Abraham And The World War


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 6:03 p.m.
Torah: Gen. 12:1-17:27
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:-27-41:16
Havdalah: 7:02 p.m.

Editor’s Note: 5774 will be a special treat for online readers of “Sabbath Week.” The Jewish Week is thrilled to bring our weekly Torah commentary together with artist Archie Rand’s “Chapter Paintings:” one accompanies, illustrates and illuminates every Torah portion. The art will be available first on the Jewish Week’s homepage slide carousel, and then on our Arts page carousel … that is, until the next week, when the next portion, painting and dvar Torah take their turn. Read more about the artist and his work here.

After escaping an enraged king of Egypt, then parting ways with Lot, Abraham (Avram in the text) is camped peaceably in Hebron. He has befriended Mamre, the Amarite overlord, and his brothers Aner and Eshcol. They have grown to admire this wealthy nomad, even becoming ba’alei brit, covenantal blood brothers with him. [Genesis14:13] 

But while Abraham is grazing his flock and making alliances in Hebron, the region is embroiled in their version of a world war [Gen. 14]. Four kings — Amraphel, Arioch, Chedarlaomer and Tidal — have just suppressed a rebellion in the Siddim Valley (near the Dead Sea) by the kings of five city-states, among them Sodom and Gomorrah [Midrash Rabbah 42].

Flushed with victory, the four kings march north and west, conquering all the Canaanite lands in their path, taking captives (souls, or nefesh) and booty (rechush). Nefesh and rechush will be recurring themes.

Why is this story here, breaking up the narrative of Abraham’s travels? 

Rashi and the Talmud [Eruvin 53a] tell us that Amraphel (who has the distinction of introducing war into the world) is really none other than Nimrod, the great warrior king and Abraham’s arch-enemy. We recall the Midrash about a 40-year-old Abraham publicly besting Nimrod, with Abraham having survived being thrown into a blast furnace over the theological question, “Who is the supreme God?” A perceptive Torah reader should be thinking that this latest episode is a perfect opportunity for Nimrod (Amraphel) and Abraham to meet again; this time on a battlefield.

And this comes to pass. We learn [Gen. 14:14] that a war refugee (palit) bursts into Abraham’s camp with news that will jolt Abraham out of any notion of sitting out the war in Hebron. Abraham’s nephew Lot (the text calls Lot achiv, “his brother”), living in Sodom, has been captured alive by Amraphel’s army! Even now, Lot and his family, along with their possessions, are being transported north by enemy ships [Midrash Rabbah 38.13]. Their wealth is forfeit, and Lot and his wife and daughters will become slaves. 

What to do? Abraham is not a warrior, but neither is he a pacifist. To his credit Abraham’s immediate response is to marshal the 318 men of his household. Despite the odds and Amraphel’s head start, Abraham resolves to rescue his nephew. Joined by Mamre and his brothers, Abraham’s small force is armed and ready, like an ancient SWAT team.

Just verses ago [Gen. 13:7-12], Lot had quarreled with and then split from Abraham, choosing to live among the wicked Sodomites instead of under his uncle’s watchful eye. This story of war and the redemption of captives is told to highlight Abraham’s growth into a man worthy of accepting God’s covenant. Earlier [Gen. 12], Abraham had forfeited Sarah (Sarai in the text), his wife (nefesh), in order to save his own life and amass great wealth (rechush). When Sarai was taken to Pharaoh’s palace as Abram’s “sister,” it was God — not Abraham — who rescued her. Therefore, our expectation here might be that Abraham would similarly forego the opportunity to redeem his “brother” from captivity. 

But Abraham surprises us. He also surprises the four kings. Abraham and his band march 120 miles from Hebron to Dan. The Midrash Rabbah [43.3] says that every step they took miraculously carried them a mile! Abraham overtakes the four kings in their unsecured camp, where the kings are expecting no opposition. In a bold move, Abraham divides his force, attacks that very night, and pursues his quarry north to Damascus. He rescues Lot, his wife and daughters, and all the captives and their possessions.

On his return from battle Abraham is met first by the king of Sodom, and then by Malkitzedek, king of Shalem. The king of Sodom acts characteristically, offering Abraham the booty (rechush), while seeking to keep the rescued souls (nefesh). Malkitzedek, in contrast, offers Abraham and his exhausted men bread and wine, blessing Abraham and his God in poetic and immortal language: Blessed be Abram of God Most High, creator of heaven and earth … Who has delivered your foes into your hand [Gen. 14:19-20]. Abraham, learning from Malkitzedek — whose name means “King of Righteousness” — turns the king of Sodom down flat, taking neither people (nefesh) nor even “a bootlace” (rechush). Malkitzedek — and Abraham, too — recognize the hand of God in Abraham’s impossible victory over the four kings.

In making Lot’s war his war, Abraham has done a momentous thing. More than rescuing his kin and redeeming himself at the same time, Abraham has laid claim to the land of Canaan. In traversing the land that God has promised him on his way to rescuing Lot [Gen. 12:7], and by defeating the kings who had themselves captured that land, Abraham — once a nomad with no land of his own — has captured the entire promised land by proxy.

Sandra E. Rapoport is author of “Biblical Seductions.” She will be teaching Genesis this fall at Drisha and the Manhattan JCC. Her website is biblicalseductions.com.