18 So Abram moved his tent and came and settled by the oaks of Mamre, which are at Hebron, and there he built an altar to the LORD.
Genesis 13:18 (ESV)
Much is made currently of religious pluralism and tolerance. Exponents of this line of thought say, in effect, “With our knowledge of different cultures, different practices, and different religions, we can no longer naively and arrogantly assume the superiority of our religion. We must acknowledge and embrace the totality of religious conviction in our world.” Indeed, the allure of pluralism is so great that cultural commentators, and even biblical exegetes, read this idea back into previous eras, even as far back as the Patriarchs. Abram’s settlement at the oaks of Mamre is a case in point.
Genesis 13 pictures the split between Abram and Lot. Both were wealthy men with great herds. When it became clear that the region near Bethel was too small for the two of them, Abram offered his kinsman Lot the pick of the land. Lot chose the lush plain of Jordan, which proved disastrously to also be the region of Sodom. Abram readily accepted the remaining higher ground, where he settled his family. He could have chosen an isolated patch, away from the corruptions of the surrounding pagans. Instead, he headed to the oaks of Mamre, long the site of pagan worship.
By this choice, some say, he paid his respects to the culture and the customs of the local inhabitants, a matter of courtesy, of security, but also of tolerance. But this argument founders on the last words of the verse. Here, Abram staked his claim, and the claim of his God. At the very location where various tribal deities were honored, Abram honored YHWH. He was not relativizing his religion; he was establishing its uniqueness and superiority. Such was his pattern, for earlier he had built an altar at another Canaanite holy site, the great tree of Moreh (Genesis 12:6-7). Far from courting compromise, he chose to establish a strong witness to the Living God on the very doorsteps of the idolaters. (And it was on this “doorstep” at Mamre that he and Sarah would learn later that they would be parents in their old age, cf. Genesis 18:1.)
In his classic book, Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr speaks of believers who prefer to insulate themselves from secular society (“Christ against culture”) and of those inclined to fit in, respectfully, with the cultural elites (“Christ of culture”). But Abram chose neither approach. He strode into enemy territory and planted his flag; his faith was exclusive, but not provincial.
To Christians inclined to cede the world to the devil from the friendly confines of the church building, Abram’s example is an indictment. God’s people must not shrink from proclaiming the uniqueness, necessity, and sufficiency of Christ in the marketplace of religions, no matter how offensive their message of exclusivity might be. Indeed, whatever the cultural context, altars to God are never out of place.