By Ron Bailey
Abraham, My Friend
The Making of a Praying Man
Chapter Four: New Beginnings
Kings, Confederates and a Priest
I would like to ask you to read this instalment twice. Genesis 14 is packed with action and relevance. It gives a vivid background to the kind of world that Abraham lived in and shows that God deals with men, not in the clinical isolation of a laboratory but, in the ‘real world'. There is too much in the chapter to expound verse by verse in this kind of forum; if we go too slowly we shall miss the great sweep of things and if we go too quickly we shall miss some vital ingredients in the unfolding story. So... I'm going to ask you to read this instalment, then read Genesis 14 carefully and then read this instalment again.
It begins with the ebb and flow of conflict; it is the first time the Bible uses the word ‘war'. The combatants are city-states with rulers called ‘kings'; it is the first time the Bible uses that word too. The trouble began in Abraham's old home-town area of Mesopotamia; it was almost as if the past came looking for him. Four Mesopotamian city-states had entered into some kind of military alliance. Each king could call upon the others for military assistance and in this instance it was King Chedorlaomer who called in the favours. For 12 years Chedorlaomer had controlled a group of five city-states centred around the southern end of the Dead Sea, which was evidently much more fertile then than now. The five city-states included the city of Sodom, outside of which Lot had originally pitched his tent with its door towards the city. By the time of Genesis 14 Lot has become thoroughly integrated; he dwelt in Sodom. (Gen 14:11)
Meanwhile Abraham has settled in the Hebron area on the land of Mamre. (Gen 13:18) Mamre was one of three Amorite brothers; the full family role call being Mamre, Eschol and Aner. (Gen 14:13) Abraham settled here among the ‘oaks of Mamre'; Then a fugitive came and told Abram the Hebrew. Now he was living by the oaks of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol and brother of Aner, and these were allies with Abram. (Gen 14:13 NASB) Abraham too apparently has joined some kind of alliance. The KJV refers to it as a Confederacy. The word signifies that Abraham had entered into a covenant with the three Amorite brothers. In fact, the word used says clearly that Abraham was very much the junior partner in this covenant; the Amorite brothers were ‘masters (or owners) of the covenant' with Abraham. In the midst of all the volatility of warring city-states these protective covenants would have been very frequent. The NASB calls them ‘allies', but the text shows they were very unequal allies. The terms of the covenant were probably very simple, if one member of the alliance were attacked the other allies were duty bound to assist. This alliance will have provided a protective shield for Abraham; its purpose was not to assist aggressive conquest but be seen as a defensive shield around Abraham's clan. In the first Gulf War an alliance of states assembled terrifying military might around Kuwait as an initial defence for Saudi Arabia; they called this stage of operations ‘Desert Shield'. This covenant/confederacy/alliance with the three Amorite brothers was Abraham's own Desert Shield.
Was Abraham right to have entered into this political alliance? There is always a subtle temptation ‘to confederate' when threats appear on the horizon. ‘There's safety in numbers' says the proverb; sometimes perhaps, sometimes not. Let me provoke you a little. Why, in Genesis 11, did they build the tower of Babel, that symbol of human defiance and solidarity? The record tells us that that they had several aims; to make a city and a tower whose top may reach unto heaven is the well known aim. But they had a secondary motive too; let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth. ‘Names' have the power to hold things together and being together makes human beings feel safer; we are back to ‘safety in numbers' again. The ‘name' becomes the rallying point. There is a verb which means ‘to give a name to something'; it is the word ‘denominate' and ‘a denomination' is a something to which we have given a name. Why would we do that? It is all part of the protective instinct; we are (my apologies to all my American friends) getting the wagons into a circle. This defines ‘us' and keeps ‘them' outside. And by doing so we fail to make the most obvious observation which is that 'every time I shut someone out, I lock myself in.' In creating my own denominational ‘Desert Shield' I need to beware lest my protection insulate me from God too. The alliance may become the insurance policy. 'in God we trust'? or in our alliances? (Again, I ask forgiveness from my American friends; I am just illustrating)
For 12 years those 5 city-states paid tribute to Chedorlaomer, and in the 13th year decided to break free. In the 14 year Chedorlaomer came, with his allies, wreaking retribution down the eastern side of the Jordan. The 5 city-states joined together for a pre-emptive strike. The opposing forces met in the Valley of Siddim in an area that was full of tar-pits. (Gen 14:10) The kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled and fell and the remnant of their armies attempted to escape into the mountains. Sodom and Gomorrah were then plundered by the Mesopotamian alliance, and among the deportees was Lot, Abraham's nephew. Abraham 'unsheathed' (a literal translation) 318 of his trained men and ‘Desert Shield' became ‘Desert Storm'. In a daring night attack they divided their force and hit Chedarlaomer's caravan of armies and plunder at Dan. If you ‘read between the lines' in this record you will see that Abraham's 318 was not the entire force that he commanded. We discover that other men went with me (Gen 14:24) and he names them, Aner, Eschol and Mamre... his allies. I think it likely that we are not just talking about 3 individuals here but three military leaders and their forces.
The mission is a complete success: Chedorlaomer and his alliance are completely destroyed and all the hostages and plunder are rescued. (Gen 14:16,17) Whatever the original relationship with Aner, Eschol and Mamre, Abraham is now the recognised military leader; his word will divide the spoils.
But on the triumphal journey home Abraham has encounters and makes choices that will alter his life dramatically and permanently. His first encounter was with the new king of Sodom who had a proposition to put to Abraham. Imagine these encounters. Abraham, if not bruised and bloodied, certainly exhausted by the journeys and the conflict. He is at the height of his reputation, the hero of the hour. This is the moment to strike the deal, and there is a fabulous deal on the table. He will never be in a stronger position to enhance his wealth and standing. Let's run ahead of our story and look at what is on offer in the ‘Sodom Deal'.
The king of Sodom said to Abram, "Give the people to me and take the goods for yourself." (Gen 14:21 NASB) What is on offer here for Abraham? The four kings had plundered cities down the eastern side of the Jordan and the cities of the plain. Archaeology has shown us the fabulous wealth of these city-states at this time in history. Their treasures were of gold and precious stones and each city treasury would have been worth a king's ransom. But the plunder was not the wealth of one city but of many such cities; the list is very comprehensive... In the fourteenth year Chedorlaomer and the kings that were with him, came and defeated the Rephaim in Ashteroth-karnaim and the Zuzim in Ham and the Emim in Shaveh-kiriathaim, and the Horites in their Mount Seir, as far as El-paran, which is by the wilderness. Then they turned back and came to En-mishpat (that is, Kadesh), and conquered all the country of the Amalekites, and also the Amorites, who lived in Hazazon-tamar. (Gen 14:5-7) and they took all the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah, and all their victuals, and went their way... (Gen 14:11) This represents almost unbelievable wealth. It would probably have made Abraham the richest man of his day. His fabulous wealth would have bought him any alliance he needed. His future was assured; his safety and his wealth were guaranteed. Just think of the influence such a man could have carried in his sphere of life; the whole region would have come under his sway. What a ‘power for good' the Sodom Deal would have made possible. But there's no point in imagining any of it because Abraham turned it down.
Before the ‘Sodom Deal' was brokered, Abraham had met Melchizedek, king of Salem. The King of Sodom may speak for Sodom, but Melchizedek is a priest; he had spoken for God. This is one of the formative encounters of the Bible so we will leave the details until the next instalment, but let's hear ‘the bottom line'. Abram said to the king of Sodom, "I have sworn to the LORD God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth, that I will not take a thread or a sandal thong or anything that is yours, for fear you would say, 'I have made Abram rich.' "I will take nothing except what the young men have eaten, and the share of the men who went with me, Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre; let them take their share." (Gen 14:22-24 NASB)
In one action Abraham had sworn fealty to Jehovah, God most high. In that action he had forfeited all his other allegiances and left himself defenceless. He had turned his back on the rewards of his victory and renounced fabulous wealth. It was immediately following this choice, having thrown away his human shield and poured his treasure into the sand that the word of the LORD came to Abraham in a vision, saying 'Fear not, Abram, I am thy shield and thy exceeding great reward' (Gen 15:1)
As Jim Elliot once said ‘he is no fool who gives what he cannot keep and gains what he cannot lose'.