Great Moments in Bible History
Faith and courage
A Heroic Rescue
We do not usually picture Abraham as a great warrior. We can easily imagine him living in his tent and tending sheep, but it is much more difficult to picture him holding a sword and charging at the enemy. In today’s story we have the first mention of warfare in the Bible. No doubt such wars had been going on for centuries, but this is the first time one has appeared in the Bible. The Bible is not intended to be a history of what humans have done in the world. Rather it is the story of what God has done and how He has worked throughout history to rescue a people for Himself. Abraham, of course, was a major player in that great work. In this story he fights a battle to rescue his nephew Lot.
Genesis 14 begins with the background to a war. Four kings from as far away as Babylon and Iran had joined their forces and had subjugated most of the tribes in the region we call Palestine (where Abraham and his nephew Lot lived). Those tribes remained subjugated for 12 years, no doubt sending tribute money each year to the coalition of kings who had conquered them. In the 13th year the tribes decided they had had enough, so they rebelled. In the 14th year the four kings brought their armies and reconquered the area.
Throughout history a major motivation for war has been money. In those days the money came in the form of the possessions of the conquered people, which would be carried back to the conquerors’ homes. In addition to their possessions, the conquered people themselves were usually carried away to be sold into slavery. That is what happened when the four kings defeated the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. They carried away all the goods and people of those cities.
In our previous issue we learned how Abraham had given his nephew Lot first choice of where to live. Lot chose to live in the region of Sodom, because that was a well-watered area. Apparently he ignored the fact that Sodom was a very wicked place. No doubt he did not think that their wickedness would affect him. But when the wars of the four kings came to his area, he was taken captive along with everyone else in Sodom.
Fortunately for Lot, one of the citizens of Sodom managed to escape capture and made his way to where Abraham lived. Abraham wasted no time in calling out the men of his household whom he had trained for just such an emergency. He had 318 trained men. He was also allied with three other households. We don’t know how many men they added to his force, but the total must have been far fewer than the armies of the four kings.
Abraham’s tiny army marched 140 miles north until they caught up with the armies of the four kings. “And he divided his forces against them by night, he and his servants, and defeated them and pursued them to Hobah, north of Damascus.” (verse 15) That initial attack was so successful that they pursued the fleeing army for another 40 miles.
“Then he brought back all the possessions, and also brought back his kinsman Lot with his possessions, and the women and the people.” (verse 16) Lot was a free man again thanks to his uncle Abraham.
This is the only record of Abraham fighting a battle, but it is certainly not the last time that God’s people went up against an enemy that was much bigger than they. The story of David fighting Goliath is the most famous of those stories, but there are quite a few others. In each case the people trusted God to give them the victory—and that is just what He did.
This story is intended to be more than just an account of an exciting victory. It is intended to encourage God’s people today to trust in God and take risks for God just like Abraham did, knowing that God will take care of us just like He did Abraham.
A King Who Was Also a Priest
On the way back when Abraham and his men were only a day or two from home, they were met by two kings. One was the king of Sodom who no doubt was very grateful that Abraham had rescued his people. The other was Melchizedek who was king of Salem and priest of God Most High. This is the first time Melchizedek is mentioned in the Bible and is the only story recorded about him in the entire Bible.
Melchizedek brought out bread and wine for Abraham and his tired men. Then he gave him a blessing: “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” (Genesis 14:19) This confirms what we already suspected — that Abraham’s victory was due to God rather than to Abraham’s clever military strategy.
After receiving Melchizedek’s blessing, Abraham gave him a tenth of everything. This is the first tithe mentioned in the Bible. Abraham gave the tithe to God’s priest in recognition that everything he gained in that battle was actually a gift from God. The tithe was an act of worship to God.
The entire story of Melchizedek is told in only three verses. He would be a forgotten character were it not for the fact that he is mentioned again in one of the psalms. David wrote Psalm 110 about the Messiah (Christ) who was to come. In Psalm 110:4 he says, “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.’” In some way David sees Melchizedek as a model of what the Messiah would someday be.
One obvious way that Melchizedek is a model of Christ is the fact that he was both a king and priest. Although it was common in the ancient world for a person to be both king and priest, God never allowed any Israelite king to have both of those functions. In the New Testament we learn that Christ is both our king and our high priest.
Another thing that Melchizedek modeled is the meal he gave Abraham and his men. Bread and wine are the exact same elements of the meal we call the Lord’s Supper.
Even the city Melchizedek ruled is significant. The city of Salem was later called Jerusalem. David made it his capital. The writer of the Book of Hebrews in the New Testament points out that the word “Salem” means peace, so Melchizedek was the King of Peace.
Although Abraham lived almost 2,000 years before Jesus was born, through this encounter with Melchizedek he was blessed by one who symbolized Christ.
A Rejected Offer
The king of Sodom waited until Abraham’s conversation with Melchizedek was over. Then he said, “Give me the persons, but take the goods for yourself.” (Genesis 14:21) That offer was not as generous as it sounds to us today. In that culture, the winner of a battle was entitled to the spoils—both goods and people. They did not have prisoners of war who would be returned when the war was over. Anyone captured in war was a slave who belonged to the victor. But the king of Sodom no doubt knew that Abraham had fought in order to rescue his nephew Lot, so he no doubt hoped that all the other citizens of his city would be returned along with Lot. The king was actually offering Abraham less than what he was entitled to. There was no reasonable way that he could demand the goods as well.
But Abraham responded very differently to the king of Sodom than he had to the king of Salem. “I have lifted my hand to the LORD, God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth, that I would not take a thread or a sandal strap or anything that is yours, lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’” (verses 22-23) The character of the king of Sodom was very different from that of Melchizedek and Abraham knew that very well. Abraham refused to be obligated to such a man as the king of Sodom. It is unfortunate that Lot did not have that attitude.
Two kings each offered Abraham something. Abraham accepted the simple meal of bread and wine from the king of Salem. He refused the riches offered by the king of Sodom. This is similar to the choices that we today are asked to make. Will we pursue “things” (money, popularity, pleasures of various sorts) no matter where it comes from, or will we be satisfied belonging to Christ and accepting the simple things that He gives us?