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In Deuteronomy 19:14, we read that there were landmarks, "which they of old time have set in thine inheritance".

Thou shalt not remove thy neighbour’s landmark, which they of old time have set in thine inheritance, which thou shalt inherit in the land that the Lord thy God giveth thee to possess it.

I know that this verse is often used as one of many speaking against moving or removing landmarks set by the neighbor to separate one's own inheritance from the next, but the KJV for this verse doesn't seem to say that here (other verses do).

It would appear that this verse suggests that there were landmarks already set in the Promised Land, set there prior to the time that Moses was speaking, which would be inside the inheritances of individuals. I understand that moving things which people consider to be border to their land would be unwelcome (if someone moves my fence [put up by me] or the road [set up before my time] to make my yard smaller and theirs bigger, I might have words with them), but if that landmark weren't a border marker (like a koi pond in my backyard, the guy who lived here before me thought was awesome and is now a drowning hazard for my kid), this verse seems to say that the Children of Israel weren't allowed to move or remove landmarks in their backyard.

My questions are: 1. What sort of landmarks were being referred to here, 2. Can I understand "they of old time" as referring to people who lived before Moses, people who were not in the family of Abraham (which landmarks would be seen as sacred anyway, without this commandment), and 3. Why was this commanded?

Now, #3 is probably severely off topic for this site, but if so number 1 and a confirmation of 2 should give me sufficient background to answer 3 myself.

Or perhaps I should ask if the KJV (or its source text) translated poorly, and the various commentaries quoted here are correct that "they of old time" refer to people who lived generations after, not prior to, Moses and his listeners.

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The English word "landmarks" is translation artifact in Deuteronomy 19:14. The Masoretic Hebrew text contains no such word. You could re-phrase the question, "What methods did the Israelites use to mark the borders of an individual's land inheritance?".

The Masoretic text is:

לֹ֤א תַסִּיג֙ גְּב֣וּל רֵֽעֲךָ֔ אֲשֶׁ֥ר גָּבְל֖וּ רִאשֹׁנִ֑ים בְּנַחֲלָֽתְךָ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּנְחַ֔ל בָּאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁר֙ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לְךָ֖ לְרִשְׁתָּֽהּ

A linear translation is:

Do not retreat [the] border [of] your fellow [citizen] that was bordered by the first [people], in your inheritance that you will inherit in the land that YHWH your god gives you to inherit.

There is no Hebrew word for "mark" or "marker" here, only גבול, "border" or "limit".

The paraphrase is:

Do not trespass the border of your neighbor's property that the original assessors set for the property that you inherit in the land that YHWH will give you to inherit.

Compare this use of גבול to it's usage in Exodus 19:12 (KJV):

And thou shalt set bounds unto the people round about, saying, Take heed to yourselves, that ye go not up into the mount, or touch the border of it: whosoever toucheth the mount shall be surely put to death

The word רִאשֹׁנִ֑ים that the KJV renders as "they of old time", is literally "the first ones", and is likely to refer to the first assessors of the land at the time of its division into inheritances rather than to anyone at a time before the Israelite invasion. The translation "they of old time" is, IMHO, a translation of the word רִאשֹׁנִ֑ים as used in post Biblical Hebrew and probably found its way into the KJV through the rabbinic advisors to that translation.

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Samuel Davidson (An Introduction to the Old Testament, Critical, Historical, and Theological, Containing a Discussion of the Most Important Questions Belonging to the Several Books, Volume I, page 13) says:

This language obviously implies the time of peaceful settlement in Canaan. It does not comport with circumstances soon to be realised by the persons to whom Moses spoke, because they are exhorted to respect the landmarks set up by their forefathers in the country.
They of old time cannot be referred to the wicked inhabitants about to be driven out. It presupposes a long abode in the land promised to their fathers.

Here we see that Davidson recognises that the Book of Deuteronomy can only have been written longafter the Israelites settled in the Promised Land. This is consistent with the consensus of scholars that the Book of Deuteronomy was actually written by an anonymous author, now known as the Deuteronomist, in the seventh century BCE, during the reign of King Josiah. By attributing laws such as this to Moses in more ancient times, the Deuteronomist and his colleagues were able to achieve a high level of compliance.

  1. The landmarks were fairly permanent, but obviously moveable, so they were large rocks or stone cairns placed at the boundaries of a field.
  2. "They of old time" were the Israelites who marked these boundaries, perhaps even centuries before the time of the Deuteronomist.
  3. This was commanded in order to eliminate trespass and the stealthy theft of land.
  • When you say that is the consensus of scholars, you are excluding the vast majority of evangelical and conservative scholars who would argue that, although Deuteronomy was clearly compiled and edited at a later time, it still contained the actual teachings of Moses. I do not say this to invalidate your point but simply to make it clear you are presenting one perspective in a debate or, as David Allen might put it, you are smuggling your presuppositions into your exegesis. – P. TJ Feb 12 '17 at 5:40
  • Here is a source arguing the alternative view of the authorship and date of Deuteronomy that is worth reading. It is not a scholarly source but gives a good summary of the view taken by many conservative and Evangelical Scholars. ligonier.org/blog/introductions-deuteronomy – P. TJ Feb 12 '17 at 5:42
  • @P.TJ If you had sufficient reputation I would invite you to discuss your views on Biblical Hermeneutics Chat. Suffice to say, the comments attached to answers are not intended for presenting opinions or points of view. You point out that your resource is "not a scholarly source" and perhaps we could say the same about "the vast majority of evangelical and conservative scholars". I respect their views, but here we are concerned with "scholars" as academics and others who use hermeneutic methods to identify biblical authors and understand the context in which they wrote. – Dick Harfield Feb 12 '17 at 7:03
  • .../ As for "smuggling your presuppositions" into my exegesis, I was citing Davidson, who was a Doctor of Divinity (and Doctor of Letters). He says the verse "presupposes a long abode in the land" which I said is consistent with authorship by the Deuteronomist. Whatever teachings of Moses that Deut may have contained, this was not one of them. – Dick Harfield Feb 12 '17 at 7:08
  • "You point out that your resource is "not a scholarly source" and perhaps we could say the same about "the vast majority of evangelical and conservative scholars"." No, we certainly could not. I cited a website because it was easily accessible. To assume that no scholarly support exists is fallacious. Perhaps when I used the phrase "evangelical and conservative scholars" you thought I was using the term loosely. But no, I meant scholars. If you really meant to suggest that evangelical and conservative scholars can be dismissed, I find that attitude highly arrogant and inappropriate. – P. TJ Feb 13 '17 at 21:16
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The language is very clear

  • Do not move boundaries that have been set previously by your fellow-countrymen.

The passage does not imply landmarks or anything set before they took possession of the land. It is rule to be applied anytime.

  • לא תסיג
    • you shall not withdraw/pull-away
  • גבול רעך
    • boundaries of your companion/fellow-men
  • אשר גבלו ראשנים
    • which he boundaried previously
  • בנחלתך אשר תנחל בארץ
    • in your allotment which was alloted in the land
  • אשר יי אלהיך נתן לך לרשתה
    • which Hashem your G'd gave you to possess

{רעך} = your friend/companion/chaperone.

{רעה} = as root-word, friend/companion/chaperone. (not to be confused with root {רע})

{רעה} signifies someone who is accompanying you, not someone in history or someone who has passed away.

In Ps 23, the first verse is actually

  • יי רעי לא אחסר
    • Hashem my companion/chaperone, I shall not lack

Ps 23:1 assures that Hashem accompanies us. Assures us that Hashem is someone living next to us, not someone remote or dead.

A shepherd is seen as a chaperone, as someone who accompanies the sheep. To translate Ps 23:1 as "shepherd" actually misses the whole point - misses the emphasis of a Living G'd, a living accompaniment.

The verse describes

the boundaries which are previously set by your companions

specifically of the property.

in the property which was alloted to you

reminding of them Who gave them the land

in the land which Hashem gave you.

The verse does NOT say, nor uses the conjunctive-adverb "when",

the boundaries which are previously set by your companions
WHEN Hashem gave you the land


When was the book of Deuteronomy written is irrelevant to the meaning and intent of the verse.

  • Your translation of אשר גבלו ראשנים makes ראשנים an adverb rather than a noun. This is a bit edgy without an example of similar usage. In any event plus one from me. – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Feb 13 '17 at 11:49
  • The concepts of adverbs and adjectives, verbs and participles are not found in biblical Hebrew, but injected in due to euro-centrics needing to understand Hebrew from a euro-centric linguistic paradigm. {גבלו ראשנים} can be seen as {his previous boundary} or as {he boundaried previously}. Is it a verb or a participle? There is no difference in biblical Hebrew. But I see my mistake, it is singular not plural -- I shall correct it. – Cynthia Avishegnath Feb 13 '17 at 15:05
  • If it is adverbial-adjectival behaviour is in {אחרנים} then it is applicable to {ראשנים} -- Isa 41:4 {אני יי ראשון ואת אחרנים} = {I AM of first and of last}. 2Sam 19:11,12 - {תהיו אחרנים להשיב} = {being last to restore}. Gen 32:2 {ישם ... ראשנה ... אחרנים ... אחרנים} = {placed ... first ... last ... last} – Cynthia Avishegnath Feb 13 '17 at 15:08
  • Also, because {רעך גבלו} is singular, whereas {ראשנים} is plural, therefore {ראשנים} is a gerundish and not a plural noun associated with the singular person verb/participle of {רעך גבלו}. – Cynthia Avishegnath Feb 13 '17 at 15:14

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