Abraham’s Battle against the Four Kings: The Most Surprising Story in Genesis

Abraham’s Battle against the Four Kings: The Most Surprising Story in Genesis

By Raphael Shohat*

This week’s reading tells of the battle between a coalition of four kings and a coalition of five kings.  It would appear to be just another narrative in the book of Genesis, but in my opinion this is not so.  This story is the most surprising event in the entire book, and teaches us about the sublime love the Holy One, blessed be He, has for all those who revere Him.

The story concerns four kings—Amraphel of Shinar, Arioch of Ellasar, Chedorlaomer of Elam, and Tidal of Goiim.  Where were these lands?  Shinar, as Onkelos renders it, was Babylon.  The Tower of Babel was built in the land of Shinar (Genesis 11:2).  Rashi, following the midrash, identified Amraphel with Nimrod, who built Babylon (Gen. 14:1).  A text was discovered in the archives of the city of Ugarit that mentions the name Amraph, without the “el.”[1]  Some people seek to identify Amraphel with the well-known Babylonian lawgiver, Hammurabi, also called Amorphi.[2]

Ellasar, according to Nahmanides, was a city in Medea or Persia.  Rabbi Hertz claims that Arioch was the same as King Eri-Aku of Larsa (Ellasar being for Al-Larsa), situated between Babylon and the end of the Euphrates River.[3]  Elam is at the northern end of the Persian Gulf and belonged to an ancient kingdom conquered by the Persians.  Its culture and language are known from Babylonian and Persian sources. 

The name Chedorlaomer in the Elamite language means “he who worships or believes in Omer,” the name of a deity in the Elamite pantheon.  Tidal is a Hittite name.[4]  The original name Tudhaliya also appears in the Ugarit archives, and in Kimron’s opinion Tidal was the same as Tudhaliya II who conquered Syria.[5]  Onkelos translated Goyim not as a specific city but as meaning various nations; Ibn Ezra wrote likewise in his second commentary.  In other words, Tidal ruled over several peoples.  Rabbi Hertz claims that Tidal is the same as Tadgula, king of the Kurdish tribes, and Goyim is Gutium in Kurdistan. 

Flavius Josephus maintains that all four kings were Assyrian ministers.[6]  Perhaps he wrote this because of his lack of knowledge of ancient kingdoms.  Nahmanides, following the midrash,[7] wrote that the four kings hint at the four empires that would conquer the people of Israel.[8]  Nahmanides, in his characteristic exegetical manner, shows that “the deeds of ancestors foreshadow the lives of their descendants,” but does not take Scripture beyond its plain sense.

Who were the five kings that were vanquished?  King Bera of Sodom, King Birsha of Gomorrah, King Shinab of Admah, King Shemeber of Zeboyim, and the king of Bela, which is Zoar (Gen. 14:2).  Why did war break out?  For twelve years the five kings paid tribute to the four kings, and in the thirteenth year they decided to rebel.  In the fourteenth year the four kings came to put down their subjects. 

Rashi (on Gen. 14:4) maintains that they rebelled for thirteen years, and only after that did Chedorlaomer and the other kings come on the scene to put down the rebellion.  According to Rashi’s interpretation, the four kings tolerated the rebellion for a while, until ultimately they became fed up with it.  On their way southward the four kings smote the Rephaim, Zuzim, Emim, Horites, Amalekites and Amorites (Gen. 14:5-7).  They defeated whoever fought them.  They came as far as the Dead Sea, and defeated the five kings. 

But they made a mistake in taking Lot, Abraham’s nephew, captive.  Abraham mustered three hundred and eighteen retainers, as well as Aner, Eshkol and Mamre, and together they overcame the four kings, pursued them northward, and freed Lot along with the five kings and all their possessions. 

Here is the surprising point:  it says the Sodomites were “very wicked sinners against the Lord” (Gen. 13:13).  Further on it says, “The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave” (Gen. 18:20).  Their wickedness reached such depths that the Holy One, blessed be He, proposed to make an end of them (Gen. 18:21).  The names of the four cities of Sodom appear in Deuteronomy 29:22:  “just like the upheaval of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboyim, which the Lord overthrew in His fierce anger.” The name of the fifth city was Zoar, which was saved at Lot’s request of G-d’s messenger that it be spared because “it is such a little place [mitz`ar, a play on the name Zoar]” (Gen. 19:20-23).  The five cities of Sodom that the Lord desired to overturn on account of the wickedness of their inhabitants were saved by Abraham from crushing defeat. 

Here a simple question arises.  Perhaps it was the Divine will that the five kings fall into the hands of the four kings because of their wickedness and corruption?  Rashi (on Gen. 14:1-2) interprets their names with reference to their wickedness:  Bera—wicked (ra) towards Heaven and wicked towards mankind, Birsha—one who excels in wickedness [be-resha], Shinav—one who hates his Father in Heaven [soneh aviv]. 

After all, every now and then the Holy One, blessed be He, prefers intervening naturally in history over intervening by way of an obvious miracle.  Maybe it had been decreed by G-d that the five kings be conquered because of their sinfulness?  Note that the prophet Isaiah says:  “Ho! Assyria, rod of My anger” (Is. 10:5).  Assyria conquering the Ten Tribes was a punishment from G-d.

In this week’s reading it says, “The iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (Gen. 15:16), and for this reason Abraham cannot conquer the land of Canaan.  According to this biblical line of thought we must ask whether the Holy One, blessed be He, wanted the five kings to fall at 'Ein-mishpat (meaning “Spring of Judgment,” alluding to G-d’s condemnation of them), and Abraham set this divine plan awry;  if so, why did the Holy One, blessed be He, not inform Abraham of this?

Regarding the verse from Job (22:28), “You will decree and it will be fulfilled,” the Sages said:  “When a righteous person decrees something, the Holy One, blessed be He, fulfills it.”[9]  The Holy One, blessed be He, seeing that Abraham was prepared to risk his life in order to save Lot, was ready to forego His judgment against the five kings and enable Abraham to do as he saw fit.  As the Sages said, “My sons have proven victorious over me.”[10]

Abraham, knowing the nature of the people of Sodom, attempted to influence them.  After the battle, King Melchizedek of Salem and the king of Sodom came to him.  Let us put aside for a moment the comment of the midrash that Melchizedek was the name of a son of Noah.  Scriptures can be read plainly: that the king of Sodom came with a pagan priest, as was their practice, to give thanks to the Holy One, blessed be He, after the victory,[11] and that Melchizedek was a priest of El and Elyon, both names of Canaanite deities.[12]

So we have Melchizedek blessing Abraham in the name of El and Elyon, while Abraham, who never misses an opportunity to champion the cause of monotheism, says to them:  “I swear to the Lord (using the Tetragrammaton), G-d Most High [Heb. El-Elyon], Creator of Heaven and Earth” (Gen. 14:22), as much as to indicate that the Lord, named by the Tetragrammaton is G-d and the Most High as well as creator of heaven and earth, and that there is no deity other than Him.  Abraham’s words may have had an impact on Melchizedek,[13] but apparently made no impression on the king of Sodom.  The latter returned to his evil ways, to such an extent that the Holy One, blessed be He, had to overturn the five cities of Sodom and miraculously save Lot once more.  But this takes us to next week’s reading.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

 



* Rabbi Dr. Shohat teaches in the Department of Basic Jewish Studies at Bar Ilan University.

[1] P. Artzi, Olam ha-Tanakh, Genesis, Tel Aviv 1993, p. 103.

[2] See the Torah commentary of Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz, Chief Rabbi of Britain, London 1972, p. 50.

[3] Hertz, ibid.

[4] Sh. Yeivin, Mehkarim be-Toledot Yisrael ve-Artzo, Jerusalem 1959, p. 58.

[5] A. Kimron, Olam ha-Tanakh, Genesis, Tel Aviv 1993, p. 104.

[6] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Jerusalem 2002, p. 19.

[7] Genesis Rabbah 42.1.

[8] Nahmanides on Gen. 14:1.

[9] Ta`anit 23a.

[10] Bava Metzia 59a.

[11] Hertz, loc. cit.

[12] See James Pritchard, The Ancient Near East, Princeton 1958, Vol. 1, pp. 93-117.  The name Elyon appears in the Ras Shamra tablets.  See Hertz, p. 53, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elyon, and Da`at Mikra on Genesis, Jerusalem 1997, p. 389, which claims that this pair of expressions also appear among Canaanite nations.

[13] See Hertz, loc. cit.

 

For more on Parashat Lech-Lecha

 

Last modified: 22/10/2015