two of them barbed wire. And I do not know the neighbors. And I do not know what is on their land. Thus the truth is the fences keep me from going anywhere.

Is that good or bad?

This evening I will begin an emphasis with you that I truly hope to make as interesting to you as it is to me. I hope also to stimulate your insights with the result that your faith will grow.

  1. This week I went to the Goggle search engine on the Internet and typed in the words, "Fences and the Jewish Law."
    1. The reason I typed those words was this: the basic objective of the Pharisees in the first century was to build a fence around the law.
      1. Determine the commands from God in the first five books of what we know as the Old Testament (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), which is what the Jewish people call the Law or Torah in both the Old and New Testaments.
      2. Once those commands are determined, build a fence around each one of them so a person does not accidentally disobey an unchangeable commandment from the unchangeable God.
    2. The web site that appeared is called Judaism 101.
      1. That web site told me there are approximately 733,000 references to Fences and Jewish Law (or Torah).
      2. I called up a specific site called Halakhah: Jewish Law.
        1. This is what the article said:
        2. Judaism is more than a set of beliefs about God, man, and the universe.
        3. It is a comprehensive way of life based on rules and practices.
        4. It is intended to affect every aspect of a person's life: what you do when you wake up; what you eat; what you wear; how you groom yourself; how you conduct business; who you can marry; how to observe important days; and how to treat God, people, and animals.
        5. "Halakhah" is commonly translated Jewish law, but it literally means "the path one walks."
        6. This approach declares it increases spirituality in life because it declares every act of life has religious significance--everything you do reminds you of your faith.
    3. The Law or Torah contains 613 commandments that cannot be changed, that came from God.
      1. Though there is (and always has been) disagreement on what should be included in those 613 commands, there is complete agreement among orthodox Jews that there are 613 commands.
        1. 248 of those commands are positive, one for each bone and organ in the male body.
        2. 365 are negative commands, one for each day of the solar year.
      2. Many of these commandments can no longer be observed.
        1. Example # 1: commands that target sacrifices and offerings cannot be observed because they were to take place in the temple, and the temple was destroyed in 70 AD.
          1. If there is no temple, there can be no sacrifices and offerings.
          2. I call two statements to your attention from Deuteronomy.
            Deuteronomy 12:5 But you shall seek the Lord at the place which the Lord your God will choose from all your tribes, to establish His name there for His dwelling, and there you shall come.
            Deuteronomy 12:11 Then it shall come about that the place in which the Lord your God will choose for His name to dwell, there you shall bring all that I command you: your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution of your hand, and all your choice votive offerings which you will vow to the Lord.
          3. From the time of Solomon, that "place" was the Jewish temple in Jerusalem.
          4. If there is no temple, by God's command, there can be no offerings and no sacrifices.
        2. Example # 2: laws that concerned the theocratic state of Israel, its king, and its system of justice can no longer be observed.
          1. The theocratic state of Israel no longer exists.
          2. Thus the laws that focused on the theocracy cannot be observed.
        3. Example # 3: laws that applied to the Levites can no longer be observed.
      3. A modern rabbi scholar has identified 77 positive and 194 negative commands that can be observed in and out of Israel today.

  2. The first fence to protect people from violating God's command:
    1. First, one must identify the Laws that came from God.
    2. Second, once these laws from God are identified, they need a fence built around them to prevent people from accidentally disobeying the unchangeable instructions from the unchangeable God.
      1. The first fence was/is produced by the laws instituted by rabbis to prevent people from accidentally violating God's laws.
      2. Let me give you an example:
        1. The fourth commandment in the ten commandments that God gave Israel was this:
          Exodus 20:8-10 Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you.
        2. Israel must keep Saturday holy.
        3. They keep it holy by not doing any work.
        4. Not even their servants, or livestock, or visitors can do any work.
        5. That day they declare their dependence on God and show they trust God to care for them.
      3. To obey that command, work must be defined.
        1. That was/is done in two ways.
        2. Centuries ago 39 categories of work were defined [these categories can be found in the Mishnah, in the section Shabbath, chapter 7, verse 2].
          "The main classes of work are forty save one: sowing, plowing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, cleansing crops, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking, shearing wool, washing or beating or dying it, spinning, weaving, making two loops, weaving two threads, separating two threads, tying [a knot], loosing [a knot], sewing two stitches, tearing in order to sew two stitches, hunting a gazelle, slaughtering or flaying or salting it or curing its skin, scraping it or cutting it up, writing two letters, erasing in order to write two letters, building, pulling down, putting out a fire, lighting a fire, striking with a hammer and taking out aught from one domain into another. These are the main classes of work: forty save one."
        3. Then from centuries ago, an orthodox Jew is not to handle a implement of work on the Sabbath (like a pencil, or money, or a hammer) lest the person forget it is the Sabbath and perform an act of work.

  3. The second fence was composed by rabbinical rulings.
    1. These rulings dealt with a specific situation and had the force of law.
    2. However, these rulings were not necessarily the same in every context.
    3. An example:
      1. Many of the Old Testament men of faith were polygamists.
      2. However, not all orthodox Jews were to be polygamists.
      3. If an orthodox Jew lived in a country that followed Christian values and made polygamy against the law, polygamy was condemned among orthodox Jews and not to be practiced.
      4. If an orthodox Jew lived in a country that followed Muslim values and allowed men to have up to four wives, polygamy was not to be condemned.

  4. A third fence was constructed by custom that is recognized as law for religious reasons and has been recognized for so long that it is binding.
    1. Things should be done in an area as they have customarily been practiced.
    2. However, if you change areas and thereby changed customs, you should follow the custom you have always practiced.
    3. For example:
      1. In some areas it was customary to stand while reciting a certain prayer.
      2. In other areas it was customary to sit while reciting the same prayer.

  5. I want you to see the point of building a fence around the law: it was to control everyone's actions and protect them from violating an unchangeable law from an unchangeable God--its objective was to protect a person from accidentally doing something wrong.
    1. Your first reaction may be, "That is really weird!"
      1. First, you identify the laws from God.
      2. Second, you prevent people from violating God's laws by building a fence around it.
      3. The first fence is built by identifying what the law means.
      4. The second fence is built by the rabbis' rulings.
      5. The third fence is built by custom.
      6. "What a strange way to approach God's teachings!"
    2. May I suggest to those of you who are members of the Church of Christ that you may have much more in common with that approach than you realize.
      1. When I was a boy we had a gospel meeting virtually every summer.
        1. In the back of the building we had a question box that allowed anyone to ask any question he or she wanted to ask.
        2. There was always one question that would be asked--even if there was only one question in the box.
        3. The question: "must a woman have long hair and must she wear a hat when she comes to worship?"
          The question would frequently cite 1 Corinthians 11:5,6
          But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head, for she is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head.
        4. If we paraphrased the question, to me it would be, "What is the actual meaning of that statement?"
      2. Often an issue was settled by citing the position of preachers: "Brother so-and-so says," and if enough prominent preachers agreed, that settled the matter.
        1. What is the basic difference in doing that and the rabbi's making a ruling?
      3. It is our custom at West-Ark to stand before someone is baptized into Christ and to applaud after the baptism.
        1. Why do we stand? In order to see better!
        2. The applause astounds people who come from congregations who never applaud.
        3. Is that applause right or wrong or in violation of scripture? No, applause has nothing to do with scripture.
        4. It is our custom, and as our custom it is appropriate here--but not intended to be binding on others elsewhere.

Quite often our approach has been to identify commands, then build fences around those commands to control people and prevent violations. That is not an ancient Christian approach. That is an ancient Jewish approach.

David Chadwell

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Evening Sermon, 26 June 2005

 Link to next sermon

 Link to other Writings of David Chadwell