Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Patriarch's Posse

We don’t really think of the Patriarchs as butt-kickers.  The Patriarchs are more... well... Patriarchal.  They wear long beards; they do a lot of begetting; and they administer the complex soap opera of their extended families.  It’s hard to imagine someone like Abraham leading warriors into battle.  And yet this is just what he did.

When Abraham, then known as Abram, left the land of Ur at God’s command and journeyed to the Promised Land, his nephew Lot accompanied him.  Both men possessed considerable herds of livestock, and they found that there wasn't enough water and grazing land where they had camped to support the both of them.  Their herdsmen kept fighting with each other and Abram saw that this could not go on.

So Abram said to Lot, “Let‘s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herdsmen and mine, for we are brothers.  Is not the whole land before you?  Let‘s part company.  If you go to the left, I‘ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I‘ll go to the left.” (Gen. 13:8-9)

Lot chose the rich verdant lands surrounding the Cities of the Plain of Jordan, and pitched his tent near the city of Sodom.  Abram moved west to Hebron and set up camp near the great trees of Mamre.

Unfortunately, Lot wasn't the only one who liked the rich, verdant plains of the Jordan.  The five Cities of the Plain had been subject to  Kedorlaomer, the King of Elam, a land east of Mesopotamia on the Persian Gulf, for about twelve years, but had recently rebelled.  A year following the rebellion, Kedorlaomer and three of his neighboring kings embarked on a campaign to subdue several of the tribes in the region.

(In case you were interested, his allies were Amraphel, the king of Shinar, Arioch king of Ellasar, and Tidal king of Goiim.  Shinar is a region in Mesopotamia, and Amraphel was once mistakenly identified as Hammurapi, the great lawgiver of Babylon.  He probably wasn't, though.  The word “goiim” in Hebrew means “foreign nations,” so it’s unclear if it’s meant to be a name for a specific nation here.  Ellesar is the elvish name for King Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, but he has even less to do with the story than Hammurapi.)

The five Kings of the Plain, (Bera, king of Sodom; Birsha, king of Gomorrah; Shinab, king of Admah, Shemeber, king of Zebolim; and the king of Zoar who isn't named; remember, there‘ll be a test) prepared to meet the Four Kings in the Valley of Siddim, near the Dead Sea.  They were overwhelmed by Kedorlaomer’s forces.  Many of their men perished in the tar pits of the valley and the rest fled into the hills.

The army of the Four Kings sacked the Cities of the Plain, carrying off everything that wasn't nailed down.  This included Lot, who as you'll recall had moved his tents to the neighborhood of Sodom.  The text suggests that he had actually moved into the city by this time; although I have to wonder if the attack by the Four Kings were what convinced him to settle down someplace with walls.

This raid by Kedolaomer and his cohorts presents something of a problem.  We’d like to see Kedoraomer as the bad guy, for coming in with an army and carrying off Abram’s nephew.  Except that Sodom and Gomorrah are bad guys too.  Some commentators have been so uncomfortable about presenting Sodom in a sympathetic light, that they insist that the Cities of the Plain were wrong to rebel against Kedolaomer, and that the raid by the Elamites was God’s just vengeance against the disobedient cities.  I don’t think I’d go that far.  But whether their rebellion was justified or not, Lot found himself caught up in the Elamites’s retaliation.

One of the survivors of the battle came to Abram, who at that time was swelling near Hebron, near the great trees of Mamre, an Amorite chieftain who along with his brothers were allies of Abram.  We don’t don’t think of the Holy Land in conjunction with big trees, but the rocky landscape of today is the result of centuries of deforestation.  These huge trees on Mamre’s lands were apparently local landmarks.  We also don’t think of Abraham schmoozing with Canaanite chieftains, but Abram and his neighbor Mamre seem to have been on good terms.

Wen Abram heard of Lot’s predicament, he gathered up his own men, “318 trained men, born in his household”  (Gen. 14:14).  The word in Hebrew is obscure; in other ancient sources it means “armed retainers.”  These men seem to have been Abram’s private security force, a cadre of fighters who protected his herds and flocks from wild animals and marauders.  That’s my guess anyway.

Abram led his men in pursuit of he army of the Four Kings all the way to Dan, near the headwaters of the Jordan River.  He split his forces into two groups and defeated Kedorlaomer’s army, recovering the plundered loot and rescuing Lot and the other captives.

And this brings up a puzzle the text does not address.  How did Abram manage to defeat the army of the Four Kings with only 318 men?  Kedorlaomer and his allies had just conquered several other tribes in the area as well as defeating the armies of the Kings of the Plain.  You’d think they’d have more soldiers than a guy in a tent with some livestock, no matter how affluent that guy was.  The text doesn't say.

Perhaps the 318 men the text mentions are just Abram’s own men and that his buddies Mamre and his brothers, who accompanied Abram, contributed men of their own.  Perhaps  he might have gathered additional troops from the survivors who escaped the battle of the tar pits, as Gandalf gathered the scattered troops of Rohan to relieve Helm‘s Deep.  It’s also possible that Kedorlaomer’s forces were burdened by all the prisoners and plunder and so fought under a disadvantage.  Or perhaps the text is exaggerating Kedorlaomer’s importance; maybe Kedorlaomer was never that big a king after all and Lot was simply carried off by a desert warlord and his large band of brigands.  In the 19th Century, Biblical scholars thought they had identified some of the kings named in Babylonian sources, but later scholarship disagrees.

The text says that Abram divided his forces into two groups.  Possibly he caught the enemy in a narrow valley where they’d be pinned between the two flanks.  Perhaps Abram caught them by surprised as Gideon did to the Midianites (Judges ch. 7), and that is how he was able to defeat a superior force.  Once again, the text is annoyingly vague.

What it does say is that Abram returned with all the captives and plunder.  They are met by the King of Sodom, who was among the refugees from the previous battle.  The King of Sodom offers Abram a generous share of the recovered loot to repay him, but Abram refuses.  He allows Mamre and his brothers to take a share, but he won’t take anything for himself, “so that you will never be able to say ‘I made Abram rich.’” (Gen. 14:23)

Another guy shows up at this time accompanying the King of Sodom.  His name is Melchizadek, and he’s another of the the Bible’s mysteries.  We’ll get to him next time.

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