I think I’m beginning to understand what Genesis is doing in these first few narratives about Abram: they are demonstrating that God’s decision to select his family was correct. Not only does he have an insanely beautiful wife – a woman that could clearly sail a thousand ships, if only there were ships in the deserts of Canaan – but he’s also a master warrior with a deep sense of family and clan loyalty.
The next section of the narrative depicts Abram – somewhat oddly, relative to the nomadic way that he was presented so far – as something of a masterful warrior, perhaps even a warrior king. And it does so by discussing his role in what amounted to the closest thing Genesis has to a World War.
The story goes something like this:
Once upon a time, there was a mighty King Chedorlaomer of Elam. This mighty king had subjugated, probably through intimidation or through conquest, the kings of many rival city-states: Sodom, Gomorrah, Adamah, Zeboiim, and Bela. For twelve years, these states toiled under this warmonger, but in the thirteenth year they rebelled. Chedorlaomer had other allies of course: the kinds of Shinar, Ellasar, and Goiim and they fought against this rebellion. But the rebellion must have spread (or the rebels managed to get other support) as they also had to fight and defeat the Rephaim, the Zuzim, the Horites, the Amalekites, and the Amorites. Keeping track? But in the end, it was just five armies versus Chedorlaomer’s four at the Valley of Siddim and in grand poetic fashion… the rebels lost.
An unwitting pawn in this great game was Abram’s nephew Lot (who does have a lot of bad things happen to him) as he was living in Sodom at the time and was taken prisoner by Chedorlaomer. Abram rose in defense of his kin and amassed 318 fighters – I have no idea if this is a lot of a few in the war of the day – and successfully repelled the invaders and rescued his nephew.
This story builds up Chedorlaomer as a fantastically powerful force, but is capitulated with only a small number of fighters under Abram’s leadership. And Abram didn’t even want to be involved – he didn’t step in until he felt he was forced to. And he did this without any (obvious) help from God. What a great guy!
In the aftermath, Abram also does the humble thing and doesn’t accept his part of the spoils. Instead, his share is given to the others that helped in the campaign because he doesn’t want to have anyone think that he robbed Sodom.
There is a side-story here, and one that’s easily missed. After the battle, Abram is blessed by a king of Salem (a territory probably related to Jerusalem, which is not otherwise important to Genesis) who believes in the God Most High. And this God, at least based on Abram’s accepting the blessing, appears to be another name for Abram’s god. Whereas the text implied earlier that Abram was selected by God as his prophet and the only family to know of the monotheistic God, it seems here that people in (Jeru)Salem are already believing in God. As if to confirm that they worshipped the same God, Abram even tithed a tenth of everything he owned to them.
Documentary hypothesis believers point at this narrative and suggest that it was added later to justify Israelites tithing to Jerusalem, because Abram did generations before Jerusalem was the capital. There are a few other oddities in the text, for example referring to Abram as a “Hebrew” for the first time, and the town of Dan being mentioned before it was founded.
Either way, it’s a powerful portrayal of the importance and power of this one man, Abram. But despite his wealth, he still had no heir.
Up next: Abram has another vision! And a kid!