“[Abraham] moved from there to the mountain east of Bethel, and he pitched his tent with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; there he built an altar to the Lord and called on the name of the Lord” (Genesis 12: 8).
In the old classic My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers (1874-1917) stated that Bethel is the symbol of fellowship with God and Ai is the symbol of the world, but he did not explain this point or develop the idea that Abraham pitched his tent between the two locations.
Bethel or Beth-El – which means “House of God” – certainly could be seen as a symbol of fellowship with God, and though the meaning of Ai (“heap” or “ruin”) does not fit the analogy as well, the later history of that unsurrendered Canaanite city could perhaps be seen as metaphorical. But whether we see the story of Abraham pitching his tent between Bethel and Ai as symbolic in this sense or not, the principle of positioning our lives between God’s fellowship and that of the world is an interesting one. Certainly it need not imply not being committed to God on the one hand, or not being willing to let go of the things of the world on the other; but the image can help us to remember something important.
Often in our lives it is all too easy to pitch our tent too close to one or the other extreme, and we have to remember that it’s not just positioning ourselves too close to the world that has drawbacks. If we attempt to position ourselves so close to God that we have no relationship with the world, we become spiritual hermits and we can neither serve nor influence anyone for good. Looking at the example of Christ’s ministry – or that of any of the men and women of God whose story the Bible tells – we realize the impossibility of trying to serve God at a safe distance from man. It is here that the story of Abraham comes into play, because if we extend the analogy, the patriarch did not just put himself in a comfortable position between God and man and then try to compromise with both – the account tells us: “… there he built an altar to the Lord and called on the name of the Lord.” This is the balance that the servant of God must keep in mind: that we camp near enough to our neighbors to be able to serve them, but that our allegiance is dedicated, like Abraham’s altar, wholly to God.
Ultimately, as is always the case, analogies do not prove anything; but if they can help us to remember an important principle of Christian living or to balance our lives more effectively, then they serve a worthwhile purpose. In this case, we can remember where Abraham pitched his tent the next time we face the question of whether we should be close enough to our neighbors to actually help them.