With the Matriarchs and Patriarchs

‘Come in.  Welcome. Sit down. I’ll put the kettle on. You must be hungry; would you like something to eat?’ It’s a greeting that most of us will have given and I hope, most of us have received; that simple form of hospitality. For a year in 1979 between graduating and beginning my formation for the priesthood at Mirfield, I was a door-to-door rent collector in Wellingborough. Those were the days when the Rent Man went round with a Gladstone bag, stuffed with cash, to all the doors on his round and completed the rent card for that week. It was a system based on the idea that most women were at home during the day so that when you knocked on the door in the morning there was someone peeling off their rubber gloves to let you in.  But in truth those days were going and more and more households were out at work. So some elderly people used to have the rent in their houses for their neighbours.  I’d arrive to find lots of rent cards set out neatly on the kitchen table with the right cash, ready for me to sit down and do my job.  And then came the hospitality.

Minerva Way, Wellingborough – part of my round – a place of hospitality

The cup of tea was made, some biscuits came out and as I marked up the rent cards we would chat. It was simple but it was so welcome. And it happens the world over. ‘Come in.  Welcome. Sit down. I’ll put the kettle on.’

Yesterday Sa’id, a Guide I’ve worked with before, took me out to Hebron. For me that is the ‘City of Hospitality’ and one of the most important places in the Holy Land, though I’d never been there before. It’s a city in the Palestinian Authority, the second largest after Gaza City, but a place in which the tensions of the situation in this land are at their highest.  It’s for this reason that most pilgrims don’t come here even though it contains two sites that are of such significance and one of them one of the holiest of places for Jews and Muslims and of course Christians, the tomb of the Matriarchs and Patriarchs.

We drove south from Jerusalem, through the security control that divides Israel and the Palestinian Authority, past Bethlehem. After the city of Jesus’ birth the olive trees disappear from the landscape and are replaced with conifers and vineyards. In addition there are limestone quarries and workshops.  Then you enter the outskirts of Hebron. It has the feel of a big city – wide streets, some tall buildings, lots of cars and people. But we were heading for the Old City.

We went first to the Tomb and then to the Oak but let me tell the tale the other way round, the way that we read it in the Bible.

A familiar image

In Genesis 18 we read the account of the visit to the tent of Abraham and his wife Sarah of three visitors. In the true nomadic tradition hospitality was forthcoming and generous.

Abraham said, ‘My lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.’ (Genesis 18.3-5)

It’s the familiar greeting of hospitality. Of course, what Abraham did not at first realise was that these visitors were a manifestation of God and as Christians, of course, we see them as a visitation by God as trinity. In so many places we see a copy of Rublev’s icon of the scene, it has become an image for our time, perhaps the most loved of all icons. It speaks of the true human response to the imminence of God and, I suppose, that modern desire we have for intimacy and personal response.

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews seems to pick up on this story in his own writings

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. (Hebrews 13.2)

It’s a principle that we work out in our Christian communities from the coffee we serve after Mass, to the work we do with street homeless, to the Food Banks, to hospices and hostels and all manner of ways in which we seek be an inclusively hospitable church.

The Monastery of Abraham’s Oak at Mamre

We drove to the Monastery of Abraham’s Oak. It is in Mamre, a district of Hebron, a monastic complex behind high walls. What I learnt is that this is the only Christian church in Hebron. It’s a Russian Orthodox monastery founded in 1906 though there is a long tradition of those being the site of the oak and the story. It was only in 1997 that the land was formally given to the Russian Church, but it is a tense situation with some resentment at the presence of Christians in the city. A drive leads from the closed gates to a car park next to the monastic house.  Through another gate and lovely garden you see the church with its domes and the monastic graveyard beside it. Inside the church is large and colourful with lots of icons and different ones of the hospitality.

A fresco of the hospitality

A young monk was on duty, Dimitri.  He is from Russia but his sister, he told me, lives in London. He has been in the community for 4 years and is still a novice. There are 5 monks in the community. ‘Will you be here until you die?’ I asked. ‘Yes, unless there is a war!’ was his response. It was said in a matter-of-fact kind of way but I could believe that was true. We had a good chat and he was warm and hospitable (though I wouldn’t have said no to a cup of tea).

A welcome from Novice Dimitri

I found it hard to leave that church; it isn’t amazing in itself but it feels like a holy spot. Just below where the car was parked is the oak tree, surrounded by railings and looking none to healthy, indeed it looks as black as if it has been burnt.  An old man was there looking after it and sold me an old postcard showing that it once had leaves – and he told me he was the person on the postcard by the tree, but younger!

Abraham’s oak

If you continue reading the Genesis story Abraham and Sarah move from this spot.  The story of the hospitality is followed immediately by the events in Sodom and Gomorrah which see them and their extended family fleeing from the wrath of God. But by Chapter 23 they are back in the area. We read

Sarah lived for one hundred and twenty-seven years; this was the length of Sarah’s life. And Sarah died at Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan. (Genesis 23.1-2)

The family had arrived back at the city. It was a Hittite settlement and that chapter then goes on to tell the tale of Abraham buying a field and cave in which he could bury his wife. It goes into quite a lot of detail about the negotiations with Ephron the Hittite who owned the particular plot of land and cave that Abraham wanted.  But a deal was struck and we are told

So the field of Ephron in Machpelah, which was to the east of Mamre, the field with the cave that was in it and all the trees that were in the field, throughout its whole area, passed to Abraham as a possession in the presence of the Hittites, in the presence of all who went in at the gate of his city. After this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah facing Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan. The field and the cave that is in it passed from the Hittites into Abraham’s possession as a burying-place. (Genesis 23.17-20)

As I read the whole account I was struck by the hospitality of the Hittites.  They recognised Abraham as a person of standing; they were gracious and generous; they welcomed the outsider into their community.

The streets of old Hebron

We parked the car somewhere as close as we could and started walking through the streets, down into the heart of the old city.  Everywhere were arched passages, old stone buildings, remnants of the Ottoman period and signs of present troubles.  Settlers have moved into the city and right into the heart of it.  High walls and fences separate one community from another, nets strung across streets stop the local Palestinian people being showered with debris from above. Access to the tomb itself was through airport style security looked after by Israeli soldiers, there to protect the settlers, not the local people.  The street below the massive structure of the tomb, which is divided into a mosque and a synagogue, used to be filled with shops and stalls.  Now it is empty; Palestinians cannot walk along it and Settlers on their way to worship in the synagogue are escorted by teams of heavily armed soldiers and police.  It was Shabbat when we went there so families were arriving, mothers and fathers with their children, making their way into their place of worship.

We weren’t allowed in that side of the tomb of course but we were welcomed into the mosque. Walking up the slope to the door you are given an impression of the Herodian structure.  The huge blocks of stone from which it is constructed are of the same style as those that form the walls of the Temple Mount.  The building is awe inspiring.

The tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs

Taking off your shoes you enter a side room to the main prayer hall.  There behind grills is Sarah’s tomb.  In fact, as with all the tomb what you see is a cenotaph, the burials were of course in a cave over which this building was placed. Then you go into the richly carpeted main prayer hall (musallah).  It was here in February 1994 that a massacre was committed by Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli-American settler, which left 29 Palestinian Muslims dead and scores injured. The riots that followed resulted in a further 35 deaths. In one or two places you can see the bullet holes.  It reminded me of visiting the Church of Regina Mundi in Soweto.  The South African police entered that church on 16 June 1975 during the Soweto Riots, firing their weapons.  No one was killed but the church shows the scars of that event, not least a shattered altar rail. It was in that church that Archbishop Tutu so poignantly held many meetings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Will this tomb ever see such an act of reconciliation and truth telling?

In that place where such a violent act took place are the tombs of Rebekah and Isaac and also a beautiful minbar (pulpit) from the 12th century given by Saladin.  It is a stunning piece of work.

Saladin’s Minbar

Going out of the hall to a corresponding vestibule as the one used to enter the space is the tomb of Abraham. It is hard to describe the feeling of standing there, so close to the Patriarch of the Patriarchs, the Father of Nations. The other side of the cenotaph was bullet proof glass and a grill behind which I could hear worship taking place in the Synagogue.  In that half of the building the tombs of Jacob and Leah are located, so I was unable to see them.

The tomb of Abraham

Going back into the main hall the security guard came to speak to us. He seemed to like us and was keen to show me something even my guide hadn’t seen. In one of the walls is set a plaque he said dated from the time of Queen Helena when a byzantine church was constructed on the spot.  My Greek isn’t good enough to translate it but it was fascinating and a sign of his hospitality to us that he took time and pride to show it to us.

The Byzantine inscription

We left the mosque and met a young man, Mohammed.  He was keen to sell me something and keen also to tell me what life was like there, the constant security checks imposed on people.  His phone was full of pictures of people being checked by the police, young children, old women. He had been born in the Old City, his English was perfect and I felt for him, having to sell me something I didn’t need to get some money.  But he had real dignity.

Glass blowing in Hebron

We made our way back through the maze of streets and tunnels to the car.  On the way to find something to eat we stopped at the Hebron Glass factory owned by the Natsheh family. It was a small workshop, dreadfully hot on a very hot day.  The owner welcomed me and proudly showed me a photograph on the wall showing him as a young man during a visit by President Jimmy Carter back in 1988.  His son (in the photograph above) was now blowing glass as he had done. They were proud and dignified people.

Mr Natsheh next to the picture of him with President & Mrs Carter

Hebron is such a powerful place, the ‘City of Hospitality’, where God appeared as three strangers and was made welcome, where a local landowner willing contracted with the stranger who wanted to bury his dead there. It’s the place where the Patriarchs and Matriarchs rest in peace yet in the midst of a place of tension and ever threatening violence.  How can it ever be a place of hospitality again when the people who live as neighbours cannot bear the sight of each other?  But meeting Dimitri, Mohammed and the Natsheh family was a blessing – they each welcomed me and that was a sign of the hospitable generosity I pray for all who live there.

God of generous hospitality,
who spreads a banquet table
in the midst of all your people;
grant to the people of Hebron
your peace and that same spirit of hospitality
revealed by Sarah and Abraham.