I suffer from an incurable fascination with sermon titles. I regret already having written the message for Genesis chapter 13 because I now have a new title for it. It should have been, ‘‘Abram had a Lot to Lose.” Chapter 14 could then be, “Abram had a Lot to Gain.” Perhaps chapter 15 would be, “Abram had a Lot to Learn.” So much for titles.
On our local Christian radio station there is a program which attempts to give ‘another view of the news.’ I appreciate this effort because the Christian should certainly see much more than the secular analysts do in the news of our time. For example, great catastrophes, such as the eruption of Mount St. Helen and the earthquakes in California, may foreshadow the signs of the end times (cf. Matthew 24:7). The rapid increase in crime and lawlessness may be viewed as fulfilling the moral conditions of the last days (cf. II Timothy 3:1-7). The outbreak of war, the threat of it elsewhere, and the alignment of nations all are of great significance to the alert Christian (cf. Ezekiel 38; Daniel 12; Matthew 24:6-8).
There is, of course, a secular side of the news. It deals mainly with the facts and figures, the details and descriptions of the events which have occurred. Explanations for these events are almost always humanistic and economic in nature.
For the Christian there should be another dimension—the spiritual side of history. If God is sovereign in history, as the Bible claims Him to be (cf. Psalm 2; Proverbs 21:1; Daniel 2:21; Acts 4:23-31), then His hand is to be seen as guiding history to achieve His purposes.
Such is the case in Genesis chapter 14. Here, for the first time in the Scriptures, patriarchal and secular history intersect.147 On the surface, this incident is merely an international power struggle to ensure economic supremacy by the control of a crucial trade route. The ‘other side of the news’ is that this event serves as a commentary on Genesis chapter 13 and as an opportunity for instruction, both for Lot and Abram. While Lot seems to have learned little, Abram’s faith is matured.
The first 11 verses of chapter 14 might puzzle the 20th century reader for they are strangely secular. Worse yet, they seem remote, disinteresting, and dull. They contain an account of the power struggle between two opposing coalitions of kingdoms.
The first block of nations was that of the four Mesopotamian kings of the east (14:2). Chedorlaomer, king of Elam (modern Iran), seems to have been dominant.148 Shinar was the region of ancient Babylon (cf. Genesis 10:10). The second alliance was made up of five kings, including the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah (14:2).
After 12 years as vessels of the four eastern kings, the five southern kings attempted to throw off their shackles. The eastern kings could not allow such rebellion to go unpunished. This revolt did not go unnoticed by others in the same plight (cf. 14:5-7). The economic results of ignoring the insurrection were too devastating to contemplate. The five southern kings controlled the territory through which the ‘way of the kings’ passed. This was the land bridge through which commerce between Egypt and the four eastern kingdoms must pass. Whoever controlled this land bridge maintained a monopoly on international trade.
The route taken by the Mesopotamian kings has been the subject of considerable criticism.
It reveals a wide sweep to the east and south and then around to the southwest; then northeast to the western side of the Dead Sea, and lastly the troops swarm down upon their final objective, the cities in the Vale of Siddim.149
Two explanations seem to satisfy the objections which have been raised. I believe both of them together reveal the wisdom of Chedorlaomer’s strategy. First, the route of the conquest seems to be the ‘way of the kings,’ the trade route which the Mesopotamian kings sought to insure.150 The rebellion of the five southern kings may well have prompted similar acts from the other kingdoms. The four Mesopotamian kings thus sought to restore their sovereignty over the entire length of the trade route.
Secondly, the four kings sought to deal with the rebel kingdoms one at a time. By securing their position first with these other kingdoms the danger of attack from the rear was removed. The noose seems to be drawing tighter about these rebels as the account progresses.151 It may have been hoped that as victories continued to pile up for the four kings that a surrender would be preferable to defeat for the five southern kings.
The kings of Sodom and Gomorrah, with their allies, must have decided it was more noble to suffer defeat in war than to have to back down by surrendering. The troops dug in for all-out battle in the valley of Siddim (14:8). The rebel kingdoms must have offered little resistance to the invasion. As they retreated from the enemy, some fell into the tar pits of the valley, others fled to the hills (14:10).
Sodom and Gomorrah were sacked. Everything and everyone that could be carried off was. That is the secular side of the news. But why is so much emphasis placed upon the details and description of this event?
The answer is only to be found in the ‘other side of the news,’ the spiritual dimension. Apart from the facts and figures, the strategies and the speculations of human reasoning, there was a spiritual purpose. This international incident is not to be understood only in terms of power struggle and economic forces. It was a part of the program of the sovereign God for the lives of two of His people, Lot and Abram.
The remark which, to the unenlightened eye, seems casual and incidental is foundational:
“And they also took Lot, Abram’s nephew, and his possessions and departed, for he was living in Sodom” (Genesis 14:12).
What a commentary on the decision of Lot in chapter 13. Lot had chosen to act on the basis of economic self-interest, and had thus disregarded the covenant God had made with Abram (12:1-3). What Lot should have learned is that “he who lives by the sword, also dies by it.” Economic self-interest was the motive of the kings of both alliances, both southern and Mesopotamian.
All that Lot seemed to have gained by taking advantage of Abram was lost in an instant, and seemingly by chance. He was caught in the middle of an international incident. Can you imagine the thoughts which went through Lot’s mind as he and his family and all their goods were being carted off to a distant land? He who had been so shrewd was now a slave, and all because of his selfish choice.
Also do you notice that Lot was said to have been living in Sodom (verse 12)? When we left him in chapter 13 he was first living in the valley of the Jordan, heading eastward (13:11). Then he moved his tents as far as Sodom (13:12). At last Lot is one of them, at least so far as the victors were concerned.
One of those who escaped from Chedorlaomer found Abram and reported Lot’s fate to him.
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 (Genesis 14:13).
Noteworthy is the designation of Abram as “the Hebrew.”152 It seems that he was beginning to become well-known by those who lived in that land. Abram was dwelling by the Oaks of Mamre. Mamre and his two brothers, Eshcol and Aner, had formed an alliance with Abram (verse 13).
Assembling his forces, and those of his allies,153 Abram hastily pursued the captors of Lot.
And when Abram heard that his relative had been taken captive, he led out his trained men, born in his house, three hundred and eighteen, and went in pursuit as far as Dan (Genesis 14:14).
One cannot really be certain that it was Abram’s faith that prompted him to undertake such a risky venture while seemingly so greatly outnumbered. At least we must be careful of reading an act of faith into the text. Nowhere is Abram’s motive clearly stated.
There were a number of good reasons to ignore the report of the fugitive altogether. As Sarai no doubt suggested, the odds were not in Abram’s favor. Such a campaign could be suicide. Also, Lot got exactly what he had asked for. He chose to live in Sodom—let him learn his lesson in Elam or Babylon. He deliberately chose to take advantage of his uncle, Abram; now let him pay the price.
Whether it was a matter of faith or honor I cannot tell for sure. (Personally, I lean more toward family honor. I see Abram as a man something like Ben Cartwright on the TV series “Bonanza.”) We now see that the meekness of Abram revealed in his dealings with Lot was not weakness. For whatever reasons, Abram went after his nephew. Because of His promise to Abram (12:1-3), God protected and prospered him.
And he divided his forces against them by night, he and his servants, and defeated them, and pursued them as far as Hobah, which is north of Damascus. And he brought back all the goods, and also brought back his relative Lot with his possessions, and also the women, and the people (Genesis 14:15-16).
Abram, it would seem, had a great military mind. He employed a forced march and a surprise attack from various positions. As appearances would have it, Abram was the commander of his own men, as well as those of his allies. Pursuit was vigorous and extensive, until the victory was complete and the spoils entirely recovered. Everything was recovered: the possessions, the people, and the prodigal—Lot.
Perhaps no test a man faces is greater than that of success:
The crucible is for silver and the furnace for gold, and a man is tested by the praise accorded him (Proverbs 27:21).
One can hardly fathom the temptation the triumphal return of Abram presented to him. His reception must have been the ancient counterpart to a ticker tape parade in New York City. If the king of Sodom came out to meet Abram, how much more those of the city, who hoped for the return of their loved ones.
Then 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) (Genesis 14:17).
If the king of Sodom had some appropriate words for the occasion, he had to wait to say them for out of nowhere the king of Salem appeared with the words Abram most needed to hear:
And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; now he was a priest of God Most High. And he blessed him and said, ‘Blessed be Abram of God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand.’ And he gave him a tenth of all (Genesis 14:18-20).
I believe it was providential that Melchizedek’s appearance interrupted the meeting of Abram and the king of Sodom. When Melchizedek had finished his task he apparently departed and then the king of Sodom spoke.
Melchizedek is a crucial figure in this account because he put Abram’s victory in proper theological perspective.154 There was no back-slapping or politicking. Melchizedek was a king and a priest, not a king and a politician. His words were intended to remind Abram that the victory was God’s, and that his success was a result of God’s blessing. In effect, Melchizedek’s words were a reminder of the covenant God had made with Abram when he called him from Ur to Canaan:
Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you; And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’ (Genesis 12:1-3).
Abram’s response was a testimony to his faith in the one God worshipped by he and Melchizedek. His tithe was tangible evidence that it was God Who deserved the glory.
Many have resorted to verse 20 as a proof-text for tithing: “… And he gave him a tenth of all.” We are told that this is the first instance of tithing, and that it occurred before the Law was given. Therefore, the practice of tithing goes beyond the Law and thus is binding on Christians today. I believe this to be fallacious thinking.
We are led to believe that Abram tithed to Melchizedek, giving him a tenth of all his possessions. But when Moses wrote, “… he gave him a tenth of all,” what did he mean by all—all what?
This may come as a shock to you, but Abram did not give a tithe of his possessions. First of all, Abram was not at home, with his possessions, but on his way back home, with the possessions of the king of Sodom and his allies. The writer to the Hebrews informs us of the content of Abram’s tithe:
Now observe how great this man was to whom Abraham, the patriarch, gave a tenth of the choicest spoils (Hebrews 7:4).
Imagine this scene. Abram is met by the king of Sodom, who, no doubt, heaps praises upon him. The king of Salem arrives who urges Abram to give the glory to God. And then the king of Sodom stands wide-eyed and open-mouthed as Abram gives a tenth of the best spoils of Sodom to Melchizedek. What a witness to the glory of God and the sinfulness of Sodom! That, my friend, is no example of biblical tithing.
The king of Sodom knew well that “to the victor belongs the spoils.” In addition, he had already witnessed a tenth of the goods being given to the king of Salem (Jerusalem). The best bargain this pagan could hope to strike was to get back the people and to surrender the possessions to Abram:
And the king of Sodom said to Abram, ‘Give the people to me and take the goods for yourself’ (Genesis 14:21).
How tempting this offer must have been to Abram. By all rights, and even by the request of the king of Sodom, the spoils were his. In a way it was poetic justice. Lot had chosen Sodom for its promise of material blessings. Lot had seemingly gotten the best of Abram, and now God was giving it back to Abram to whom it should have belonged in the first place.
Abram’s words must have been an even greater shock to the king of Sodom than his act of sharing the spoils with Melchizedek:
And 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, lest you should say, “I have made Abram rich”’ (Genesis 14:22-23)
Where would you suppose Abram found the words that he spoke to the king of Sodom? From the king of Salem—where else? Melchizedek referred to his God and Abram’s as “God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth.” This was an unusual designation for God (El Elyon—cf. the margin of verses 19, 20, NASV), and yet Abram used it—the same words as Melchizedek had spoken.
The arrival of the king of Salem, I believe, was a turning point for Abram because it brought his victory into perspective. While men may give glory to men, the saint must give the glory to God for any victory ultimately is His, not ours.
For this reason, Abram could not accept the offer of keeping the goods of Sodom. Abram, like Melchizedek, was now jealous for God’s glory to be His alone. To accept anything from a pagan king would be to give him the opportunity to suppose that his giving was responsible for Abram’s success. The price of such goods was too high and so Abram refused what was rightfully his.
This is a wonderful conviction to which Abram has come, but notice that he does not cram his convictions down the throats of his allies:
I will take nothing except what the young men have eaten, and the share of the men who went with me, Aner, Eschol, and Mamre; let them take their share (Genesis 14:24).
What the men have eaten of Sodom’s goods is not to be repaid. But also what the others are entitled to, who are not related to God by faith, should not be withheld.
Perhaps more than anything the event in Genesis 14 provides us with a divine commentary on the decisions made in chapter 13. Lot chose Sodom and self-interest, and nearly lost everything because of it. Abram chose to pursue peace and thereby was given a military victory. Lot relied on himself and became a slave. Abram trusted God and become a prominent figure among his brethren. How different our decisions appear in the light of history. History weighs the decisions of men.
This passage also reminds us of the sovereignty of God in the affairs of men. God is in control of history. The events which appear to be only secular often have a much deeper spiritual purpose and significance. What seems to be a tragic situation in which Lot is caught between two competing political systems is really the purpose of God being worked out for the benefit of two men (primarily), Lot and Abram. There is, my Christian friend, another side of the news.
I am reminded by the appearance of Melchizedek that there are no “Lone Rangers” in the Christian faith. There are times when we feel as though no one else is keeping the faith, but such impressions are self-deception (cf. I Kings 19:14,18). Here was a godly king/priest, Melchizedek, whom we have not seen before, nor after, but he is a true believer.
God works through men, my friend. While we may like to be self-sufficient, this is not God’s way. At a critical point in the life of Abram, God sent a man to set him straight and to keep him from taking success too seriously. Thank God for the men and women God uses in our lives, and for the fact that He uses us to minister to others at crucial times in life.
There is also the reminder that in the matter of giving and receiving, the most important issue is the glory of God. If we give to receive glory, our gifts are of no benefit (cf. Matthew 6:2-4). If we prosper at the hand of those who reject God and who take the glory themselves, God’s glory is veiled to men. Let us be most cautious in this matter of money and material things. Some may take money, even from the devil, but Abram would not.
Finally, this event provides us with a beautiful illustration of the salvation of God. Lot chose to go his own way, seeking his own interests over the promise of God to bless men through Abram. As a result of his self-seeking, Lot had to face the consequences of his sin. Rather than peace and prosperity he found shame and slavery.
At the point where Lot was able to do nothing to correct his errors or to free himself from bondage, Abram, at great personal risk, won the victory and won his release. Saving Lot was the sole reason for Abram’s daring rescue. In spite of Lot’s disregard for Abram, Abram rescued him from the consequences of his own sin.
All of us, the Bible says, have sinned.
… for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).
We have all gone our own way:
All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way (Isaiah 53:6a).
The good news of the gospel is that God sent His son, Jesus Christ to rescue us from our sins. The consequences and penalty for our sins were suffered by Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary.
Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried, Yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him (Isaiah 53:4-6).
Have you trusted in Him? Will you acknowledge your willfulness and waywardness and your need to be released from the bondage of sin? God’s rescue mission has succeeded, and its benefits are free for all who believe that salvation is in Christ alone.
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16).
And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23).
The one who believes in the Son of God has the witness in himself; the one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the witness that God has borne concerning His Son. And the witness is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life (I John 5:10-12).
148 “Elamite and Babylonian domination of Palestine had been effective for twelve years. Chedorlaomer the Elamite was at the time in question sovereign also over Babylon, a fact with which historical records agree.” H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), I, p. 450.
150 “The route of the conquest has a continuous history from c. 2500 B.C. down to present times. Along it from end to end have been found tells, some quite large, indicating that the route indeed is actual and historical, giving ample incitation to the cupidity of the invaders. It came to be called in later times ‘The King’s Way!’ (Num. 20:17; 21:22).” Harold Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), D. 148.
151 “The simplest of all explanations is that the army coming from the east wanted to eliminate the possibility of an attack from the rear by unfriendly groups. These unfriendly groups were either unsubdued opponents or subjugated opponents known to be restive and inclined to side with other revolters. . . . It shows the line being drown closer and closer about Sodom and Gomorrah. We are made to sense the apprehension of the revolting cities; and they turn around from point to point as reports come pouring in about the defeat of the groups being attacked.” Leupold, Genesis, I, p. 401, p. 149.
152 “Abram is for the first time called “the Hebrew.” It has been considered by some that “Hebrew” is not equivalent to Habiru, though others, including Kenyon, find them possibly equivalent. One characteristic occupation of the Habiru was that of mercenary soldier, and Abram fits that picture in his rescue of Lot. The name “Hebrew” thus is a memorial epithet of this rescue, not indeed of disapprobation, but in the best sense. As indicated by the contents of the cuneiform documents, Abram again is found to fit into his age.” Stigers, Genesis, p. 149.
154 Some may puzzle at the fact that I have not delved into the typological significance of Melchizedek. The writer to the Hebrews does so (Hebrews 5,7) reflecting on the event in Genesis, combined with the prophecy of Psalm 110:4. The reason I have not dealt with the typological importance of Melchizedek is that, for Moses, Melchizedek’s typical significance was secondary, not primary. It was supplemental to, and not fundamental to, the literal, historical, grammatical meaning of the text. The typological meaning of any text is a fringe benefit, but it is not to supplant the literal interpretation of the text. The typical meaning may never have entered the mind of the writer (only the mind of God), but the literal meaning was the writer’s intended message.