1 And it came to pass in the days of Amraphel king of Shinar, Arioch king of Ellasar, Chedorlaomer king of Elam, and Tidal king of nations,
2 that they made war with Bera king of Sodom, Birsha king of Gomorrah, Shinab king of Admah, Shemeber king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar).
3 All these joined together in the Valley of Siddim (that is, the Salt Sea).
4 Twelve years they served Chedorlaomer, and in the thirteenth year they rebelled.
5 In the fourteenth year Chedorlaomer and the kings that were with him came and attacked the Rephaim in Ashteroth Karnaim, the Zuzim in Ham, the Emim in Shaveh Kiriathaim,
6 and the Horites in their mountain of Seir, as far as El Paran, which is by the wilderness.
7 Then they turned back and came to En Mishpat (that is, Kadesh), and attacked all the country of the Amalekites, and also the Amorites who dwelt in Hazezon Tamar.
8 And the king of Sodom, the king of Gomorrah, the king of Admah, the king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar) went out and joined together in battle in the Valley of Siddim
9 against Chedorlaomer king of Elam, Tidal king of nations, Amraphel king of Shinar, and Arioch king of Ellasar—four kings against five.
10 Now the Valley of Siddim was full of asphalt pits; and the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled; some fell there, and the remainder fled to the mountains.
11 Then they took all the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah, and all their provisions, and went their way.
12 They also took Lot, Abram’s brother’s son who dwelt in Sodom, and his goods, and departed.
13 Then one who had escaped came and told Abram the Hebrew, for he dwelt by the terebinth trees of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol and brother of Aner; and they were allies with Abram.
14 Now when Abram heard that his brother was taken captive, he armed his three hundred and eighteen trained servants who were born in his own house, and went in pursuit as far as Dan.
15 He divided his forces against them by night, and he and his servants attacked them and pursued them as far as Hobah, which is north of Damascus.
16 So he brought back all the goods, and also brought back his brother Lot and his goods, as well as the women and the people.
17 And the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley), after his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him.
made war (v.2) — These are the first battles recorded in history.
Archaeology has confirmed that, during those early years of Abram in Canaan, all the lands from Syria through Sinai were peaceful and fruitful. Then, however, the calm was broken, and broken severely, as a great northeastern confederation of kings swept through the land, devastating everything in their path.
The confederacy consisted of the kings of Shinar (Babylonia), Ellasar (the leading tribe in southern Babylonia), Elam (the original kingdom of Persia), and Goiim (translated “nations,” but probably a tribe of northeastern Babylonia).
At this time, of course, kingdoms were still small, probably not much more than city-states; so these invading armies were not comparable to those that invaded Palestine in later times. Nevertheless they were fierce and cruel and could well have destroyed all the inhabitants. Archaeology has revealed … that such invasions and destructions were common all through the Middle East, as each tribe sought to obtain for itself the most desirable lands and mineral resources. This particular invasion probably had as its goal the rich metal deposits of the region.
Chederlaomer, king of Elam, was the acknowledged leader of the group. … According to the Bible, this confederacy had come earlier into the region and had placed the local kings under tribute. These included the five city-states of the Jordanian plain and southern Dead Sea area: Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboim, and Zoar. This area was called the “vale of Siddim,” meaning “fields,” probably because of the high fertility and extensive agriculture at the time. Evidently Moses added the editorial explanation, “which is the Salt Sea,” for later readers. Quite possibly the Salt Sea (which came to be known as the Dead Sea in the second Century A.D. and was sometimes also called the Asphalt Sea by early writers) was not originally salty when it first began to fill up after the post-Flood topographic upheavals. Centuries of salt-laden tributary inflows, combined with heavy evaporation and no outlet, gradually made it salty. Another unusual characteristic is indicated in verse 10: “And the vale of Siddim was full of slimepits” [asphalt pits in NKJV]. As a rich source of bitumen, this may also have been one of the attractions of the area to the invading kings.
After the cities of the plain had been under tribute for twelve years, “in the thirteenth year they rebelled” (v.4). This is the first occurrence in the Bible of the number “thirteen,” and it is interesting that it should be associated with rebellion (as it often seems to be throughout the rest of Scripture). — Morris, pages 311-313
[A leading archaeologist writes:] The rebellion of the small kings of the cities on the east side of the Dead Sea against what must have been the extortionate rule of absentee suzerains was brutally crushed. This comparatively minor insurrection was thereupon utilized as a pretext to settle old scores and to raid and ravage with unleashed ferocity for as much booty as could possibly be won. An old order was crumbling. From southern Syria to central Sinai, their fury raged. a punitive expedition developed into an orgy of annihilation. I found that every village in their path had been plundered and left in ruins, and the country side laid waste. The population had been wiped out or led away into captivity. for hundreds of years thereafter, the entire area was like an abandoned cemetery, hideously unkempt, with all its monuments shattered and strewn in pieces on the ground. — from Morris, pages 313-314
After thus routing all who might stand in their way, the eastern confederacy then turned its full attention to the rebellious kings of the five cities of the south. They joined battle with them in the Vale of Siddim, decisively defeating them, so that the “kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled,” possibly hiding in the asphalt pits, with many of their followers fleeing to the mountains.
Chedorlaomer’s armies then gathered up all the possessions of the vanquished cities, including the women and children and servants, as well as many captured soldiers, and headed north again. Unfortunately for them, however, they also took Lot and his family captive as well. Lot was living in Sodom proper by this time. In spite of his carnality, Lot was a “righteous man” (2 Peter 2:8), as well as a nephew of Abram, who had received God’s call; so God would not allow Lot to be carried off by Chedorlaomer. — Morris, pages 315-316
Hebrew (v.13) — This is the first time the word Hebrew appears in the Bible. It may come from Eber, Abram’s ancestor (Genesis 10:25).
trained servants (v.14) — hired soldiers
One of the inhabitants, presumably an Amorite, came to warn those of his tribe who were living near Abram by the grove of Mamre. Mamre, and his brothers, Eshcol and Aner, were “confederate with Abram.” …
Abram by this time was practically a king, or at least a tribal chieftain. From his retinue, he was able to gather 318 men, all of them trained in his own household, to pursue the kings and to rescue Lot. It seems probable that a number of the Amorites went with him.
In any case, their total number was surely no match for those invading armies who had already overwhelmed many armies much larger than the contingent following Abram. … But God was with them. Quite probably, the returning armies were relaxing and enjoying the spoils of war, and the idea of a sudden nighttime attack was absolutely the remotest thought from their minds at this time. Abram suddenly attacked them from different directions at once, and they soon became utterly demoralized. They fled, but Abram pursued them all the way to the north of Damascus, recapturing Lot, as well as all the other captives and the booty they had taken. — Morris, pages 316-317
This passage concerning the conquest of the five Canaanite kings by the four kings of the east, though at first sight seemingly tangential in nature, serves the following three contextually-thematically significant purposes: first, it presents us with the first explicit evidence of the truly prophetic nature of Noah’s statement in Genesis 9:25-26, according to which (the descendants of) Canaan would be subordinated/enslaved to (the descendants of) his siblings and uncles (this being the general sense of “brothers”), for the conquering quartet is led by the king of Elam, and the Elamites are descendants of Shem (see Genesis 10:22). This historical precedent would also have served as further encouragement for the Israelites, likewise descended from Shem, in their divinely ordained conquest of the Canaanites. Second, it provides an extremely vivid example of God’s military solicitude for Abram, who succeeds in rescuing Lot (who was taken captive with the Sodomites) by defeating, in turn, the four kings from the east. Insofar as this military solicitude is guaranteed under the Abrahamic Covenant, this would also have served as a historical precedent of military success for the Israelites, Abram’s descendants in the line of Promise, both in their initial conquest of Canaan as well as in their ensuing battles to maintain control of the land. Third, it sets up the immediately following episode in which Abram gives “a tithe of all” the spoil (i.e., the spoil he had taken from the four eastern kings, who had themselves taken it from the five Canaanite kings) to Melchizedek, which is one of the most theologically important encounters in the Bible. — Wechsler, pages 183-184
Some of my commentaries tried to make of this passage an application about how living in the world (Lot) leads to captivity, but living apart from the world (Abram) gives victory.
While there is certainly truth in that, it’s not the reason the Holy Spirit inspired Moses to write it (or edit it, as the case may be). I very much appreciate Wechsler’s take (above) with his explanation of why this account appears in the Bible.
It fulfills prophecy.
It encourages the Israelites—who were the chief audience for Moses’ writings.
It sets up Abram’s meeting with Melchizedek, which is a significant moment in God’s plan to redeem the world through Israel and, ultimately, through Christ.
If you want to tack an application on the end, fine, but first make sure you understand the actual purpose of the passage.
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