“Then went out the King of Sodom, and the King of Gomorrah, and the King of Admah and the King of Zeboiim, and the King of Bela, which is Zoar: and they joined battle with them in the vale of Siddim: to wit, with Cheder-laomer King of Elam, and Tidal King of nations, and Amraphel King of Shinar, and Arioch King of Ellasar: four kings against five” (Gen. 14: 8-9).
The battle of the kings is the first account we have of a military encounter between two opposing armies. While we feel assured that it was not the first such encounter, its placement in the book of Genesis has great internal significance that should not be ignored. For I sincerely doubt that Moses entered it into the sacred histories without just cause. And that it is later referred to in Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews, is the surest token of its symbolic value in reference to Christ’s eternal and unchanging priesthood, as well as the salvation and blessedness of His people.
Let us go back to the beginning, and sketch, if we can, the characters and setting of the story. We recall that Abraham and Lot, sojourning together from Haran, came into the land of Canaan (Gen. 12: 5), dwelling therein as pilgrims. Both were very rich in cattle, silver, and gold (Gen. 13: 2, 5). Yet it happened that the herdsmen of Lot and Abraham strove together, inasmuch as the land was not able to contain them both (Gen. 13: 6-7). And so Abraham entreated his nephew that they should part separate ways (Gen. 13: 8-9). At that time, the Canaanites and Perizzites were in the land (Gen. 13: 7). And lest the enemy be given occasion to blaspheme God, Abraham relinquished his own right and let Lot have choice in the matter. And herein we discern a fundamental difference between Abraham and his nephew, in that Lot picked the land of Sodom for his home, while Abraham chose Canaan– the land God had already promised him (Gen. 12: 7).
“So when Lot lifted up his eyes, he saw that all the plain of Jordan of was watered every where: (for before the LOrd destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, it was as the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, as thou goest unto Zoar). Then Lot chose unto him all the plain of Jordan and took his journey from the East: and they departed the one from the other. Abram dwelled in the land of Canaan, and Lot abode in the cities of the plain, and pitched his tent even to Sodom” (Gen. 13: 10-12). It is obvious that Lot was deceived by the fruitfulness of the land he chose. And so, many of God’s people today are likewise deceived by the pomp and splendor of the world, which becomes as wormwood and gall to them. Lot was soon to find that the people of Sodom were exceeding sinners against the Lord (Gen. 13: 13). Abraham, on the other hand, received confirmation of the Divine promises when he chose Canaan (Gen. 13: 14-17).
Thus, Lot preferred alliance with the men of this world, whereas Abraham remained in the land of promise, looking for the city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God (Hebrews 11: 10). Lot was content with earthly blessings, all of which would soon prove false. But Abraham accepted the earthly as a mere sign and earnest of the heavenly. In other words, Lot preferred the blessings in his hand– here and now– as many Christians still do. But Abraham preferred to trust in God and rely on His word, knowing in his heart that in due time it would be fulfilled. So much will patience and faith establish us in Christ. Lot’s alliance with the world caused him much sorrow and vexation (2 Peter 2: 8). And although the land was as the Garden of Eden, it became a hell for him. But Abraham had peace and joy with God. For he subsisted upon His providential protection, and had respect unto the promises. “Man shall not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matt. 4: 4). And so matters stood thuswise when war broke out.
What was the occasion of this war? Moses seems to hint that there was a covenant between the King of Elam and the cities of the plain. Of what this covenant consisted we are unsure, though it probably had to do with tribute and homage of some sort. At any rate, Moses records that the cities of the plain served the Kingdom of Chedor-laomer for twelve years, and in the thirteenth year rebelled (Gen. 14: 4). In doing so, however, they not only broke covenant, which is a sign of a wicked and depraved generation (Romans 1: 30), but endangered the safety of those throughout their dominions. For Chedor-laomer the king of Elam gathered together his allied forces and set out to punish the cities of the plain. His armies were quite destructive, though it is hard to give an assessment of their exact number. Judging from the geographical territory covered by their assaults, they must have been quite considerable–much larger than the small band of three hundred and eighteen wherewith Abraham gained victory (Gen. 14: 14). But this disparity brings to mind God’s promise to His people: “And five of you shall chase an hundred, and a hundred of you shall put ten thousand to flight, and your enemies shall fall before you upon the sword” (Lev. 26: 8).
When Chedor-laomer’s forces moved against the recreant kings, there was probably some opposition from the cities eastward the plain. For the Emims, a race of giants dwelling nigh Kiriathaim, were smitten (Gen. 14: 5), as well as those close upon the borders of Edom (Gen. 14: 6). The army moved westward, destroying the inhabitants of those districts in which the Amelekites later settled. And they probably sent a contingent to advance across the plain, unto the vicinity of Engedi, where then stood the ancient city of Hazezon-Tamar. Thus it appears that they made a decisive attack in well-organized fashion. This speaks eloquently of the military strategy then employed– which was countered by a cunning attempt on the part of Sodom’s confederates to lure the forces of Elam into the slime-pits that abounded in the vale of Siddim (Gen. 14: 10). The two armies came together in that place, and the battle was joined. However, the Sodomites were utterly put to rout, and caught in the very trap they laid for the enemy. Their forces then dispersed and fled into the mountain. As Chedor-laomer’s troops fell upon the city of Sodom, Lot was taken captive. Thus the covenant-breakers were defeated.
A consultation of ancient maps shows us that the cities of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, have since been submerged beneath the waters of the Salt Sea. Only Zoar was spared, for it was that city in which Lot sought refuge (Gen. 19: 20-23). Most maps place Zoar on the small promontory that juts into the sea from the mainland. This “sea,” or lake, is known by many of the older theologians as Asphaltitis. And John Lightfoot draws a curious parallel between it and the “lake of fire” (Rev. 20: 14). However, at the time of the battle it was a fruitful plain; and its cities were lush and prosperous. Yet notwithstanding their beauty and opalescence, iniquity stalked abroad. And Ezekiel the prophet tells us that Sodom’s fall was due mainly to pride, fullness of bread, abundance of idleness, and neglect of the poor (Ezekiel 16: 49). Let all generations of all ages heed the prophet’s warning, lest we too fall into their error, and be condemned to undergo their fate. The cities of the plain have since perished, and not a trace of them remains.
It seems to us that the vanquishing of these cities by the confederation of Elam would have served as a warning to the faithless and disobedient. Howbeit, we find no repentance in their history. And this absence of all conscience is frightening. It puts us in mind of Paul’s precept, that “evil men and deceivers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Tim. 3: 13). At any rate, once Lot was taken, Abraham was informed of the event by one who had escaped being captured (Gen. 14: 13). And Abraham’s righteousness is manifested in that he delayed not an instant, but rose up, gathered together his band of three hundred and eighteen men, and pursued the enemy forces unto Dan. By this time the enemy had moved northward beyond the borders of the the salt sea. It is uncertain whether they were continuing their ravages in this direction, or fleeing from before Abraham’s army. Once they came to Hobah, which was on the left side of Damascus, Abraham, leading an assault under cover of darkness, overthrew them completely, delivering Lot and saving the captives out of Chedor-laomer’s hands (Gen. 14: 15-16). During the battle the four kings were slain (Gen. 14: 17). Hence Paul calls this encounter “the slaughter of the kings” (Hebrews 7: 1).
Now Abraham gathered his men together and proceeded southward. He was probably returning to the plain of Mamre in Hebron, where he dwelt at the time (Gen. 13: 18). His journey took him through the environs of Jerusalem; and as he traveled, the Priest Melchizedek came to meet him at Shaveh. But where was Shaveh located? After consulting some of the foremost theologians, I must agree with the general consensus that Shaveh, or the King’s Dale, lay in the valley of Jehoshaphat. For it was in this same valley that Absalom erected a pillar (2 Sam. 18: 18). Bishop John P. Newman, who made extensive explorations throughout the area, places the existing monument one thousand feet below the great bridge that spans the Kidron. It is often referred to as “The Tomb of Absalom.” In his book From Dan to Beersheba (1864), Newman remarks: “This is probably the pillar which Absalom in his lifetime reared up for himself in the King’s Dale.” Mediaeval and modern tradition also place the location of the Dale in the immediate vicinity of Jerusalem, in the valley through which the River Kidron flows.
The Valley is bordered on the west by Mount Moriah, and on the east by the Mount of Olives. This position has great internal significance. For it is here that Christ is represented as judging all nations (Joel 3: 12). And it is probably from Mount Moriah that King Melchizedek came down to greet Abraham after his victory. Salem was the ancient name of Jerusalem, as is recorded by Josephus. The Scripture also testifies of this in Psalm 76: 2: “For in Salem is His tabernacle, and His dwelling in Zion.” Thus Melchizedek must have been king of the ancient city of Jerusalem. This leads us to the opinion that it was at that time a center of Divine worship. Thus, even then was Jerusalem a city of righteousness: though in later times it degenerated to a level of depravity which we can hardly imagine (Judges 1: 5-7). Nevertheless, it was thither that Abraham went to do homage to the Most High.
When the King Melchizedek came forth to meet Abraham, he brought forth bread and wine (Gen. 14: 18). The two sacraments of the Lord’s Supper! Surely there is more meaning in this act than most theologians recognize. The 1560 Geneva Bible commentary states: “In that Melchizedek fed Abraham, he declared himself to represent a king: and in that he blessed him, the High Priest.” In my view, this interpretation is the one that most fits the truth. The meeting between Abraham and Melchizedek has great symbolic meaning; for it provides types which have their sole relevance in the Gospel Dispensation. The bread is the body of Jesus Christ, the wine is His blood (Matt. 26: 26-28). Abraham enters the King’s Dale weary and footsore, but there he partakes of communion with the High Priest. Thus, He is refreshed by this confirmation of God’s grace. We believe, therefore, that the meeting typifies the consummation of Christ’s kingdom, when the saints, who have overcome their enemies, will enter into the joy of the Lord. Perhaps this is what Christ meant when He said: “Abraham rejoiced to see my day, and he saw it, and was glad” (John 8: 56). For Melchizedek represents Jesus Christ Himself (Hebrews 6: 20; 7: 3, 20-21).
Moses then relates that Melchizedek gave Abraham his benediction: “Blessed art thou, Abram, of God most High possessor of Heaven and Earth. And blessed be the Most High God, which hath delivered thine enemies into thine hand” (Gen. 14: 19-20). Paul declares the superiority of Melchizedek over Abraham: “And without all contradiction the less is blessed of the better” (Hebrews 7: 7). This is certainly the primary reason that the patriarch gave him tithes of all. And yet the tithing also has deep internal meaning, for according to Paul, it shows that the the legal priesthood was subject to the everlasting priesthood of the Son Of God (Hebrews 7: 9-28). Thus, Abraham, in his act, freely acknowledges the subordination of law to grace. And his act of homage confirms this truth for all generations.
The King of Sodom appears at this point, and suggests that Abraham take the goods to himself, while he keeps the persons (Gen. 14: 21). But Abraham will hear of no such thing. As a matter of fact, he shuns any notion of being enriched by the King of Sodom, and so he declines (Gen. 14: 23). Nevertheless, being a righteous man, he would not have his liberality deprive others of their just rewards. And so he gives his servants leave to help themselves to the spoil (Gen. 14: 24). We’ll find that during the entire history of the battle, from its very beginning to its final outcome, Abraham behaved with exemplary justice. He, than which few stand more worthy of being called the children of God, is a man whose character and attributes we’d do well to study in today’s time. For while his name is often associated with the purely temporal promises, he himself had little concern for such things, but was a mere sojourner in this present evil world. He was also one of the great prophets of the church (Gen. 20: 7). And looking unto him as an example of our own faith and walk will add fresh perspective to our studies, and help us to “grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3: 18). Blessed be the name of Abraham!