Bible Commentary: Genesis 14

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Genesis 14

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Abram Rescues Lot, Tithes to Melchizedek

The first nine verses of this chapter are packed with the kind of detail historians crave. But as yet, none of it helps to conclusively identify the nine kings listed here in the surviving records we have of the city-states of Canaan and Mesopotamia.

This chapter, along with the previous one, is also interesting for the glimpse we are given of Abram’s life in Canaan. Abram was rich in flocks, herds and gold. He possessed a large household consisting of those persons whom he acquired, either by purchase or through voluntary association. But this chapter also shows Abram as allied with three Canaanite chieftains—Mamre, Eshcol and Aner—and Abram himself is able to field a fighting troop of 318 men. Abram also appears to be rather skilled in the art of warfare. While it may seem odd for this man of God to be so engaged, one should bear in mind that Canaan was not a place of pleasant pastures and relative safety. Bandits often roamed the hill country, the Negev was often raided from the south and east, and relations between the various city-states were sometimes uneasy. And Abram was right in the middle of this.

Indeed, the common picture many have today of Abram as a simple nomadic shepherd is incorrect. For in Genesis 23:6 Genesis 23:6Hear us, my lord: you are a mighty prince among us: in the choice of our sepulchers bury your dead; none of us shall withhold from you his sepulcher, but that you may bury your dead.
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, he is identified as a “mighty prince” among the people of the land. Though he was certainly rich in flocks, we should see him more as a “merchant prince” leading a wealthy caravan. In fact, the places he chose to dwell, and that Isaac and Jacob chose after him, were important locations on trade routes. This being their true occupation is perhaps why Joseph had to later tell his family to state that they were shepherds in order to be segregated from the Egyptians (Genesis 46:31-34 Genesis 46:31-34 [31] And Joseph said to his brothers, and to his father's house, I will go up, and show Pharaoh, and say to him, My brothers, and my father's house, which were in the land of Canaan, are come to me; [32] And the men are shepherds, for their trade has been to feed cattle; and they have brought their flocks, and their herds, and all that they have. [33] And it shall come to pass, when Pharaoh shall call you, and shall say, What is your occupation? [34] That you shall say, Your servants' trade has been about cattle from our youth even until now, both we, and also our fathers: that you may dwell in the land of Goshen; for every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians.
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). This would not have been a lie as it was technically correct—yet the term shepherds was by no means a full and apt description of what they were. Indeed, the implication seems to be that if they had not said they were shepherds, they would have been fully welcomed among Egyptian high society just as Abram had earlier been—enough so that his wife Sarah was able to be noticed by the princes of Pharaoh’s court (Genesis 12:15 Genesis 12:15The princes also of Pharaoh saw her, and commended her before Pharaoh: and the woman was taken into Pharaoh's house.
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). And Joseph didn’t want that.

Getting back to the account here, it is interesting to see Abraham’s approach concerning his wealth and military capability. After pursuing and defeating the confederacy headed by Chedorlaomer and rescuing Lot, Abram returned. Coming out to meet him were the king of Sodom and Melchizedek, the King of Salem (i.e., of Jerusalem or simply of Peace). The mention of bread and wine brought by Melchizedek has caused some to suggest that these transactions occurred around the time of Passover. It is interesting to note that, flush with victory, Abram had God uppermost in mind. To Melchizedek Abram gave a tithe, or tenth, of all he had taken in battle. To the king of Sodom Abram returned the remaining goods, refusing to take any payment lest Abram’s wealth be attributed to his battle victory instead of the graciousness of God.

Concerning tithing, the Bible doesn’t say whether any of Abram’s ancestors or contemporaries also practiced it. Yet secular history reveals it as quite prevalent in the ancient world. The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary states: “Just when and where the idea arose of making the tenth the rate for paying tribute to rulers and of offering gifts as a religious duty cannot be determined. History reveals that it existed in Babylon in ancient times, also in Persia and Egypt, even in China. It is quite certain that Abraham knew of it when he migrated from Ur (Genesis 14:17-20)…. By Abraham’s day the giving of tithes had been recognized as a holy deed (cf. Hebrews 7:4 Hebrews 7:4Now consider how great this man was, to whom even the patriarch Abraham gave the tenth of the spoils.
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).” Indeed, The Encyclopaedia Britannica says that “the custom was almost universal in antiquity” (11th ed., vol. 26, “Tithes,” p. 1019). For this godly custom to have been so widespread, it is reasonable to believe that God had earlier given instructions to mankind regarding it—perhaps as far back as Adam and Eve.

Consider then: Did Abram tithe to simply honor God with a popular religious custom of the day? Or did he understand tithing to be a divine law instituted by the Creator? God later said of him, “Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws” (Genesis 26:5 Genesis 26:5Because that Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.
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). This disproves the widespread belief that the law of God didn’t come into effect until 400 years later in Moses’ day. For what statutes did Abraham keep? Interestingly, the practice of tithing is later listed as a statute of God (compare Leviticus 26:46 Leviticus 26:46These are the statutes and judgments and laws, which the LORD made between him and the children of Israel in mount Sinai by the hand of Moses.
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; Leviticus 27:30 Leviticus 27:30And all the tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land, or of the fruit of the tree, is the LORD's: it is holy to the LORD.
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); therefore we would conclude that this was one of the statues Abraham kept. Rather than tithing being something Abram came up with on his own or simply copied from pagan societies of his day, it is far more logical and scripturally consistent to conclude that God had revealed tithing as a sacred duty—a law to obey.

And what of Melchizedek? This chapter is the first of two Old Testament references to him. He is called King of Salem (which, Hebrews 7:2 Hebrews 7:2To whom also Abraham gave a tenth part of all; first being by interpretation King of righteousness, and after that also King of Salem, which is, King of peace;
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points out, means King of Peace) and priest of the Most High God. In Psalms 110:4 Psalms 110:4The LORD has sworn, and will not repent, You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.
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the coming Messiah is said to be made Priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek. In Hebrews, it is stated that Melchizedek is “without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life,” that He “remains a priest continually” and that He still lives (Hebrews 7:3 Hebrews 7:3Without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like to the Son of God; stays a priest continually.
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, Hebrews 7:8 Hebrews 7:8And here men that die receive tithes; but there he receives them, of whom it is witnessed that he lives.
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). This description can fit no mere human being. Comparing all the scriptures that mention Melchizedek, He is revealed to be none other than the preincarnate Jesus Christ. (For more information about who and what Jesus was before His human birth, request or download our booklet Who Is God?)

Supplementary Reading:A Mystery Solved: The Identity of Melchizedek,” Who Is God? pp. 24-25; “Why Tithe in Today’s World?,” What Does the Bible Teach About Tithing? pp. 2-8.

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