(In one of those apparent coincidences that sometimes happen when you’re blogging, today turns out to be World Storytelling Day, with a theme for 2012 of ‘trees’. So if any storytellers out there fancy doing something based around Abraham, well, you’ve got plenty of material…)
And so God sends Abram off on a journey, a journey that will lead to the birth of a nation. And that journey has a couple of stop-off points that involve trees, trees which end up witnessing some of the key events in Israel’s early history.
So, in the shadow of the trees of Mamre, trees that had cultic and religious significance for the locals, Abram sets up an altar, not to the neighbourhood’s pagan gods, but to God himself. Abram and his entourage stay here for a while, during which Abram experiences some of the most significant moments of his life – it’s here that he receives the news that he will miraculously become a father despite his advanced age, and it’s the site of two out of three moments when God appears –rather than just speaks – to him (Genesis 17 and Genesis 18). Genesis 17 is also the time God ratifies a covenant with Abram – his descendents will inherit the Promised Land and, in order to mark the moment, Abram is renamed Abraham. This is also the point at which circumcision is introduced. Effectively this is Israel’s foundational moment, and yet it’s all happening at a place that was originally known as a pagan altar.
If that wasn’t enough, Mamre was also where Abraham purchased land as a burial plot. Serving as the resting place for Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob and Leah, it became known as the Cave of the Patriarchs, considered the second holiest place in Judaism, after the Temple itself.
The whole situation illustrates the tension of the early books of the Bible. While the Hebrews were set apart as a people dedicated to God, they were also living in an area full of influences from other religions and cultures. At times, Israel was too quick to reject God for the gods of their neighbours; at other times, pagan worship was effectively wiped out through military action. Here, however, we have Abraham living alongside it.
(I guess that also plays into the story of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac – God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, which has echoes of what the local Baals may have wanted. God, however, doesn’t want human sacrifice and provides a substitute in the form of a ram – in other words, God is saying “I’m not like all those other gods, so don’t follow them.”)
Mamre wasn’t the only tree related site that becomes significant in Genesis. In Genesis 12, before reaching Mamre itself, Abraham stops for a while near the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. This is his first stop on his great journey towards the place God wants him, and to commemorate this he sets up an altar – just like he would go on to do at Mamre. This is the moment that God appears to Abram for the first time, the moment he’s promised that his descendents will inherit a great land. In terms of national identity, this is huge; we see it commemorated in Genesis 35 when, a couple of generations later, Jacob recommits himself to God and buries his household’s pagan paraphernalia here; we see it in Joshua 24 when the ancient covenant is renewed as the Hebrews take over the land; we see it when Shechem becomes the holy city of the Samaritans. Like Mamre, this is a place that’s key to the birth of Israel.
And that, I think, is why these sites are important. Sure, you could read it as the triumph of Judeo-Christianity over ancient paganism if you wanted, but there’s something else going on here. The idea of remembering the story of Israel is key to many of her feasts and sacred sites, and so saying that two big trees mark the sites of Abraham’s key encounters with God is important in maintaining a national narrative. Remember where you came from, remember what God did for you in the past, remember all this and things will go well for you in the future. Forget that and trouble begins. This act of memory, of sacred remembrance, isn’t just a nice way of studying the nation’s history, it’s key to its future as well.
And so we remember where we came from so that we can know where we’re going. And remember, also, the times along the way when God was close and moving in power. Remember those times and put up a marker, because those are the places you need to remember; those are the places to which you’ll want to return…
(I was inspired to link the trees of Mamre and Shechem to the idea of remembrance because of Ben Emerson’s fantastic blog ‘The Whole Dang Thing’, which reiterates that theme throughout the first few books of the Bible. Check it out, it’s worth a read! On a related theme, it’s interesting to note that the early church didn’t commemorate the key locations of Jesus’s ministry so much – an article at Dr. Mark D. Roberts’ blog explains why…)
(More posts on biblical trees here…)