An exegesis of Genesis 14:1-24

Abraham, Man of God and Example for a Nation

Introduction

The strength, wisdom, and devotion to God displayed by Abram in chapter 14 are the actions of a man who has walked with and learned to trust in the Lord and is recognized as a man of God who is a proper model for Israel. Abram who was called out of his own land and trusted God when called now walks with God from a place of experience and follows rightly. This is shown first in the acknowledgment by Melchizedek in giving bread and wine to Abram and second in Abrams giving of a tithe to Melchizedek. Contrast in Abram can be seen in that when first introduced in chapter 12 Abram goes to Egypt and is fearful because of a king (Pharaoh), yet now in chapter 14, he rescues his nephew Lot from capture by multiple kings. Additional contrast is seen in Abrams ability to recognize it is God, not man who blesses him. He was made wealthy by Pharaoh after his lie but now he rejects the riches offered by the king of Sodom choosing instead to trust in the Lord.

Context

Moses has traditionally been accepted as the author of Genesis and the Pentateuch save Deuteronomy chapter 34 as it records his death. Moses’s upbringing in Pharaoh’s courts would have given him not only the educational training to write such a volume of work but as Bruce Waltke points Moses would have had “firsthand education in the ancient Near East law codes” as well as ancient Near East myths like those of the Sumerian flood story.[1] However, the authorship of Moses is not without questions. Some of these questions are brought on by anachronisms where additional information or names of places have been backfilled into the story.

The largest attack on Mosaic authorship has come by way of the documentary hypothesis which claims that the Pentateuch was written from various documents well after the time of Moses. Documentary hypothesis supporters claim these documents were used at different times to create the Pentateuch, partly, because of issues that needed to be addressed during that specific time and partly because of “the presence of varying divine names.”[2] One major issue with this theory is that it has at its core an “evolutionary philosophy behind the theory” and a bias if not a flat out rejection of supernatural events.[3] However, since the eighteenth century, when the Documentary hypothesis was formally introduced, scholars now “recognize that the alleged documents contain ancient traditions” which cuts at the core of Documentary hypothesis.[4]

As to the question of the original audience, the most obvious answer would be Israel. Genesis covers not only primeval but patriarchal history which gives Israel its “meaning, and destiny as well as its laws.”[5] Israel upon leaving Egypt was now a people that needed a new or at least renewed sense of purpose and direction. Reminders of the covenant made to Abraham, as an example, would have aided in this divine calling to go and poses the land of Canaan. Chapter 14 of Genesis is of importance because as Jeffery Cohen suggest Melchizedek may have been granting Abraham “equal spiritual status with himself.”[6] Israel was called to be a kingdom of priest and a holy nation (Ex 19:6) and to have a patriarch who was seen as equals with a high priest of God Most High would have added to this sense of divine purpose.

Questions of authorship and audience aside the more common or debated question arising from Genesis surrounds the topic of creation itself or the age of the earth. While there is not room to detail such a discussion it must be mentioned. There are generally two groups that Christians will align themselves to. The first is the traditional view of a young earth which says that God created the earth ex-nihilo and filled it in six literal twenty-four hour days. Adam was created on the sixth day from the dust and God breathed life into him. The second view says the earth was created billions of years ago through a process known as theistic evolution where God created the earth and life and left it to evolve. When God saw fit He gave man a soul which in effect created the distinction between man and animal. There are difficulties in this interpretation including the flow of the text and that death, sin, and meat eating were not introduced until later. There are also discussions or questions surrounding the days (yowm) mentioned in Genesis chapter 1. Regardless of where one falls on the issue the one thing that cannot be escaped is that the Genesis text “is characterized by supernaturalism.”[7]

God is seen from the outset of the book first creating and then interacting with His creation. The interaction with mankind from God and the toldoths specifically create the overall structure of the book. Each toldoths marks a new section in Genesis which then takes the reader through the individual story. The different accounts themselves have various poetic structures as well, for example, Waltke suggests an alternating structure for primeval history which runs from Adam to Shem but then concentric patterns from Abraham to Joseph.[8] As for the genre of the book itself, it is historical narrative which is “didactic and aesthetic” because it not only teaches the history of creation and the patriarchs but does so in a poetic way.[9]

Abram while mentioned in chapter 11 is formally introduced in chapter 12 where God speaks to him in some way although it is not clear how. Chapter 12 introduces the reader to the Abrahamic covenant which as Benware says provides “understanding of the purposes and plans of God.”[10] After God calls Abram He then takes him to the land of Canaan and tells him that He (God) will give this land to Abrams offspring. The remainder of the chapter and chapter 13 show how God has already begun the process of blessing Abram and how because of that blessing he and Lot must separate. Lot being given the choice chooses the Jordan Valley.

Chapter 14 focuses on the rescue of Lot, the rejection of riches from the king of Sodom, and the introduction of Melchizedek. As previously mentioned chapter 14 is also of importance because Abram is seen in an elevated position. He is no longer simply a man who has been called and follows but is a rescuer of captives, a man blessed by God, and a man of God who honors those who deserve honor. It is in chapter 15 that where the covenant is again reiterated and Abram is “the recipient of a divine bequest.”[11] Abram is promised children in his old age and God promises not only the future inheritance of the land by Abrams descendants but also the years of slavery in Egypt that will precede it.

Content

The sections or episodes of Genesis 14 are broken down into two alternating patterns. The first covers verses 1 through 16 and the second are verses 17-24. According to Bruce Waltke, the first pattern that is found is A 1-4, B 5-7, A’ 8-12, and B’ 13-16.[12] These sections cover the rebellion of the Dead Sea Kings, the eastern allies victory, the Dead Sea kings being plundered, and finally Abraham conquering the eastern allies. The second major section that is found while shorter is A 17-18 and A’ 19-24 and highlights the king of Sodom and Melchizedek meeting Abram with the former being “empty-handed” and the latter offering a banquet.[13] Contrast is also seen as Melchizedek blesses and receives a tithe from Abram, while the king of Sodom on the other hand demands for the return of the people and hints that he can make Abram wealthy. This section closes with the oath from Abram that he will nothing except what his men have already eaten and the men may take their spoils.

As mentioned previously Abram is not only the father of Israel but in addition to that, he is also an example. One area where this shows is in the connection between his pursuit of Chedorlaomer and subsequent rescue of Lot in verses 14-16 which appear to be “anticipation of the role of David in 1 Sam. 30:8-10,18.”[14] Both Abram and David are recognized as men of God who followed and trusted in YHWH. A difference that can be noted is that David is recorded as seeking God’s counsel before pursuing the raiders while Abram is not. However, as Melchizedek points out in his blessing of El Elyon it was God who gave Abram the victory over his enemies (Gen 14:20). The connection between the two events would make David “dependent on and continuous with Abram” which highlights the importance of Abram and the fact that he is a great man of God.[15]

While seen as an example and a man of God Abram is not without controversy. One area of interest as it pertains to this episode in Abram’s life is his fight with and the extensive pursuit of Chedorlaomer to Hobah. A simple reading of Genesis 14 shows that Abram after being notified of Lot’s capture gathered men to rescue his nephew, however, within that there are questions of preparation, motive, and severity. Of first notice is that Abram had just over three hundred men who were trained for battle. Second is that Abram, his men, and his allies not only attacked Chedorlaomer but then preceded to pursue him to Hobah (14:15). Brodsky suggests two possible reasons for this. The first explanation is that Lot was still captive, however, the second which paints Abram in a less romanticized light and more human one is that “Abram had the capacity to conduct an unrelenting war.”[16] If this is the case then the idea that chapter 15 is a continuation of 14 is clearer because when God speaks to Abram in 15:1 the first words are for Abram to not fear. While it is not beyond a reasonable doubt, what is clear is that “material gain was not his motive” for fighting against Chedorlaomer but instead it was to rescue Lot which is a noble cause.[17]

Turning to the post-battle events the reader is introduced to Melchizedek, the banquet, the tithe from Abram, and the blessing which it will be argued make Abram an acceptable father for a nation of priest. First, however, the identity of Melchizedek must be dealt with. The Rabbis believe Melchizedek to be Shem the son of Noah because he would have not only been alive during Abrams time but “outlived Abram by 35 years.”[18] The protestant reformers took this issue up as well with Luther agreeing and Calvin disagreeing with the rabbis. Calvin argued that it does not follow logically that Shem would have undergone a name change and been moved to the place of obscurity. Moreover, there is no record of Shem moving to Judea, and if this did occur then as McNair says Abram “would have gone straight to meet him.”[19] Some in the early church thought Melchizedek an angle or some other heavenly being yet from this “arose the heresy that he was … over Christ.”[20] The only thing that is clear is that Scripture is silent on the matter of identity and that he quickly appears and then disappears from the narrative. What is of direct important is his relationship to Abram and the status he holds.

The relationship between Abram and Melchizedek is first seen in the bringing out of bread and wine by Melchizedek. While at first glance this might be thought to be refreshment the text is clear in verse 24 that Abram and his men have already eaten and at that bread and wine “seems a strange form or refreshment.”[21] The more likely explanation is that the bread and wine were not meant as refreshments but because Melchizedek was priest of God Most High. Jeffery Cohen suggests that the logical form of the verse makes it clear that Melchizedek is, “king of Salem and priest of God the Most High.”[22] This reading would suggest that Melchizedek was not simply bringing out bread and wine to weary men but instead that he is blessing Abram and bringing bread and wine “as a token of religious fellowship.”[23]

Classically in the Christian church, it has been thought that the bread and wine were a foreshadow of the Eucharist. Jerome who introduced the idea that Melchizedek brought out bread and wine as a part of his priestly office which indeed “lends itself to the Eucharistic interpretation.”[24] However, as scholars learned the original languages they thought this interpretation wrong and that it was a feast meal but as mentioned bread and wine would have been little feast seeing as Abram had already eaten (v24). Luther and Calvin believed that the bread and wine were brought out because he was king but the blessing he gave was because of “his priestly office.”[25] The text does not differentiate between the role of Melchizedek acting as king or priest. Because of the surrounding text and because the blessing is recorded immediately following the bread and wind it seems likely that Melchizedek and Abram were partaking in religious fellowship as they were both servants of God Most High.[26]

The name God Most High ascribed to God in verses 19 and 20 is El Elyon and while el is a fairly “common appellative for divinity” it should not be thought that this has any relation to the Canaanite god el who is the head of the Canaanite pantheon.[27] If it is thought that that el is referring to the Canaanite god then that would make Melchizedek his high priest. Abraham would have been aware of this and as Abraham refuses to allow the king of Sodom to lay claim to making him rich it does not follow that shortly before he would have received a blessing from and paid tithe to a pagan priest. What is seen then is that Melchizedek “recognizes Abram’s God as… Creator and Sovereign” who is the one who delivers Abrams enemies over him.[28]

The connection between God Most High and YHWH is further seen by Abram’s oath in verse 22 when Abram uses both his designation for God and Melchizedeks. In this Abram is connecting “Melchizedek’s God as his own” which makes the case for Melchizedeks high positions that much stronger because the God Abram follows is known.[29] Even if as Waltke suggest that “YHWH may not have been in the original text” there would still have been some designation of the covenant God by Abram to connect Melchizedek’s God and his making them the same Lord of the universe.[30]

Following the blessing, Abram gives Melchizedek a tithe because he recognized him as “the legitimate priest… of his God” which again not only solidifies Melchizedeks position but in turn Abram’s position as a godly man and more importantly as a proper model for Israel.[31] It is possible that there is a play on words between asar which is to make rich (14:23) and maaser which is tenth (14:20). If so this then this tithe would indicate that Abram understood that “his wealth is from the Lord alone” which only makes sense given Abram’s response to the king of Sodom.[32] Chapter 15 then seems to be a natural continuation of this because God confirms to Abram that his reward will be very great (15:1).

Another explanation for chapter 15 being a continuation comes from the rabbis in the middle ages who thought that Abram had “a sense of guilt” because he may have killed someone who need not die or that there would be retribution for his actions.[33] While possible it is not the only reason for seeing a continuation as previously mentioned. What is clear from the text is that following the events of the battle, the blessing, the tithe, and the oath by Abram God confirms Abram. The fact that God confirms Abram after these events is important because it again reconfirms that Abram was a godly man who is a proper model and father for a nation of priest.

Application

In my own life as a man who desires earnestly to follow God and seek His ways above all others, there are at least a few points of application worth mentioning here. First, is that God is present even in the midst of difficult events. God called Abram while in Ur and Abram followed and while the beginning was less than ideal Abram persisted and God gave him grace. Abram continued to walk with God and follow Him, because of this Abram grew into a man who is blessed by others of high stature (Melchizedek). God continued to lead Abram and confirm him along the way so that Abram might not lose his way.

Second is that God is the one who gives the calling, not man. Abram did not seek out God but God sovereignly called Abram to be the father of many. A call from God is not something that should be taken lightly or thought of as common. God’s call to a man or woman is a holy calling for as God says we are to be holy for He is holy (Lev 20:26; 1 Pet 1:16). Abram is the model for not just Israel but Christians as well because he chose to seek God and God confirmed him.

Third and finally there is a clear example of honoring those who serve the Lord because it is not just them we honor in this but God Himself. The Old Testament is filled with examples of blessing those who serve God and the New Testament confirms this (Gal 6:6; 1 Tim 5:17-18). In blessing those who serve the Lord we not only have the joy of giving but bestow honor on those who deserve it. The Bible commands us to show honor (Rom 13:7) and Abram is again a right example of this. Instead of choosing to keep the spoils of war for himself he gives Melchizedek tithe and trust in God for his reward. We can see then in all things God was leading Abram, and God is leading His people now, we need only follow.

 

 

[1] Bruce K. Waltke, and Cathi J Fredricks, Genesis: a Commentary, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2001): 23.

[2] Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis, 24

[3] Paul Benware, Survey of the Old Testament, (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2001), 273, accessed January 17, 2017, Axis 360.

[4] Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis, 26

[5] Ibid., 22

[6] Jeffery M. Cohen, “Abraham’s Hospitality,” Jewish Bible Quarterly 34, no 3 (July 2006): 171, accessed February 23, 2017, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials.

[7] Benware, Survey of the Old Testament, 25

[8] Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis 19-21

[9] Ibid., 31

[10] Benware, Survey of the Old Testament, 32

[11] Kenneth A. Matthews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, Vol. 1B, The New American Commentary, (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005), 157.

[12] Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis, 225

[13] Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis, 226

[14]Abraham Gosse, “Abraham and David,Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 34, no 1, (September 2009): 27, accessed February 23, 2017, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials.

[15] Ibid., 25

[16] Harold Brodsky, “Did Abram Wage a Just War?” Jewish Bible Quarterly, 31, no 3, (July 2003): 171, accessed February 26, 2017, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials.

[17] Ibid., 167

[18] Bruce G. McNair, “Luther, Calvin and the Exegetical Tradition of Melchisedec” Review & Expositor 101, no 4 (September 2004): 748, accessed February 22, 2017, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials.

[19] Ibid., 749

[20] Ibid., 748

[21] Cohen, Abraham’s Hospitality 169

[22] Ibid., 170

[23] Ibid

[24] McNair, Luther, Calvin and the Exegetical Tradition of Melchisedec 751

[25] Ibid, 751

[26] Due to the various interpretations of this passage I find it best to interject as little speculation as possible into the text and rest on the simplest explanation.

[27] Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis 233

[28] Matthews, Genesis 150

[29] Ibid., 56

[30] Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis 234

[31] Ibid., 235

[32] Matthews, Genesis 157

[33] Brodsky, Did Abram Wage a Just War? 172

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