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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Genesis 14



Verses 1-4

‘And it happened in the days of Amraphel, King of Shinar, Arioch, King of Ellasar, Chedorlaomer, King of Elam and Tidal, King of Goiim, that they made war with Bera, King of Sodom, and with Birsha, King of Gomorrah, Shinab, King of Admah, and Sheber, King of Zeboiim, and the King of Bela, the same is Zoar. All these joined together in the vale of Siddim, the same is the Salt Sea. Twelve years they served Chedorlaomer, and in the thirteenth year they rebelled.’

This description sets the scene. It is a typical opening to early documents and records. It is the beginning of the explanation as to why the covenant is necessary. The kings from the North have come down and subjugated the cities near what is now the Dead Sea in order to protect the trade route, and exacted tribute from them. And now the cities are sick of the tribute and ‘rebel’, that is withhold their tribute.

This is not a battle between two equals, but a larger force overwhelming a group of small cities on the way to further conquests. The writer is only concerned with the local situation.

There is no question but that the names fit well into the period. While not identifiable the Northern kings bear genuine names typical of their background. The name Arioch is paralleled by Ariwuku of Mari, and the Hurrian names Ariaku and Ari-ukku. Ellasar would fit a number of places in Mesopotamia. Chedorlaomer, meaning ‘slave of Lagamer’, an Elamite deity, is genuine Elamite, and the name of Tidal can be paralleled with the Hittite Tudhalia. The name of Amraphel is uncertain but should probably not be identified with Hammurabi as it once was.

The alliance of kings in this way is a feature of that particular period in history. It would be much less probable later. Thus this whole episode confirms a date for Abram at the very beginning of the second millennium BC.

It is not said that the four Northern kings are all directly involved personally in the attack, although it is always a possibility. These were not high kings aiming to build an empire, but rather comparatively smaller kings on a venture aiming to increase their wealth and safeguard the trade route. The fact that the tribute was paid to Chedorlaomer suggests that he led the raid, but was supported by troops from the other four kings who would receive some of the booty and tribute. This would explain why an Elamite king held such prominence in the raid. The number four is regularly symbolic of the world as a whole and of world affairs.

Elam was not yet as powerful as it would be but it was certainly a growing power. The other kings may have been leading invading bands elsewhere. They may, however, as petty kings, have been involved here. It may be that Chederlaomer provided the majority of the troops and that the others came along for the ‘sport’. Chederlaomer is named third, possibly because of the importance of the other two before him. (The order is also alphabetical - but verse 9 demonstrates that this is probably not the reason for the sequence). However, it is he who receives the tribute. This would suggest that those kings were not actually directly involved as main combatants. Thirteen years later he would be named first. His reputation had clearly grown.

The names of the Southern kings are not identifiable, but the fact that no name is given to the King of Bela, a very minor king, brings out the accuracy of the narrative. At the time no one could remember who he was. An inventor would soon have found him a name.

“They rebelled”, that is, they refused their tribute. Possibly they hoped they were not important enough to bother about. While they benefited from the trade route they probably did not appreciate its importance to outsiders. Unwittingly Lot was involved in this because he lived in Sodom but he could not complain for clearly he was aware of the situation.

“The same is the Salt Sea”. This identifying remark, probably added later, might be seen as confirmation that the valley, (and the cities in the Plain?) was known to have been engulfed by the southern end of the Dead Sea.

Verse 5-6

‘And in the fourteenth year came Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him and smote the Rephaim in Ashteroth-karnaim, and the Zuzim in Ham, and the Emim in Shaveh-kiriathaim, and the Horites in their Mount Seir, unto El-paran which is by the wilderness. And they returned and came to Enmishpat (the same is Kadesh) and smote all the country of the Amalekites, and also the Amorites that dwelt in Hazazon-tamar.’

This is more than a punitive expedition. The intention is to go wider afield and the attack is powerful and far reaching. Chederlaomer has been increasing in power and is now clearly the leader. ‘The kings who were with him’ are the same kings mentioned previously, a demonstration of the strength of the force.

They sweep down the King’s Highway, ignoring the rebels. This demonstrates their contempt for the five cities. They did not feel any need to protect their rear. Then they attack places on the route down as far as extreme South of East Jordan, then they move round beyond the end of the Dead Sea and attack Kadesh, before finally coming back to smite the Amalekites, and the Amorites in Hazazon-tamar, prior to approaching the five kings who have refused tribute.

The Rephaim are mentioned in Genesis 15:20; Deuteronomy 2:11; Deuteronomy 2:20; Deuteronomy 3:11; Deuteronomy 3:13, and the Emim in Deuteronomy 2:10, although there they are seen as in some way connected, Emim being seen as Rephaim. The Rephaim are clearly a more widespread people given differing local names. They had a reputation for great size. In Ammon they were known as the Zamzummim (Deuteronomy 2:20-21), who may be represented here as the Zumim. The Horites in Mount Seir are also mentioned in connection with them (Deuteronomy 2:12). Thus we have independent evidence of the close connection of these groups.

Horites were possibly connected with the Hurrians in the Upper Tigris, elements of whom had filtered down into Canaan and the name had become applied more widely (see Genesis 36:20 on; Deuteronomy 2:12; Deuteronomy 2:22). Here a specific group of Horites is identified. These different peoples would have presented a fairly formidable foe to the four kings.

The Amalekites are well known elsewhere as dwelling in the South. The attacking of trade caravans was for them a way of life. The name Amorite indicated a mountain people and they were spread throughout the country on both sides of Jordan. The name Amorite could be applied to the inhabitants of Canaan generally, including the inhabitants of Transjordan. In this sense it had a wider meaning than Canaanite. These particular ones are identified as to their connection. The names are therefore all genuine and not misplaced.

The purpose of this attack was clearly to secure the trade routes and gain booty, but it is quite possible that some or all of these places had also refused tribute. The five kings are only dealt with as seemingly central to the situation because the writer is concerned with this aspect of the matter. The detail is put in the covenant agreement between Abram and Melchizedek to explain the final agreement.

The opinion the kings have of the five kings of the Jordan valley comes out in that they attack them on the way home when their troops are exulting in victory but are probably somewhat weary and longing to get home. They had had a number of fierce battles against worthy foes but they do not really anticipate any problem here. The number five (the covenant number) suggests that because the kings are connected with Abram’s land they are to some extent ‘people of the land’, and therefore covenant people (it is Yahweh’s land).

Verse 8-9

‘And there went out the King of Sodom and the King of Gomorrah, and the King of Admah and the king of Zeboiim, and the King of Bela, (the same is Zoar), and they set the battle against them in the vale of Siddim, against Chederlaomer, King of Elam, and Tidal, King of Goiim, and Amraphel, King of Shinar, and Arioch, King of Ellasar, four kings against five.’

The five kings know that they are next on the list and pick their ground. They have no choice. But the four kings are too powerful and their cause is hopeless.

Verse 10

‘Now the vale of Siddim was full of bitumen-pits, and the Kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, and they fell there, and those who remained fled to the mountain.’

They had probably hoped that the particular site, with its related problems with which they were familiar, would offer them an advantage but they had no chance against a superior force and the two main kings were killed while the remainder fled to safety in the mountains.

We have already been told that Sodom was a wicked city (Genesis 13:13) so it may well be that in the context of the narrative as a whole this is seen as God’s preliminary judgment on Sodom.

Verse 11-12

‘And they took all the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah, and all their victuals, and went their way. And they took Lot, Abram’s brother’s son, who dwelt in Sodom, and his goods, and departed.’

The mention of victuals is interesting for it suggests that they were having some difficulties with regard to food, but here they were able to restock to some extent, and tired but triumphant make for home. Their task was complete, their success was clear. And they knew that they had little to fear. They were complacent. But they made one error. They captured a servant of Yahweh. The half repetition of Genesis 14:11 in Genesis 14:12 is typical of the Ancient Near Eastern love for repetition in their literature.

We note that it is only this battle that is mentioned in any detail for it is close to home for the writer. This is because the covenant is about them. However, the description of Lot is interesting. A description by an outsider who knew Abram well, ‘his father’s brother’s son’. Not the description that would come from a member of the family tribes.

Verse 13

‘And there came one who had escaped and told Abram the Hebrew. Now he dwelt by the oaks of Mamre the Amorite, the brother of Eshcol and brother of Aner, and these were confederate with Abram’.

Had it not been for this situation we might not have known of these wider relationships of Abram. Mamre the Amorite has clearly been named after the famous oaks in the area in which he lives which is only a problem to the very sceptical, it is in fact quite reasonable and feasible. Many people in ancient inscriptions are named after places. He has two brothers, Eshcol and Aner. They are all presumably petty princes like Abram. Here we learn that the four of them are in a loose alliance ready to come to each other’s aid in time of need.

Abram is called "the Hebrew" (see article, "Hebrews") only here, a term which represents him as a stateless person and as a (potential) leader of a military force who is part of a confederation. As Abram was stateless in contrast with Mamre the Amorite this method of identifying him may be seen as of some significance. It ties in with the use of the terms ‘apiru and habiru elsewhere of stateless military leaders. The writer is describing Abram as he sees him.

Verse 14-15

‘And when Abram heard that his brother was taken captive he led out his trained men, born in his house, three hundred and eighteen, and pursued as far as Dan. And he divided himself against them by night, he and his servants, and smote them, and pursued them to Hobah which is to the left of Damascus.’

The writer is clearly greatly impressed with Abram. He ignores the assistance of his confederates (but see Genesis 14:24) and concentrates on Abram’s part in the affair, partly because he is somewhat in awe of him as a ‘Habiru’, and partly because he is central to the following covenant..

The word for trained men is hanakim, a rare word found also in the Egyptian execration texts (cursing rituals) calling down curses on the Hittite chieftains "and their hanakim". Later the word became obsolete but it is correctly used in this setting.

Similarly, the idea of Abraham having 318 trained servants makes good sense. Details of an inspection of private armies are recorded on a tablet dating to the third dynasty at Ur (Abraham's time). They range between 100 and 600 troops, one being made up of 301 men. Abraham's 318 trained troops fits the background. With his Ur background and the constant possible dangers to a small but wealthy family tribe such a force would be seen by him as necessary, and he has clearly trained them well.

Objections to Abram’s being able to act in this way treat him as simply another shepherd but that is to ignore his unusual background. Some men are born to be leaders and fighters when needed and Abram was one of them. Together with his confederates he may well have had a thousand men under him, some of whom have been highly trained. And, as we shall see later, he possibly had more.

Abram is as aware as the critics that, in spite of his strength, he has little chance against the kings in a straight fight. They would have two or three times the number. But he knows that they are weary after a hard expedition, laden with booty, and not expecting pursuit and that he can catch them unawares, and he makes his plans accordingly. Indeed the forces of the kings may not have been keeping close together in formation. There is nothing like an easy victory to make an enemy complacent. And he may well have caught stragglers and forced them to divulge where Lot could be found, so that he knew exactly where to attack.

He reconnoitres the section of the unsuspecting army he intends to attack, and divides his trained men into effective groups, supported by the men of his confederates and possibly others. He then waits for nightfall.

The enemy are taken totally by surprise. They wake in the darkness to find themselves under attack by a grim and determined force of shadowy figures, trained men, coming in at them from different angles. They do not know the size of the force, but the enemy seem everywhere. The make up of the force is uncertain. These are not the soft dwellers of the cities, and night time and imagination does the rest. They panic.

They had been so confident of their security from attack, and so satisfied with themselves as they rested their weary bodies, that the attack, which was not only unexpected but from a completely unknown source, throws them into disarray. All kinds of possibilities grip their minds. They are soon in full flight and the panic spreads to their fellow soldiers.

It is certainly not the only time in history that such a thing has happened. And once the flight has begun their discipline is in tatters. Followed through the night by the grim, relentless demons who pursue them they flee for safety, an easy prey to the terrible slaughter by their pursuers of those who were tardy, not slowing down until they reach Damascus and the pursuit drops off. They still are not sure who has been pursuing them, and their later tales would no doubt make good reading. And so occurs Abram’s victory, a scenario so daring that it takes away the breath, but is by no means impossible.

The mention of Dan may refer to a different one from the well known Dan in the Old Testament. Alternatively it may be a scribal updating of Laish, (whose name was later changed to Dan), so as to identify the site to readers.

Verse 16-17

‘And he brought back all the goods, and also brought again his brother Lot and his goods, and the women also, and the people. And the king of Sodom went out to meet him after his return from the slaughter of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, at the Vale of Shaveh (the same is the King’s Vale).’

The fleeing army in their panic have left behind much of the booty they had collected and Abram returns with it in triumph. (The description does not necessarily mean that the kings are dead. The kings’ names stand for their people). But far more important to him is that he has rescued his nephew Lot. This is why he had been so determined. Family loyalty was a powerful impetus. Nothing else would have made him take the risk he did.

The description shows that what he brought back is carefully weighed up, ‘all the goods, the women also, and the people’, for there is to be a reckoning. Messengers have no doubt gone on ahead and the new King of Sodom comes out to welcome the returning heroes, and to negotiate as to what he can salvage from the affair. He recognises that a Habiru leader may well not be sympathetic.

Verses 18-20

‘And Melchizedek, King of Salem, brought out bread and wine, and he was a priest of El Elyon (God Most High). And he said, “Blessed be Abram of El Elyon, possessor of heaven and earth, and blessed be El Elyon who has delivered your enemies into your hand”. And he gave him a tenth of all.’

The sudden appearance of Melchizedek of Salem takes us by surprise. If Salem is Jerusalem, although that is not certain, it is not on the expected return route from Damascus to Sodom, and Melchizedek has not previously been obviously involved. There must therefore be something significant behind it. Clearly Melchizedek is involved somehow and sufficiently to take the trouble to bring victuals to the returning troops. These would be needed as Sodom and Gomorrah had had their victuals taken by the four kings (deliberately stated - Genesis 14:11) and the ready food stolen would have already been eaten by the hungry troops returning to their homelands. The obvious answer to the problem is a treaty situation.

We have now come to the nub of the narrative. Here in writing is the confirmation of the covenant between Abram and Melchizedek and the King of Sodom on the sharing of the booty, put into writing by Melchizedek’s recorder, of which a copy is given to Abram (or copied by his steward). We do not know fully all that lay behind it but it is quite clear that Abram is now called on to pay a reckoning to King Melchizedek of Salem, and that he knew what it was about and was expecting it.

The ‘witness’ to the agreement is El Elyon (God Most High), the god worshipped by Melchizedek, and accepted by Abram who sees Him as Yahweh the Creator (Genesis 14:22). The credit for the victory is given to Him by Melchizedek. Abram can agree because he thinks of Him in terms of Yahweh. El Elyon is possibly also accepted by the King of Sodom. The payment as far as Melchizedek is concerned is one tenth of the booty.

We can compare Melchizedek’s words with Genesis 9:26 where ‘blessed be the Yahweh, the God of Shem’ referred to a blessing on Shem. Here the two main parties are mentioned. ‘Blessed be Abram’ and ‘blessed be El Elyon (the god of Melchizedek)’, meaning ‘blessed be Melchizedek’. These are the two main parties to the covenant.

There is external evidence of a cult of El Elyon and some support for connecting the worship of El Elyon with Canaanite Jerusalem. He is involved here because Melchizedek is a major player and is superior in status. (Melchizedek is also a good Canaanite name - compare Adonizedek in Josha 10:1). The fact that this incident is allowed to stand as it is indicates the essential accuracy of the narrative and its ancient provenance.

But why should Abram hand over one tenth of all the booty? The answer, partly at least, lies in the provision of food. The returning heroes and the captors they have delivered are supplied with sustenance by the king of Salem as he comes to meet them on their return. This is confirmed in Genesis 14:24 where payment for the food is specifically mentioned. But this in itself indicates some kind of treaty arrangement between Abram and Melchizedek. Why else would he come with provisions?

This brings us to two other possible factors that we may need to take into account.

The first is that in some way Melchizedek of Salem is recognised as having treaty rights and responsibilities with respect to Abram and his confederates. This may include the fact that they used his fields for grazing when the harvest has been gathered in, and they may have enjoyed other benefits that they would know of, including rights over the area around the oaks of Mamre, which could also be part of a treaty which included the sharing of booty. There may also have been an agreement for the provision of military help when needed, probably reciprocally. Salem (compare Psalms 76:2), which would in future centuries become Jerusalem, may well have had great influence and exerted rights over the surrounding area.

Then secondly it could be that Melchizedek had provided mercenaries to assist Abram in the attack in return for a portion of the booty. They are not mentioned, but this might be because his scribe is writing the account and with true Oriental courtesy he is happy to give all the credit to Abram and his men (which would also explain why Abram’s confederates have also been ignored in the account, for the agreement is with Abram) while taking payment for his own part in the project.

While Abram had been gathering his own men he could well also have sent messengers to Melchizedek with whom he had a treaty arrangement, calling on him to send him extra troops per the previously agreed terms, agreed for whenever he would need help against attack, and probably vice versa. Now he has to pay the reckoning.

But there is also the question of the remainder of the booty. About this agreement has to be reached, and this includes the King of Sodom. This is also incorporated into the covenant as we see in verses 21-24. Then, once agreed, the contract will be ‘signed, sealed and delivered’.

Full credit must be given to Abram, who generously declines his portion. The tenth part is given to Melchizedek. Abram’s confederates are to receive their ‘portion’, clearly a recognised amount. And it is agreed that the remainder will be handed back to the representative of the five kings.

(We can compare with this Abraham’s contract for the field and cave at Machpelah in Genesis 23. There the impression given is of the gift of the land and an equally generous Abram insisting on payment. In fact we have the terms of a strict contract, again agreed in true Oriental fashion. The same may be true here).

But could all the facts in the contract have been put together so quickly to enable it to be put in writing as here? The answer is that they were already known. The tributary status of the five kings, and by whom, was a matter of history, the details of the attacks on the various peoples would quickly spread by word of mouth through the land, and could be confirmed from released prisoners. They had seen the army march down the King’s Highway. It was in the interests of all the people to watch and know where the kings might strike next. The final details would come from the mercenaries themselves.

And now we come to the second part of the covenant agreement.

Verses 21-24

‘And the King of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the people and take the goods for yourself”.’ This was not generosity, this is the opening gambit in his negotiations to rescue what he can from the situation. Abram owes him nothing. Thus he asks hopefully for the most he can expect. Can he have his people back? And he knows that Abram could even get difficult about that if he were not concerned about future relationships. And Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have lifted up my hands to Yahweh, God Most High, Possessor of Heaven and earth that I will not take a thread nor a shoe latchet nor anything that is yours, lest you say ‘I have made Abram rich’, except only that which the young men have eaten, and the portion for the men who went with me, Aner, Eshcol and Mamre. Let them take their portion”.’

Abram’s reply is that he will not demand the major portion which is his due. Once his confederates have received their agreed share, and the food provided has been paid for, the rest will be handed back to the five cities apart from what is given to other released captives who may well have been allowed to return home.

What he has done he has done for Lot, not for gain, and he is rich enough. He is not a paid mercenary leader, he is a servant of Yahweh. And he also probably does not want the King of Sodom to think that he has any future claims on him (‘I have made Abram rich’ could be used in a number of ways, for example to suggest that future tribute may be owed).

So behind the account is a covenant in accord with local politics and customs, and the sharing out of the spoils in accordance with them. This is the firm record of what has been agreed. Abram comes well out of the whole matter in many respects. We can now understand even more why he is treated with such great respect by the people of the land who would never forget his exploit. And he has shown generosity of spirit and a sensible wariness of being seen as indebted to anyone. To accept the king’s offer in a solemn covenant might have been seen as putting him under treaty obligation

The whole account is of course incorporated into the wider narrative of Genesis in order to bring glory to Yahweh, the God of Abram, Who clearly has been behind his success. But the lack of mention of this within the narrative, we note that at no stage was there a word from Yahweh, is explained by its local covenant significance and the identity of the scribe who was probably in the service of Melchizedek.

(Note. The fact is that Melchizedek was priest-king of Salem and thus a priest and worshipper of ‘the Most High God’ Whom Abram recognised as Yahweh. As such he clearly had some overlordship over Abram, even if only temporarily as a kind of landlord. This is later taken to demonstrate a superior High Priesthood to that of Aaron. Abram was primary to Aaron, therefore any priest he acknowledged must be superior to Aaron. Thus in Psalms 110:4 the idea of a Davidic priesthood is based on this, and upon the fact that Jerusalem was David’s city (by right of capture) and not a part of Judah or Israel, so that David was its king-priest. This is also later taken up in Hebrews 7. End of note).


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Genesis 14:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". 2013.

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Sunday, October 25th, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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