Those who know my wife and me won’t be at all surprised by this story. We took our kids camping with another family one weekend a few years ago, but we didn’t plan well ahead of time. We didn’t book our campsite ahead of time, didn’t check the weather, and didn’t check our tent for holes. So of course we got stuck in the last available campsite on low, swampy ground. And of course it rained…hard. And of course our tent leaked. We had a river running thru the center of our tent and everyone’s sleeping bags got soaked! Looking back on it, it was a funny scene but, at the time, we were all miserable! In short, we were unwise in where we pitched our tent.
Abram, on the other hand, was not unwise. He pitched his tent between Bethel and Ai. (Genesis 12:8) That used to be the type of trivial detail I would just gloss over in the Bible. But on a recent re-read of it, God said: Stop. I want to show you the place I showed Abram.
God called Abram to leave the comfort of his home and homeland to go on a spiritual journey with Him to another land. God calls us all to go on a spiritual journey with Him. At the age of 75, Abram heard and obeyed God’s call. He took his wife, nephew, and all their servants and possessions, and left everything that was familiar and comfortable to them, to go… where…? I find it remarkable that God didn’t tell Abram which way to go, nor where there was. He just said, “Go to the land I will show you.” And so Abram went.
I looked up the meaning of the names of these two places. Ai means “ruin or heap,” and Bethel means “house of God.” Of course! In a flash of insight, God showed me what He had showed Abram: there is a real-world practical importance in where he pitched his tent and there is a deeper symbolic meaning. Ai represents the world and its sinful nature, and “ruin” is the ultimate outcome for those who choose to pitch their tents there. Bethel (house of God) represents being in a close relationship with God and living in His presence in eternity, which is the ultimate outcome for those who pitch their tents there.
Where did that leave Abram? His tent was somewhere in between. To me, the “in between” represents the fact that Abram was on a spiritual journey with God. Specifically, he was undergoing a process of sanctification. “Sanctification” is the process of being set apart from sin and made holy. In his walk with God, Abram would face tests and hardships and, inevitably, he would have to make choices. Would he rely upon his own worldly wisdom? Or, would he rely upon God’s?
In reading Abram’s story, we see he did a bit of both. Things went quickly awry when he relied upon his own devices; and things worked out supernaturally well when he followed God’s instructions. In this way, Abram learned to trust God and to obey His instructions, even when they seemed counterintuitive. The more he did so, the more he was sanctified — set apart from sin and made holy.
Tents are deeply symbolic in the Bible and are a recurring theme. Tents are temporary shelters for people on the move. Here today, gone tomorrow. Spiritually speaking, we are all sojourners in this world. We live in tents (our bodies) and we reside somewhere between Ai (ruin) and Bethel (the house of God). To make ourselves feel safe, we build houses, cities, and fortresses with strong and permanent walls. But, spiritually speaking, God often reminds us that the shelters we build in our own wisdom are an illusion — they offer no strength, no safety, no permanence.
God says He is our shelter and calls us to reside in Him. He spoke very specifically to Moses on this point when He told him when and how to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. The Hebrew term is sukkot (pronounced soo-COAT), the plural of sukkah, which means “booths or temporary shelters.” God said, “Celebrate this as a festival to the Lord for seven days each year. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come; celebrate it in the seventh month. Live in booths for seven days: All native-born Israelites are to live in booths so your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in booths when I brought them out of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 23:41-43)
Why did God so clearly emphasize this point of living in booths (basically, tents or tabernacles), and why did He want their descendants to know this? Because this is a lesson that the Israelites had to keep learning over and over again. And, even to this day, they (and we) still haven’t learned the lesson! God is constantly calling them, and all of us, to go on a spiritual journey with Him. But it won’t be an easy trip. There will be hardship and danger. But if we place our trust in Him, He will be our shelter.
Did you notice the repeating pattern in the story of Abram and the story of the exodus? In the latter story, Egypt (like Ai) represents the world and sinful, worldly ways and the “promised land” (like Bethel) represents the house of God. The Israelites spent 40 years in the desert on a spiritual journey, undergoing a process of sanctification, so that they would one day be able to enter into God’s pure and holy presence.
Like a seed that contains an image of the great tree into which it will grow, the story of Abram, who became Abraham the father of the Israelites, is a fractal — it encapsulates the larger story of the Bible. The themes of Abram’s story recur multiple times in the stories of the Bible, foreshadows of the fact that the Word would become flesh and make His dwelling among us. (John 1:14) What John was saying there, to paraphrase: “Jesus left His place of honor in the House of God and pitched a temporary tent in the flesh to meet us halfway and to fellowship with us in our in-between place.”
Jesus is the fulfillment of the picture and the promise of Genesis 12:8, and of the Feast of Tabernacles. The stories of Abram and Moses are the symbolic roots of the celebration feast that is still to come; and those stories showed how God intended to fulfill His Word. He came to shepherd us safely the rest of the way as we make our journey from ruin to His House. Jesus came to be our shelter along the way.
(BONUS: go read the lyrics to the song “Shelter” by Jars of Clay. And I encourage you to give the song a listen. I hope you see its relevance, and I pray it blesses and uplifts you as it did me.)