Biblical laws—especially the specific ones—often give readers trouble (when they read them, of course). Some seem not to apply either because they are impracticable in modern societies, because our sensitivities blind us to their purpose, or for other sometimes less noble reasons. As always with interpretation, how we approach the text and the expectations we bring to it make an enormous difference.
One law that has been on my mind lately is in Deuteronomy 22:8:
“When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if anyone should fall from it.”Deuteronomy 22:8, ESV
I could approach this law simply in its strictest sense: put a parapet up when you build a new house. In the United States, especially in older architecture, one can see builders who followed this rule with a little fence-like border around the topmost portion of a roof. I could try to exempt myself from the law’s specifics: I rent, so it’s not even my roof. Problem solved—Deuteronomy 22:8 does not apply to me! Or I could balk at this specific little law and loftily reply, “I’m not big into ‘rules’—I’m just going to love my neighbor.”
But these approaches risk missing the point. One can find many parapets that are simply decorative, set around the topmost square of a roof, while the sloping and dangerous part is left un-railed. In fact, though, this law is about more than roofs. It is about my neighbor, and it means to train me in the logic of love and responsibility to which God calls us. True, roofs have different uses in our—at least my—culture than in ancient Israel. But even in its ancient context this law was probably meant to speak to more than just roofing. Many scholars of the Hebrew Bible, studying biblical laws in their ancient contexts, argue that, while they do give legislation about specific matters, they are not meant to be as limited as they seem. Rather they are to be chewed on, meditated on (see Psalm 1:2), so that the faithful can be shaped by their principles and inner logic of these specific commands and live them in other situations.
We do better to envision the specifics of the law and asking what they call us to value and in what order. Think ahead when building a house, and ensure that structural dangers are warded. If you do not, and someone falls from your roof and dies, you are liable.
Many might think first of why they should not be held responsible after someone falls, envisioning all the ways it can be someone else’s fault. But this law is not interested in diffusing responsibility after the fact. It wants me to envision myself building a house before someone falls off my roof, to envision the danger before there even is a roof. This law asks us to be proactive in valuing and protecting the life of our neighbor when we plan or build. The law wants me to value my neighbor’s life when what I begin is potentially dangerous—not necessarily by having no dangerous things at all (at least if they have a legitimate purpose, like a roof), but by taking steps to protect my neighbor from accidents or even from their own rooftop stupidity. Shades of responsibility after an accident must be decided later, and other laws may come into play then. But this law calls me to take responsibility ahead of time for what I do and how it might injure the life of others made in the image of God, whose death can never be simply written off as “good riddance.”
If the central command, after love for God, is to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Leviticus 19:18), this law offers one instance that should help shape our practice of love for others. And the logic of this law and what it teaches us to value, if we want to hear it, stretch beyond rooftop decor. Last week I scolded my toddler for climbing out of her high chair into thin air, and my five-year-old pointed out that the toddler’s baby-brain was not solely to blame, because I had neglected to strap her into her chair. Sassy? Yes. But she understood Deuteronomy 22:8.
The apostle Paul applies a similar logic not just to the physical wellbeing of others but to the life of their soul, correcting Christians who insist that they have a right to do this or that thing while openly disregarding the harm that they do to others’ faith and Christ’s work to convert them. “Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ” (1 Corinthians 8:12; compare Romans 14:13-23).
You can’t make everyone not die, of course. (You certainly can’t make anyone not sin.) There are things that parapets can’t save from, and this law knows that. But as often as we begin something, this law calls us not to pursue our plans without thought for dangers it might leave open even accidentally for others. It has numerous applications from safety in architecture, to our public piety, to taking measures not to spread harmful viruses, to who executives hire and whom they protect, to parenting daredevil toddlers, to valuing our neighbors before we choose what words are going to come out of our mouths (see James 3:1-12). It isn’t not about roofs; it is about roofs, and is about roofs because it is about my neighbor, and about shaping my love for my neighbor in real situations.