Lot’s choice to leave Canaan and move into the Jordan valley closer to Sodom comes back to haunt him – not for the last time. Because of a rebellion by five kings in the Canaan area, four kings from the east invade the land and specifically conquer Sodom and Gomorrah and carry off many of the inhabitants – including Lot. It falls to Abram to rescue him and show that God’s promises hold true whether Abram is lying to Pharaoh in Egypt or launching military campaigns in Canaan.
We do not know how soon after Lot and Abram part ways the events of this chapter take place. We know that everything that happens between chapters 12 and 21 occurs in a roughly 25-year period, so it is at least within that span. As is his custom, Moses does not give us a setting or context for the story before launching into it. We also do not know anything about most of the kings mentioned in this chapter or in some cases how to identify the lands they are associated with. Consequently – as has been true throughout our study – we will not spend time on things that Moses did not consider important enough to explain.
The basics of the story are as follows. Five kings in and around Canaan have been under the rule of a king called Chedorlaomer of Elam (Elam is known to be east of Babylon – it and Shinar are the two places associated with the four kings from the east that can be identified – Shinar is another name for Babylon). They serve Chedorlaomer for twelve years and then for some reason decide to rebel. The rebellion lasts for a year before Chedorlaomer – along with three other kings – decides to march west and punish the rebels.
The four kings from the east come down from the Fertile Crescent and invade the area along what will become known as the King’s Highway to the east of the Jordan River. They head south around the Dead Sea (Salt Sea) and meet the five rebellious kings in the valley of Siddim.
Before they reach the rebels, the eastern kings first defeat the Rephaim in Ashteroth-karnaim, the Zuzim in Ham, and the Emim in Shaveh-kiriathaim. Other references (Deut 2:10-12,20-23) identify these three people groups as giants and mighty warriors. This seems to mean that the four kings are a formidable force and their advance on Canaan is to be feared.
The kings march south to El-paran and then turn northwest to the country of the Amalekites (who do not exist at this time – this is apparently a way for Moses to identify the land to his readers and not a description of the people conquered) and the Amorites (who do exist – this will come into play later in the story). They eventually make their way to the valley of Siddim (somewhere around the southern tip of the Dead Sea) to meet the five rebellious kings.
Two of the five rebel kings are Bera of Sodom and Birsha of Gomorrah. They and the other three kings take on the four eastern kings and lose. What’s more, the valley of Siddim is full of tar pits and the two kings of Sodom and Gomorrah flee and apparently hide in these pits to save their lives (or at least this seems to a reasonable explanation for what happens – the Hebrew word for fell can also be translated lowered, so it could be that they hide in the pits rather than perish in them – note that the king of Sodom meets Abram later so he apparently does not die in battle). The battle is a complete route as the armies flee and hide themselves either in the pits or the hills.
After the armies of Sodom and Gomorrah flee, the kings of the east plunder the cities, taking all the possessions and many of the people. They also – interestingly – take all the food supply (an army marches on its stomach).
This is the key verse of the whole text. Up to this point this has been a nice story about a bunch of kings we cannot identify fighting over things that do not concern us, but now things get really interesting. Now we find out why Moses has told us all these seemingly meaningless facts. The author mentions – almost casually – that the kings of the east take Lot, Abram’s nephew, and his possessions and departed, for he was living in Sodom. This changes everything. Suddenly this is no longer a benign history lesson. If there were a musical score to this chapter it would now change to something very dramatic. The kings – who were on their way to a complete triumph and a successful march back to their homes – have done something really unwise. Nothing to this point has affected Abram and it is likely that he would not have gotten involved in this skirmish in any way. But now they have taken his nephew, and that means he and his promise from God that whoever curses him will be cursed are about to enter the picture. The four kings are about to learn what Pharaoh learned; crossing Abram – even inadvertently or ignorantly – is not a good idea.
There is something else to note in this verse. It says Lot now lives in Sodom. He originally moved to the east to take advantage of the fertile pasturelands and moved his tents as far as Sodom (13:12). But he now actually lives in the city. In 13:9 it said that the men of Sodom are wicked exceedingly and sinners against the Lord. Yet Lot apparently likes the city enough to move into it. It is interesting that his experience with Abram and seeing how God brought him to Canaan and has so clearly blessed him has not made Lot hate the wickedness of Sodom enough to avoid it. By the same token, according to Peter (II Pet 2:7-8), Lot is tormented day after day with their lawless deeds. So why does he choose to live there? There is no way to know – perhaps it is where he finds his wife and starts his family (maybe the fact that it is her family home is why his wife will look back when the city is destroyed)? It could explain why he not only lives there now but also comes back even after seeing it conquered and plundered.
One of the survivors of the battle comes to Abram who is living at the oaks of Mamre (where he built an altar – 13:18) and tells him about Lot. Nothing is said as to why this person comes to Abram – perhaps it is just God-ordained coincidence – but it could be that he knows Lot is Abram’s nephew and Abram is already known as a powerful man in the land.
According to verse 13 the oaks of Mamre are actually named after a man – named Mamre strangely enough – and the man is an Amorite (along with his two brothers). Since the eastern kings conquered the land of the Amorites also, he and his brothers may have a vested interest in the news the fugitive brings.
When Abram hears that Lot has been taken captive he assembles his trained men that have been born in his house. The description here seems to mean that these men – 318 of them – are trained militarily. Abram has his own private army. [Which totally flows out of all the descriptions of Abram in Genesis so far, right? As studiers of the text we saw this coming a mile away. Abram’s army – just what we expected.(!)]
While this seems to be totally out of the blue, perhaps it is not so surprising when we consider that Abram is extremely wealthy and living in a land where he is a foreigner without any support. What it does point out, however, is that either his fear in Egypt was even more unfounded than we thought or his circumstances since then have changed dramatically as his wealth has grown. To have an army at his disposal means that his wealth is staggering. We know he is so wealthy that the land cannot contain both his flocks and Lot’s, and we know that God promised to bless him so his wealth has likely continued to grow. But to find out he has a military contingent of 318 men, all of whom were born – and presumably trained – in his household (note that he does not have a hired army – he has a homegrown army) means his wealth has reached a point where it includes real power. The trained men are mentioned offhandedly in the text, but their presence is an amazing commentary on how much God has blessed Abram.
Abram takes his men and pursues the kings. He catches them in Dan (this is another instance of Moses using a name that is familiar to his readers but does not actually exist at the time of the story) on the north side of Canaan. There he divides his force into two groups and attacks at night and defeats the kings. He chases them north past Damascus and then returns with all the plunder and people from Sodom and Gomorrah.
This gives us another glimpse into Abram that is completely unexpected. He not only has his own army but he knows how to lead it. And he apparently knows military strategy too. All we have seen to this point is that he is a very successful shepherd, but now we find out that he has no problem leading an armed force on an overland march and a night attack. Abram apparently can do it all.
That he does this establishes Abram as a force to be reckoned with in Canaan. It is not likely that someone will give him trouble from here on (although it is telling that he will again fear a local king and lie about his wife in the years to come – 20:1-18). As a private individual to do what the five kings of the area could not do makes him presumably the most powerful man in the land.
From another angle, however, it is hard to know how much of an accomplishment this is without any context. It sounds amazing that Abram and his 318 men can defeat four kings that have just conquered the entire area and all the kings in it. It is even more amazing that they do what the giants and mighty men – the Rephaim and the Zuzim and the Emim – could not do. The number of men and the nighttime attack sound similar in odds and success to Gideon’s army and its future attack on the Midianites. However, it is important to remember that people groups and populations are likely much smaller at this time than what we are used to. This is still not that far removed from the flood. It could be that 318 men is considered a significant force.
Regardless of the numbers and the size of the triumph, the fact remains that this again shows God fulfilling His promise to Abram. The kings take Lot; Lot is Abram’s nephew; so the kings lose. He who curses Abram is cursed. Lot’s righteousness and choices do not matter. The motives of the kings do not matter. The political underpinnings of the rebellion and the issues involved in the original battle of the nine kings do not matter. What matters is that God promised to make Abram great and to bless and protect him. So the four kings were defeated by a wealthy shepherd and his private army because God keeps His promises. Even in the midst of circumstances that seem WAY out of the norm.
Verses 21-24 actually flow from verse 17 more than they do from verse 20. Verses 18-20 interrupt the thought of verse 17 so we will come back to them.
Abram returns from the battle with all the plunder and people from Sodom and Gomorrah, and the king of Sodom comes to meet him. The king – who may be extremely intimidated and probably more than a little humiliated – tells Abram to give him back the people but keep all the plunder for himself, presumably as a reward for what he has done.
Abram tells the king that he will not keep anything from the plunder because he has sworn to the Lord God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth, that I will not take a thread or a sandal thong or anything that is yours, lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’ Abram is adamant that only God will get the glory for his wealth and prosperity. It may also be that he specifically does not want to be beholden to the king of Sodom because of the wickedness of his city. After all, he did not seem to have a problem with accepting wealth from Pharaoh (12:16) when it came as a result of Sarai becoming his wife.
The only material goods Abram accepts is a share of the plunder for his allies – Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre – and what was consumed by the men on the trip. Everything else goes back with the king of Sodom (who does not seem all that grateful – perhaps his ‘thank you’ is left out of the text?).
These three verses read like they were inserted out of order. Verse 17 starts the story of the king of Sodom and then the text instantly jumps to an entirely different king who comes to meet Abram. The name of the king is Melchizedek, king of Salem (most think this refers to Jerusalem). He comes to meet Abram and brings bread and wine. He is not only the king of Salem but is also a priest of God Most High (El Elyon).
Melchizedek is a mystery man. Nothing in the text tells us where he comes from, nor does it describe how he is a priest of God. The writer of Hebrews (Heb 7) will later make much of the fact that we know nothing about his origins or his descendants. He is a priest seemingly without beginning or end.
Some have said that because he is such a man of mystery and because the writer of Hebrews describes him as a type of Christ, that he actually IS Jesus incarnate. However, it is likely that the author of Hebrews simply uses the lack of information about him to make the point that he is like Christ in having no beginning or end, not that he actually IS Christ and is eternal. Melchizedek is mysterious because Moses does not give us any information about him – not because he is divine.
Melchizedek comes out to Abram and blesses him. He blesses him, however, because of God. He says Abram is blessed because he is of God Most High. More than that, he is blessed because God Most High delivered his enemies into his hand. Abram’s victory is amazing, but the victory is not a result of Abram’s genius or might, it is because of God.
After Melchizedek blesses Abram, Abram gives him a tenth of all the plunder (so the king of Sodom gets 90% – less the provisions for the men and the plunder given to Abram’s Amorite allies – of what was taken instead of 100%) to show his understanding that the victory is all of God. What Abram has accomplished is not a great victory for himself but a great victory for God. God provided the triumph and the spoils so Abram gladly gives a portion back. It all belongs to God and Abram acknowledges this with the tithe.
Abram knows what this event shows. God’s promises to him are real. He saw it in Egypt, he saw it in how God provided for him after Lot went east to the better pasturelands, and he has seen it again in the victory over the four kings. He was un-trusting in Egypt and God blessed him. He was trusting in the division of the land and God blessed him. And he is ultra-faithful here – “Go fight four kings to rescue my nephew? Absolutely!” – and God blesses him. No matter what he does God fulfills His promises. And no matter how extreme the circumstances God fulfills His promises. Weird wife situations, short-end-of-the-stick land situations, extreme military situations – God is with him and fulfills everything He said He would. It pays to remember these situations when we get to the story of Abram and Isaac and the sacrifice. It is because of faith-building events like these that Abram will later trust that God will take care of him even if he kills his only son.
The lesson here is that God cannot be unfaithful. As He keeps His promises to Abram so He keeps them to us – His children in Christ. This is the point the author of Hebrews makes in light of God’s faithfulness to Abram:
13 For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, 14 saying, “Surely I will bless you and multiply you.” 15 And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise. 16 For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. 17 So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, 18 so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. 19 We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, 20 where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.
Hebrews 6:13-20 (ESV)