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Genesis 14: The First World War

We admire Abraham the man of faith, Abraham the father of a great nation, Abraham the first Hebrew, Abraham the friend of God. But what about Abraham the veteran? Because as Genesis 14 goes to show, Abraham deserves that title of honor as well. As far as the Bible is concerned, what’s chronicled in Genesis 14 is no less than the first World War, and we’ll see that Abraham emerges from the conflict as a war hero for the ages. In fact, I contend that Abraham is like Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan. Except, in this version, it is Saving Nephew Lot

Following the account in Genesis 14, we learn that the kings of Mesopotamia ruled over their southern contemporaries for a period of 12 years. Finally, in the 13th year, the Jordanian kings rebelled against their northern oppressors in that they stopped paying tribute (according to tradition). In response, the kings of Mesopotamia united to create a massive army representing the kingdom of Shinar, the kingdom of Ellasar, the kingdom of Elam, and the kingdom of “Goyim”––literally a kingdom of nations. Advancing southward, this Mesopotamian swarm of soldiers defeated and plundered city after city. They crushed the Rephaim people, the Zuzim people, the Emim people, and the Horites of the hill country. Somewhere around the Sinai Peninsula they turned back and started marching northward, drawing a loop with their conquest so as to put underfoot as much of the area as possible. The Amalekites and the Amorites next fell victim to the sword. In no uncertain terms, the kings of Mesopotamia were making their verdict clear: we rule and you submit––period. 

The five cities of the plain, however, decided to object. But each city knew that fighting alone would guarantee their own demise. So the cities banded together to form a coalition led by their five kings. As such, the Jordanians went out to meet the giant forces of Mesopotamia in one last-ditch all-or-nothing move. The great battle that ensued would come to be known as the Battle of Siddim, as they clashed in the Valley of Siddim near the Dead Sea (some even believe the valley is today under the Dead Sea!).

If I may note, in the context of this chapter, I call the Mesopotamians the axis powers. I do this for several reasons: 
  1. They initiate the war in the same way the axis powers in WWII initiated the war. Japan moved into China and oppressed the Chinese people; Germany moved into Poland and oppressed the Polish people. Here in Genesis 14, Mesopotamia has moved into the south, and they are oppressing the Jordanian people. As the oppressors, they force the conflict to happen.
  2. The king of Shinar is first to be mentioned in Mesopotamia’s line-up of belligerents. The land of Shinar is the land of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1). At the time of the war, the tower (finished or unfinished) likely remained Shinar’s world-renowned national landmark. So when we talk about the northern forces, we’re talking about the side of the Tower of Babel, a symbol of fascism and communism––where stones are replaced by bricks, where language and thought have no diversity, where the common goal is to elevate man and the state. 
These are several reasons why I call the Mesopotamians the axis powers. On the other hand, I like to call the Jordanians the allied powers. Although the Jordanians aren’t morally upright by any means, they are fighting against oppression just as the allied forces were doing in WWII. When Abraham eventually enters the picture, he operates to the benefit of the allied powers. Now this is no more than a light-hearted analogy, but it helps me relate to the story. Let’s continue...

The allied powers lined up against the axis powers in the Valley of Siddim. Now when you imagine this valley, picture a plain pocketed with pits of tar, a sort of minefield where one misstep meant almost certain death. Such was the terrain on which this great battle raged. As the fight wore on, the axis powers came to overwhelm the allied forces. The Jordanians scattered and retreated from the battlefield. Verse 10 reports that some of them fell into the tar pits, never to be heard from again. But having defeated the resistance, the Mesopotamian kings smiled at the thought of what would happen next. 

The Mesopotamians fell upon Sodom and Gomorrah, plundering the cities and enslaving the Jordanian men, women, and children. Like a plague of locusts, they consumed everything they encountered before moving on. The king of Sodom (having survived the battle) would have thought it safe to reenter the city after their departure. But when he did, he found the streets silent and the town center still. The king of Sodom realized he had become the king of nothing, as nothing at all was left of his city. 

This is how the story would have ended had God not spared a nameless man who escaped the battle and ran to Abraham (who was still Abram at the time). The survivor told Abraham everything that had happened. Genesis 14:14 reports, “When Abram heard that his brother had been taken captive, Abram led forth his trained men, born in his house, 318 of them, and went in pursuit [of Lot’s captors].” Lot was Abraham’s nephew, and Lot lived in Sodom at the time. He was among those enslaved by the Mesopotamians. But interestingly, here in Genesis, Lot is called Abraham’s brother in the Hebrew (also later in verse 16, Lot is again called Abraham’s brother). Why is this? Well, the language may signal back to a blood covenant. Abraham and Lot, when parting ways, may well have made a blood covenant with each other. Such a covenant would make them blood brothers. And it would mean Abraham saw himself as Lot’s kinsman redeemer. Abraham would now risk everything to rescue his lost brother from the hands of the enemy. 

Accompanied by his allies Aner, Eschol, and Mamre (three Amorite brothers), and leading an assembly of 318 trained men, Abraham went in pursuit of the Mesopotamian army. When we think about Abraham’s 318 “instructed” men, we envision a special hand-selected team of fighters––Abraham’s runners-and-gunners, his shooters-and-looters, if you will. Certainly they would prove themselves to be capable warriors. But consider something else as well: they knew of Abraham’s close relationship with El Shaddai, so their trust in Abraham was proportionate to their trust in Abraham’s God. In a way, these 318 instructed men born in Abraham’s house represent the earliest church on record. Although it may sound bizarre at first, recall, back in chapter 12 we read that, “Abram went as the LORD had told him . . . Abram was 75 years old when he departed from Haran. And Abram took Sarai, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions, and the souls they had made in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan” (Genesis 12:4-5). The phrase “and the souls they had made” is literally what the Torah says in Hebrew. You see, in Haran, Abraham was telling others about his God––the one true God. He was thus “making souls” in Haran. He was not reproducing physically (as we know), but he was reproducing spiritually. With this in mind, we fast forward a number of years and we come upon this congregation under Abraham’s guidance. I think these men were those souls Abraham made in Haran and elsewhere. Also note that later on, these same men, as members of Abraham’s household, will get circumcised, and they will enter into Abraham’s blood covenant with God (Genesis 17:13). For me, there is no doubt about it: these 318 men believe in Abraham’s God, and they trust in God’s disciple Abraham. This makes them a band of believers, a “church” so to speak. And what will this “church” do? They will engage the struggle; they will pursue and rescue the lost; they will be blessed; they will give back whatever they acquire. (This really is a church!) And they will faithfully carry out their mission even if it means 150 miles.

150 miles is how far they pursued the Mesopotamian army, because we read that they pursued as far as Dan. The area of Dan is to the north, at the border of modern day Syria. Having pursued them this far, verse 15 then tells us that “Abraham divided his forces against them by night, he and his servants, and defeated them and pursued them (even farther!) to Hobah, north of Damascus.” Now, when we read this portion of the story, Abraham’s righthand man––Eliezer––should come to mind. Eliezer was Abraham’s #2, and guess what part of the world he came from? Damascus! (See Genesis 15:2.) So Eliezer knew this area; he was familiar with the territory. And when I imagine the scene of them planning the attack, Abraham, being a good leader, would have listened to his #2 man Eliezer. After all, Abraham was a man who recognized the strengths of those beneath him, and he was not afraid to rely on the advice of his servant. Thus working together, he and Eliezer devised a strategy to strike. 

Dividing his forces, Abraham led one detachment and I imagine Eliezer led the other. The two sides converged on the enemy in a coordinated surprise attack. We’re not given many details, so if I may take some liberty to color in between the lines. According to my thinking, they were striking the tail end of the Mesopotamian army, where the captives and bounty were kept. The stronghold of the army was probably miles up the road, spearheading the march back to Mesopotamia. But Abraham and Eliezar, having been in pursuit of the army, came from behind, carving out a hole from the back. We know that their attack came at night, so I assume they moved in stealth and took out one section of Mesopotamians at a time. Little by little, they worked their way forward until they finally came upon Lot and his family somewhere north of Damascus. In the process, Abraham’s men killed several Mesopotamian kings including the one named Chedorlaomer. How did they manage to do this? Well, the Hebrew word that describes their killing the kings is the same word used to describe Cain’s killing of Abel, or Moses’ killing of the Egyptian slave master. In both instances, it was a surprise attack: Abel didn’t see it coming, nor did the Egyptian slave master. I can only speculate that the kings of Mesopotamia succumbed to Abraham’s surprise attack.

We read what happen next: “Then Abraham brought back all the possessions, and also his brother Lot with his possessions, and the women and the people” (Genesis 14:15-16). This is where I like to say that Abraham is like Tom Hanks in the movie Saving Private Ryan. In that epic war drama, Captain Miller (played by Tom Hanks) leads a squadron of soldiers through enemy territory in search for a private named James Francis Ryan (played by Matt Damon). Miller is duty bound to find Ryan, rescue him from danger, then bring him back home. To carry this out successfully, Miller and his men must fight to maintain their own safety, as they are caught in the middle of WWII. It’s an amazing tale of courage and bravery, a story like the one we have here in Genesis 14! Abraham, like Tom Hanks’ character, leads a band of trained men through an area controlled by the enemy in search for a lost brother, his nephew Lot. Abraham is duty bound to find him, rescue him, and bring him back home to safety. But he and his men must navigate an immense war, doing whatever necessary to accomplish their mission. Just as Captain Miller struggles with the thought of risking 10 mens’ lives in order to save one man, so too Abraham probably struggled with the thought of risking 318 mens’ lives in his trying to save Lot. Just as Captain Miller is not a bloodthirsty war hawk, neither is Abraham! Miller just wants to return home where he can continue being a school teacher. Abraham just wants to return home where he can continue being a shepherd. Its like Captain Miller says in the movie, “I just know that every man I kill the farther away from home I feel.” I can also hear Abraham saying this to his men somewhere on the dusty slopes of northern Israel, as Abraham’s primary mission was not to kill but to rescue. 

Having rescued Lot and the people and the possessions, Abraham, now a veteran of war, returned home a war hero. The last portion of the chapter describes what happened next: 

After Abram returned . . . the king of Sodom came out to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley). Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying,
     “Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
      Creator of heaven and earth.
      And praise be to God Most High,
      who delivered your enemies into your hand.”
Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.
The king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the people and keep the goods for yourself.” But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “With raised hand I have sworn an oath to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, that I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the strap of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, ‘I made Abram rich.’ I will accept nothing but what my men have eaten and the share that belongs to the men who went with me—to Aner, Eshkol and Mamre. Let them have their share.” (Genesis 14:17-24 NIV)

As we just read, Abraham returned from his victory and went to the Valley of Shaveh (the King’s Valley) where Melchizedek brought out bread and wine and blessed him. Note: this makes for two valleys in the same chapter. Earlier we were in the Valley of Siddim, where the great battle took place, and now we are in the Valley of Shaveh, where great blessing takes place. We are meant to compare and contrast the two valleys:

Setting them side by side, I would suggest the Valley of Siddim represents the physical realm, and the Valley of Shaveh represents the spiritual realm. I think some folks get so caught up in the first valley that they fail to experience the second valley. Which is to say, they are so dominated by the material side of life that they remain oblivious to the spiritual reality around them and within them. Ensnared by the world, they miss the activity taking place in the King’s Valley. Instead they live out their days in a kind of war zone, a Darwinistic experience of survival of the fittest, a struggle to keep what you have and maybe advance a little further. It is a materialistic worldview, but for those trapped in the Valley of Siddim, it is all they know.

Did you ever notice that Abraham accomplished what five kings and their armies tried to accomplish but failed? Indeed, Abraham (and his relatively small group of fighters) managed to defeat the Mesopotamians. He managed to cut down their kings. In other words, a lot more was accomplished with a lot less. This is a spiritual principle! But Abraham was a spiritual man. And so it makes sense that we find him in a different valley––the Valley of Shaveh––the valley that represents the spiritual world.

As I noted in the chart, the Valley of Shaveh is not without its own battle. It is just that the battle takes on a different nature. The battle is all in the mind. In this case, Abrahams mind. We see this when two kings come to greet him, and Abraham has to choose whose gift to accept. Would he accept the offer of Melchizedek, King of Salem? Or would he accept the offer of Bera, King of Sodom? Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg writes, “The story becomes much clearer when read in Hebrew. The name “Melchizedek” is a transliteration of the Hebrew מַלְכִּי־צֶדֶֿק (malki-tzedek), meaning “my king is righteousness.” The name Bera בֶּ-רַע means “with evil.” Thus, the Hebrew makes it apparent that that Abraham had to choose between righteousness and evil.

“Abraham did not accept Bera’s tempting offer and thus passed another test of faith. He did not choose between offers but rather between two paths. It was a choice between a man of matter and a man of faith, and Abraham determined the fate of the Israeli nation by choosing Melchizedek’s blessing of God” (Source). 

The King of Sodom offered Abraham all the possessions of Sodom, ie. material wealth. It must have been a tempting offer, no doubt. (Hence my saying that the battle is won or lost in the mind.) However, Abraham was wise enough to anticipate there would be strings attached, so he declined the offer outright. Instead, he chose to receive the offer of Melchizedek, King of Salem. By doing so, instead of receiving material riches, he actually gave away a tenth of everything! Abraham, you see, sought a wealth not of this world––that is, the blessing of the Most High God. Certainly, the better choice! And in like manner, a true follower of God––a spiritual descendent of Abraham––will be someone who chooses correctly in the Valley of Shaveh. 

Acts 5 and Leviticus 10: A Menorah

In Acts 5, we touch on a dramatic story. To grasp it fully, let us begin by reading the end of the previous chapter...

     Now the whole group of those who believed was one in heart and mind. No one would say anything he owned was his own, but they had everything in common. With great power the emissaries were giving witness to the resurrection of the Lord Yeshua, and abundant favor was upon them all. No one among them was needy, for all who were owners of lands or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds and set them at the feet of the emissaries. And the proceeds were distributed according to the need each one had.
     Now Joseph, also called Barnabas by the emissaries (which is translated Son of Encouragement), was a Levite and native of Cyprus. He sold a field that he owned and brought the money and laid it at the feet of the emissaries. 
Acts 5...
     On the other hand, a man named Ananias together with his wife, Sapphira, sold a property. He kept back some of the proceeds, with his wife’s full knowledge, and brought part of it and set it at the feet of the emissaries. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, it was your own, wasn’t it? And after it was sold, wasn’t it at your disposal? How did this deed get into your heart? You haven’t lied to men but to God.” As soon as he heard these words, Ananias fell down and died. Great fear came upon all who heard about it. The young men got up and wrapped him in a shroud, then carried him out and buried him.
     After an interval of about three hours, his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter responded to her, “Tell me if you sold the land for this much.” She said, “Yes, for that much.” Then Peter said to her, “How did you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look, the feet of those who buried your husband are at the door—they will carry you out, too!” Immediately she fell down at his feet and died. When the young men came back in, they found her dead and carried her out and buried her beside her husband. And great fear came over the whole community and all who heard these things. (Acts 4:32-37; 5:1-11 TLV)

As one commentary explains, “So knit together were the hearts of the people that they held all their possessions loosely and willingly shared them with one another, not because they were coerced but because they loved one another. Those who sold land and houses gave of their profits to the apostles, who distributed the gifts to those in need. Two members of this group were Ananias and his wife, Sapphira; they also had sold a field. Part of the profit from their sale was kept back by the couple, and Ananias only laid a part of the money at the apostles’ feet. However, Ananias made a pretense of having given all the proceeds. This show may have fooled some, but not Peter, who was filled with the power of the Spirit. Peter knew instantly that Ananias was lying and exposed his hypocrisy then and there. Ananias fell down and died. When Sapphira showed up, she, too, lied to Peter and to God, saying that they had donated the entire proceeds of the sale of the land to the church. When her lie had been exposed, she also fell down and died at Peter’s feet.

“It can be easy today to gloss over the holiness of God. The sudden deaths of Ananias and Sapphira served to purify and warn the church against future pretense” (Source).

With a firm grip on this story, let’s reach for another story. The story we’ll reach for is set in Leviticus 10. 

There we pick it up: 
     Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his own censer, put fire in it, laid incense over it, and offered unauthorized fire before Adonai—which He had not commanded them. So fire came out from the presence of Adonai and consumed them. So they died before Adonai. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what Adonai spoke of, saying:
      To those who are near Me 
      I will show myself holy.
      Upon the faces of all the people
      I will be glorified.”
      Then Aaron kept silent.
    Then Moses called Mishael and Elzaphan, the sons of Aaron’s uncle Uzziel, and said to them, “Come near, carry your relatives away from the front of the Sanctuary to outside of the camp.” So they drew near and carried them, still in their tunics, outside of the camp, as Moses had said.

Holding these stories side by side, a menorah pattern is formed where one story shines light on the other story. We can see how the two sides have balancing branches connected in symmetry:

Reading Leviticus 10, we must note that Nadab and Abihu must have been very respected individuals within their community. After all, they were the sons of the High Priest. They had dined with God alongside the 70 elders (Exodus 24:9). They had free access into the Tabernacle. They were no small characters, both well on their way to impressive legacies. Nevertheless, when Nadab and Abihu came to offer unauthorized fire––strange fire”––they were struck down immediately.

Now this is worth some thought. Why exactly were they struck down? One thought is that they simply entered the Holy of Holies without authorization. This reasoning is sound because we read in Leviticus 16, “Then Adonai spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they approached the presence of Adonai and died. Adonai said to Moses, “Tell Aaron your brother not to come at just any time into the Holiest Place behind the curtain . . . so that he would not die.” There is another line of thought, though, that asserts Nadab and Abihu were intoxicated when they went into the Tabernacle. This thought also seems valid because right after the event, we read, “Adonai spoke to Aaron saying: ‘Do not drink wine or fermented drink, neither you nor your sons with you, when you go into the Tent of Meeting, so that you do not die’” (Leviticus 10:8-9). It may have been that Nadab and Abihu were drinking, got to talking, thought they had a good idea, decided to bring a spur-of-the-moment incense offering to God, and, well, crossed the line that ended their lives. While both of these readings make sense, I think another reason rings through either way. If I may elaborate...

Envision two mounds of incense on a table in front of you. Both look exactly the same. Both weigh exactly the same. Both come from the same container, and both share the same ingredients. When the mounds of incense are lit on fire, both smell exactly the same. Their fragrance is identical in every way. And yet, when brought before God as an incense offering, one is a sweet smelling aroma in God’s nostrils but the other He finds nauseating. How can this be? What is the difference?

Motive. The motive of the person bringing the offering makes all the difference. If the motive is wrong, the fire of the incense is strange, unauthorized, and unacceptable. But if the motive is pure and done in subservience to God’s Word, then the incense offering is a beautiful gift. This speaks to a principle, which is: intent precedes content, especially in God’s eyes. In the case of Nadab and Abihu, the motive was inappropriate, so their offering was struck down. And because the offering and the offerer are one and the same, the offerers were struck down as well. 

What is incredible is that God has a depth of discernment such that He can discern a difference between two fires. For the common man, fire is fire is fire; fire is all the same. But in God eyes, there is fire and then there is strange fire. He can discern the very essence of the thing. If we look over at Acts 5, it is Peter who exhibits such a depth of discernment. How so? Because Peter has been filled with the Holy Spirit! With God in him, Peter now has the ability to see into the very essence of a thing. He senses the motive behind Ananias and Sapphira’s offering. He smells strange money, as it were. So the offering is struck down along with Ananias and Sapphira themselves. (Because again, the offering and the offerer are one and the same. Notice the two of them fall dead next to their offering at Peter’s feet, hinting at the connection between offering and offerer.)

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch adds another insight. Commenting on Leviticus 10, he writes, “The fact is that when the entire nation was privileged to witness a revelation of God’s closeness, Nadab and Abihu felt the need to make a separate offering of their own. This shows that they were not moved by the true spirit of priesthood. For in Judaism the priests are completely identified with the nation. They have no standing in their own right. The whole essence of the priest is that they stand in the midst of the people, and this accounts for their standing before God. Thus, in their very “drawing near,” Nadab and Abihu were at fault” (Hirsch Chumash, Vayikra, pg. 292).

In Acts 5, we see a community who was privileged to witness a revelation of God’s closeness (at Pentecost). It is noteworthy that Acts 4 specifically mentions a Levite who had brought an offering to the feet of the emissaries which was accepted. The Levite had the means to help others, the desire to serve others, and he did so: he sold his field and gave the money. This is a perfect picture of what a priest does for his community. A priest comes forward and offers himself (in the form of whatever he has) to the community. It’s a position of leadership by service. This Levite in Acts 4 is the ideal representation of what it means to be a priest in God’s community. But then there’s Ananias and Sapphira. These two wanted to be seen as “priests,” as leaders who have surrendered their identity to the community, but then again, they wanted to separate a little bit for themselves. They sought a standing in their own right. Ananias and Sapphira were not moved by the true spirit of giving. By withholding some of the money and then lying about it, they are like Nadab and Abihu who transgressed the code of community. And so, although they were anxious to play the role of priest, their motive violated the very essence of what it means to be a priest.

Since we can’t have a menorah without fire to light it, let’s conclude with one more remark. It says in Leviticus 10 that the fire of God consumed Nadab and Abihu. Well what came upon Peter and the disciples when the Holy Spirit entered into them on Pentecost? Fire. “Tongues like fire spreading out appeared to them and settled on each of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them to speak out” (Acts 2:3-4). Notice that Ananias and Sapphira fall dead immediately after Peter speaks to them. The text even calls attention to this as it says, “As soon as Ananias heard these words...” The words were an expression of the Holy Spirit, the One who had empowered Peter’s speech. So again, it is the fire of God that consumes Ananias and Sapphira just as it did Nadab and Abihu. 

To the community of believers, God is saying in no uncertain terms: 
     To those who are near Me 
     I will show myself holy.
     Upon the faces of all the people
     I will be glorified.”