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929 Project: Genesis 14 – war, and a political world

August 1, 2018

Genesis 14 dramatically shifts perspective. 

In Genesis 13, the focus is on the eloquence and piety of Abram, and the greediness of his nephew Lot.  There is mention of the Canaanites and Perizzites (Genesis 13:7), and of the wicked dwellers of Sodom (Genesis 13:13), but they play almost no role in the story of Genesis 13.  Abram and Lot both have herdsmen, who fight amongst their camps (Genesis 13:7) but the rhetorical energy of Genesis is dedicated to Abram’s eloquent speech (Genesis 13:9).

And in Genesis 14, chaos erupts.  The text is difficult to follow in parts, and the 929 chapter summary helps:

Chapter 14: The First World War

This is the first World War, at least the first in the Bible. A coalition of four northern kings (mainly from Mesopotamia) embarks on a military expedition to the Dead Sea area (the Plains of Jordan). Why? Because five kings from the Plains of Jordan had made an alliance with each other and after twelve years of enslavement to the northern kingdom of Elam they rebelled. On the way to suppressing the rebellion, Chedarlaomer, the king of Elam, and his northern allies, conquer an impressive list of other nations (Genesis 14: 5-7). When they reach the Valley of Siddim, which is in the area of ​​the Dead Sea, they suppress the rebels, conquer and loot them, and take captives.

At this point, general  history meets our story. Among the prisoners was Lot, Abram’s nephew, who, in the previous chapter, separated from him and chose to settle in Sodom. Abram and his local allies pursue the invading force, subdue them, release the captives, and return all the looted property. That is, almost all the property. A tithe from this was given to Melchizedek, the Priest of Salem (Jerusalem); some of the property was given to Abram’s allies. Abram, however, did not take any of the spoils as he says, “I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours” (verse 23).

Big Ideas:

  1. The prophet Jeremiah (1:14) once said “From the north shall disaster break loose.”  This the first time in the Bible, but not the last, that a kingdom from the north is the dominant imperial factor in Canaan. This will occur  throughout most of the monarchy.
  2. Abram, who chases after the invading force, not only releases Lot, but also determines the nature of the northern border to Canaan. This border, incidentally, is quite similar to the border that is recorded in the Book of Samuel during the reign of King David (Samuel 1: 30).
  3. Abram is referred to in the chapter “Abram the Hebrew” (verse 13).
  4. In this chapter we discover that Abram is not a lone wolf.  He has local allies (Eshkol and Aner) and even a connection to the local priest:  “And King Melchizedek of Salem…was a priest of God Most High” (verse 18).
  5. This is the first time in Tanach that Jerusalem is mentioned. It appears in its early and abbreviated name – “Salem”, and it already has a connection to the ritual, priesthood, faith and the giving of tithes.

Notice how carefully the text redirects Canaanite religion to monotheistic religion.  Here is Melchizedek’s blessing to Abram (Genesis 14:19-20):

ויברכהו ויאמר ברוך אברם לאל עליון קנה שמים וארץ

וברוך אל עליון אשר מגן צריך בידך ויתן לו מעשר מכל

And he blessed him, and he said

“Blessed be Abram to El Elyon,
possessor of heaven and earth,
and blessed be El Elyon
who delivered your foes into your hand.” 

and here is Abram’s response (Genesis 14:22)

ויאמר אברם אל מלך סדם הרמתי ידי אל חי אל עליון קנה שמים וארץ

And Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I raise my hand in oath to the LORD, the Most High God, possessor of heaven and earth, […].  (HB-A)

Robert Alter notes in HB-A, “El is the proper name of the sky god in the Canaanite pantheon, and Elyon is evidently a distinct, associated deity, though here the two appear as a compound name.  But the two terms are also plain Hebrew words that mean “God the Most High,” and elsewhere are used separately or (once) together as designations of the God of Israel.  Whatever Melchizedek’s theology, Abram elegantly co-opts him for monotheism by using El Elyon in its orthodox Israelite sense when he addresses the king of Sodom.”

Here is more information about this series; and here is a table of abbreviations and acronyms.  Posts are backdated to match with 929 reading dates.

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