Genesis 14: Abraham and the Four Kings

By Mary Jane Chaignot

This chapter presents the most scholarly difficulty thus far in our story. Most commentators argue that it appears to be a tale that is just stuck in the story and really adds nothing to it. It is almost monotonous in its detail of names and places, none of which can be verified by outside Biblical sources. That makes scholars nervous. Since so many details are provided, scholars should be able to place Abraham in a precise historical moment. And when they can't, it raises many unnerving questions about the historicity of the whole chapter. Like, maybe it really isn't true, after all. Some scholars respond to these concerns by arguing that it was added to the story very late, or that it came down as a separate tradition about Abraham. Most are satisfied that these possibilities exonerate the inaccuracies of the story. On the other hand, one can just as easily argue that because we don't know about this specific campaign or these particular kings from other sources, there is no guarantee that this event didn't happen. It is perfectly reasonable to assume that there are many gaps in our knowledge of life 4,000 years ago.

We, however, are less interested in the historical nature of the tale as to what it's doing there in the first place. Obviously, someone felt it was important enough to include in Abraham's story, which is ultimately a story of God's promises. In light of that, isn't it interesting that it comes right after God has reaffirmed His promises to Abraham? God has promised Abraham innumerable descendants. This promise was placed in jeopardy by Lot's exodus out of the Promised Land. God also promised the gift of land, and here come four conquering kings wanting land, placing God's promise in jeopardy.

The story begins with an account of an ancient war. It is an international incident, which ultimately will have very personal consequences for Abraham and his family. It is a familiar story of oppression by a coalition of stronger powers. In this case, they were four foreign kings from the East, from the Mesopotamia region, from places that Abraham had left behind. They marched against the five local kings of the Jordanian region. Now, for twelve years, these local kings had been diligently paying tribute to the foreign entities. For some reason, they chose to withhold that tribute in the thirteenth year. The invasion occurred the next year. Obviously, the foreign kings were not about to allow such a rebellion to go unchecked.

The foreign kings' goal was to conquer the five southern cities around the Dead Sea. On their way there, they pillaged and destroyed all the tribes they encountered. It was a good military plan aimed at preventing any attacks from the rear. It was also very successful. After eliminating all neighboring people who might stand in their way, the four foreign kings turned their full attention to the rebellious five and decisively defeated them in the Valley of Siddim. There is no mention of the battle itself, only that the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, as did many of their men. The victory is complete; the invaders seized all the wealth from Sodom and Gomorrah, all needed provisions, and went on their way. They also took Lot and all his goods and possessions, because he was living in Sodom at the time. Obviously, some time had elapsed, and Lot had progressed from living in tents near the city to living within the city itself. Because of that, he was captured.

Yet someone escaped and fled to Abraham with the bad news. Up until now, Abraham had had no involvement in the campaign. Living in Hebron, he was outside the territories in question and would have had no need to intervene. Now, of course, the situation had become different. This is no longer just an international incident; it is personal. Lot is still considered part of Abraham's family. Even though he is no longer part of Abraham's tribe, Abraham obviously felt some responsibility for him. It is possible that since there was still no other apparent heir, Abraham was still holding out hope that his promised descendants would come through Lot. In that case, it would be absolutely essential to keep Lot safe.

There is also new information about Abraham. He has established some sort of an alliance with three other families in the area. The words for this alliance inherently point to a presumption of parity among equals. It would also have included military obligations to help each other. But Abraham had some resources of his own too. He was able to muster up 318 of his own men to fight for him. These were men that had been born into his house, most likely as slaves, and were considered trustworthy. Abraham is no longer a pastoral nomad, moving from watering hole to watering hole. Instead, he has become a charismatic tribal chieftain, ready to engage in deadly warfare on behalf of his kinsman.

The families set off in pursuit as far as Dan, one of the northernmost cities of Israel. There they waited until nightfall, split their forces in two, and routed the unsuspecting army. The text says, "He defeated them." One might well wonder how Abraham could do what the five kings could not. An easy answer would be to say that God was with them. The numbers were simply insignificant. From a practical standpoint, however, it makes sense that the large armies had just finished a long and exhausting campaign. They were tired and probably enjoying the spoils of war. They were not expecting another attack, especially once they set up camp for the night. Ancient armies did not usually fight after dark. Abraham's troops were fresh; they attacked under cover of darkness and by dividing his strike force to simultaneously attack from two sides, he was able to completely surprise the army. They fled north with Abraham in hot pursuit. Somewhere beyond Damascus, a city even farther to the north, Abraham recovered the booty, Lot, and all his possessions. Abraham returned home victoriously.

This whole campaign would have taken several weeks to conclude. In the meantime, the king of Sodom regained his kingdom, heard about the battle, and marched out to meet the victorious hero. This king had just lost everything — his wealth and his people. Abraham had just recaptured everything. One can almost imagine his unmitigated joy. Perhaps he was dreaming about an alliance with Abraham. But before this king ever gets a chance to speak, Melchizedek jumps into the story. He is a king of Salem, which is suggestive of the Hebrew word "shalom" or peace. He is king of the peace that Abraham has now brought to the community. He is also a priest of God, the Most High.

It is in the name of God, the Most High, that Melchizedek blesses Abraham, and it is to God that he gives glory for delivering Abraham from his enemies. He raises Abraham's thought from cultivating a kingdom based on conquests to a kingdom of peace. Abraham's immediate response is to give a tenth of everything to Melchizedek. Only after this exchange does the King of Sodom speak. Unlike Melchizedek who brought an offering of bread and wine, this king arrived empty-handed and shouted, "Give me the people..." Now, in fact, this demand is quite outrageous. Ultimately, this king was at Abraham's mercy. But he is undaunted by custom and hopes to cut a deal with him. In exchange for the people, the king offers to allow Abraham to keep all the spoils of war, spoils that already belong to Abraham by virtue of his conquest.

However, Abraham disdainfully rejects the whole offer. Instead, he replies that he has already sworn an oath not to accept anything — not a thread or a sandal thong — from the king, lest he should one day be able to say that he had made Abraham rich. Abraham's statement is both a testament of allegiance to God and an affirmation that God will provide all of his needs. His expression — not a thread or a sandal thong, which would be a thick strap — is called a merism. It's a technique in which contrasting items are used to express a totality. He didn't want to accept anything from Sodom, not even the tiniest item. But he did not hold others to this same standard. He saw to it that his allies and suppliers were reimbursed. At the end of this chapter, Abraham has made a clear choice between worldly benefits and divine blessings. Presumably, he returned to Hebron, while Lot stayed in Sodom.