In the days of King Amraphel of Shinar, King Arioch of Ellasar, King Chedorlaomer of Elam, and King Tidal of Goiim, these kings made war with King Bera of Sodom, King Birsha of Gomorrah, King Shinab of Admah, King Shemeber of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar). All these joined forces in the Valley of Siddim (that is, the Dead Sea). For 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 subdued the Rephaim in Ashteroth-karnaim, the Zuzim in Ham, the Emim in Shaveh-kiriathaim, and the Horites in the hill country of Seir as far as El-paran on the edge of the wilderness; then they turned back and came to En-mishpat (that is, Kadesh), and subdued all the country of the Amalekites, and also the Amorites who lived 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 King Chedorlaomer of Elam, King Tidal of Goiim, King Amraphel of Shinar, and King Arioch of Ellasar, four kings against five. 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 goods of Sodom and Gomorrah, and all their provisions, and went their way; they also took Lot, the son of Abram’s brother, who lived in Sodom, and his goods, and departed.
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 nephew had been taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, three hundred and eighteen of them, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. He divided his forces against them by night, he and his servants, and routed them and pursued them to Hobah, north of Damascus. Then he brought back all the goods, and also brought back his nephew Lot with his goods, and the women and the people.
This is a difficult text. One this text is the only place in all of the tradition that has Abram (later Abraham) portrayed in such a role, as a military commander. As we will see later on in Genesis (we haven’t quite read that far yet) Abraham is often the lone stranger among the Hittite inhabitants of Kiriatharba.
Secondly the historicity of the 5 petty Palestinian kings being subdued by 4 mighty kings from the east is questionable at best. There simply is no extra biblical evidence to support such an invasion and/or battle.
And thirdly, we must confront the thought that such a small band of 318 men, lead by Abram will defeat the 4 mighty kings who had just crushed a rebellion by 5 kings in Palestine. This seems dubious at best.
So what are we to make of a text that seems completely out of place, that glorifies military victories and battles and whose history seems more likely many pieces of stories redacted into one giant meta-story, much in the same manner that the combination of folk stories go into the creation of urban legend.
This primeval history of the chosen people is of course not meant to be about historicity, as it is meant to be about the founding mythology of the Jewish people. And the founding mythological piece in this story is Abram’s ability to best the 4 mighty kings is a testimony to his status as Shem’s heir and therefore the recipient of Shem’s blessing, received from Noah.
Lineage is very important in biblical literature. Lineage allows the blessings of God to be traced back to the beginning, when the covenant was first formed. In this case, that is the covenant between Noah and God. No longer will God destroy the peoples of the earth and the bow in the sky (the rainbow) will be a sign of that covenant.
This also continues the lineage of the chosen people from Adam, to Noah, to Abram. It helps identify a certain people with a certain God. In this case the chosen people, the Hebrews, with Yahweh, the God of the Jews. The military victory depicted also lends support to a primeval culture asserting the dominance of its God over other gods.
So what is the take away then? What truth does God want us to glim from this passage?
God’s blessing, which has travelled through generations from Noah, to Shem, to Abram. The blessing that will travel through time through the prophets, the judges, the martyrs and through Jesus Christ is the same blessing that we receive in the sacraments of the church.
The covenant is a sign that God will always come for us, much like Abram comes for Lot. That doesn’t mean nothing bad will happen to us. It simply means that through our covenant, in baptism, God journeys with us, remembers us and gives us strength. And I know standing in the vast emptiness of the world and starring up at the sky and looking at a rainbow I am comforted by the knowledge that God is with me. And sometimes that is enough.