Most historians are pretty sure that the great trees of Hebron were terebinths or oak trees. Those are no more. And yet, the area still sports many ancient olive trees. It is a place of growth and growing things. It is a place of life in the face of adversarial conditions.
So Abram went to live near the great trees of Mamre at Hebron, where he pitched his tents. There he built an altar to the Lord.
Mamre, before Abram’s arrival, was a place of Canaanite worship. It was a central location and many caravans and travelers moved through the area. There were regular fairs and markets for trade. And apparently, there was ample water from a five meter wide well, later called Abraham’s well. This is the place where Abram built an altar, in the very midst of a pagan stronghold.
At this point in the story, there is no indication that Abram was anything but a man of peace. He did not fight or destroy anything there upon his arrival. He did not try to conquer the peoples or tear down their altars. He merely arrived and planted his household there.
Sometimes, that’s all it takes to transform a place. Just be there.
I remember a young couple who decided they wanted to serve in the poorest areas of Boston. And although it was dangerous to do so, they decided they would commit to this venture by living in the neighborhood itself. Many people cautioned them against it because of the dangerous elements to the street, drug traffic, poverty, and violence. And yet, they felt compelled to take a stand there. And although there were trials and losses, there was respect and acceptance. For the ten years that they lived there, many lives were changed.
In my mind, this is the most authentic way to serve the poor. What is it to serve the poor and then return to one’s middle class home? Now, this is not to say that I have done this. I’m a wimp. I fear poverty, having grown up in it. And yet, I sense a pulling, a drawing toward something radical.
Of course, not every challenge means impoverished circumstances. There are needs in paradise too, people who have lost sight of the things of God, enveloped by the lush trees of comfort. How do we impact this world? It’s very hard for we are much more easily entranced by the life of leisure than a life of poverty. How do we plant ourselves in the world without becoming part of the world? So far, few have succeeded.
For me, Jesus is the prime example of being in the world and yet not of it. He traveled freely between the poor and the wealthy. He ate with sinners and saints. He could do these things because he was totally centered in the truth of Himself and God. He was his own Light. He was not dependent on the reflection of others. He did not waiver. He was able to love and listen and yet, speak and teach without judgment.
Today, it is our cities that are the great trees of Mamre.