The War of the Kings
It is twenty-eight years after the Dispersion. Unsuccessful in unifying his kingdom by building the Tower, Nimrod (identified with Amraphel – see verse 1) reigns over only Shinar (Babylon). Chedorlaomer (identified with Elam, son of Shem), built an empire under his former name, Elam, and conquered many other provinces – including Sodom and Gomorrah, forcing them to pay tribute.
But peace did not last long. In the following narrative we learn how the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah together with three other kings, rebelled for thirteen years.
In the fourteenth year, Chedorlaomer and three other kings allied with him took the initiative in crushing the revolt. They did not take the direct route to Sodom, but marched through the entire east of Eretz Yisrael southward toward Edom. In a display of might, probably designed to instill their dread in the inhabitants of the region and to bolster the morale of the soldiers, they conquered everything en route, taking spoils from the nations listed in verse 5 and 6 who were probably allied with the five kings. Only then did they turn back northwards to their intended goal of Sodom.
The battle took place in the Valley of Siddim, and it was here that the first punishment befell the wicked Sodomites who had always lived in luxurious tranquility in their blessed land. In history’s oldest account of kings and wars, the five kings were quickly beaten and their treasurers – which were always jealously guarded by the wicked Sodomites lest anyone derive pleasure from them – were carried away by strangers. Ironically, even Lot – who left Abraham to partake of the sensuous luxuries of Sodom – lost all his wealth and was himself carried away.
When Abraham became aware that his nephew Lot was a captive, he led his faithful followers and fearlessly pursued the four mighty kings who had by this time already conquered twelve nations!
He pursued them as far as Chovah/Dan where his strength waned because he prophetically perceived that his descendants would one day erect an idol there. He pursued the aggressor kings no further, content that they had at least been driven from the Land.
Thus, the righteous Abraham, aided by heavenly forces, became the savior of Lot and the wicked Sodomites, and freed them and their possessions.
On returning from his defeat of the kings, Abraham was met by the king of Sodom who offered that Abraham keep the goods he recaptured.
But Abraham insisted that he will accept no personal benefit from bloodshed. War may sometimes be necessary to safe guard human life but it is not to be glorified. Abraham refused to take from the king of Sodom even a thread or a show-strap, lest the king boast ‘I have made Abraham rich.’
Abraham thus disavowed all ungodly purposes, and thereby demonstrated that all his actions were selflessly motivated.
14:1 “..Amraphel..” – He is identified with Nimrod (see 10:8 – it was he who cast Abram into the furnace of Ur Kasdim. As the Talmud notes, he was called Amraphel because he said to Abram: ‘Plunge into the fiery furnace!’. And Shinar is Babylon which is evident from 11:2 and 11:9 where it is explicitly state that Shinar was called Babel, because the confusion of languages that happened there.
Chedorlaomer was the primary and most important of these kings as indicated in verse 5 ‘the kings who were with him’, implying that the others were subservient to him. Nevertheless, in placing the incident in its historical perspective, Scripture speaks of Amraphel because he was the senior member of the alliance.
14:8 The Battle of the Revolt – “The king of Sodom went forth” – They did not wait passively to be invaded, but took the initiative and attacked the enemy first.
“engaged them in battle in the Valley of Siddim” – It was no accidental encounter, but a carefully chosen battlefield because its nature was such that a small force thoroughly acquainted with the terrain could hold off a much larger and stronger force. Had the soft and wicked kings of Sodom and Gomorrah been able and brave, they would not have been defeated. As it was they fled with such disgrace and shame that they fell unto the very pits they knew so well. (Hirsch)
Notice that the kings are mentioned in an order different from that of verse 2. Perhaps, now that war was about to begin, they are listed according to their military might.
14:9 “four kings against the five” – And yet the four kings won, which proves their great might. Nevertheless, as we see later, Abraham did not hesitate to pursue them (Rashi).
14:10 “full of bitumen wells” – The area was dotted with wells from which a slime was taken for building (Rashi). (Bitumen is a thick sticky black mixture of hydrocarbons.)
The kings of Sodom and Gomorrah panicked, and fleeing, fell into the wells. But, for some reason, the king of Sodom was miraculously saved. Rashi cites the Midrash that the area was so swampy that only by a miracle was the king of Sodom able to escape it. This miracle was given to him, unworthy as he was, for one reason…. Those who refused to believe in the miracle enabling Abraham to escape unharmed from the furnaces of Ur Kasdim now saw the miracle performed for the king of Sodom; and in hindsight, they believed in Abraham’s miracle, too.
Ramban observes that faith in God would hardly be enhanced by a miracle performed on behalf of a heathen king. On the contrary, this miracle could only strengthen their idolatrous beliefs or cause them to attribute all miracles to witchcraft, and not to the God of Abraham. Thus, the effect would be the reverse!
Ramban goes on to suggest that the Sages of that Midrashic statement would interpret verse 17: “and the king of Sodom went out to meet him” as indicating that ‘he went out’ from the well when Abraham passed by it looking for survivors. It was obvious to all that he emerged from the well miraculously, only in deference to Abraham, since he failed to get out previously. The king of Gomorrah, however, had apparently died by the time Abraham arrived.
14:12 “..they captured Lot” – It is strange that Lot’s relationship to Abraham is mentioned when it is already well known. Equally puzzling is that the relationship is not mentioned after his name, but after “and his possessions.” It emphasizes that Lot’s capture and the taking of his possessions was motivated first and foremost by his relationship to Abraham.
The Midrash relates that they put Lot in a cage and made a spectacle of him. They marched around and boasted: ‘We have captured Abram’s nephew!’ This proves that they had come only because of him.
According to the Midrash, Zohar, and commentators, much of their design was to root out Abram. But as the verse clearly states, as soon as they captured Lot, they departed. The reason was that Lot closely resembled Abram; therefore when they thought they had Abram, they departed.
The reason for their hostility toward Abram was that he weaned man from idolatry and taught them to worship Hashem. Also, God incited the kings to this invasion in order that Abram’s name might be aggrandized through their defeat, and all would be attracted to His service.
Hirsch comments on the need for Scripture to repeat these two amply known facts – that Lot was Abraham’s nephew and that he lived in Sodom. His relationship to Abram would have spared him from the vengeance of Chedarlaomer because Lot was known to be a stranger in Sodom. But He refused to remain a stranger there – he copied their ways and therefore he fell victim to their fate. Throughout history, the Jew who remains separate is spared much. In the Middle Ages, the ghettos and anti-Jewish persecution prevented Jews from becoming murderers and torturers like others. True, they were considered too inferior to become officials and knights, but, by the same token, their hands did not become blood-stained. And their ghettos often protected them from the vengeance of conquerors because they were not contaminated by the corruption of their host countries.
14:13 “..there came a fugitive” – Tradition identifies the fugitive with Og, king of Bashan. Exactly what he told Abram is not recorded. Presumably he related to him the course of the battle: how the five kings were defeated, how Sodom was taken and its residents, including Lot, were taken prisoner.
His intention in telling him was not pure. He knew that the righteous Abram would not sit idly by once he became aware that his nephew was in peril. He, therefore, told him this news because he wished to incite Abram to engage the kings in battle with the expectation that Abram would be killed so that he himself might marry Sarai. (Midrash; Rashi)
The Midrash continues: ‘By your life!’ said the Holy One, Blessed be He, ‘(Although your intentions were evil), you will be rewarded for your journey (to inform Abram in Hebron) by being granted long life. (He was still alive in the time of Moses). But for your wicked scheme, intending Abram’s death, you will see myriads of his descendants into whose hands you will ultimately fall (Numbers 32:33).