Genesis 14

A most puzzling vignette in the overall storyline of Abram (soon to be renamed “Abraham” by God/“God” itself; see 17.5): the chapter begins with a listing of nations and kings – setting out the political alliances – proceeds to describe how a group of five monarchs were bested by a team of four (verses eight to nine), and further that amongst the losing side was the king of Sodom. We recall from the preceding section that Lot has been living there (13.12), and sure enough he and his were captured by the victors and carried off (verse twelve here). The action then continues apace as word of this is brought to Abram, causing him and his allies (given as “Mamre the Amorite, kinsman of Eshkol and Aner”, verse thirteen) to gird themselves and those with them, setting out on a mission of rescue.

My own image of the patriarch Abram from these biblical tales is certainly not one of a warrior, and I presume that I am not alone in this. It is moreover surprising to read that he even has “retainers, born into his household, numbering three hundred and eighteen” (verse fourteen; there is a footnote stating the meaning of the Hebrew term (ḥanikh) rendered as “retainers” is uncertain); in the previous two chapters we learned of his rapid intake of livestock and material wealth, but not of such a large crowd of people. (For review: “sheep, oxen, asses, male and female slaves, she-asses, and camels” in 12.16, and “cattle, silver, and gold” in 13.2; maybe here the slaves? How sad that they are listed between the “asses”!) Still, Abram and these three hundred-odd plus with him, joined by the unspecified groupings accompanying his three compatriots, attack the four kings at night and defeat them, retake all of the previously seized bounty, and return. Everyone is saved, the king of Sodom comes out to meet and thank the heroes, and we are introduced to the rather mysterious King Melchizedek of Salem, called a “priest of God Most High” (verse eighteen; and note that the Hebrew – given in a footnote – is El ⁽Elyon and hence not the Tetragrammaton, although in Genesis El and the Tetragrammaton are often treated equivalently). Abram receives a blessing from this king/priest and in return gives him “a tenth of everything” (verses nineteen to twenty), possibly reflecting the hand of a later priestly class editor(s)/redactor(s). This is of course highly generous given the circumstances.

Abram’s open-handedness continues as the king of Sodom offers to let him keep all the re-won goods if Abram would only free the liberated population to go back to Sodom, which Abram refuses because he does not want anything or anyone: “I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours” he declares (verse twenty-three), stating he will only reimburse himself with “nothing but what my servants have used up” but that regarding his comrades – Mamre, Eshkol, and Aner – “let them take their share” (verse twenty-four). Again, this entire narrative is quite unlike what we read of Abram otherwise, but what is consistent in his portrayal are these ethical choices, highlighted here as (we might assign them): 1) great efforts made towards justice in the sense of righting a wrong done (the captured cities’ populaces had nothing to do with the kings’ wars whatever the historico-social practices were in antiquity), and 2) the refusal to be materially rewarded for such. Abram even gave money and items away in the process (to King Melchizedek). I do not imagine that any of these events “really happened”; and I have great doubts that a figure like Abram/Abraham ever even existed; but none of that matters. What does instead is the lesson being imparted here for beneficial human behavior, and the unstated hint that by having the virtuous Abram perform these acts he is reflecting the divine, and therefore that how we ought to think God/“God” is along these lines of caring for the oppressed and freely and repeatedly giving of itself while not insisting that others do so as well (e.g. Abram taking nothing but indicating that those friends who helped him might want something in return). These are motifs that will be repeated consistently throughout the scriptures, but I think they are quite easy to lose hold of given the many other accounts of judgment and infliction that are found in these texts. What we need perhaps is the sophistication to take everything herein as a “maybe/I don’t know” and try to figure out what works for us as readers now, what helps make us into more caring and sharing people, the kind of individuals that these characters are at their best. I suppose this is more of an applied ethics hermeneutic than anything, but I see no reason to foreclose whatever type of reaction these words might call forth.

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