New Interpreter's Bible - Genesis 14

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Dan Francis | Forum Activity | Posted: Mon, Jan 23 2012 9:08 PM

Another sample of this fine resource.




This chapter stands among the most difficult in the book of Genesis, evident not least in the unusual number of its unique or rare words and phrases. Scholars have not been able to identify all of these persons and places. To the extent that they are known, and may be set in the second millennium BCE, they are not simply to be taken at face value, but have some typological significance. Moreover, the portrayal of Abram as a military leader stands in some tension with the rest of the cycle (see 23:6). The historical basis of the story remains difficult to discern.104 The chapter derives from several traditions, but the component parts are usually not associated with the pentateuchal sources (occasionally J, as part of a Lot-Abram tradition). The silence regarding Abram in vv. 1-11 has often led to their separation from vv. 12-24, set entirely within the land of Canaan. Within the latter, vv. 18-20 interrupt reference to the king of Sodom and are associated commonly with Davidic/Zion traditions. While probably originally unrelated, the three segments in the chapter have been verbally and thematically integrated into a broader story by an editor.105

Regarding form, vv. 12-24 may stem from an old hero story about Abram, similar to liberation stories from the period of the judges. Verses 18-20 may have been added as a midrash to link David and Jerusalem with Abram. Verses 1-11 are a report of a military campaign, though with few details; it may have been non-Israelite in origin, perhaps Babylonian. The dating (vv. 4-5) and other stylistic features accord with royal inscriptions from the ancient Near East. Dialogue comes into play only in the aftermath of the entire affair (vv. 21-24).

An editor has integrated this chapter into Abram’s story for several reasons: (1) It belongs to a larger pattern wherein Abram mirrors the early history of Israel in his own life, especially the conquest of the land (see below). (2) It serves as an integral part of the larger story of Lot and Abram. (3) The kings’ responses prepare us for the response of God in chap. 15. (4) It gives Israel a role in the world of nations, which attests to God as creator. While the chapter may well exalt Abram “as a great and powerful prince who encounters victoriously the united kings of the great kingdoms of the east,”106 it also says something about Israel. God’s call to Abram (12:1-3) has a purpose that spans the globe. This chapter and the table of nations (10:1-32) have many links; together they enclose chaps. 11–13, placing Israel’s beginnings through Abraham within a universal context.

This redaction involves Israel’s self-understanding, not least within a probable exilic provenance, when the Abrahamic tradition receives renewed attention (Isa 41:8; 51:2). While one concern may be to “awaken a glorious past which opened broader horizons to those currently humiliated,”107 the focus should be placed on mission rather than on national self-aggrandizement.

 14:1-16. Verse 1 presents names and places that are otherwise unattested (Shinar is Babylon, see 10:10; 11:2). Also, we know of no such international coalition, apparently from the Mesopotamian region. Whatever the historical basis, this coalition could be viewed as a gathering of forces that endangers Israel’s future in the land.

The names of the five kings of the Pentapolis in the region of the Dead Sea (v. 2) remain unidentified. The five cities occur together only here (four appear in 10:19 and Deut 29:23); in the report of events (vv. 10-11) only Sodom and Gomorrah appear (as in chap. 19). Scholars have been unable to locate the valley of Siddim, but it must be near the Dead Sea. The author depicts Abram as a Hebrew (v. 13), probably to distinguish his people from the others mentioned.

The eastern kings (v. 1) go to war against the Pentapolis (vv. 2-3), which had rebelled after twelve years of subjugation (v. 4). On their way to putting down that rebellion (described in vv. 8-12), they conquer six peoples in the area (vv. 5-7), who may also be participating in a general rebellion against the eastern kings. The first three are original inhabitants of the land, described in legendary terms as giants (Deut 2:10-12, 20); the 


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next three are well-known. The land of two of these six peoples had been promised to Abram (15:18-20). The reference to Kadesh recalls a stopping place of the Israelites in the Negeb (Num 20:1), in which area the Amalekites were also subdued by the Israelites (Exod 17:8-16; Num 13:29). The reference to the Amorites seems unusual in that it refers to a city near the Dead Sea (see 2 Chr 20:2) rather than a region (Num 21:13; Deut 1:27, 44). Abram is allied with some Amorites (14:13)!

The reference to the “four kings against five” (v. 9) suggests something of the power of the four; this reference highlights Abram’s later victory against those four kings (vv. 14-16). The plight of the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah, mentioned in vv. 10-11, may anticipate chaps. 18–19, as does the reference to the geology of the valley of Siddim. Also, the fleeing to the hills anticipates what happens to Lot (19:17-20, 30).

In conquering the Pentapolis, the eastern kings capture people and possessions, including Lot, and leave the area. When Abram hears this report, he takes his trained men, joins forces with other “allies,” pursues the kings to the vicinity of Damascus, and brings back all that had been captured, including Lot. In effect, Abram thereby assumes control over the promised land.

Verse 14 provides the reason for Abram’s entrance into this perilous situation: He acts on behalf of Lot, who remains very much a part of the family in spite of chap. 13. The story here moves from the world of nations to a single individual. Lot’s fate moves Abram to act against the armies of four major nations!

The reference to the wickedness of Sodom (13:13) hangs over this story. Just as Abram would later intercede for these cities for the sake of the righteous in them (18:22-33), so also here he risks his life in ways that will benefit them. Abram centers his efforts on Lot’s freedom, but in the process he liberates “great sinners.” The move from Sodom and Gomorrah to just Sodom in 14:10-17 (as in 13:10, 13) shows that Lot’s domicile is clearly in view.

In this military exploit Abram forms a coalition with non-Hebrews (vv. 13, 24). Living in community means cooperating with other families. These allies join Abram’s trained group of 318, “born in his house” (14:14). The latter are dedicated and trained persons who serve the family of Abram. In view of this text (see also 15:2; 17:12-13, 23, 27; 24:2), Abram’s household appears large, perhaps several thousand with women and children, although historically Abram’s retinue was probably somewhat smaller.

 14:17-24. When Abram returns from battle, the king of Sodom meets him (vv. 17, 21-24), soon joined by the king of Salem (vv. 18-20) in the King’s Valley, of uncertain location but probably near Jerusalem. They respond in different ways to the liberation. Their appearance together, although probably not original, invites comparison. Yet, the king of Sodom has reaped too much negative comment from commentators; inasmuch as he appears with Melchizedek, the reader ought not adjudge his response in an isolated way.

The king of Salem, Melchizedek (vv. 18-20), also serves as a priest of God Most High (El Elyon). He brings Abram food and drink, blesses him in the name of God Most High, the Creator, and blesses Abram’s God for delivering Abram. These verses give a theological interpretation of the previous events.

Melchizedek is a mysterious figure, mentioned elsewhere only in Ps 110:4 (a royal psalm) and Hebrews 5–7, where the author interprets him in messianic terms. His name, similar to the Canaanite king Adonizedek (Josh 10:1), probably means “my king is salvation [righteousness].” His priest/king status may mean that the Canaanite kingship was understood as a sacral/political office, an understanding not foreign among Israel’s kings (see Ps 110:4).

These verses may be traced to Davidic-Solomonic apologists, when relationships with the pre-Israelite leaders of Jerusalem (i.e., Salem; see Ps 76:2) were important. They sought to anchor new forms of royal/temple practice in Abrahamic times in order to legitimize them, perhaps in view of questions raised about “new” practices associated with the Davidic regime.

The priestly name Zadok (2 Sam 8:17; 15:24-35) also derives from this root; he was a pre- Israelite Jerusalem priest associated with David. His descendants, the Zadokite priestly line, were linked with the Davidic dynasty through the centuries. Abram’s encounter with Melchizedek may 


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have been understood as legitimizing the Zadokite priesthood.

In view of these links, ancient readers may have viewed Melchizedek as a precursor of both the royal and the priestly lines in the Davidic empire. Melchizedek is a priest of El Elyon, God Most High. Elyon is probably an epithet rather than a name (it is usually translated “Most High,” see the NRSV footnote). El occurs as the general word for “deity” throughout the ancient Near East (Elyon was also used outside of Israel). The two words occur together elsewhere only in Ps 78:35, but Elyon appears in parallel with El (Num 24:16; Ps 73:11), with other divine names (Pss 18:13; 46:4), and independently (Deut 32:8; Ps 82:6).

Melchizedek’s bringing of bread and wine, intended to refresh Abram after his battles, also had a religious import because Melchizedek was a priest. The meal cannot be separated from the blessing by Melchizedek that follows. It is (a) a blessing on Abram by God the Creator. Melchizedek thus exercises a truly mediatorial function. An outsider blesses Abram (cf. Balaam, Num 24:1); he does not do the blessing. (b) It blesses God in direct address; this is an act of praise and thanksgiving for their deliverance from a common enemy. In both cases, the blessing increases power and renown; it bestows strength on Abram from God and fosters an increase of God’s renown in the world. Praise is always a word to God and a word about God; it witnesses to God and thereby increases the divine renown in the world (see Exod 18:10, also spoken by a nonchosen one in the wake of an experience of salvation). The text sets both dimensions of blessing in Israel’s later worship during the time of Abram.

The tithe Abram gives to Melchizedek refers to the spoils; Abram leaves the other 90 percent with the king of Sodom, except for what the young men take (v. 24). Abram thereby gratefully acknowledges what Melchizedek has proclaimed to him on behalf of God and implicitly recognizes the legitimacy of Melchizedek’s priesthood of the same God whom Abram worships. The OT mentions the tithe elsewhere only in connection with regular worship practices; hence we may infer that it functions here as part of the larger ritual of meal and blessings.108 In this typical exchange, the priest gives the blessing and the worshiper responds. Tithing serves as an act of worship, not a military-political settlement. This account may legitimize later worship practices by rooting them in the story of Abram (cf. Jacob’s vow of a tithe in 28:22).

Verse 17 introduces the king of Sodom, but then he drops into the background after Melchizedek’s arrival. The two kings have different agendas. The king of Sodom represents the cities liberated by Abram. With worship completed, he generously indicates that Abram should keep the recaptured goods, but the persons (such as Lot) are to be returned. The king focuses on the disposition of the booty (v. 21), a major portion of which was Lot’s (vv. 11-12, 16). The problem of who should keep the spoils of war troubled Israel at various times (see Joshua 7), though here it is a matter of getting their own goods back.

The issue here is not simply whether Abram will take the spoils, but whether he will take Lot’s goods and use them (and that of others) for gaining hegemony in Lot’s land, a matter that had just been settled (13:6-12). In some sense, this discussion recapitulates chap. 13: Abram refuses an explicit opportunity to invest himself in Lot’s land. Abram would thereby have become rich at Lot’s expense and complicated his relation to Lot’s land (e.g., he would have been obligated to the king of Sodom; cf. Gideon, who refuses to accept the offer of kingship for himself, Judg 8:22-23). Abram’s refusal also gives his later intercession on behalf of Sodom a higher level of credibility. Abram refuses to go back on his agreement with Lot. His refusal depends on an oath, sworn to God Most High, the Creator, that he would not take anything, not even a thread or a shoestring (the smallest items). Abram did let his allies take their share, however.

This text, then, does not simply focus on Abram’s choosing not to enrich himself, but centers on an issue of justice—his own agreement with Lot. The author presented Abram’s behavior as a model for later Israelite leaders (see 1 Kings 21).


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1.  As with chaps. 12–13, this chapter also mirrors a subsequent period of Israel’s history: the land settlement, the judges, and the Davidic empire.

The six peoples listed in 14:5-7 (from the region around the Pentapolis of 14:2, 8) are among those encountered by Israel on its journey to Canaan. For the four kings (14:1, 9)—representing the world powers known from that era—to have conquered these peoples means gaining control of routes and lands that are integral to Israel’s later movement into the promised land. Abram, in conquering the kings, not only frees the peoples there, but clears that region of powerful outside forces. More basically, Abram, as military leader, embodies later Israel. In effect, Abram takes over the promised land by conquest!

We have noted the formal similarity of this story with those of the judges. In this way Abram becomes a savior figure for Israel. Continuities with the Gideon story are especially strong. The 300 men of Gideon (Judg 7:7) face a situation not unlike that encountered by Abram’s 318 men, and they effect comparable liberation. Moreover, the link between Abram and Melchizedek anticipates later relationships between David and the Jebusites of Jerusalem (Psalm 110; 2 Sam 5:6-10); compare also David’s campaign against the Amalekites (1 Samuel 30). The covenant in chap. 15 occurs now with good reason. Abram’s own history also parallels that of David.

2. In Abram’s military action against the four kings, a solitary individual comes into view: Lot. For Abram, the individual does not get lost amid all the movements of kings and armies. His actions could be ascribed to human foolishness, but Abram’s concern for his nephew reaches beyond simple common sense or a careful calculation of possible gains and losses. Moreover, when it comes to the disposition of the booty, Abram remains true to his agreement with Lot and returns his goods.

Moreover, Abram does not pursue a strategy of rescuing only Lot from among those captured. He acts in such a way as to liberate all captives from Sodom and Gomorrah, apart from an assessment of whether they deserved it, or whether their behaviors up to this point would justify the risk. This action links up with Abram’s intercession on behalf of these cities in chap. 18.

3.  The author describes Abram’s group almost entirely in the language of the family. The story pits family against nation. When combined with the focus on Lot, family interests take priority over those of nations and kings. For the sake of the family, it may be necessary to challenge efforts made by national forces. Peace and war are matters that affect nations because they deeply affect families. It is for the sake of the family that Abram finally makes his decisions regarding war and peace.

This text presents issues of war and peace not as matters for chosen people only; all who oppose the subjugation of others (e.g., v. 24) become involved, whether they are people of God or not. God the Creator has an impact on the lives of “outsiders” so that they work toward the peace and well-being of communities not their own. The “goodness” of the creation as stated by God in Genesis 1 manifests itself in the lives of communities outside those who have been specifically called and chosen.

4.  Although v. 20 attests that God is effectively engaged in this conflict, the text offers no reference to divine intervention (or speaking). The report of the battle recalls only Abram’s abilities as a military strategist and leader. Hence, the battle involves multiple (divine and human) agencies. Nonetheless, Melchizedek ascribes the victory to God. In fact, the battle is not simply a victory, but a rout. The reader receives the image of kings and armies tumbling 


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all over themselves to get away (the same language describes the victories of these kings in vv. 5, 7!)—no doubt designed to impress the reader with the boldness and cleverness of Abram in defeating a much larger force and rescuing the kidnapped persons and their possessions. Abram, as a Gideon-like figure, comes through in larger-than-life proportions. Although Abram’s talents and skills are not to be played down, God makes the victory possible.

5.  El Elyon probably carries the sense of “God of gods.” While Melchizedek’s God language is not new to Abram—indeed he claims it as his own in the oath he swore prior to his encounter with Melchizedek (v. 22)—he also claims that Yahweh is the name of El Elyon. Each worships the same God; even more, Melchizedek confesses their God as both creator (v. 19) and redeemer (v. 20). But Abram knows that the name of this God of gods is Yahweh.

This narrative confesses God the Creator, maker of heaven and earth (hnq qAnâ; see Exod 15:16; Deut 32:6; Ps 139:13), as the liberator. Earlier confessional language for the Creator, evident in both Abram’s earlier oath (v. 22) and Melchizedek’s blessing (v. 19), appears in doxological service for this moment of salvation. The God confessed as creator of heaven and earth (not simply of human beings) becomes central to the faith of principals from this early period, including both Abram and Melchizedek; the narrator does not introduce a later theological development. The fact that both men worship God with this language also indicates that ancient Israelites presumed some commonality in faith to exist between the progenitors of the later Israelites and Canaanites. This shared belief, too, witnesses to the work of God the Creator in both communities; even more, it is witness to the knowledge of God the Creator, indeed a Creator who liberates, outside of the chosen family.

6.  The theme of blessing relates to its use elsewhere in Genesis. In 12:1-3, God promises blessing to Abram; Melchizedek helps to fulfill that promise, mediating the divine blessing to him. Although Abram earlier experienced God’s blessing in his life, Melchizedek explicitly does what God has promised to do. Moreover, he thus recognizes Abram as the blessed one of God, even though Melchizedek stands outside that family. Consistent with 12:1-3, Abram has been a blessing to Melchizedek (and others) in and through what he has done in ridding the country of its predators. The text presents a triangular repetition of blessing, from God to Abram to Melchizedek (representing the nonchosen), and then back again from Melchizedek to Abram to God. Significant religious links are thus made between Israel and at least some elements of the Canaanite populace.

7. Why would Abram make the disposition of the booty a matter of oath to God (v. 22)? We have suggested that Lot’s presence explains much here, though in the context of other factors. Some look to Abram’s generosity of spirit, or a recognition that Sodom’s goods were not his to do with as he would, for Sodom was not the defeated one; it would be improper for the liberator to enrich himself at the expense of the liberated. Is there a concern here for the enrichment of the “church” at the expense of its liberated members? The Sodomites had just experienced deliverance; to take away from that experience by keeping all their goods would be to intrude on the salvific experience itself. It might even appear to make the liberation conditional upon receiving the gift! How religious leaders handle the issue of “giving” may obscure the graciousness of the saving experience.

8. Hebrews 5–7 depends more heavily on Ps 110:4 than on Genesis 14. Basically the argument runs like this: Abram (hence his descendant Aaron, father of the Levitical priesthood) acknowledged the primacy of Melchizedek and his priesthood through the giving of a tithe. Hence, Jesus Christ, who belongs to the priestly order of Melchizedek, reaches back beyond Aaron’s priesthood in typological (not historical) fashion. This establishes ancient, pre-Abrahamic, pre-Israelite priesthood roots for the Christly priesthood, thereby declaring its preeminence, and so Hebrews uses Melchizedek not unlike David and Solomon did.


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Posts 8967
Matthew C Jones | Forum Activity | Replied: Mon, Jan 23 2012 9:18 PM

Dan Francis:
 Another sample of this fine resource. GENESIS 14:1-24, ABRAM AND MELCHIZEDEK 

Again, thank you Dan.  Yes

I find reading this particular article enlightening to how others think theses accounts come to us. I have many evangelical commentaries that cover this passage differently and only scarce resources that present it this way.

I am still hoping the timing on New Interpreters doesn't coincide with other big releases. The new lower prices make the sets very appealing.


Logos 7 Collectors Edition

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Dennis Parish | Forum Activity | Replied: Mon, Jan 23 2012 9:24 PM


Would you post a separate thread with an excerpt from the NIBD? Thanks.

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