Can’t See the Forest for the Fences

What is a fence for? It can serve many purposes, but in this article we will emphasize its use as a barrier that makes it difficult for people to go where they normally are not supposed to go.

Parents often teach children not to leave the family property when they are playing. However, if there is no mark on the property line, very young children will probably not even know when they are leaving it. Older children might learn that the property line runs, for example, between the telephone pole and the oak tree, but as they vigorously play, they may not notice that they have crossed the line.

One parental solution may be to build a fence within their property line and tell the children to stay within the fence. Climbing a fence requires conscious effort—children cannot cross the fence and not know it. Very young children may actually fear to be outside the fence without a parent. But the fence is not an impassable wall—if the house caught fire, they could climb the fence to escape the disaster. As children grow older, they learn that they can ask permission to cross the fence to retrieve a stray ball or other toy. When children are grown, parents may take the fence down.

In an effort to live by the Bible, people build fences, too. They build them for themselves and they build them for others. Here, a fence is a rule that is set in order to keep one from accidentally violating a law of Scripture (which is the "property line" in the above analogy).

For example, some people believe that they must arrive at their worship service 30 minutes early or they are late. Other people believe they must fold their hands, close their eyes, or get in some other position in order to have meaningful contact with the Eternal—even though the scripture specifies no "required" position for prayer. Another example might be removing leaven during the Days of Unleavened Bread: the scripture commands that "no leaven should be found" (Ex 12:19), but some people try to clean every surface in the homes that could possibly have leaven—whether any leaven is found on it or not.

It is important to note that some fences can be very restrictive and some not. If the parents in our first example built their fence right at the edge of the property line, it would not be very restrictive—the children would still have access to nearly all of their property. If they built their fence around only a small portion of their property, then it would be restrictive—the children would be allowed to play in only a small portion of the available area because of the restrictive fence. Fences we build for our lives can be of either type. A person who attempts to begin the Sabbath five minutes early is not placing much of a restriction on themselves—this fence requires only five minutes per week and it was well-spent keeping the Sabbath. At the opposite extreme is a person (true story) who vacuumed every page of hundreds of books every year before the days of unleavened bread—just in case there might have been some leaven. That fence consumed many weeks in a seemingly meaningless exercise every year.

Fences In the Bible

We find individuals creating fences in the scripture. The Eternal told Adam "but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die" (Gen 2:17). But Adam or Eve apparently added a fence along the way, because Eve told Satan "but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die’" (Gen 3:3). The Eternal said nothing about touching the tree; a rather unrestrictive fence was added.

Rather than giving offerings for his children when he knew they sinned, Job gave offerings for them continually: "So it was, when the days of feasting had run their course, that Job would send and sanctify them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all. For Job said, ‘It may be that my sons have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.’ Thus Job did regularly" (Job 1:5). The fence was very expensive, the only reason Job could do it was because he was wealthy (Job 1:3). One of the ultimate fences was prescribed by our Messiah:

"You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell" (Matt 5:27-30).

In the above verses, our Messiah advocates physical disfigurement if it will stop us from sinning. This is an extremely restrictive fence. As we read the rest of the New Testament, do numerous of the Messiah’s followers who disfigured themselves in order not to sin? No! We cannot find any account of such disfigurement. Is it our eyes and hands that cause us to sin, or is it our minds? The book of James gives the answer:

But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death (Jms 1:14-15).

The only way to ultimately avoid sin, is to change our minds: "Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus," (Phil 2:5). But we do not all have His mind at this time. We have to "grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (2Pet 3:18). The Bible makes it clear that we cannot withstand all temptations, so sometimes we have to avoid temptations (Luke 11:4; Luke 22:40; 1Cor 7:5; Gal 6:1).

This is where we can use fences. If there is an area where we are sinning, or we see we are likely to sin, then we can build a fence around that area that will help us avoid the sin.

But when we build fences to protect fences that protect other fences—the law behind the first fence is often forgotten. We never want to get to the point where we can’t see the forest (the law) for the fences.

Jewish Fences, Good & Bad

For years, Jewish teaching has been characterized by fence-building. The Jewish Babylonian Talmud is several times the size of the Bible and contains thousands of fences to protect the law. After the Jews returned from captivity in Babylon, they were determined not to repeat the sins that caused them to be sent there. One such sin was Sabbath breaking (Neh 13:18, Jer 17:27). Today, many Jews use dozens of fences to observe the Sabbath. One of these "fences" is marking the beginning of the Sabbath 15 to 20 minutes before sundown by lighting candles in each household. This provides a tangible, irreversible way for everyone in a family—especially children—to know that the Sabbath has begun.

On the other hand, there have been many Jewish fences forbidding all manner of activities on the Sabbath, about which the scripture says nothing. Two of the difficult ones with which our Savior had to contend were the prohibition not to pick grain to eat on the Sabbath (Matt 12:1-2) and the prohibition not to heal on the Sabbath (Luke 13:14).

Whether or not we agree with all of the fences, we have to admit that the Jews have preserved the day of the Sabbath all over the world. Over half of the languages in the world have a name that sounds like "Sabbath" for the last day of the week (English being a notable exception). If all of these fences were necessary for them to preserve the Sabbath and the Hebrew scriptures, then it may be that the fences were a good thing. At least most of the fences do remind a person of the Sabbath.

We find other Jewish fences built around this scripture: "Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother’s milk" (Ex 23:19; 34:26; Deut 14:21, KJV). What does it mean? The translation into English appears correct, NIV translates it this way. "Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk." The immediate context of all three of the above scriptures is firstfruit offerings or tithing. Adam Clark and other historical commentators bring out that boiling a kid in its mother’s milk was a prosperity ritual among the Canaanites—the Eternal was telling the people in the "promised land" to give firstfruits and tithes if they wanted prosperity, and not to follow a Canaanite practice.

Whether or not the "Christian" commentators are correct, those few Bible-believing people who own goats would probably avoid cooking a young goat in its mother’s milk. We might not understand why the law is there, but we would do it. We might even avoid cooking a calf in its mother’s milk, just to be safe. But what fences have our Jewish friends built around these scriptures? They will not eat a kid and drink its mothers milk at the same meal—because both together to some limited degree "cook" in one’s stomach. Another fence: they will not eat any young goat and any goat milk at the same meal. A further fence: they will not eat an old goat with cow milk at the same meal. We could continue to enumerate fences, but we eventually arrive at the fact that most Jews will not eat any milk products with any meat products at the same meal. Some Jews even have a separate set of dishes and separate refrigerators for milk and meat. They have all of these fences, but what are they protecting?

If the intended lesson of not cooking a kid in its mother’s milk is to trust the Eternal for prosperity rather than Canaanite ritual, then all these fences are not emphasizing that lesson. How much better would it be if Jews, as a people, were characterized by being fair, honest and looking to the Eternal for prosperity in their business dealings—rather than being characterized as a people who dogmatically insist on not eating milk and meat together?

Fences Are Not Righteousness

The Eternal’s commandments are righteousness (Pslm 119:172). However, the fences that men build around commandments are not righteousness. The only purpose of the fences is to help people keep the commandments.

Our Savior specifically warned of teachers who create fences and traditions for other people, but would not do them, themselves. "Woe to you also, lawyers! For you load men with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers" (Luke 11:46). Obviously, there are Biblical examples where communities, congregations, and the leaders thereof make rules so the group can function better together. But leaders need to realize that the prescribing of numerous fences for others does not make the others righteous nor is it righteousness for those who prescribe the fences. "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves" (Matt 23:15).

We must realize that our Messiah is not condemning people who are called "Jews," "scribes" or "Pharisees" (many of them later accepted the Messiah’s teaching), but He is condemning the enslavement of people with fences and tradition in the name of righteousness. The Catholic church and other "Christian" groups have replaced the righteousness of the scripture with all manner of their own fences and traditions. Every long-standing religious group seems to get into this practice at one time or another. Our Savior, at another time, spoke against the most dangerous fences of all—ones that actually undo the Eternal’s commandments:

He answered and said to them, "Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men—the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do." He said to them, "All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition. For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’ But you say, ‘If a man says to his father or mother, "Whatever profit you might have received from me is Corban"—(that is, a gift to God)’, then you no longer let him do anything for his father or his mother, making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down. And many such things you do" (Mark 7:6-13).

Good Use of Fences

We have seen the need to avoid meaningless, burdensome fences that do not help us keep the law, and the need to avoid fences that work against the law. But most of us probably do make use of fences in both our physical and spiritual lives.

We teach young children not to play around electrical outlets even though the only way they can get a "shock" is if they touch the "hot" side and something "grounded" at the same time. But since the consequences of them making a mistake are so great, we do not emphasize the law, but strongly teach the fence: "don’t poke anything anywhere close to the outlet." We also create a fence by telling children not to play with matches rather than say, "don’t burn up anything important!" When children grow into teens, we do not teach them only "do not commit adultery," we set limits on where they go and teach them not to be alone with members of the opposite sex. None of these fences are overly restrictive—they all do a lot of good.

When we have sins in our lives that we are having difficulty overcoming, we need to repent of them and pray for the ability to overcome them. But we can also erect fences for ourselves to help prevent tempting situations. If we do not believe we are keeping the Sabbath properly, then we can set up some fences that will help us keep it: be ready for the Sabbath 20 minutes early, do not turn on the television, let the machine answer the phone, etc.

If we are drinking too much, simply stop buying alcohol. If someone offers us a drink, accept it only under the condition that they will not offer us another one. If that fence fails, then refuse all offers of drinks.

If we get angry, eat too much, steal, lust after others, or any such sin, we can set fences for ourselves. A person who has a problem with pornography can simply decide not to go into a store that sells it.

These fences will be more effective if they are written down and if the person reads them every day. We need to consider it sin if we violate our own fences: "for whatever is not from faith is sin" (Rom 14:23).

While we are in Romans 14, let us consider the question of the fences of others: How should we treat individuals who observe fences that we do not observe? This chapter is a discussion of people who believe they should not eat any meat. The scripture does not say why they believed they should not—it may have been an effort to live only by the instruction in Genesis 1:29, or it may have been the ultimate fence to avoid not eating milk and meat together. Whatever the reason for the belief, Paul instructs the Roman brethren to let them practice it and not to offend them. So if brethren you know observe various fences around the law—let them do it. If you believe that their fences are contrary to the law, admonish them in the spirit of Galatians 6:1. When someone begins to teach that their human-made fences are essential for others to be saved, then we need to avoid them (Col 2:20-23; 1Tim 3:6-5). If they want to believe it and do it, let them do it. If their practice makes you uncomfortable, you need to study and pray more to know why you do what you do.

In summary, our Father wants us to become perfect as He is perfect (Matt 5:48). If fences are helping us become perfect, let us use them. If fences help our brother become perfect, let him use them. But let us not be entrapped in our own, or someone else’s religious system where we can’t see the forest for the fences. &

Return to December Index