What does it look like for God’s people to “be a blessing?” The earliest biblical example is Genesis 14, a passage that introduces us to how God wants us to treat our neighbors.
In my previous post I wrote about Abraham’s calling to bless the world. While the New Testament holds up Abraham as a model of faith, Genesis 12–25 does more to stress Abraham’s call than his faith. Most of the time Abraham does believe God, but his faith is inconsistent, so he is not the best model of faith. But through his story Abraham shows loyalty to his call to benefit the people around him. In this post and the next we’ll see how Abraham goes about blessing others.
For many Christians, Genesis 14 is almost impossible to decipher, especially the first ten verses. But when we take the time to do the work of sorting through names and places, a powerful lesson emerges. Let’s get to it!
Verse 1 lists four kings and kingdoms. Shinar is an old name for Babylon, the empire located northwest of Israel, that takes Israel into captivity at the end of 2 Kings. Ellasar and Elam were neighbors of Shinar, with Ellasar on the East and Elam on the West. “Goyim” is the Hebrew word for “nations,” but other historical sources report that “Tidal” was the name of several Hittite kings. This suggests that the author of Genesis probably used “Goyim” here to reference the Hittites, a group of people located further East of Ellasar. This means that each of the four kings of Gen 14:1 was the ruler of his own kingdom.
The group of five listed in 14:2, however, consists of five small cities located at the south end of the Dead Sea. Three of them, Sodom, Gomorrah, and Zoar, appear again in Gen 19, and we see the first four grouped together again in Gen 10:19 and Deut 29:23. The apocryphal book of Wisdom calls these five cities the “Pentapolis” (Wisdom 10:6–8).
Putting all of this together, we see that each member of the Four was much, much more powerful than all of the Five combined. Amraphel, Arioch, and Tidal allied with Kedorlaomer because it took their armies a few weeks to march to Canaan. Kederlaomer no doubt convinced the others to join him by offering spoils of war.
This kind of domination was common in the ancient world. Countries with strong armies could approach foreign cities and demand payments (think of the mobster who demands “protection money”). According to 14:4 Kedorlaomer had been collecting payments for twelve years, but the five cities have decided to say “no more.” So Kedorlaomer gets a few allies together, and they invade Canaan to grab more spoils.
If I were preaching this in Hampton Roads, I’d talk about our local cites, perhaps Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Chesapeake, and Virginia Beach. Five cities, closely connected.
The four, however, are much bigger than cities. Imagine that the government in Richmond has been demanding overly large taxes, and Hampton Roads is now rebelling. The governor of Virginia gets a force together, asking the governors of Maryland, North Carolina, and Delaware to help out. Obviously, these four are much, much stronger than our five.
The five cities do what they can to defend themselves (v. 8), but they cannot match Kedorlaomer, so of course the get clobbered.
Genesis 14:10 mentions the key detail of tar pits in the region. These are easy to imagine as the Dead Sea itself is essentially mineral-rich mud with a lake on top.
Genesis 14:11–12 report that the four kings then seize the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah, including stuff belonging to Abram’s nephew Lot, and Lot himself as hostage. (While I called him “Abraham” above, in Genesis 14 God had not yet changed his name. So in the rest of this post I will refer to him as “Abram.”)
This is the point at which Abram enters the scene. Thus far the events have not involved him, as he is not intimately connected to the Pentapolis or to any of the other places invaded by Kedorlaomer in verses 5–7. But now he is aware that his neighbors have been invaded, so he organizes his men into an attack force, to retrieve what was stolen.
While the account of the battle takes only one verse (Gen 14:15) to describe, the result is spectacular! The distance from Mamre to Dan is almost 100 miles, and Dan to Hobah is 100 more. Yet Abram moves his men swiftly enough to catch and defeat the combined armies of four nations!
Some Bible commentators think that Abram is motivated by personal concern for his nephew Lot, since he moves into action only after hearing about Lot’s capture. But this interpretation doesn’t fit what happens after Abram gets involved. If Abram cares only about Lot, then we would expect him to rescue Lot alone. But Abram does more, regaining all the people and possessions of the Pentapolis. Even more significant, Lot drops out of the story as soon as he is saved. Instead, Abram deals with the aftermath of his stunning victory.
We need to picture the king of Sodom as he comes out to meet Abram. Keep verse 10 in mind here: the five kings had fled for their lives around tar pits. This suggests that in verse 17 the clothes of the King of Sodom are still stained with dark mud. It’s obvious as well that he is deeply indebted to Abram, as Abram was not obligated to return anything. But Abram honors his call to be a blessing to the people around him, and so returns everything to the people of Sodom.
Abram models the way in which we should treat our non-Christian neighbors. When Sodom and its neighbors are in trouble, Abram drops everything to go to their rescue. And when the job is complete, Abram is careful not to accept reward. Material reward and popular acclaim are not his motives for helping others; instead, he helps his neighbors out of respect for God’s call to be a blessing.
God calls us to be a blessing to those around us. Let’s honor that call.