Beyond the Lectionary Text: Genesis 14:1-24
by Marc Nelesen
Years ago, we would ask a family friend who was part of the “Greatest Generation” about his experience in World War II. Part of our inquiry was the result of our curiosity; another part was our interest in honoring him. His memories and his narration were always consistent: he was trained in bookkeeping and was proficient with a typewriter. “Naturally”, he would say with a wry smile, “the army made me General Mark Clark’s personal driver and I think I drove over every inch of Italy.”
At the time, none of us knew who General Mark Clark was, nor had we ever heard of most of the generals, soldiers, and ordinarily people that became extraordinary in his stories. With only a small handful of exceptions, we never understood the full meaning of the names of the people or the cities that he mentioned – even though they were meaningful to him. For us, the names of the cities, the soldiers, and the celebrities were merely the supporting cast in the stories that he told. If we listened, he wasn’t telling us war stories at all. He was revealing a bit of himself and telling us that in spite of feeling ill-equipped, he was trying to be responsible, dutiful and loyal.
Particularly since Abram is not even mentioned in verses 1-11, it is possible that the narrator of Genesis 14 is doing something similar. It is also possible that preachers and hearers shift our imaginations in a way to think of tribal warlords in nomadic communities who will quickly rise to the defense – and even offense – to protect family members, kin, and allies. Like all our families, disputes and divisions can be casual, heated or raw, but none of those things matter when someone from outside the family disrespects one of our own.
Chapter 14 holds the first recorded battle in Genesis and the only time that Abram is associated with war – and even bravery (Gen 12:10-20, Gen 20:1-18)! It is also the first time that Abram is called a “Hebrew”. The name-dropping of people and places in verses 1-11 serve to set up verses 12-16, a set of verses that serves as a hinge to help readers reinvest in the story. In sum, Abram and Lot have separated. In the separation, Lot lived in Sodom. Now Sodom was a city that was well-fortified by a five king alliance, that is, until four insignificant kings formed a coalition and overthrew them. When they did, Sodom and Lot were captured. When Abram heard of it, he went to battle and rescued Lot and returned with the spoils of that battle.
Curiously, in a world where captives are taken hostage by ISIS, discovered by reconnaissance drones, or rescued with the surgical precision of Seal Team 6, the text does not hold that kind of drama, sophistication, or elegance. It merely reports and does so nonchalantly. What it holds is both reminders and developments of earlier themes. Abram is neither bold, nor brazen, nor heroic; instead, he is loyal and he is a man capable of trusting. Further, blessings (12:1-3, 14:19-20) and protection (12:10-20, 14:17, 20:1-18) surround this man and those blessings and that protection reaches those who orbit him. This is possible because his God is the Creator and Deliverer (19-20, 22) and that is enough.
Secure in these things, Abram is prepared to meet two kings in “King’s Valley.” The two kings could not be more different. Mindful of this, Abram gives Salem’s priestly-king Melchizedek a tenth of the spoils of the battle. The earliest patriarchs were promised wealth, land, and descendants but not priesthood. So Abram’s gift is a sign of deference and an acknowledgement that the victory was not his own but the result of “God Most High”. In light of how the text speaks of Melchizedek, thoughtful preachers will want to consider likening this act of worship with what Abram does in the previous chapter when he builds an altar (13:18). Melchizedek is named as both a king and a priest – offices that the rest of the bible ordinarily seems to keep separate. Literally, his name suggests that he is a righteous king who presides over the city of peace. He comes not only with bread and wine, but comes issuing blessings.
Lot is depicted in many ways in stark contrast of Abram and often, is associated with some of Israel’s most famous or villainous enemies. He is linked with Babylon (11:1-2, 13:11) as one who separates and moves east, with Sodom (13:10-13, 14:12, and chap. 19) by virtue of living there in spite of the narrator’s harsh indictment; and later, disastrously, as the very father of the Moabites (19:36-38). Notice that the author never seems to evaluate or assess Lot’s association, but will also not sugarcoat Lot’s alignments. Preachers would do well to try to communicate with similar subtlety of inference. Lot is connected with Abram and that is significant, but it is also worthy of mention that he often chooses to be in the wrong place with the wrong people.
Chapter 14 says overtly what chapter 13 only suggested; namely, that Abram is not possessed by possessions (14:22-24) nor does he maneuver to acquire them (13:8-9). Yet in contrast, the first word out of the mouth of the king of Sodom is “give!” (14:21); he wants the people and is willing to concede the plunder to the war hero Abram. Abram will have none of it. Preachers who are tempted to utilize this text for either a building campaign or a stewardship Sunday should be wary: Abraham gives Melchizedek 10% but the king of Sodom the other 90%!
Nonetheless, many congregations will know that the author of Hebrews connects the hybrid of a priest who is also a king with Jesus’ own offices. In Hebrews 5-7, that typology also depends on Psalm 110 in the sense that Jesus is appointed to a kingly-priesthood. While most of us do not know David as a Priest, Brueggemann observes that in some traditions in Israel, the cultic life of church and state were wedded enough, that some regarded David as both a priest and a king. The author of Hebrews extends that dual role of king and priest to Jesus and seems to ground it in both Melchizedek and David.
In spite of raising a number of peripheral and potentially distracting issues, the narrator of this text fleshes out a number of important theological themes that mindful preachers will not want to ignore. The “Most High God” is on the lips of Abraham and Melchizedek. Both know this God on their own terms and in their own stories; in this story, their commitment, loyalty, and praise intertwine. The “Most High God” is celebrated as world-creator and rescuer/deliverer. Whichever texts we preach from and utilize, these are fine thematic bookends in a text and in a library of texts that ensure that preachers keep our (and their) attention on the One in the text who matters most. Blessings surround Abram and all that he does. Lot’s presence in the text and the way Lot is present in the text is a continual reminder of a dynamic present in these stories. While the narrator does not condemn Lot, readers know the score and are in awe of Abram’s capacity to loyalty that we do not feel.
The Talmud teaches “take a life and you destroy the world, save a life and you save the world”. To some degree, Abram is a faithful servant of Yahweh in that he fights a battle and puts himself at risk for someone who may be indifferent, or, who certainly seems unworthy of such heroic means. Abram hears of Lot’s capture and is moved to do something about it. In that, Christians will hear a premonition of the Gospel of the One who puts himself at risk, does battle and brings us back as freed captives in his victory train (2 Cor 2:14).
Rev. Marc Nelesen is the Pastor of Congregational Life at Georgetown Christian Reformed Church, Hudsonville, MI.