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).
14:14 As soon as Abram heard Lot was being held captive, the Spirit of God rested on him, and he bravely armed his trained ones. Through this, Abraham realized that the main reason Lot was taken captive was because he was Abraham’s kinsman. At its source, their hatred was towards Abraham himself, and would intensify unless it was checked. Therefore, he was even more determined to act against them.
Initially Abraham had complacently trusted in God to save his nephew. However, he heard that, due to Lot’s strong resemblance to him, people were boasting that Abraham himself had been captured, and that Nimrod’s easy victory proved the falsehood of the stories that Abraham had been miraculously saved from the furnaces of Ur. That such blasphemies could circulate was a desecration of God’s Name; Abraham immediately armed his men and set out.
“..three hundred and eighteen..” – Abraham did not seek the assistance of Aner, Eshkol, and Mamre relying instead on himself and the disciples he had raised in the service of God.
Harav David Cohen comments that the nature of the war dictated that Abraham take his disciples, but not his allies. Only those trained by Abraham to recognize God’s omnipotence could fearlessly do battle against infinitely superior forces. Such faith could not be expected of Aner, Eshkol, and Mamre.
14:15 Sforno explains that Abraham chose the night in order to throw them into confusion and at the same time to hide the smallness of his own army.
According to the Midrashic interpretation cited by Rashi, the night was divided for him: during its first half a miracle was wrought for him (and he defeated the enemy), and the second half was reserved for the miracle which would occur at midnight in behalf of his children, in Egypt (Exodus 12:29).
14:16 Abraham’s Triumphant Return – The verse does not specify ‘the possessions of Sodom and Gomorrah’ but states generally ‘all the possessions’, to indicate that Abraham recaptured the spoils that had been taken from all the nations they had plundered.
He brought back the men and women as stated in this verse, but not the children. These he left there (rather than return them to their fathers’ idolatrous ways.) They then arose and converted to the true faith (Midrash).
14:17 “..Valley of Shaveh..King’s Valley..” – According to the Midrashic interpretation the valley was so called because it was there that all the nations unanimously agreed to accept Abraham as king and leader over them. (Rashi).
The Midrash states: Upon Abraham’s triumphant return, all the peoples gathered. They cut down cedars, built a platform and set him on top while uttering praises before him (23:6) “Hear us, my Lord – You are a prince of God among us.’ They said: ‘You are a king over us, you are a God over us!’ But he replied: ‘The world does not lack its King, and the world does not lack its God!’.
14:18 Melchizedek is unanimously identified by the Sages as Shem, son of Noah. He was so called because he was a king (melech) over a place known for its righteousness (zedek); a place which would not tolerate any form of injustice or abomination for an extended time (Radak); or according to Ramban, because he ruled over the future site of the Temple, the home of zedek, the righteous Shechinah, which was known, even then to be sacred. Thus Melchizedek might designate him as king of the place of zedek, righteousness.
That Shem was known by this title is not unusual. The kings of Jerusalem were called by the titles of ‘Melchizedek’ or ‘Adonizedek’ as in Joshua 10:1, just as the kings of Egypt were designated by the common title of Pharaoh, and those of the Philistines as Abimelech (Ralbag).
Rabbi Alshich elaborates on this issue with further detail: Verse 17 which mentions the king of Sodom going out to meet Abraham, should have been followed by verse 21: ‘And the king of Sodom said to Abraham’. Why was the smooth flow of the narrative interrupted with the episode of Melchizedek?
The interpretation of the episode with Melchizedek is inserted just at this point to emphasize the contrast between the king of Sodom and Melchizedek. The king of Sodom did not go forth to meet Abraham in personal gratitude but, as the verse says, met him in the Valley of Shaveh, where, as the Midrash relates (see verse 17) all the peoples had unanimously gathered to praise and proclaim Abraham king. Everyone tumultuously received Abraham – and the king of Sodom merely joined them, though he was the only one who was personally indebted to Abraham. And furthermore, as the verse implies, he came empty-handed.
This is in sharp contrast to Melchizedek. As a priest, should have been the recipient rather than the dispenser of gifts; nevertheless he went forth bearing gifts, though not compelled to do so.
As Hirsch explains: The king of Sodom must have felt very humiliated at his defeat and subsequent rescue by Abraham. Still, after the victory had been won, he came out to meet Abraham as though they were on equal terms – as king. He ‘demands’ – for this is what a Sodomite king understands. It does not dawn on him that he has a responsibility to refresh the exhausted, hungry man with a piece of bread and a drink of wine. Such decency is not included in the code of conduct of His Majesty of Sodom!
By Melchizedek bringing out bread and wine, he also demonstrated that he bore Abraham no malice for having slain his offspring.
14:19 The Sages take special note of the fact that Melchizedek first blessed Abram – as if the thanks for the victory went to ‘him’ – and only in the next verse did he bless God: The Holy One, Blessed be He intended to bring forth the priesthood from Shem (identified with Melchizedek) but because he gave precedence in his blessing to Abraham over God, He brought it forth from Abraham, (for when Melchizedek had blessed Abraham and then God, Abraham had said to him: ‘Is a servant’s blessing to be given precedence over his Master’s?’
God gave the priesthood to Abraham as it is written: Psalm 110:4 “Hashem said ‘You are a priest forever after the manner of Melchizedek’ which means, ‘because of the words of Melchizedek whereby he gave Abraham prominence.’
14:20 Abram gave Melchizedek a tenth of everything. In reward to Abraham for giving tithes from all, the three great pillars of the world, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, enjoyed prosperity. Of Abraham it is written (24:1) ‘And Hashem blessed Abraham in all things; of Isaac it is written (27:33) “I have eaten of all”; of Jacob it says (33:11) “Hashem has dealt graciously with me and I have all.’ (Midrash)
It is also important to know that all three Patriarchs gave tithes: Abraham in this verse, Isaac in 26:12 and Jacob in 28:22.
There are reasons for the various tithes. The respective reasons correspond to the virtues of the respective Patriarchs:
- the tithe to the poor, (commandment 66) ‘so that God’s creatures become accustomed to the attribute of mercy’. (This attribute corresponds to Abraham)
- the First Tithe (to the Levites) (commandment 395) to assist the Levites for God chose Levi, from among his brothers for His service.’ (Isaac represents the ideal of service.)
- the Tithe from animals which must be brought to Jerusalem (commandment 360) ‘for God chose the Jewish people and desires for the sake of His righteousness that they all engage in Torah study’ .. therefore He instructed them to go to Jerusalem, the center of Torah. (Jacob represents Torah study.)
14:21 Up until this point, the king of Sodom had requested nothing of Abraham. But when he saw Abraham’s generosity in giving tithe to Melchizedek, he mustered up the courage to ask for the prisoners, as an act of charity (Ramban).
The king of Sodom must have recognized that as the victor, Abraham had the right to dispose of the rescued people however he desired. The king of Sodom sought ‘an act of charity’, a request precipitated by Abraham’s generosity in dispensing tithes to Melchizedek.
Some Sages take Abraham to task for complying with the request ‘give me the people’, for had he kept the people with him, he would have taught them to know God.
Abraham’s rationale is returning the people was apparently that they were of wicked stock and no good would come of them in any event. And, the Midrash does state regarding verse 16 that Abraham returned adults only. It was to his credit that he kept the children behind and eventually did covert them to honor God.
14:22 “I lift up my hand to Hashem,” – Abarbanel perceives the act of raising the hands toward heaven as an indication of one’s affirmation that one’s reliance is on our Father in Heaven. Thus, in response to the heathen king of Sodom, Abraham raises his hands away from all the gods, signifying that this faith is directed only to the Highest, to Hashem Who, for him, is the Only One. The implied meaning then is: ‘I lift up my hand to Hashem’ as if to say, ‘When I require gifts or favor, I will raise my hands in supplication to God for He is the Most High, Master of heaven and earth. Therefore, it is only from Him that I will accept gifts – from you, king of Sodom, I will accept not even a thread or a shoe strap.
14:23 ‘a thread or a shoe strap;’ – The Talmud (Chullin 88b) notes that as a reward for having refused to accept the thread and shoe strap, Abraham’s children received two precepts: the thread of blue (Numbers 15:38 referring to the precept of tzitzis – knotted tassels which hang from a tallit, the Jewish prayer shawl. The strings and knots are a physical representation of the 613 commandments.) The second precept was the strap of tefillin – a small box containing small scrolls with Torah verses which have straps to attach to an arm.
The halachah, a Jewish religious law, is that the left shoe should be tied before the right because the strap of tefillin is tied upon the left arm. The general rule, however, gives precedence to the right because Scripture preferred it in the Temple service. Therefore, for example, the right shoe is put on first. Why is the generally preferred order not followed with regard to tying as well. The answer is indicated by the Talmudic dictum that for refusing a shoe strap, Abraham was rewarded with the strap of teffilin. Therefore, a shoe strap has a special relationship to tefillin: since tefillin are tied on the left arm, the left in this case takes precedence and the shoe lace is tied first.
Additionally, according to other Midrashim, the reward for Abraham denying himself thread and shoe strap ‘resulted in even more precepts:
- For denying himself the thread, his children were rewarded with the Tabernacle which was adorned with blue and purple wool. Thread also alludes to the sacrifices: a thread-like scarlet line encircled the middle of the altar marking the division between the blood sprinkled on the upper part of the altar and the lower. In reward for ‘thread’ his children were also rewarded with the scarlet thread which turned white on Yom Kippur (as a sign that Israel’s sins were forgiven). (See Leviticus 16:10 and Isaiah 1:18)
- For denying himself the shoe strap his children were rewarded with the precept of Chalitzah of which it says (Deuteronomy 25:9) ‘She shall loosen his shoe from his foot. It also refers to Passover sacrifice’ which was eaten while wearing shoes (Exodus 12:11).