Commentary on Genesis 14

Last updated: June 19, 2009

English Translation (ESV)

1In the days of Amraphel king of Shinar, Arioch king of Ellasar, Chedorlaomer king of Elam, and Tidal king of Goiim, 2these 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). 3And all these joined forces in the Valley of Siddim (that is, the Salt Sea). 4Twelve years they had served Chedorlaomer, but in the thirteenth year they rebelled. 5In 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, 6and the Horites in their hill country of Seir as far as El-paran on the border of the wilderness. 7Then 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.

8Then 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 9with Chedorlaomer king of Elam, Tidal king of Goiim, Amraphel king of Shinar, and Arioch king of Ellasar, four kings against five. 10Now 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. 11So the enemy took all the possessions of Sodom and Gomorrah, and all their provisions, and went their way. 12They also took Lot, the son of Abram’s brother, who was dwelling in Sodom, and his possessions, and went their way.

13Then 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. 14When Abram heard that his kinsman 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. 15And he divided his forces against them by night, he and his servants, and defeated them and pursued them to Hobah, north of Damascus. 16Then he brought back all the possessions, and also brought back his kinsman Lot with his possessions, and the women and the people.

17After 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). 18And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.) 19And he blessed him and said,

“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,

Possessor of heaven and earth;

20and blessed be God Most High,

who has delivered your enemies into your hand!”

And Abram gave him a tenth of everything. 21And the king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the persons, but take the goods for yourself.” 22But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have lifted my hand to the LORD, God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth, 23that I would not take a thread or a sandal strap or anything that is yours, lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’ 24I 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.”

Notes

1-2 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).

Scholars have been unable to identify these kings with certainty. The problem is only compounded when suggested names are not the names of kings contemporaneous with one another.

At one time, Amraphel was identified as Hammurapi, but this has been abandoned because the first and last consonants in the names differ1 and because Hammurapi was a powerful emperor not a minor actor2. Shinar is Babylon (11:2; Zechariah 5:11).

The personal name Arioch is well documented3. Suggested identifications for the kingdom of Ellasar include Alsi/Alsiya in northern Mesopotamia at the source of the Tigris, Ilansura between Carchemish and Haran, and Assur4.

Chedorlaomer’s name does not appear among the lists of about forty known Elamite kings5. He was the leader of the eastern kings (14:4, 5, 17). “Only in the first several centuries of the second millennium was Elam involved in international politics in Mesopotamia and the west”6.

Four Hittite kings between the 18th and 13th centuries BCE bore the name Tidal (Tudhalia)7. It is not clear why Tidal is said to be the king of nations (Goiim). Perhaps the name of his hometown was lost or he was the leader of a motley horde of peoples.

The name Bera means “in evil” and the name Birsha means “in wickedness”8. Shinab means “Sin [the moon-god] is (my) father”9. Shemeber may mean “Shem is powerful” or “powerful name”10. No name is given for the king of Bela, suggesting that the author was not making up names.

These verses describe a war between the kings of the east, mentioned in verse 1, and the kings of the Dead Sea region, mentioned in verse 2.

3 And all these joined forces in the Valley of Siddim (that is, the Salt Sea).

A definite article is before Siddim, meaning Siddim is a noun and not a proper name11. The Salt Sea is the Dead Sea, whose waters have some of the highest salt content of any body of water on earth12. Sarna writes:

This remark [that the Valley of Siddim is the Salt Sea] implies that the valley no longer existed at the time of the Narrator. It cannot mean that the Dead Sea had not yet been formed since the body of water is at least 12,000 years old. The only explanation is that the valley lay below the southern bank of the Dead Sea. As a matter of fact, the great disproportion between the 1,300-foot (400-m.) water depth in the north end and the mere 20-foot (6-m.) average in the far south proves that the basin below the Lisan, that tongue-shaped peninsula that protrudes into the sea, is of far more recent formation than the upper part. The Vale of Siddim was what existed before the area was submerged by the encroaching waters of the Dead Sea in historical times.13

On the other hand, Wenham doubts whether this verse is saying that the Valley of Siddim is where the Dead Sea is now14.

4-7 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.

A year after the rebellion, Chedorlaomer and his allies followed the “king’s highway” (Numbers 20:17; 21:22) in the opposite direction used by the Israelites when they left Sinai for Palestine15. Ashteroth-karnaim corresponds to Tell Ashtarah in south Syria16. Seir corresponds to Edom and El-paran corresponds to the Gulf of Aqabah17. Kadesh (Barnea) is near Tell Ain el-Qudeirat in north Sinai18. 2 Chronicles 20:2 identifies Hazazon-tamar with En Gedi, on the western shore of the Dead Sea. That the kings of the east subdued these other peoples indicates that the rebellion was not limited to the five kings of the Dead Sea region.

This report of Kedorlaomer’s victories was not appropriated by the author for solely antiquarian interests. The wilderness Israelites traverse the route from Kadesh to Moab once conquered by these eastern kings (Num 20:22; 21:4, 10-13; Deut 1:46-2:8); the ancient peoples who fell to Kedorlaomer were later supplanted by Israel (Josh 12:4; 13:12) or Israel’s relatives. The Edomites displaced the Horites (36:20-21, 29-30; Deut 2:12, 22), and Lot’s children, the Moabites and Ammonites, supplanted the Emites (Deut 2:11) and the Zamzuzites (=Zuzites; Deut 2:20), respectively. If Father Abraham could defeat the invincible Kedorlaomer, the Israelites could take courage facing enemies in their day.19

10 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.

The Hebrew translated “fell” need not mean that the people fell and perished in the bitumen pits. It can also mean that they hid in them or fled to them20.

12 They also took Lot, the son of Abram’s brother, who was dwelling in Sodom, and his possessions, and went their way.

Lot’s choice of land (ch. 13) turns out to be disastrous.

13 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.

Elsewhere in the Bible, the names Mamre, Eschol, and Aner are place names. The Hebrew translated “allies” means “those bound by treaty”21.

14 When Abram heard that his kinsman 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.

The Hebrew translated “trained men” refers to individuals whose major function is to provide military assistance22. Abram’s 318 men were probably accompanied by his allies (vv 13, 24). Dan was located at the base of Mount Hermon23. It acquired its name when the Israelites took it (Joshua 19:47; Judges 18:29).

15 And he divided his forces against them by night, he and his servants, and defeated them and pursued them to Hobah, north of Damascus.

The large armies fielded by the coalition of kings had just completed a long and exhausting campaign. They did not expect to have to fight again and were unprepared for an attack. They encamped for the night, since armies did not generally march after sunset in the ancient world. For his part, Abram had all the advantages of using fresh troops and of a night engagement against an unwary, battle-weary, depleted enemy. By dividing his strike forces and simultaneously attacking from two sides, he was able to achieve complete surprise and so neutralize the effectiveness of the great numerical superiority enjoyed by the coalition of kings.24

17 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).

The King’s Valley was probably at the confluence of the Kidron Valley and the Valley of Hinnom, south of the city of David (2 Samuel 18:18)25. The king of Sodom traveled north to meet Abram at this location.

18 And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.)

Melchizedek may mean “my king is just (or legitimate)”, “Milku is righteous”, or “my king is Sedeq”26. Salem is Jerusalem (Psalm 76:3). No cultic meaning is given to the bread and wine, it was merely for the troops. In ancient times, it was not unusual for an individual to be both king and priest. “God Most High” is a translation of El Elyon. The Canaanite pantheon has a god El whose grandson is Elyon, but no deity named El Elyon27. In verse 22 Abram identifies El Elyon as Yahweh.

Though, in the Hebrew Bible, Melchizedek is only mentioned here and in Psalm 110:4, later Jews and Christians found this cryptic figure significant and speculated about his identity28.

19-20 And he blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.

The last sentence literally reads “He gave him a tenth of everything” and thus raises the question of who gave the tenth. The LXX, Hebrews 7:6 and the Genesis Apocryphon (1QapGen 22:17) all agree that Abram gave Melchizedek a tenth. This would fit with the custom of the booty of war being divided up (Numbers 31:17; 1 Samuel 30). This was a one time payment and has nothing to do with the later annual tithing system of Israel.

21 And the king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the persons, but take the goods for yourself.”

The king of Sodom, unlike Melchizedek who brought out bread and wine, meets Abram in order to get something from the patriarch.

22-24 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.”

I have lifted up my hand” refers to an oath. “Abram did not want it to seem that he had acted out of mercenary considerations”29.

Bibliography

Hamilton, Victor P. The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament Volume 1A. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990.

Mathews, Kenneth A. Genesis 11:27-50:26. The New American Commentary Volume 1B. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005.

Sarna, Nahum M. JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis. 1st ed. Jewish Publication Society of America, 1989.

Walton, John H. Genesis. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001.

Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 1-15. Word Biblical Commentary Volume 1. Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1987.

1Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17, 400.

2Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 308.

3Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17, 400.

4Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17, 400; Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 103.

5Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 103.

6Walton, Genesis, 416.

7Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17, 400.

8Ibid., 401.

9Ibid.

10Ibid.

11Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 104.

12Ibid.

13Ibid.

14Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 310.

15Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17, 402.

16Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 142.

17Ibid., 143.

18Ibid.

19Ibid., 144.

20Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17, 403.

21Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 107.

22Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17, 406.

23Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 147.

24Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 108.

25Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17, 408; Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 109.

26Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17, 409; Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 316.

27Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17, 410.

28Hebrews 5-7; 11QMelch/11Q13; Philo Abr 235, Leg. 3.25-26 [79-82], Congr. 99; Tgs. Onq. Neof.; Josephus, Ant. 1.10.2 §180-81, J.W. 6.10.1 § 437; Pseudo-Eupolemus, Praeparatio Evangelica 9.17.5; Jub. 30.1; b. Ned. 32b; Pirqe R. El. 8; Gen. Rab. 44.7; 45.5; 48.6-8; 55.6; Justin Martyr, Dial. With Trypho 19:3-4; 33; Tertullian Adv. Jud. 2; Clement of Alexandria, Strom. 26

29Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 111.

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