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Genesis 14

Abram gave [Melchizedek] a tenth of everything. 21 The king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the captives; the goods you may keep.” 22 But Abram replied to the king of Sodom: “I have sworn to the Lord, God Most High, the creator of heaven and earth, 23 that I would not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap from anything that is yours, so that you cannot say, ‘I made Abram rich.’

Normally readers of the Bible focus on the spiritual significance of Abram's tithe. Here, I ask about its immediate political implications as well. The king of Sodom was Abram's ally in the war that liberated Abram's nephew Lot. On their way south after the victory, Melchizedek came out from Salem and met with Abram, giving him the blessing of El Elyon (God Most High). Abram responded by offering his tithe. Immediately after this the king of Sodom demanded to be given the war captives but would allow Abram to keep the other plunder. Abram refused on the ground that he had sworn not to receive anything at all from the king of Sodom. He has made this oath in the name of "the Lord, God Most High" (Yahweh El Elyon).

My question is this: Does this oath - combining the names by which Abram and Melchizedek related to God - imply that Abram is now both politically and religiously allied with Melchizedek, as opposed to his recent ally, the king of Sodom? Since Melchizedek is the king of the area's largest city, does Melchizedek's reception of Abram's tithe imply that Salem will protect Abram's clan from Sodom?

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Interesting idea. I cannot deduce such from the text Gen 14. Abram's allies both before and after his victory appear to have been:

  • his friends Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre (Gen 14:13, 24) who probably each contributed a similar military force as did Abram to the achieve the victory
  • Melchizedek, king of Salem/Jerusalem. It is quite evident that Melchizedek and Abram were quite familiar with each other well before this incident because of their common "God Most High"
  • The King of Sodom would have been known to Abram because his nephew, Lot, lived there. This king would have been extremely indebted to Abram for returning the plunder. That is, the king of Sodom received far more in goods (via the returned plunder) than did Melchizedek.

Thus, I see no new alliances, but merely a strengthening of existing alliances. Further, it is also apparent that Abram's oath (V22) was taken before the incident occurred.

APPENDIX - Gen 23

There is another incident in Gen 23 that illustrates Abraham's unwillingness to form any alliances with the people around him. While the Hittites are willing, due to their stated respect for Abraham's military and spiritual standing, to gift him the cave of Machpelah, Abraham insists on paying the exorbitant sum of 400 shekels of silver.

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  • +1 - Is there evidence of Abram and Melchizedek knowing each other previously other than their common worship? Some commentators think this meeting was a first, marking the beginning point of the Hebrew religion and Canaanite religion merging into a new tradition where yhwh and 'el' are identical. Dec 31, 2023 at 1:12
  • @DanFefferman - there is no recorded meeting between the two that I am aware of. However, an early traditional Rabbinic idea suggests that Melchizedek was Shem, but this is impossible to prove. In any case, the fact that Abram went out of his way (Salam was some distance from the action) suggests that he knew him and paid tithe to him meant it was not an accidental meeting.
    – Dottard
    Dec 31, 2023 at 4:17
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Despite the question suggested, my opinion is;

  1. The king of Sodom was not Abram's ally; rather, he was an ungodly figure in Abram's view.
  2. Abram did not have war captives. Instead, he saved those people and goods that originally belonged to Sodom and Gomorrah.
  3. There is no evidence that Melchizedek had political influence or that his city was the largest in the area.

1. Abram and the king of Sodom

Genesis 14:22-24 NIV

22 But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “With raised hand I have sworn an oath to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, 23 that I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the strap of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, ‘I made Abram rich.’ 24 I will accept nothing but what my men have eaten and the share that belongs to the men who went with me—to Aner, Eshkol and Mamre. Let them have their share.

In Genesis 14:13, Aner, Eshkol and Mamre are mentioned as allies of Abram. Together they defeated Kedorlaomer and his alliance. Abram did not keep any goods that belonged to the king of Sodom, but allowed his allies to take their share. This indicate that Abram saw the king of Sodom an ungodly figure, possibly because he had heard about the city's reputation from his nephew Lot who lived there.

2. Abram and his plunder

Genesis 14:11-12; 16 NIV

11 The four kings seized all the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah and all their food; then they went away. 12 They also carried off Abram’s nephew Lot and his possessions, since he was living in Sodom.............16 He recovered all the goods and brought back his relative Lot and his possessions, together with the women and the other people.

Verse 16 indicated Abram only recovered what once been captured by Kedorlaomer and his alliance from Sodom and Gomorrah.

3. Melchizedek

The picture below shows a possible route of conflicts in Genesis 14. enter image description here

In Genesis 14, Melchizedek, king of Salem did not participate in the war, and it is doubtful if he was an ally to the kings in his surrounding. Not being an ally hardly claims any political influence. Abram offered him a tithe, a fixed amount of religious offering. However, there is no fixed term for his political allies, Aner, Eshkol, and Mamre.

I did some research and found there is no reliable sources of population studies about the cities in Canaan during Abraham's time. However, if we consider Jericho, a city that existed 6000 years before Abraham, located in the warmer Jordan valley relative to the mountain range of Jerusalem, it is possible that Jericho was larger than Jerusalem in population.

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  • Sodom's king probably was indeed ungodly in Abram's sight but politics makes strange bedfellows. Nevertheless, you make an important point. It is not stated that Abram was in an alliance with the king of Sodom. I can't agree that Abraham took no captives, but once again I admit this is not specifically stated. Abraham had many slaves and it is likely that many of them were captured in war IMO. But you are clearly mistaken about Melchizedek - he is called both "priest of El Elyon" AND "king of salem" in Gen. 14.18. Dec 31, 2023 at 1:25
  • @DanFefferman - I apologize for the previous mistake that Melchizedek was not a king. Thank you for correcting me and I had edited my answer. I do not think Abram took captives from the four kings. Abram was a righteous man in God's sight and his main target was to save Lot. I don't think he would have taken advantage of the situation for his own gain, as proven by the fact that he did not participate in his share of the plunder. Dec 31, 2023 at 4:42

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