In the fourth part of my series on Abraham and his family, I discuss Genesis 14, with Abram’s victory over the kings, his encounter with Melchizedek, and his final break with Lot.
Welcome back. Today is the fourth of my series on Abraham’s family. I am exploring the history of Abraham’s family from Genesis 11 to Genesis 50, discovering the ways in which the different characters that are a part of this family are tightly interconnected as part of a great narrative that is playing out, a narrative in which the destinies of people are being determined. I am exploring the significance of those characters as they emerge, as they are juxtaposed with each other, as they are compared and contrasted, and as we see the consequences of their actions playing out over time.
I have looked at the first few chapters of this story, and reached the end of chapter 13. I want to make a few more comments on the end of chapter 13 and move into chapter 14, which is the account of the battle of the kings.
In chapter 13, we see Abraham going into the land of Canaan. As he goes into the land of Canaan, he takes Lot with him back from the land of Egypt, but yet they divide. They both have great possessions, but there is rivalry between their groups and they end up going different directions. This is significant because Lot would seem to have been the natural heir and successor of Abraham. He was going to be the one through whom Abraham’s name would be made great. But yet, that was not to be. And so, Lot goes his own way.
The manner in which Lot goes his own way is worth paying attention to. He chooses a particular area of the land for himself. We read:
And Lot lifted his eyes and saw all the plain of Jordan, that it was well watered everywhere (before God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah) like the garden of the Lord [the Garden of Eden], like the land of Egypt, as you go toward Zoar. Then Lot chose for himself all the plain of Jordan, and Lot journeyed east. And they separated from each other.—Genesis 13:10-11
When you read that, there are a number of things that should click in your mind and a number of connections that might emerge. First of all, a reference to the Garden of Eden—the Garden of God. There is also a reference to Egypt. There is a reference to looking and seeing that something is good, and choosing that, and then going east. All of these are events and significant details that might highlight that this is a bad choice—a choice, at least, that foreshadows something negative. It is not in itself necessarily a bad choice, but it is something that is relayed to us in a way that would suggest that there is something that is going to go wrong about this. The garden of God—Eden. Looking, seeing that something is good and taking it—like Adam and Eve took the forbidden fruit. Heading east, as the Babel builders of 11:2. It is also going east from Eden (4:16). In these cases, that sort of journeying is associated with negative themes.
What else is going on here? There is a separation of Lot’s destiny from Abraham’s destiny in various ways. They are going their own separate ways. And eventually, even though he thinks that he is choosing the right thing, he is choosing something that looks like Egypt. He is choosing something that is reminiscent of the garden of God, and yet, he will end up in dire straits before long. We will see that his choice leads him, ultimately, into a pit, whereas Abraham’s choice, in which he depends upon God, is one that will lead to him being made great.
I have spoken about the diptychs of Genesis, the ways in which characters are held up against each other and juxtaposed. And as we see their destinies play out, as we see the differences and similarities between them, we see something more about the significance of each character. This parting of the ways between Lot and Abraham is a significant part of that. What we are seeing is the diversion between these two characters, now seen more as brothers than as father-son. And we will see more of this in the chapters that follow. Lot is described as a brother within this passage (14:16). And later on, we will see Abraham goes after his brother Lot. When Lot is taken in chapter 14, it might seem as if there were providence involved, that God were about to give Lot back to Abraham. Lot had seemed lost. But now, the Prodigal Son is going to return! God is going to make his name great through Lot and it will all be set right. But yet, that is not to be.
At the end of chapter 13, we see a promise that God will give the land to Abraham and his descendants. At the very beginning, God has promised—in chapter 12—that he will make Abraham’s name great, that he will make his family and descendants great. But yet, it is not entirely clear who those descendants are, where they are going to come from. It would seem it might be through Lot. At the very end of chapter 13, we have the promise that God will give them this place, this particular land. God describes the people in a way that relates them to the land. They will be like the dust of the earth. They will be beyond numbering. They will be those that multiply upon the face of the earth.
What we will see later is that there is an amplification of that, that they are not just going to be like the dust of the earth—multiplied in that sense. They are also going to be like the stars in the heaven and the sand on the seashore. And each one of these images adds something further.
What we can see as we are looking through the story of Genesis is that each one of these promises is an amplification and a clarification of what has gone before. At the very beginning, you have the promise concerning family and seed, or the promise concerning making his name great, making him a great nation. Then you have the promise to give him a particular place, and that they will be like the dust of the earth, multiplied beyond number.
And again, this can relate back to the very basic themes of the book of Genesis, the calling and the blessing upon humankind to be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth, subdue it, exercise dominion over its creatures. This is a progressive working out. First of all, you are fruitful. Then you multiply. Then you fill the earth. Then you subdue it. Then you exercise dominion. And we are seeing this play out: God promises that He will fulfil those things for Abraham and his descendants—that Abraham will be fruitful, he will become a great nation, he will multiply, he will fill the earth, that he will have this particular place. And then, later on, we see these promises of subduing and exercising dominion, and a foreshadowing of these things in chapter 14.
Chapter 14. We have a story that is very much set within that ancient Near Eastern world, a world of wars between kings—of wars between kings from outside the land, dominating over small princelets or kingdoms within the land. The forces involved are significant. Chedorlaomer is the king of Elam, and Elam is the first son of Shem. And within this passage, we have Abraham described as the ‘Hebrew,’ which might suggest that he is associated with Eber, a younger son of Shem. And so, the older son of Shem, one associated with Elam, is displaced by a younger son of Shem, son of Eber. That sort of event would suggest a relationship with the broader theme that we see throughout the book of Genesis, with younger sons displacing older sons. We see it in Cain and Abel, and Seth, we see it in the story of Esau and Jacob, Ishmael and Isaac. We see it in Judah and Joseph, and Joseph and the other brothers. We see it in Manasseh and Ephraim. In all these different characters, we are seeing the reversal of the natural birth order. Here there might be another similar thing going on—that the king of Elam, the king of the oldest son of Shem, is displaced by a younger son.
The king of Elam, Chedorlaomer, and his allies are ruling over these people in Canaan. And this would seem to be a fulfilment, in part, of the prophecy that we find in Genesis 9 concerning Canaan: “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants he shall be to his brethren… Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem, and may Canaan be his servant. May God enlarge Japheth, and may he dwell in the tents of Shem; and may Canaan be his servant.” That is the curse, the judgment that we have in the story of Noah, which begins the lines of these families as they spread out.
What we are seeing is the flowing out of families at this point. The families of the nations have divided up and they are playing out different destinies. The division of Abraham and Lot is a division of different nations going their separate ways. There is a split in the riverhead at this point. The description of what happens at this point—the well-watered land, things like that—all recalls themes of the Garden of Eden, with waters flowing out. This is what we are seeing taking place: there is a Garden of Eden-type situation, and then there is division of the riverhead of Terah’s family to fill these different lands.
The story of these kings is interrupted at various points with glosses upon the particular place names or the particular locations or kingdoms, which suggests that this is updated for a later audience. It is connecting the story of these kings and the victory over them with the later conquest of the land that we see in the book of Joshua. We have references that would seem to be anachronistic. Amalek, for instance—the reference to the country of the Amalekites. Now, that would later become the country of the Amalekites, but Amalek has not been born yet. And we have characters like the Amorites and others, these other people of Canaan, who are significant figures. We need to think about the way in which they are playing a part in this story. Forces from outside the land are dominating the Canaanite peoples within the land. The sons of Ham’s younger son, Canaan, are being dominated by these forces from outside the land, led by Chedorlaomer, who is a Shemite. And then we have the people who are associated with, for instance, Tidal king of nations, who presumably is a Japhethite, the Gentiles being associated with Japheth. These are dominating over Bera king of Sodom, Birsha king of Gomorrah, Shinab king of Admah, Shemeber king of Zeobiim, and the king of Bela, which is Zoar. They are all gathering together in the valley of Siddim, which later becomes the Salt Sea.
These are settings which will later be familiar within the conquest of the land. We see places like En Mishpat, which is Kadesh. And then you have other names: Bela, Zoar, and these other places, which we will find later on in Scripture—significant places, in some cases. These locations are also associated with peoples, the Rephaim, the Zuzim, the Emim—these peoples who will later be great enemies of the people of Israel, people that they have to conquer to take possession of the land. And yet, here we see a Shemite king, Chedorlaomer, exercising dominance over them. He has dominated these particular kings, and he is the big fish within this world of the ancient Near East, within this world in which Abram is operating.
The fact that Abram beats him is a sign of what Israel should be doing. This is the conquest narrative. He is conquering the land, and he is conquering a significant tract of territory. He pursues Chedorlaomer and his forces up to north of Damascus. This is a significant terrain that he is marking out by his victory.
What we have seen, originally, is Abram building altars throughout the land, then walking throughout the land, having a certain of the area of the land that is given to him as his possession—north, south, east, and west—as God maps out that territory for him and says that his descendants will multiply like the dust of the earth. But here, we see him taking a possession of that land and guarding the people within it. He is taking possession in a way that foreshadows what will later on happen in the story of Joshua. And the connection between the names here—the older names and the newer names that we will find in the book of Joshua and elsewhere—is an important part of the meaning of the story. The lesson for Israel is clear: “If Abraham did this—if he anticipated all the victories of the land that were later on going to happen—then, you too, people of Israel, can conquer the land. You can take possession. There is no reason why you cannot do what Abraham your forefather did.”
And looking back within the context of this chapter, we have already seen Abraham go through certain parts that are significant places. He has been to Shechem, the place where the family has been divided. He has been through Ai, where they failed to take possession of the land, and he has built altars in those places. He has been down to Egypt. He has experienced an Exodus-like struggle as Pharaoh took Sarai into captivity and then, later on, he was delivered to return to the land through plagues and with many gifts, returned to the land, and walked throughout it. Now, he wins a great victory within the land. As it were, he has spied out the land, and now he is going through the land to take possession.
This is playing out the history of Israel in advance. It helps Israel to see that their destiny has been foreshadowed, that there is nothing that they will face that Abraham has not faced before them. The kings of the nations, Chedorlaomer and his forces, drive the forces of the land—the Canaanites—down to the the asphalt pits, where they hided. This is a very significant image. It is a sign that they have come down to the Pit. They have come down to a place of judgment and complete impotence. They have no power. And they are also driven to the mountains. They are completely robbed of their possessions. And the kings take Lot—Abram’s brother’s son, who dwelt in Sodom—and his goods.
Lot’s part in this story is very important. Lot is the one whom it would seem was the one that Abram’s descendants should be named in. He, it would seem, was the one through whom Abram’s name would be made great. But yet, Lot went his own way. Lot seemed to be a bad penny, in certain respects. But here, he has gone his own way, and maybe he can be won back. This is the hope, but it does not transpire that way. It seems that Lot has been brought down to this very low point. He has been brought to Sodom, to this wicked king, and now he has lost everything. And he has a chance. Is he going to be taken back? Is he going to return to Abram’s side?
The other question is, how is Abram going to relate to him? Is Abram going to relate to him as a son again—someone that is going to be part of his house, someone who is going to be building up his name? Or is he going to relate to him as a brother? His brother’s son—is he going to give him that independence to forge his own destiny, or is he going to see his destiny being fulfilled in him?
And this is an important question, because we have already seen certain aspects of Lot’s behaviour and his choices that do not auger well for Lot and his character. He has chosen something that looks appealing, but is associated with the choice of the forbidden fruit, associated with Egypt, associated with the king of Sodom and this wicked city. And in these respects, it seems that he is not the sort of person that Abram wants to entrust his legacy to. This is not going to be the person through whom Abram’s name is going to be made great. But will he protect him. Will he stand and fight for his brother, or will he allow him to be taken into slavery and captivity?
And so, Abram gathers together his forces. He is someone who has influence within the land. Part of the significance of this passage is showing that Abram is someone who is acting very much like a king here. He is not just a priest who is building altars, but he is an incipient king. He is a judge figure. He is someone who has allies. He is someone who has military forces. He has forces of over three hundred men—three hundred and eighteen men. Now, this number of people, as I have said before, suggests that Abram had at least two or three thousand people in his sheikhdom. There were significant numbers of people surrounding him. These are all three hundred and eighteen trained servants who were born in his own house—house-born servants. These are not just regular mercenaries; these are people that belong to Abram’s own house. So, Abram is a king of a type. He is a sort of sheikh, and he has a large group around him that takes refuge with him. People within the region also come to him for aid when they need help.
This is important to bear in mind—Abram is acting on a more grander scale here. He is acting with the peoples of the land and he is also combating some early empires of the world. Chedorlaomer and these Japhethite kings come against him. Abram is someone who is standing for this particular land and making a conquest within it. But he does not take absolute possession of it. That is something that awaits future developments. When he gathers these servants together, he drives out the opponents, and he divides his forces up, and he attacks by night and pursues them north of Damascus.
Over three hundred men and attack by night—that might remind us of Gideon. Gideon does a very similar thing with three hundred men. Abraham has three hundred and eighteen men. There is significance to that fact, in all probability. I am not entirely sure what that significance is, but three hundred and eighteen is not a figure that we have by accident. It is there for a reason, in all probability.
The king of Sodom then meets him at the Valley of Shaveh—the King’s Valley—after he has defeated the kings. And then, Melchizedek, the king of Salem, brings out bread and wine. He is the priest of God Most High.
What we see here are themes of priesthood and kingdom. We have already seen that in the story of Abraham, as he goes throughout the land, building altars, sites of worship, and presumably leading his people in worship in these particular sites, perhaps also leading other peoples of the land. He already has allies here: Mamre, Aner, and Eshcol. These are figures within the land who have allied themselves to Abram. We have a group of people that are already gathering around him. Abram is met by Melchizedek, king of Salem. The significance of this meeting is something I have commented on before. It happens at this particular point in a narrative that is playing out the destiny of Israel. He has already gone to significant sites, like Shechem, Ai, and Bethel. He has already gone down into Egypt and been brought up again, through plagues. He has spied out the land. And now he has taken possession of it—or at least has won a great victory in it. And at this point, from Salem—the site that will later be the site of Jerusalem—he is met by Melchizedek (king of righteousness, his name suggests).
So, this is a significant meeting. He has gone through this whole anticipation of Israel’s history, and then he meets this person at this site. This would seem to be an anticipation of a sort of Davidic kingdom, but a Davidic kingship that also has priestly authority. And here it is significant, as the author of Hebrews suggests, that Abraham gives to this character a tithe of everything, a tithe of everything that he has won. That is a very powerful thing to do. Although he has, as the author of Hebrews argues, within his loins the tribe of Levi and the Levitical priesthood, yet he still gives tithe to this Melchizedek. And then Melchizedek brings out bread and wine. It is a priestly act, and it is after his victory over the kings. This, I think, is appropriately seen as connecting with New Testament themes—that Christ is the greater Melchizedek. Christ is the one who, after his victory over the principalities and powers, comes to his people with bread and wine and sets a table for us in the presence of our enemies, our defeated enemies, and feeds us at his feast. We are the true sons of Abraham, and we are fed by the greater Melchizedek. There is this pattern that is playing out, then, a pattern that anticipates later history and which plays out the destiny of the peoples.
The king of Sodom says at this point something that might have struck a very dark note for Abram. He says, “Abram, you can keep the goods, but I want the people for myself.” What does that mean for Abram? The king of Sodom wants Lot. He wants Lot and his family. He wants the whole number of the people that have been taken. And yet, he is going to give Abram all these possessions. That is a very significant blow for Abram—Abram might have considered regaining Lot, this lost son. He might have him brought back in again. But no, Lot ends up going back with the king of Sodom and he has a place there within that society, as a free person. Now he has been liberated from captivity to this king Chedorlaomer. He is someone who is back within the land, and he has a part to play within the society of Sodom.
He has pitched his tent near Sodom in the past, but, later on, we will see him within their gates. He is one of the rulers. He is one of the people who has influence within that society, even though they look at him with some suspicion. And so, we see a very significant trajectory in the story of Lot and Abram here. For some time, it might seem that Lot might come back and be part of Abram’s sheikhdom again, re-enter Abram’s orbit, and be someone within his house again. No. He goes with the king of Sodom, and Abram refuses to take any of the gifts or the spoil from the king of Sodom. Beyond the portion needed for his allies and his men, he is going to leave that. He is not going to take any of it, lest it be said that the king of Sodom made him rich. He is going to receive this from God alone.
The language within this context, where both Melchizedek and Abram refer to God as the ‘Possessor of heaven and earth,’ might be part of this: he is going to receive the possession from God, not from any human hand. The kingdom is not going to be given to him by any of the rulers of this age. Rather, it will be handed to him by God himself, the one who has all authority in heaven and on earth. And this encounter with Melchizedek and the response to the king of Sodom sets the context for what happens next.
In the next chapter, we will see God appearing to Abram, and this is a key pivotal moment within the story. It manifests some of the deeper themes and brings attention to some of the themes that we have already seen—the significance of the time in Egypt and these other things that are taking place. And it also brings to clarity where and how God will fulfil his promise of making Abram a great nation, of multiplying him, and making his name great.