35. Genesis 13:1 – 14:16

III. A.  1. continued

e) Abram and Lot Separate (Genesis 13)

As soon as he was shown the door in Egypt, Abram moved back to the Negev and gradually retraced his route back northward to his altar near Bethel. The famine was largely over but it takes some time to recover from such things, so either because the drought was not quite over or because his visit to Egypt had been quite lucrative, the land did not have the resources to support both him and his rich nephew Lot. There was conflict between their servants over pasture and water. Abram was a man of peace, but especially as an alien in the land he did not want to quarrel with those closest to him. For the sake of peace they must separate, and Abram let Lot choose the direction he preferred. Lot chose the valley of the Jordan River to the east and eventually ended up living in Sodom, and Abram turned to the west to the hill country.

Agriculture began in the hill country surrounding the Middle East, but civilization – cities – began in the river valleys. By this time in history, cities had spread everywhere in the Middle East, but the sophisticated cultures were still to be found in the river valleys, even in a backwater like Canaan. Lot chose the richer, faster urban life to the relatively primitive rural life. Some cultural distinctions never change. Some commentators fault Lot for choosing Sodom as his home; some fault him for separating from Abram at all, but I can’t agree with them. Lot showed poor judgment in choosing to live in the most notoriously wicked city in the region, but the evidence is that he kept himself relatively unstained from it all; that says a lot about his integrity and faithfulness to his heritage. That he separated from Abram is presented as a necessity, and not a moral choice. God had not chosen him as part of His people, not through any fault of Lot’s but simply out of God’s prerogative.

Though Abram had apparently feared the jealousy and lust of powerful men even before he began to travel with Sarai – possibly based on his experience with city life in Ur – he was not a fundamentally fearful man. While Abram may have been afraid of the power of desire, he had no concerns over his own welfare, no need to see to it that his economic interests were protected. What did it matter if Lot chose the best of the land? The insecurity of a wealthy man who feels the need to guard his wealth was something Abram just didn’t have. As the elder, and as the more powerful man, Abram had the right to choose which part of the land he preferred and leave Lot with what was left. Furthermore, God had promised to give all the land to Abram. There was no indication that God had spoken to Lot nor that Lot was privy to God’s plans for Abram. Based on God’s promise to him, Abram could have simply told Lot to leave. That he gave Lot the choice is important. Abram may have doubted that God’s authority extended into Egypt or to god-kings, but he had no doubts at all about God’s care for his material well-being. It didn’t matter if Lot took the best of the land because God was giving Abram everything he wanted. We all have our peculiar weaknesses, we all have situations or events or people that we are afraid of, that test our courage and faith to the breaking point. For Abram, the fear of rulers coveting his wife was simply too much, but the dread of being cheated or getting the short end of the stick had no hold on him, even though he lived as an alien nomad vulnerable to weather and forces beyond his control.

Shortly after splitting up with Lot, God appeared to Abram the third time and repeated His promise to give him the land. This time the promise was broadened to include descendants, as “the dust of the earth”. It must have sounded a bit too good. Abram was about eighty years old by this time and Sarai was over seventy. Children were unlikely and every year they were a bit less likely, but life spans were still shortening and God’s promise of children was still just believable. When God invited him to roam about in his future inheritance, he did so. By and by Abram arrived at the oaks of Mamre, near Hebron, about thirty miles south of Bethel. This was probably another major cult site for the local gods, but it became the long-term home for Abram. The local Amorite chieftain, Mamre, became his close ally and except for brief absences, Abram seems to have stayed in this area for the rest of his life.

f) The Battle with the Elamites (Genesis 14:1-16)

The Elamites were a tribe of people who lived in what is now Iran, in the mountains on the eastern fringe of Mesopotamia. They had long been a military nuisance in Mesopotamian history, but for thirty years Ur had been the dominant power in Mesopotamia; its empire was extensive, the greatest empire the world had yet seen. Shulgi, son of Ur-Nammu, had become the second king of his dynasty at roughly the time Abram left Ur, but his reign seems to have gotten off to a rough start. The first twenty years are not well-documented. If it actually did get off to a shaky start, the cause was probably the Elamites.  They may have resumed aggressive raids on the city-states scattered about the Middle East as soon as Ur-Nammu died. Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim, and Bela had been vassals of the Elamites since before God had called Abram, even though they were on the opposite side of Mesopotamia from Elam. It is a remarkable thing that the Elamites could have so much power over city states 600 miles away with a strong empire in between unless Shulgi was slow to establish his control. Although the Elamites exercised power over parts of Canaan, it was not truly an empire they founded. It was more like a gang extorting protection money.

Shortly after Abram and Lot separated, Sodom and the other four city-states at the southeastern end of what is now the Dead Sea rebelled against the rule of the Elamites and their allies. Chedorlaomer was the leader, though Amraphel was initially listed first in 14:1. Amraphel was the king of Shinar and was probably listed first to tie this episode with the preceding events at Babel. Shinar was the land around Babel (I would place the Tower of Babel event thousands of years before Abram, however). Amraphel had possibly taken advantange of Shulgi’s disarray to take power in that part of Ur’s empire, but if so he did not last very long. Chedorlaomer, king of the Elamites, led Amraphel, Arioch and Tidal, his loyal vassals, down the eastern side of the Jordan River, proceeding as far as what is now the Gulf of Aqaba. Apparently their intent was to attack six other tribes south of Canaan to extend their influence even further, and then turn back to deal with the rebellious kings around Sodom. Chedorlaomer made short work of these new conquests as well as the rebels. The soldiers of Sodom who were not killed in the battle or trapped in tar pits fled to hide in the hills, and Bera the king of Sodom escaped as well. Lot was in Sodom when Chedorlaomer came by after the battle and took everyone into slavery. Frequently the men would have been killed but this time perhaps the Elamites wanted some male slaves or perhaps Lot was too old to be a threat. Doubtless the same fate had overtaken the people of Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim, and Bela, but the focus here is on Abram and Lot.

Abram’s concern was with his nephew, Lot. It is clear that there were strong ties of affection between Abram and Lot, more than the simple ties of blood and family. Abram took special pains to look after Lot on behalf of his brother. It is possible that Sarai was the full sister of Lot’s father, Haran, and that this is the source of the special bond between them. Abram and his allies, Mamre the Amorite and Eshcol and Aner, overtook the Elamites near what became known as Dan, about a hundred miles to the north, and pursued them another fifty miles or so, nearly half way back to Haran, and defeated them completely. Abram’s defeat of the Elamites may have occurred in about 2074 b.c. and may have enabled Shulgi to at last consolidate his power. Shulgi went on to become the greatest king of the third dynasty of Ur; his reign lasted for nearly thirty more years.

Note the contrast between the fearful man hiding from Pharaoh behind Sarai  and the bold general who took on the dominant military power in that region. It is clear that Abram was a fearful man only in certain respects, but in other respects he showed real courage. Perhaps Abram was not a passionate man sexually, and the power of lust was a power he did not understand and which was therefore a fearful thing to him. But he lived in a violent world, and violence he did understand. In his battle with the Elamites, Abram was reported as having 318 trained men in his own household. That they were trained says a lot. He was a wealthy man and therefore a target in a relatively lawless land; he made sure that he was able to protect himself. Abram was a chieftain, a nomadic sheik with no set kingdom of his own. That he had 318 men in his household means that he probably had a thousand or more people attached to him as slaves, servants, or employees and their children.

He defeated the Elamites with help from his allies. The Elamites eventually recovered from this defeat and went on, about seventy years later, to destroy Ur and dominate much of Mesopotamia east of Canaan, but they never returned to trouble Abram or his descendants again. Note that there was some special tie of loyalty between Abram and these Amorites with whom he lived; it was, after all, not their quarrel. When Genesis 14:13 says that Mamre and Eshcol were Abram’s allies, it means that he had entered into some kind of covenant with them. Further, it is clear that Abram was the dominant member of this alliance; it may be that this group of Amorites recognized Abram as a chieftain and owed some allegiance to him. It is interesting that, though the Amorites were among the peoples of the land who would fight the descendants of Abram in a few centuries, the presence of the people of God in the land began with a close alliance to these particular Amorites.

After the defeat of the Elamites, Abram was the dominant military power in the whole land of Canaan, with as powerful an army as any king in Canaan and having just proven his might by defeating the previous power in the region. And yet, though he was certainly the most powerful man there, though God had twice promised to give him all of the land, and though he was now in position to simply take the land he had been promised, he did nothing. What military leader in all history would have refrained from taking control of a land when he was able, especially if that military leader thought that God had promised it all to him? That Abram did not take the Promised Land for himself is exactly the same quality that kept Noah in the ark even when he saw that the ground was dry. It was God who had promised to give him the land, and therefore only God could give it to him. Abram knew, in the deepest part of his being, that God expected him to wait for God Himself to keep His own promises. Abram is the second example of the quality God desires most in His people. It is not sexual purity, it is not respectability, it is not cleanliness; important as these qualities may be, what God seeks out most eagerly in the people He chooses is what the Bible calls “humility” or “faith”, the radical trust in God that is willing to wait for Him to act, the radical trust in God that does not try to accomplish by human means what God has promised to do.

Where we might rationalize it, where we could say to ourselves, “This situation is an open door from God. This must be God’s way of fulfilling His promise to me. Why else would He have given me this opportunity to take what He said I could have?” Abram’s understanding of God’s greatness would not allow such a rationalization. Whatever God does, He is the one who must do it; we cannot do it for Him; we cannot even help Him do it. Our role is to respond when He asks us to do something and otherwise to wait quietly and patiently for Him to act. The “open door” method of discerning God’s guidance is not a reliable method. For all his faults, for all his failures to understand God’s power to protect him, Abram showed that he was a man like Noah, a man who understood what it means to let God be God. It is the signature of the sort of faith God looks for now as He did then, that He fosters, that He teaches. I do not mean that faith was the cause of God’s love for Abram; only that He loves that quality in a person. It is the foundation of humility, just as its opposite, the willingness to do God’s work in His place, is the foundation of pride.

2 Comments on “35. Genesis 13:1 – 14:16”

  1. Thank you for sharing all of this knowledge and understanding so generously with the public. It is wonderful. God bless.

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