“The Battle of the Four Kings Against the Five”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Lech Lecha, we read about what is generally known as the “Battle of the Four Kings Against the Five.”

In Genesis 14:1-4, we are told that Amraphel, king of Shinar, Arioch, king of Ellasar, Chedorlaomer, king of Elam, and Tidal, king of Goiim, made war with Bera, the king of Sodom, Birsha, king of Gomorrah, Shinab, king of Admah, Shemeber, the king of Zeboiim and the king of Bela, also known as Zoar.

According to both scriptural and midrashic sources, the five kings, who lived in the land of Canaan, were subservient for 12 years to the four immensely powerful Babylonian kings. In the 13th year, however, the five kings rebelled. One year later, under the leadership of Chedorlaomer, the four kings arrived in Canaan to quash the rebellion. On their way, displaying their vaunted power, they smote the Rephaim, the Zuzim and the Emim and Horites. So dominant were they that at one point they simply turned back to Eyn-Mishpat to smite the land of the Amalakites and the Amorites.

The five kings, however, were rather confident that they would succeed in battle against their powerful opponents, since the war was taking place in Canaan, on terrain that was familiar to them.

According to the biblical commentaries, the strategy of the five kings was to draw the four kings into the Valley of Sidim, an area full of slime pits, where the enemy forces would stumble and be overcome by the local soldiers who were far more familiar with this treacherous terrain.

Their plan, however, backfired when the Canaanite soldiers saw the array and the power of the four kings. Fleeing in panic, the local forces either fell into the slime pits or fled to the mountains.

The victorious four kings took all the property and food supplies of Sodom and Gomorrah and began to make their way back home. Among their captives was Lot, the son of Abram’s brother, who had moved to Sodom.

The Torah (Genesis 14:13) states that a “refugee” told Abram (who is called “Avram ha’Ivree”–the Hebrew) that his nephew had been taken in battle. Abram immediately mobilized his trained forces, 318 men, as well as his local compatriots from Elonai-Mamre, and chased after the four kings until Dan in the north. Pursuing them further, almost to Damascus, he smote the powerful forces of the four kings and brought back all the goods and booty that had been taken, returning with his nephew, Lot, and the captives from Sodom.

At this point we are informed that the king of Sodom comes out to greet Abram. The story then pauses abruptly.

In the following verse (Genesis 14:18), the Torah describes the appearance of Melchizedek, the king of Salem, who brings forth bread and wine and greets Abram. Melchizedek, who is known to be a priest of G-d the Most High, blesses Abram with the following words (Genesis 14:19): “Baruch Avram, l’Kayl Elyon, koh’nay shah’mah’yim vah’ahretz,” Blessed be Abram of G-d the Most High, Maker of heaven and earth. He also blesses G-d the Most High, for having delivered Abram’s enemies into his hand. A tithe is then given, but it is not clear who gives the tithe to whom.

Just as suddenly, we return to the king of Sodom, who arrogantly demands of Abram (Genesis 14:21): “Ten lee hanefesh, v’har’choosh kach lach!” Give me the people [literally, “souls”] who were captured and keep the booty for yourself! Abram responds forcefully to the king of Sodom, swearing by G-d the Most High, that he will not take a thread or a shoelace or anything that belongs to the king of Sodom, lest he [the king of Sodom] say that he made Abram rich. Abram agrees to take only compensation for the food that his soldiers and his compatriots have eaten, and agrees to allow his local compatriots to take their portion of the booty.

While the story itself is fascinating, a closer examination of the textual details contain many important insights and lessons.

According to tradition, Amraphel, the king of Shinar, is the same king (Nimrod) who tried to kill Abram as a youth by throwing him into a fiery furnace (“a’mar pol” means he told him [Abram] to jump). Could it be that Amraphel was aware that Lot lived in Sodom and knew that Abram would be drawn into this battle to protect his nephew, hoping to finish off Abram once and for all? Apparently, Amraphel’s compatriots were not sanguine about their leader’s determination to get Abram, who was known as a powerful fighter, and replaced Amraphel with Chedorlaomer as their new leader, which accounts for the scriptural changes in the order of the names of the kings.

We further learn from some slight textual nuances found in Genesis 14:12 that, although Lot originally lived outside of Sodom, he was now an official resident of Sodom and had even become a prominent personality there.

According to the Midrash, the “refugee” who came to Abram was none other than the giant Og, who, according to legend, was a “refugee” from the great flood of Noah’s time and was jealous and resentful of Abram. His “good deed” was performed with the wicked intention of drawing Abram into battle that would result in Abram’s injury or death.

For the first time, scripture refers to Abram as “Ivree,“–Hebrew–which means either that he descends from Eber, or that he swims against the tide. Unlike Lot, Abram does not allow himself to be drawn into the decadent lifestyle of the local Canaanites. Instead, he befriends the more moral residents of Elonai-Mamre and develops alliances with them.

It is interesting to note that Abram is not called “Ivree” when he first recognizes G-d or performs his first religious acts. Only when he reaches out to others is he called “Ivree,” having influenced his soldiers and compatriots, who are called “chah’nee’chav,” those whom he educated.

Like many others, Nehama Leibowitz is puzzled by the sudden appearance on the scene of Melchizedek, just as Abram is confronted by the king of Sodom. Melchizedek, who does not appear to have been at all involved in the battle of the Canaanite and Babylonian kings, is called a priest to the Most High because he believed in an ultimate, all-powerful G-d of many gods. (He is, therefore, not a pure monotheist.) The gift given by Melchizedek or Abram is the first tithe ever recorded.

Leibowitz suggests that the arrival of Melchizedek is meant to contrast with the entirely inappropriate demands that the king of Sodom makes of Abram. As one whose entire nation had just been saved by Abram, the king of Sodom should have greeted Abram with thanks and gifts.

The interlude with Melchizedek comes, then, to underscore the ultimate arrogance of the king of Sodom, who not only fails to express one word of gratitude to Abram or even offer him water, but instead demands that his Sodomite subjects be returned to him. The king of Sodom is not only concerned with his subjects’ physical return, but with their spiritual return as well. This is perhaps why the king of Sodom uses the word “nefesh,” souls, when referring to his people, because the king is concerned that Abram will contaminate the souls of his Sodomite people by teaching them morality.

Some might wonder why the Torah goes into such great detail regarding this ancient battle. Clearly, it is to demonstrate how precious the details are, extracting so many vital insights and lessons from what seem to be insignificant details within the story. Once again the Torah demonstrates that it is not primarily a book of history, but rather a guide of morality and ethics. It is the goal of teaching moral and ethical living that is the foremost objective of our Torah.

May you be blessed.