Abram is not a doddering old man living out in the middle of Nowhere. Sure, I get that the advanced age at which he fathered Isaac needs some kind of visual representation in our iconography of him. But all those cute children’s books obscure what Abram actually was.
One clue is in Genesis 13, an otherwise skippable chapter but for two details. The first is that, since his covenant with God in the previous chapter, Abram has flourished dramatically. He and his nephew Lot can no longer share the same land because their flocks have grown so great. To find a peaceable arrangement, Abram offers Lot his choice of land to inhabit and Abram moves off so that the two of them can continue to (hopefully) grow their estates.
So, clue one: he’s a rich doddering old man. But the kind of wealth we’re talking about here is not sacks and sacks of coins. It’s an enormous livestock enterprise: not something to be done by oneself with the missus cooking up grub back home. Abram actually has a truly enormous estate full of servants.
Clue two: remember those 300+ men I mentioned as serving Abram? In Genesis 14 they show up again in a pretty great story with a lot of my favorite loose ends. After a fun geo-political back-story, Rich Doddering Abram saddles up his 318 male servants and goes to war to rescue Lot. Those would be the males that are old enough to fight, most of whom are or will soon be attached to wives, children, etc. Abram presides over a company of upwards of 1000 people.
We have a word to describe such a man. It’s warlord. Abram is the leader of a significant faction in the Ancient Near East. And in Genesis 14 we get to see Warlord Abram in action in one of the truly great, truly under-appreciated tales of the Old Testament: the Battle of Ten Kings.
It seems that several local kings had decided to rebel against Chedorlaomer, King of Elam (bad guys always have the best names in the OT). Chedorlaomer rounded up his allies: Amraphel, King of Shinar, Arioch, King of Pontus, and Tidal, King of We’re Not Sure. These four rallied to punish the traitors to Chedorlaomer’s service.
And who are the faithless blackguards? Bara, King of Sodom, Bersa, King of Gomorrah, Senaab, King of Adama, Shem-eber, King of Seboim, and We’re Not Sure, King of Bala.
That list sports quite the eyebrow-raisers, for anyone who’s read ahead in Genesis. We all know that Sodom and Gomorrah are no good, very bad places. But even more importantly for the plot here, this is the second time these places have been mentioned. Because now the second detail from Genesis 13 (no, I didn’t forget it!) comes into play: when Lot left Abram’s service, he moved to the valley of Sodom.
Let’s worry later about what that might say about Lot’s character. For this chapter it means that, after Chedorlaomer and Company put the beat down on Bara, Bersa, Et Alios, Lot is captured and held hostage. Does Lot deserve to be left to a grisly fate after choosing to live among the wicked men of Sodom? And why is this the Battle of Ten Kings if only Nine are mentioned, all Ring-Wraithy, above?
Enter our Tenth King, Warlord Abram, and his 318 rough-riders. Shades of later adventures with Gideon and Saul, Abram heads up toward Syria, splits his forces, and launches a devastating night raid that results in the total defeat of Chedorlaomer and his Crew. Lot is rescued. Black hats down, white hats triumph!
The real showdown (and its lesson) is still to come, but it’s important to pause and take stock before reading on. By virtue of the ancient world law that “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must,” Abram has just claimed for himself the wealth of all Nine Kings. The estate of Lot, so wealthy that he had to move on from Abram, makes up just a small part of the wealth of one of those kings. The future of the ancient near east is in his grasp.
And now comes Abram’s test. Slithering out from under a rock, the King of Sodom arrives to haggle with Abram over dividing the spoils–the same Bara who fled the bitumen pits and abandoned his people to their fate not ten verses prior. His offer is a good old-fashioned Deal with the Devil: give me the human hostages and all the rest of the spoil is yours, Abram. Who would know? We’re the only two left standing! Together we can rule this galaxy as…something something! Never mind that it’s all Abram’s at this point already.
At the same time arises that most mysterious of OT personages, the deus ex machina Melchizedek. Melchizedek offers nothing and promises nothing but this: a blessing from the Almighty. This is real City of God type stuff, the world vs. the Gospel, whoever would save his life etc. And Abram passes his test: he receives the priestly blessing of Melchizedek, gives him a tenth of his spoil, and throws the rest in the face of Bara.
Both sides of his response are interesting. Without going into too many details, I enthusiastically follow the ancient Jewish tradition that Melchizedek is actually Shem, son of Noah (thanks, Dr. Hahn!). This makes him the still-living high priest of the world, the continuation of the priesthood of the firstborn sons stretching back to Adam (with a bump early on…).
I take Abram’s unhesitating fealty to Shem to be a recognition of his identity and authority, as well as a sign of the transfer of that priesthood to Abram (his great, …, great grandson). Thus are the children of Israel even more tightly bound to the antediluvian patriarchs and transcend the mere chronology of the world. The supernatural trajectory of Abram’s story begins to take much clearer shape.
And what of the King of Sodom? Well this story gives us terrific setup for some chapters that are soon coming down the road. Remember this showdown when Abram bargains for the life of the city! And we get some insight into the wickedness of the place, rounding it out more. And, drawing on our First Principle of Reading Scripture in the Church, do not forget this story when Matthew 4 rolls around in a few thousand years!
But there’s also the practical lesson (or is it the moral sense?): when the Devil offers you a deal, don’t decline. Throw it all back in his face and run. Don’t wait, don’t ponder the deal. Know that it is going to be evil and get out of there.
In bygone years, when I was a mere teenager, I recall a testimonial given by one of our super-cool adult leaders at a youth group meeting. He’d been a nearly-decent football player (good enough to try out for the Redskins, not quite good enough to make the team) and had lived a stereotypical popular-jock life before getting on track with the Gospel. Some time after that conversion, details now fuzzy to me, he was alone on the road at a Pizza Hut. He sat down to devour a large by himself (athlete appetite) when a woman, a complete stranger, sat down across from him and propositioned him. Hello, Old Life. Welcome back!
I will never forget the way he told this story, with that deadly earnest and a “please don’t bother learning this the hard way” look on his face. He didn’t decline her offer. He didn’t get mad and tell her off. He didn’t slow play the scene. He stood up, walked away from his food without another word, got in his car, and drove away.
As we all exclaimed, “Without the pizza???!!!” Yes, without the pizza. Evil is no joke.
Anyway, that’s Genesis 14. Do not sleep on this story! It’s got a lot of power and enchantment to it. I didn’t even start spinning my webs back to Genesis 3 or 10. Maybe another time.