Saturday, February 25, 2006

Genesis (Part Seven)

Genesis Chapters 14:1-24

The War of the Four Against the Five and The Blessing of Melchizedek

This chapter is a retelling of a historic incident, although we have no archeological proof of the event. We are told of certain kings who were bound for El-paran. This region is located near today’s Eilat, in the Negev. The kings had come from Mesopotamia and after accomplishing their objective in this southern region they returned home carrying Lot with them as a prisoner.

It is here that we see Abram in the role of a warrior and we determine that Abram’s victory is because of his faith in God Most High.

The four kings of the north were Amraphel, king of Shinar, Arioch, king of Ellasar, Chedorlaomer, king of Elam and Tidal, king of Goim.

They had made war against five Mesopotamian kings, Bera, king of Sodom, Birsha, king of Gomorrah, Shinab, king of Admah, Shemeber, king of Zeboiim and Bela, king of Zoar. The latter kings joined forces at the valley of Siddim, now the Dead Sea.
Shinar was the ancient name for Babylon, though some believe it was located closer to Canaan.

Arioch is found in cuneiform sources, however Ellasar, his city, is not.

Elam was an eastern rival of Mesopotamia.

Tidal was a Hittite name.

Goiim literally means "nations" and is possibly used by the author to mean "foreigners", similar to barbarians, a word that has contemptuous overtones.
Bera and Birsha are considered by some to be unhistorical names that refer to the depravity of Sodom and Gomorrah. Bera could mean "with evil" and Birsha could mean "with wickedness."

This event occurred in a valley that had not yet submerged and later became the Dead Sea or Salt Sea.

We are told that for twelve years the Mesopotamian kings had served Chedorlaomer and in the thirteenth year they rebelled. This is the cause of the war. We are told that the northern kings lead by Chedorlaomer were victorious in this war, even defeating the Raphaim (a perhaps mythical nation of giants.) We are told that Chedalaomer and his forces subdued the territory of the Amalekites and the Amorites. The kings of Sodom and Gomorrah threw themselves in the fight, while the rest escaped to the hill country. Therefore the invading kings seized all the wealth of Sodom and Gomorrah and all their possessions taking with them Lot and all of Lot’s possessions.

A fugitive perhaps and escaped captive, brought news of this to Abram, the Hebrew, who was dwelling at the Terebinths of Mamre the Amorite with his kinsman of Eshkol and Aner. All these were allies of Abram. When Abram heard of the capture of Lot, he mustered his retainers that were born into his household and went to pursuit. We are unsure what is meant by retainers. We are told that they numbered three-hundred and eighteen.

Though the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah could not defeat the four northern kings, Abram and his forces were able to not just defeat them but to recapture all that was taken. Abram brought back all the possessions that were captured in the war. Abram brought back Lot and Lot's possessions and as well as all the women and the rest of the people that were held captive from Sodom and Gomorrah.

As Abram returns from defeating Chedolaomer and the other kings, the king of Sodom came to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh, which is the Valley of the Kings.

It is here that Melchizedek, king of Salem brought out bread and wine. We are told that he was a priest of God Most High. He blesses Abram saying, "Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth and Blessed be God Most High Who has delivered your foes into your hand." Abram gave to Melchizedek a tenth of everything. (This was a tithe that was typically given to a priest)

The king of Sodom then speaks to Abram saying, "Give to me all the people that were taken during the war but keep all of the possessions."

Abram replied to the king of Sodom "I swear (literally ‘I lift up my hand’) to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. I will not take so much as a thread of a sandal strap of what is yours so that you may not say, ‘It is I who made Abram rich.’ For me nothing but what my servants have used up. As for the share of the men who went with me, Aner, Eshkol and Mamre, let them take their share."

Abram was a nomad and did not wish to be beholden to anyone. As a trader he need not rely on plunder as a source of income. His brusk tone of voice signifies his contempt for the king of Sodom.

This is the first time that we hear Abram referred to as the Hebrew. The word "Ivri" is said to be derived from "ever" meaning on the other side or beyond. Possibly Abram the Ivri meant that the whole world stood on one side and Abram stood on the other. Abram’s faith ran counter to what other men believed. Later on in the Bible when Jonah is asked by gentile sailors of his origin, he replies, "I am Ivri." Simply put Ivri meant Outsider. To those who love God, we are Ivri.

In Hebrew numbers have much meaning. The Hebrew alphabet has a numerical equivalent value. This is called gemaria. Therefore words were compared and conclusions were drawn on that basis. The number 318, Abrams number of retainers is significant. We can conclude that it meant "a large number."


His name may mean the King of Justice. Literally "the King is Tzedek." Of the other monotheists mentioned, Melchizedek’s origins and heritage are not noted.

There is much speculation about this man and he has become the subject of Jewish and Christian tradition. In the Psalms he is called the prototype of the ideal king that will spring from the line of David. In Paul’s letters Jesus is referred to as the "high priest after the order of Melchizedek." Melchizedek’s merit is referred to in the Catholic daily Mass and in the communion tradition of bread and wine.

Interestingly enough, although we are not told if Melchizedek is Ivri or the same faith as Abram, both men use the same term for God, El Elyon. El Elyon is a deity mentioned in Phoenician records. El Elyon later came to mean "Most High" and the expression El Elyon (God Most High) was applied to the God of Abraham.

The original importance accorded Melchizedek most likely arose from the fact that he was the king of Salem and that Salem was identified with Yerushalayim/Jerusalem. By this Abram has established a link between himself and the Holy City.

Unlike mythological epics of battle and bravery that attribute the heroes strength and power to his gods, the remarkable thing about this short historical retelling is that it does not include anything other than Melchizedek’s words, "(El Elyon...) has delivered your foes into your hand" to attribute the wars victory to God and Abram's trust in the Almighty.

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