Sunday, January 17, 2010

Abraham's Tent

According to Jewish tradition, no teacher's challenge was greater than Abraham's. He belonged to a world completely steeped in idolatry. At God's command Abraham journeyed to Canaan and traveled through the land.
And the Lord appeared to Abram, and He said, "To your seed I will give this land," and there he built an altar to the Lord, Who had appeared to him.
At this point we would think Abram would settle down. Instead, he moves:

And he moved from there to the mountain, east of Beth el, and he pitched his tent; Beth el was to the west and Ai was to the east, and there he built an altar to the Lord, and he called in the name of the Lord.(Genesis 12:7-8)

The motivation for his move is unclear as well as his chosen settlement. Why does he pitch a tent? Why here? If his goal is to teach people about God why not settle in one of the cities? By this point in the narrative of Genesis the Torah's dislike for the city has become abundantly clear. These three examples should suffice:
1) Cain becomes a city-builder after being cast out from God's presence (4:17).
2) Of the three sons of Noah only the descendants of Ham (the cursed son) are described as building cities - Shem and Japheth's (the blessed sons) descendants do not.
3) one chapter back we read the ill-fated story of the builders of Babel (11:1-9).
The builders of Babel constructed a monument to man (11:4):
And they said, 'Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make ourselves a name, lest we be scattered upon the face of the entire earth.'
In contrast, Abraham built an altar - a structure designed to evoke both man's subservience and his yearning to ascend - and called out in the name of the Lord.

Abraham came to Canaan to shake up the constructed order of the city. The city is all artifice (the builders of Babel even chose to make bricks - artificial to the core), it is designed to protect man from his anxieties about the natural world. He pitched a tent where he would encounter travelers who, at least for that moment, were not tied to their constructed universe. Between Beth el and Ai, Abraham pitched his tent, the most transient of shelters and in that place he called his fellow man to wonder and look beyond man's world. This is the ideal teacher.

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