As so often happens in the Word of God and in the life of faith, Abram is no sooner safely back in the Promised Land, his life properly reordered in obedience to God – we are all sighing with relief — when another crisis suddenly looms before him.
v.1 The four kings represent a huge amount of territory, stretching from the Black Sea in modern day Turkey to and beyond Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq and Iran. The involvement of several powers together in a military exercise like this fits only the Middle Bronze age, the time of Abram.
v.2 The need to modernize the name of Bela (and other names subsequently) suggests that Moses was employing a historical source in writing up this account. [cf. Sarna, 102] The most common assumption, based on a good bit of evidence, is that the five cities, Sodom, Gomorrah, etc., were located under what is now the southern end of the Dead Sea. [Sarna, 104] Nearby are salt formations and asphalt pits and there is a reek of sulfur — all of which recall the destruction of those cities in Gen. 19, and the southern shore of the Dead Sea did used to be much further north, some of the shallow waters of the most southern part dating from after Roman times. It is called the “Salt Sea” because it has a salt content of some 32%, in comparison to the average 3% in the oceans of the world.
v.4 Chedorlaomer was the leader of this confederacy of kings.
v.6 The “border of the wilderness” means on the edge of the great desert that stretches eastward from Palestine into modern day Saudi Arabia.
v.7 In other words, what is being described is a movement of an army from north to south almost certainly along the King’s Highway, east of the Jordan, and as that army moved south it defeated one people after another. It was on its way to wage war with a group in the southern part of that territory but, to get there and return safely, it had to subjugate all of the peoples that stood in its way. [Sarna, 104-105]
v.10 So the battle went badly for the men of Sodom and their allies but the kings themselves found safety in flight. “Bitumen and asphalt are native to the Dead Sea, which Josephus calls the Asphalt Sea.” [Sarna, 107]
v.12 This information about Lot, virtually an afterthought, a detail of the narrative of the war, is what accounts for Abram’s involvement. He had been unaffected by the invasion until he learned what had happened to his nephew.
v.13 The invisible hand of divine Providence: someone escaped and happened to bring the news of the defeat and Lot’s capture to Abram. [Waltke, 231]
v.13 His introduction as “Abram the Hebrew,” as if he had not been introduced up to this point, has long been thought to be further evidence that Moses had this account in some independent source or document and wove it into the narrative that he was writing; all the more as “Hebrew” seems not to have been used by the Israelites to speak of themselves, but only by non-Israelites speaking of Israelites. “Hebrew” is best taken to mean that Abram was a descendant of Eber, as we read in 10:24. As we saw in our studies in Joshua, the term Amorite is sometimes used as an embracive description for the earlier inhabitants of Canaan.
That Abram’s ally was an Amorite meant that he too had kinsmen who had been defeated by the four kings, as we read in v. 7.
v.14 We do not see here at all the cowardly husband of chapter 12. Here is Abram the warrior, moving at risk to himself to rescue his nephew from a considerably larger enemy force. Notice that Abram does not bear a grudge against his nephew for having made such a foolish and selfish choice. Abram’s force is sizeable for that time, and is further evidence of his considerable wealth. [Sarna, 103]
The Hebrew word “trained men” or “retainers,” found nowhere else in the Bible has been found, in a like form, in an Egyptian text from this period, used in reference to a Palestinian chieftain’s retainers, exactly as here. His allies, mentioned by name in v. 13, accompanied him with their forces, as we read in v. 24.
“Dan” is often regarded as the northernmost limit of the Promised Land. Obviously, it was not called “Dan” until later, since the Dan after whom it was named had not yet been born. Before Israel took possession of the Promised Land it was called Laish. An editor updated the name before the Pentateuch was given its final form as a portion of Scripture. You see a number of instances of such updating in the final text of the Old Testament.
v.15 A smaller force prevailing in a surprise attack at night anticipates Gideon’s similar success centuries later. Surprise and superior strategy have often neutralized superior numbers. [Sarna, 108]
v.17 Shaveh is probably a valley near Jerusalem, formed by the junction of the Hinnom Valley on the west and south side of the city and the Kidron valley on the east. [Sarna, 109]
v.18 “Salem,” which means “peace” (like “Shalom) is “Jerusalem,” a known abbreviation (Ps. 76:2). Melchizedek’s name means “King of Righteousness.” He was also a priest, the first one mentioned in the Bible. The fact that Melchizedek is here a priest, not the priest, indicates that there were other priests of the Lord beside Melchizedek at that time. [Waltke, 233] The association of “King” and “Priest” in this one man who served at Jerusalem, was to prompt David, the first Israelite to sit on Melchizedek’s throne in Jerusalem, later to speak of a greater Melchizedek to come (Ps. 110).
Melchizedek is certainly an indication that God had his people elsewhere and not solely in the family of Abram. Melchizedek is obviously a monotheist, one who had preserved the original monotheism of the human race. [Sarna, 109] The Bible doesn’t tell us everything, only what we need to know and there was then a lot more going on in the world concerning the kingdom of God than we have a record of in the Word of God!
“Bread and wine” is a merism or synecdoche for a royal banquet. The King of Sodom was there but he brought nothing to show his gratitude.
v.19 The God of Abram is the only God there is. He is the God of all the kings and peoples mentioned in the chapter, however much they may not have realized it.
v.20 Melchizedek celebrated Abram as God’s warrior and God as the source of Abram’s victory.
This is the first instance of a “tithe” or “tenth” being paid as an act of religious devotion. It is Abram’s idea, not Melchizedek’s and a gift, not a bill being paid. “Everything” refers to the booty, including the people that Abram had brought back from his victory: all that had been taken from the five cities by the four kings and all that Abram had taken from the four kings.
v.21 Note the difference between the first words of Melchizedek – “Blessed be Abram by God Most High,” and those of the King of Sodom, “Give me the persons…”
v.23 Abraham’s surrender of his right to the spoils of war, even the words he uses “Not even a thread or a thong of a sandal” have close parallels in ANE texts from this period. Indeed, there is a great deal in the chapter that evokes the circumstances and the culture of the world of the early second millennium B.C.
This surrendering one’s right to God’s gifts has been a feature of Christian life up to the present time. I was reminded the other day that when Chuck Colson was awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion some years ago, an honor that comes with a million dollars tax free, he gave all the money to the ministry of Prison Fellowship.
A distinctly Christian literary culture was slow to develop in the centuries that followed Pentecost. The early Christian writers wrote plainly with a purpose to explain or to defend the faith. Irenaeus, in the preface to his 2nd century masterpiece, Against Heresies, had to apologize for his inelegant style. He had lived among ignorant pagans so long, he said, he had lost much of the literary grace he had once cultivated as a younger man. The great literature of the Greco-Roman world was pagan in its orientation and Christians understandably shied away from writing in that style. But gradually, inevitably Christian writers found their voice and created literature fully as graceful and artful as anything that had come before.
The first great Christian poet was a man named Prudentius, a fourth century lawyer and politician who spent his spare time and his retirement writing poetry of a distinctly Christian type. He wrote many poems, but his great work was a long poem, the first Christian epic poem, entitled Psychomachia, “Spiritual Warfare.” It was not simply a retelling of the stories of the Bible, it was something new; a poem about the life of the soul in the form of an allegory. Prudentius was the Church’s John Bunyan, thirteen centuries before the life of the great English allegorist! He began his account of how Christians can rid themselves of double-mindedness and obtain purity of heart with the life of Abraham. And he begins that account – in elegant classical Latin verse – with the story of Abram’s rescue of his nephew Lot here in Genesis 14.
According to Prudentius, this is an account of Abram, inspired by the love of God, unsheathing his sword to put to flight the haughty kings of the north. As Abram was able to deliver Lot from his captors, so Christians, with the help of Christ, can free themselves from the appetites and passions that hold them in bondage. “Only when the soul ‘glows with the torch of Christ,’ writes Prudentius, will it triumph over its foes.” [Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, 212-215, 228-230]
As a matter of fact, Prudentius could not have chosen a better text to introduce his theme of spiritual warfare. For in truth this account is all about the life of faith and how faith, as John would later put it, is the victory that overcomes the world (1 John 5:4). There are enemies galore here, battles to be fought, and a victory to be won. And that victory was won by faith in God or in Christ, for to say it in the first way is to say it in the second. This chapter is about spiritual warfare in a particularly obvious way.
You perhaps noticed how the chapter begins and continues. It is all about these kings, nine of them; the rebellion of some and the military invasion of others to punish the rebels and subdue them. The word “king” occurs in the chapter 28 times! And for verse after verse we hear nothing at all about God. The horizon is entirely earthly and the action entirely human. In a typical account of a military victory we would expect that the climax of the narrative would be Abram’s successful attack, the strategy, the battle itself, the rout of his enemies. But that is all passed over in a few words in our v. 15.
But the story continues and its climax is the recognition of God, first by Melchizedek – who ascribes Abram’s victory to God – and then by Abram, who does the same, both with his tithe to Melchizedek and with his words to the King of Sodom. The hero of the story, we discover at the end, is God who was invisible throughout.
In other words, the narrator’s silence concerning God until the end was intentional. He tells the story with a historian’s precision: names and dates and places, the movement of armies this way and that, the outcome of events. This is the way anyone tells such a story. The number of such stories that have been written in recent times is impossibly large. I read a lot of military history and can assure you it’s all written this way! The war started this way, for this reason. This is how it began and this is how it continued; these were the battles that were fought and won until our side began to gather strength and this is how it won its final crushing victory and sent our enemies to defeat.
But the story doesn’t end as such stories usually do. The great lesson, the great meaning of this history had not yet been revealed. Only at the end does the narrator lift the veil so to speak, to reveal the person who stood behind these events, who orchestrated them and brought them to their conclusion. Without a doubt Abram is a man of action in this account. Once informed of the calamity that had befallen Lot, he immediately organized a military response. He gathered the men he himself employed and those of his allies and set off in pursuit of the invaders, who were, no doubt, confident that victory had been won. He employed a clever strategy, attacking the enemy at night, when they were unsuspecting and perhaps weary from the day’s marching, and from two sides at once, always disorienting to a military force.
The story might well have ended there with our admiration of Abram’s decisiveness, his courage, and his military IQ. But in fact the narrator gives us just a glimpse of all of that and hurries on to what is obviously much more important to him: first Melchizedek’s and then Abram’s own confession of faith in God. All of these kings and Abram seem to be the dramatis personae, the actors in this drama, until they are not and the Lord God comes to the fore.
Abram, Abraham as he will soon be called, we have already said, is the Bible’s great exemplar of faith; indeed, he is called the “father of those who have faith in God and Christ” and the “father of the faithful.” Indeed it is not too much to say that what we are given in the narrative of Abraham’s life and his deeds from Genesis 12-25 is the Bible’s most thorough account of the life of faith, the nature and character of that life, its struggle and conflict, and God’s blessing and reward in it and through it. The Lord Jesus himself refers to Abraham’s faith, his confidence in the Word of God. Paul returns to Abram’s faith on several important occasions in his letters and it is Abram’s faith, once again, that is featured in the Letter to the Hebrews. Prudentius was exactly right: if anyone would learn about the life of faith and the victory of faith, he would do well to read the life of Abraham, and chapter 14 is an important part of that biblical Life.
Now faith, in its simplest, most elementary sense, is simply the reliance placed by one man in the truthfulness and faithfulness and power of someone else. It is the credit one man places in the word and the capability of another. When we say, for example, that we believe or have faith in Jesus Christ (and remember in the NT the noun and the verb are obviously part of the same word faith and believe, they are not in English but they are in NT Greek) we mean simply that we are counting on Jesus to keep the promises he has made to us and to be able to deliver us from our enemies and particularly from sin and death.
There is a very fine statement of the nature of faith in our Westminster Confession of Faith in the 14th chapter:
By this faith a Christian believes to be true whatever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God himself speaking in it; and acts differently upon that which each particular passage of that Word contains; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threats, and embracing the promises of God for this life and that which is to come.
You see, one trembles at a threat, or obeys a command, or embraces a promise precisely because he or she accepts to be real what God has said in his Word. Robert Bruce, the Scot reformer, put it quaintly this way:
“The nature of faith is to make things that are absent in themselves, present nevertheless.”
You cannot see beforehand the outcome of a threat or of a promise. You cannot see ahead of time the reward that will come to you for obedience to God’s commandments or the punishment that will befall you for disobedience. But those future things to the man or woman of faith are present nevertheless because you know God will be true to his word. Well that is precisely what we find here in Genesis 14. So far as any of these nine kings knows, so far as the reader himself may suppose if he’s reading this for the first time, indeed, the way the narrative is written it virtually invites the conclusion that this is an affair of kings doing battle with one another and of an intrepid novice in military matters who acts successfully to turn tragedy into triumph.
But Melchizedek and Abram knew better. What chapter 14 is really about, as the ending makes this perfectly clear, is how the Most High God intervened to rescue Lot using Abram as his instrument. The one actor whom no one could see was the one who determined the outcome. That knowledge is faith; acting on that knowledge is living by faith; and surmounting enemies by that knowledge is the victory of faith. And from here to the end of the Bible this is the summons to all mankind and especially to the people of God. The absent one, the one you cannot see, he is the one who matters. The word he has spoken, the things that he has done, these are the things and the only things in life you can absolutely count on to prove true always and forever. His word is the one thing you can absolutely count on.
The content of faith will grow ever more specific and detailed as we proceed through Holy Scripture – what things God has said to us and what things he has done for us – but the principle remains precisely the same. We live by faith and not by sight, by confidence in the truth of what God has said and his faithfulness to the promises he has made.
Faith is definitely not mere opinion, for opinion lacks certainty and faith is reliance on the word of God who cannot lie! Nor is it mere knowledge, such as one might discover by investigation or argument. Faith is true knowledge, of course, it is the knowledge of the truth, capital “T”. But faith is the knowledge of truth that we could never know unless God himself disclosed it to us. So, when Paul says that Christians live by faith and not by sight, he is simply saying in another way that Christians base their lives, their choices, their actions, their commitments, their hopes, on what God has told them and upon the credit they invest in his Word.
That is precisely what we see here. What else is Abram’s daring with which he set off after his nephew as soon as he had been told of Lot’s capture, I say what else is that but Abram acting on the assurance that the Lord had given him that he would become a father of a great nation and that his descendants would inherit the land of Canaan. Lot was part of Abram’s family to whom God had made that promise. A man who knows that, who credits God’s promise to him as something that must come true, has, accordingly, a conviction of his own invincibility until and before that promise is fulfilled. Such a man does not worry about being outnumbered by a larger military force. He has the promise of God in his pocket! He may very well be prudent and attack at night, but attack he does and gains the victory.
But Abram’s faith shines brightest and is revealed most clearly in the aftermath of the battle, when he returned to the Promised Land, and was met by two separate individuals. Here we learn what Abram was thinking the whole time, what motivated his daring exploit, and in what spirit he did what he did. In effect, upon his return as a conqueror, Abram was confronted with an alternative, a choice between two men, two men who represented two very different life principles. Abram’s decision, first regarding Melchizedek and then the King of Sodom was, in each case, a demonstration of his faith, of the reliance he had placed on the word and the promise of God. The alternative, and the fact that Abram had to choose between those two options, is emphasized by the fact that the King of Sodom appeared just before Melchizedek did. Both men were present for this same conversation. Faith and sight are always present at the same time in our lives, are they not; the visible and the invisible; the world and God himself. And we must choose between them moment by moment through every day!
Melchizedek brought a banquet to Abram. Bread and water would be ordinary fare, but bread and wine was the food of kings. Abram was no king, but he was being treated as one. Melchizedek blessed Abram in the name of God with an unspecified blessing. He didn’t promise any particular thing to Abram or offer any particular reward to Abram except the favor of the Lord God. But Abram gratefully paid him a tithe, a tenth of all the plunder and spoil he had returned with after his victory over the confederation of kings. Anything that could be carried or driven: money, weapons, clothing, and livestock. I’m quite sure Abram didn’t offer and Melchizedek wouldn’t have taken any of the people.
The King of Sodom approached Abram differently. He brought nothing. He offered, with what seems to be a disdainful and certainly an ungrateful attitude, what amounted to a business deal. Certainly there is nothing of the customary courtesy that marked such conversations in the ANE. “Give me the people and keep the goods for yourself.” No doubt he imagined himself generous, though Abram was his rescuer and, actually, could have kept everything for himself. That is clear enough from v. 24 where Abram insists that his allies get their share and says plainly that he has no intention of repaying the kings of Sodom and the other cities for what plunder his men have already consumed on the way home from the battle, what his soldiers deserve as a share of the spoils, or for the tithe he had already paid to Melchizedek.
Now, here is the point. Melchizedek was gracious, but Abram felt obliged to pay him a tenth of everything he had gained because he was a priest of God. The King of Sodom, with the other kings, were offering to reward him with a large amount of booty and, perhaps, with peaceful relations. Perhaps that is the unstated threat in the offer the King of Sodom made.
Abram’s faith however saw in Melchizedek’s meal and his blessing the favor and salvation of God. And such was the favor of God to Abram that he was happy and willing to pay a tithe to Melchizedek, who was, after all, God’s priest, his representative. To give it to Melchizedek was to give it to God.
What is more, it was only Abram’s faith that saw the danger in the proposal of the King of Sodom, the possible entanglement with worldly and wicked men, and the compromise of his witness to the blessing of God by which he had won the victory that had secured all of the spoil that was piled I front of these three men as they spoke. He had no intention of allowing the King of Sodom ever to say that he had made Abram rich, when Abram knew very well that God had done it. He knew that the King of Sodom was the very kind of man who would make such a claim. Only faith could see all of that; only faith knew that the blessing of God mattered so much more than the riches that were piled before those three men outside Jerusalem. Only faith could see the danger and the evil in what the King of Sodom proposed. No doubt the King of Sodom went home with a caravan loaded with his possessions thinking himself a fortunate man to have most everything that he had lost back again. He had no faith, could not see God or reckon with God as the giver of the victory. It would not be long before he would see the hand of God, but by then it would be too late.
Faith in its true exercise is not merely a general commitment to a set of principles, not even a general commitment to God and Christ. It is the credit we invest in the Word and presence and power of God, a credit we express in specific and particular ways each day in the midst of the circumstances of daily life, the push and pull, the ups and downs. Faith is the conviction that God is there, that his word is true, that what he has said to us is absolutely real. Abram knew God was there, he knew what God had promised him, he knew God’s power and God’s faithfulness from previous experience in Egypt. And he acted on that knowledge. That is what it means to live by faith. And it is in that way that Abram is an example for us all.
The key to everything good and holy and fruitful and eternal in your daily life and mine — and the Bible tell us this a thousand times — is an active faith, which is simply another way of saying genuine faith. Surely if you really believe what God has said and done, you will act on the strength of that belief. “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!” You will pray for more and stronger faith; you will exercise your faith to make it stronger still. You will put it into action as Abram did. And then you and I will have greater reasons and more occasions to give credit to God in the face, before the company of others for the great things he did for us and the great things he did by us.