We begin the story in Genesis 14 which tells of a war between 4 kings from Mesopotamia and 5 kings from the area south of the Dead Sea.
In the days of Amraphel king of Shinar, Arioch king of Ellasar, Chedorlaomer king of Elam, and Tidal king of Goiim, these kings made war with Bera king of Sodom, Birsha king of Gomorrah, Shinab king of Admah, Shemeber king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar).
And all these joined forces in the Valley of Siddim (that is, the Salt Sea).
Twelve years they had served Chedorlaomer, but in the thirteenth year they rebelled. In the fourteenth year Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him came and defeated the Rephaim in Ashteroth-karnaim, the Zuzim in Ham, the Emim in Shaveh-kiriathaim, and the Horites in their hill country of Seir as far as El-paran on the border of the wilderness.
Then they turned back and came to En-mishpat (that is, Kadesh) and defeated all the country of the Amalekites, and also the Amorites who were dwelling in Hazazon-tamar.
Then the king of Sodom, the king of Gomorrah, the king of Admah, the king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar) went out, and they joined battle in the Valley of Siddim with Chedorlaomer king of Elam, Tidal king of Goiim, Amraphel king of Shinar, and Arioch king of Ellasar, four kings against five.
Now probably the best way to understand what is going on here is to look at a map of the region being spoken about.
What we have is a coalition of four very powerful kings from a neighbouring region, having previously conquered the five smaller kingdoms of the Jordan valley, now trying to enforce their tax regime by putting down a revolt by some of the most distant kings who had become subject to them.
The leader of these kings appears to have been Chedorlaomer, king of Elam. Now Elam appears to have been a kingdom in northern Iraq, near where the Kurdish people live today.
The first king mentioned, and normally we would assume that this king is the most powerful, is Amraphel king of Shinar. Now there is scholarly speculation that Amraphel was in fact another name for Hammurabi, the most famous and powerful king of Babylon, which would explain why his name is first on the list.
Arioch, king of Ellasur was another regional power of the day, the name Ellasur probably being a variation of Assyria, to the north west of Mesopotamia.
Final, Tidal, king of Goiim (literally “the peoples”) most likely was located
further northwest still, near present-day Turkey. He was thought to be the king of the Hittite people.
So you have some very powerful kings with quite impressive kingdoms. More than likely, it was Babylon who held the power in this group, but Chederlaomer seems to have taken a military enforcer role, he appears to have been chief of staff of the armed forces of the empire.
If we look now at the four kings who they had subdued, we find that they are fairly small city-state types of kingdoms, run by a local war-lord or similar. They are not regional players, they simply hold their own little patch.
Furthermore, all these four kingdoms were located on one of the major trade routes of the time, the path between Asia, Europe and Africa. This route has become known as the King’s Highway, probably because it was the path that the four kings took to do battle with the five kings of the plain. It runs down the eastern side of the Jordan into the plains at the south of the Dead Sea where all of the five kings mentioned are located.
Now the story tells us that these five kings had been paying taxes. They had “served” the four kings for twelve years, but in the thirteenth year, they rebelled. Maybe they thought that Babylon was too far away to give them any trouble; and that by banding together with other cities in the same region, they could withstand an army that had to travel thousands of miles to reach them. Whatever the reason, they rebelled against the four kings.
So, as the history of the world goes, the next year the four kings decided to come down and teach the rebels a lesson.
Next we read that they marched down the eastern side of the Jordan, annihilating any city or people that stood in their way. And in doing so, they put paid to all the Rephaim forces.
Now the Rephaim, the Zuzim (or Zumzim), and the Emim are all from the same tribe, a tribe of giants. In Deuteronomy 2 we read “The Emim formerly lived there, a people great and many, and tall as the Anakim. Like the Anakim they are also counted as Rephaim, but the Moabites call them Emim.”
These were pretty ferocious people whom they defeated. And they also gave the Horites, the Amelakites and the Amorites a whipping as they passed through; once again some very ferocious fighters who were not easily defeated.
Lastly, the four kings finally arrive at the plains to the south of the Dead Sea, to the Valley of Siddim, or the Valley of Fields.
And we get the impression that the five local kings did not stand much of a chance against these armies. There is not even a description of the battle that took place, only the flight of the five kings, running away for their lives. It was probably only the bitumen pits that prevented the slaughter from being more complete, and we read that the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah, at least, escaped with their lives.
But the four kings took as plunder all the people, cattle and possessions that they could find, including the nephew of Abram; Lot and his family and possessions.
We pick up the story again:
Now the Valley of Siddim was full of bitumen pits, and as the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, some fell into them, and the rest fled to the hill country. So the enemy took all the possessions of Sodom and Gomorrah, and all their provisions, and went their way.
They also took Lot, the son of Abram’s brother, who was dwelling in Sodom, and his possessions, and went their way.
So Lot, having turned his back on Abram and opting for the good life on the plains near Sodom, now finds himself taken captive with all of his family and possessions. His choice of lifestyle has resulted in him losing everything. He had chased after prosperity, and ended up with nothing. What promised to be life in the Garden of the Lord now turns out to be a holiday in hell. He is lucky to have been spared his life, and now his only future seems to be in serving as a captive slave for a cruel and barbaric people.
But God in his grace does not leave Lot there. We read further:
Then one who had escaped came and told Abram the Hebrew, who was living by the oaks of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol and of Aner. These were allies of Abram. When Abram heard that his brother had been taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, 318 of them, and went in pursuit as far as Dan.
Now it’s interesting to pick up at this point on how Abram views Lot.
They have previously had arguments when they were living together, and their quarrels have led Abram to suggest that they should part ways. Lot turns his back on Abram’s offer of half the land of Canaan and heads east to Sodom.
But Abram still cares for him. Remember that Lot is the son of Abram’s deceased brother Haran. But in this part of the story, we read “when Abram heard that his BROTHER had been taken captive” – so Abram regards Lot as his brother (despite what your translation may read), one who has taken over the inheritance of the deceased Haran. And Abram still cares for his family. He cares for Lot and wants Lot to prosper and be blessed. And this is in line with God’s promise to Abram, that he should be a blessing to others.
Abram gathers up his trained men and he sets out after the armies of this military super-power that is Babylon, Assyria and others.
And he divided his forces against them by night, he and his servants, and defeated them and pursued them to Hobah, north of Damascus. Then he brought back all the possessions, and also brought back his kinsman Lot with his possessions, and the women and the people.
So we have a miraculous deliverance in the middle of the night. 318 trained men from Abram’s household defeat what was probably thousands of trained fighters from countries like Babylon and Assyria. Humanly speaking, this would sound impossible, but God was with Abram and gave him victory.
Just as Pharaoh was defeated many centuries later in the middle of the night by the plague on the first-born, Abram foreshadows this defeat by defeating the greatest military powers on earth at the time in the middle of the night.
Now this is an incredible story when you stand back and look at it in the context of what has been going on so far.
This is not just an isolated story about a group of bandits who overcome immense odds by cunning and surprise.
This is about Abram becoming a great nation, God making Abram’s name great.
There is no doubt that this defeat by Abram is a miracle of God. And the point that this story is making is that God’s Messiah, at this time in the form of Abram, is Ruler over all the earth. He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and there is no power on earth who can defeat Him. God has given this land of Canaan to Abram, and there is no power on earth that is going to remove any little bit of it from him without God’s will.
Psalm 110 is a Psalm that speaks especially about this story, noting the reference to Melchizedek (who we will get to shortly). It reads:
Psalm 110:1 A Psalm of David. The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” The LORD sends forth from Zion your mighty sceptre. Rule in the midst of your enemies! Your people will offer themselves freely on the day of your power, in holy garments; from the womb of the morning, the dew of your youth will be yours. The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.”
The Lord is at your right hand; he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath. He will execute judgment among the nations, filling them with corpses; he will shatter chiefs over the wide earth. He will drink from the brook by the way; therefore he will lift up his head.
Rule in the midst of your enemies!
The Psalm is a Messianic psalm, addressed to God’s Messiah. As we mentioned before, at this stage of history, God’s Messiah was the person of Abram, a shadow of the true Messiah who was yet to come, but in his time, Abram acted as Messiah.
Remember when Abram came into the land of Canaan, it was filled with Canaanites, and later Perizzites as well. Abram was told to walk through the land at that time.
Now we see Abram taking charge of the land and ruling in the land, keeping it safe from foreign armies and plunderers, even in the midst of the enemies of God’s kingdom, the Canaanites and the Perizzites.
Abram’s name is becoming great, as God had promised. God has blessed him, he has blessed others, especially Lot, and now Abram’s name is becoming great. He is a force to be reckoned with.
The Psalmist says “The Lord is at your right hand; he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath. He will execute judgment among the nations, filling them with corpses; he will shatter chiefs over the wide earth.” And we have seen exactly that as Abram shatters the four kings and drives them back to their lands in shame.
When we look at this story a bit more closely, we see that Abram does this because he loves his brother. God’s Messiah so loves his brother that he pursues those who have taken him captive, overthrows them and brings his brother back into the safety of Abram’s kingdom once again.
A truly beautiful picture of God’s true Messiah, Jesus.
The writer to the Hebrews uses the same imagery in chapter 2 of the letter:
“For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. … That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.” … Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.”
In the same way that Abram saves his brother, Jesus frees his brothers (and sisters) from lifelong slavery and the power of death.
Now Abram doesn’t only redeem Lot and his family, but all the other people from Sodom and the plains as well – all the people and cattle and goods that were carried off by the four kings. The blessing of God extends to all who live in the land, even to those who don’t acknowledge Him.
And once the King of Sodom hears of this, he is keen to get back to work, running his little empire. And so he comes out to meet Abram:
After his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley).
But before the King of Sodom can begin to utter a word, we get another King who bursts onto the scene and puts the King of Sodom on call waiting, as it were. Someone presses the pause button and he is suspended for a time while another meeting occurs.
Suddenly this mysterious person called Melchizedek appears out of nowhere, bringing food and wine to Abram. Melchizedek gets only the very briefest of introductions here, and then disappears from sight forever afterwards. He only re-appears in Psalm 110 and in the NT letter to the Hebrews.
Now as I mentioned before, this was a tremendous military success for Abram. He has become truly great. And Abram himself could be forgiven for believing that he was a great and powerful person of importance.
But the appearance of Melchizedek reminds Abram that there is one far more powerful than he is. He is only a servant of God Most High, one who has been charged to walk humbly before God and obey God’s commandments.
So Melchizedek provides sustenance for Abram. As priest of God Most High, he shows that it is God who sustains Abram, it is God who gives him strength to carry out his tasks.
And Melchizedek blesses Abram and declares Abram to be blessed, not by himself, but by God. God is the one who blesses Abram and gives him victory. It is not Abram who is powerful or mighty, but it is God who gives the blessings of victory and greatness to Abram.
God Most High is the Possessor of heaven and earth, and He has given these blessings to Abram.
It is God Most High who has fought this battle and delivered Abram’s enemies into his hand.
And Abram submits himself to God and acknowledges this to be true by giving a tithe, ten percent of everything that he has, back to God through Melchizedek. As the writer to the Hebrews reminds us, the one who is lesser gives a tithe to the one who is greater.
So as God’s Messiah for his time, Abram acknowledges that there is a greater Messiah still to come, one before whom all nations shall bow. And Abram accepts this in faith and worships God by offering a tithe.
And Melchizedek disappears from the stage, as it were.
Now remember that during this pause, the King of Sodom has been left on hold. So now he is taken off pause and the story is allowed to resume.
And what he says now in the light of Melchizedek’s appearance seems awkward and almost ridiculous.
And the king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the persons, but take the goods for yourself.”
The king of Sodom, in spite of being thoroughly defeated by the four kings, and running away for his life, abandoning his people to the foreign army, now comes to Abram and asks for his people back, he asks, literally, for “the souls” to be returned to him. For some reason he seems to think that these people belong to him – and perhaps in a way they do, as later stories will show. He realises that to get these people back, he will have to forego the goods and cattle, but he still wants his subjects back.
Abram ignores this request in a way, answering obliquely rather than directly.
But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have lifted my hand to the LORD, God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth, that I would not take a thread or a sandal strap or anything that is yours, lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’ I will take nothing but what the young men have eaten, and the share of the men who went with me. Let Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre take their share.”
So Abram repeats the point made by the appearance of Melchizedek. It is God most high who blesses Abram and nobody else. Rather than have people say that Abram stole his goods from the king of Sodom, Abram relinquishes all claims to any of it. Once again he gives up all he has for the sake of God’s blessing alone.
But on a deeper level, Abram’s mission to defeat the four kings was not about getting plunder for himself, but about bringing freedom and release from captivity for the powerless and the weak, especially his weak and powerless brother.
Abram neither claims the people and their goods as his own, nor does he hand them over to the King of Sodom.
Abram has granted these people freedom and leaves them to decide what they will do. Possibly he is hoping that at least his brother will see the error of his ways and get out of Sodom and its toxic culture.
As God’s Messiah, Abram doesn’t seek to gain military power, even though he has it and is not frightened to use it.
God’s Messiah is in the business of setting people free.
God’s intention is that no power on earth rules in such a way that oppresses people and robs them of their dignity and humanity. He wants people to live in peace and security, walking with their heads held high, as the people of Israel are described when they walked out of Egypt.
The writer to the Hebrews reminds us that Melchizedek is yet another picture of God’s true Messiah, and he is king over two realms. He is firstly king of Salem (or Shalom), meaning peace, and his name literally means king of righteousness (melech tsadik).
So God’s true Messiah, Jesus, will be king of righteousness and of peace. He will bring righteousness, that is, true justice; and shalom, peace that is wholistic and life-affirming.
No more will people suffer injustice or treat God and their neighbours with contempt. Justice and righteousness will be the foundations of the Messiah’s kingdom. No more will rulers make war against other kingdoms, no more will they fight to subdue their people, and no more will neighbour act in violence against neighbour, but each person will seek the wellbeing of everyone else. Love and compassion will be the hallmark of a kingdom founded on peace.
And so Abram leaves the king of Sodom’s request unanswered, except to say that he has no interest in treating these people and goods as plunder. Abram allows his compatriots, Aner, Eschol and Mamre to take a share of the plunder, but he himself takes nothing.
God has promised that He will make Abram’s name great. And now we have seen what this greatness entails. It involves a pursuit of righteousness and peace – freeing the captives from slavery and brutal oppression, and allowing them to live in dignity and security once again.
Now often we look at Abram as a mild-mannered sort of bloke. One who humbly went about doing God’s will – going where he was told, doing what God said even if it seemed strange and against all reason – a man of faith and trust who led a quiet and prayerful life.
But in this story today we see a different type of Abram.
We see a warrior king who defeats all the mighty powers of the world and frees the captives. We see a fierce and angry Abram, who won’t let his brother perish, but chases after him and fights against his brother’s captors and overwhelms them. And he doesn’t stop there, but he chases those armies all the way out of Canaan and sends them back to their own lands in disgrace.
In Abram, we see one who is mightier than all the armies of the world.
And what we have said about Abram, we can also say about Jesus, God’s true Messiah.
We are often presented with a picture of gentle Jesus, meek and mild, who floats along with a wistful smile, hugging babies and forgiving people’s sins.
But there is another side to Jesus as well. One which John pictures in Revelation.
Rev 19:11 Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.
There is a day coming when Messiah Jesus will return to the earth to bring in a kingdom of peace (shalom) and righteousness. No longer will sin and oppression be tolerated, but God will wipe it out. He will make war against those who enslave His people and He will judge them – driving them out of His universe. When God restores His creation to how it was meant to be, He will deal swiftly and surely with all who fight against Him.
And He will bring in a rule of shalom and tsedek – peace and righteousness that is whole and complete – so that people can live in freedom and dignity once again, free from sin and evil, sickness and death. Free to love their Creator and their brothers and sisters the way God intended from the beginning.
This is the day we look forward to. This is the reason why we pray “Maranatha, come Lord Jesus.