Apr 6, 2011

The Bible's Building Code

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
This verse is one of the earliest building codes. If we understand what this verse teaches, we can apply it to many other situations where we must incorporate some safety mechanism in technology.

I understand that houses of the day would typically be one-story with the roof serving much like a porch today - an extra place to spend time outdoors. Because people would be one story off the ground, it was certainly possible for them to fall off and be injured or killed. So, God’s people were commanded to build a barrier (some translations say “fence”) around the roof to prevent people from falling off. The stated purpose of this technology is to prevent accidents. At times, we are all careless or focused on some other task and not paying attention to what we’re doing or where we are. Think also of children playing, focusing on the current game rather than being aware of where they are. The barrier would prevent someone from accidently falling.

One can argue that if you’re being careless, then you need to suffer the consequences of that and learn from it for next time. That may be true in some cases. As a parent I have allowed my children to fail in some cases and reap the consequences so they would learn. However, I will not do that when serious injury or death could be a consequence. Scripture is to interpret scripture and I think we can see from scripture how this case is different. Scripture shows us God’s love for the lives of all people and animals that He has created. At the end of the book of Jonah, the prophet is angry that God chose to show mercy on the Ninevites. God responds by saying that He has compassion on such a large group of people that are so ignorant, and even has compassion on their animals. God showed mercy because He loves the lives of His creatures.

In the case of falling from a roof, the harm caused by a fall could be very serious (death or permanent disability) and the cause relatively minor (carelessness). Given the command in Deuteronomy, it would seem that God holds life highly and He wants us to hold it highly as well, even if someone fails to value it resulting in carelessness. Even if someone should be chastened and learn to be less careless, the resulting consequence of falling off a roof is so damaging to life that it is more important for it to be prevented rather than allow the lesson to be learned.

Note also that a fence or parapet will not prevent anyone and everyone from going over if they willfully choose to do so. It would be very difficult, if not impossible, to completely prevent a determined person from climbing over any sort of barrier. That situation is not part of this commandment. It may even be harmful to attempt to build such a barrier. It may be so expensive that you couldn’t afford it, and so couldn’t build a house. Or, it may block the view, or breeze, or other reasons for being on the roof to begin with.

In summary, this command shows us that for whatever technology we build, we need to provide for safety against harm, putting up barriers to foreseeable accidents.

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