08 Jan

Chapter 02: Lot, Sodom, and the War with the Kings

2.1 Separation of Abraham and Lot

13: (1) And Abram went up out of Egypt, he, and his wife, and all that he had, and Lot with him, into the south. (2) And Abram was very rich in cattle, in silver, and in gold. (3) And he went on his journeys from the south even to Beth-el, unto the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Beth-el and Hai; (4) Unto the place of the altar, which he had made there at the first: and there Abram called there on the name of HaShem.

On his return from Egypt, Abraham settled down in his previous location, in the Beit El and Mount Baal Hazor regions, and there he “called on the name of God” again—that is, he continued his preaching activities. But, by this time, his surroundings had changed entirely: his disciples, brought from Babylon, had remained in Shechem; he now had slave-students, brought from Egypt, and he himself had the status of Pharaoh’s ally.

We have already noted that the entire Lekh Lekha portion is a series of trials for Abraham, in which, instead of hesed, that is, spreading his teachings to everyone, he is expected to narrow the target group through which his legacy will be delivered to humanity. At first, Abraham separates himself from Babylon, the country in which he began his religious activity; next, on his arrival in the Holy Land, he separates himself from those students, which he brought from Babylon; now, after his return from Egypt, it is time for Abraham to separate himself from Lot.

(5) And Lot also, who went with Abram, had flocks, and herds, and tents. 

The Torah emphasizes that Lot “went with Abram,” which implies that they not only walked physically together, but also that Lot was Abraham’s student and one of his followers. Abraham says about Lot, “we are brethren” (literally “brothers”), and this most likely refers to more than just origin. Possibly, Abraham also feels a special obligation in regard to Lot, since Haran, Lot’s father, died, in a sense, because of Abraham. However, there comes a time when Abraham’s further development demands a separation from Lot.

(6) And the land was not able to bear them, that they might dwell together: for their substance was great, so that they could not dwell together. (7) And there was a strife between the herdmen of Abram’s cattle and the herdmen of Lot’s cattle: and the Canaanite and the Perizzite dwelled then in the land.

Lot also has his “herdsmen,” that is, students of his own school. The land is cramped for them not because there is not enough room on it for grazing: since no matter how much common property there was, it would not, on its own, interfere with joint management. The problem lies elsewhere: in the discrepancy between Abraham’s mindset and that of Lot, reflected in the clash between their followers-herdsmen.

The Torah notes that the dispute between the herdsmen occurs in front of the Canaanites and the Perizzites—the Canaanite nations who lived in the Land at that time. Based on this, the Midrash claims the dispute between the herdsmen is an argument about what their approach to the locals should be. According to the Midrash, Lot’s herdsmen argued that “the land is promised to Abraham, but he has no children, so it follows that the land will be handed down to Lot. Therefore, we can consider it to already belong to Lot, and can do anything we want on it.” This is why Lot’s herdsmen grazed their sheep in others’ fields. But Abraham’s herdsmen did not act this way, and thus a conflict arose between them. This suggests that Abraham not only acted righteously himself, but also demanded his herdsmen act this way. Lot, although a good person, allowed his herdsmen to graze their cattle in others’ fields and did not prevent them from doing so.

Abraham is different because he not only professes ethical monotheism, but also constantly aims to spread it, actively re-educating those surrounding him. But Lot is not like him. Although personally a righteous person, he does not try to influence those surrounding him but reconciles himself to the herdsmen’s unrighteous behavior and later with Sodom.

Possibly, Abraham initially really did look at Lot as a potential heir, but the behavior of Lot’s shepherds (and Lot’s position regarding them) showed how unrealizable this wish was, and separation became the only way out.

(8) And Abram said unto Lot, Let there be no strife, I pray thee, between me and thee, and between my herdmen and thy herdmen; for we are brethren. (9) Is not the whole land before thee? Separate thyself, I pray thee, from me: if thou wilt take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if thou take the right hand, then I will go to the left.

The Midrash understands the words “the right hand” and “the left hand” as “if you go left, then I will be your support from the right.” In other words, Abraham did not want to go far from Lot, as he felt that Lot had the potential to bear King David. For this reason he said “we are brethren”—not only now, but in the future as well, our descendents must intermarry.

Abraham and Lot were both people of hesed; however, at the given moment, it was hesed that prevented the establishment of normal relations with Lot.

Of course, if Abraham had taken it upon himself to decide the dispute between the herdsmen, he could have easily put Lot’s herdsmen in their place. The dispute, once begun, demanded a strict decision, but Abraham who embodies the category of hesed does not want to use the measure of judgment; he longs only for agreement and peace. He says “let there be no strife,” and therefore suggests coming to an agreement by way of dividing the land.

(10) And Lot lifted up his eyes, and beheld all the plain of Jordan, that it was well watered everywhere, before HaShem destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, like the garden of HaShem, like the land of Egypt, as thou goest unto Zoar. (11) So Lot chose him all the plain of Jordan; and Lot journeyed east: and they separated themselves the one from the other. (12) Abram dwelled in the land of Canaan, and Lot dwelled in the cities of the Plain, and moved his tent as far as Sodom.

Lot chose for himself the Jordan Valley, up to the southern tip of the Dead Sea, where Sodom was located; Abraham decided on the central highlands of Canaan. We have already noted that at the time, this geographical line corresponded to the border of two spheres of influence: the lands along the Jordan River Valley and east of it were in the Babylonian sphere of influence; the steep and often impenetrable mountain pass from this valley to the west was the border; and the central mountainous region at the center of the Land and everything west of it was in the Egyptian sphere of influence. Abraham, who from the time of his visit to Egypt held the status of Pharaoh’s ally, settled within Egypt’s sphere of influence. (We will see below that Abraham, along with his Egyptian slave-students, moves further still, into the city of Hebron, not very far from Sodom, where Lot settled; Hebron would become the city which would be the “representative of Egypt” in the Land of Israel).

(13) Now the men of Sodom were wicked and sinners against HaShem exceedingly.

Although the people of Sodom were apparently sinful before God, Lot decided to settle there. This decision, however, does not necessarily need to be interpreted in a negative light. We will see later that Lot holds the position of judge in Sodom; nevertheless, he protests the Sodomite customs and defends travelers, risking his life and the well-being of his family. Possibly, Lot hopes he will be able to influence the people of Sodom towards a better direction and re-educate them.

The Torah emphasizes the contrast between Abraham and Lot: while Abraham (as we will see later) does “not take a thread nor a shoe-latchet” from Sodom, Lot is willing to live in Sodom. Therefore, it is Sodom that illuminates their differences.

Lot differs from Abraham in other aspects. While one is a clear fault, the second is possibly somewhat of a virtue: (1) his righteousness is weak, while his hesed and sympathy are incorrect and “redundant”; On the other hand, (2) he is inclined to order and statehood, and sees a positive seed in Sodom which he wants to develop to correct the city. This “statehood” in Lot is a manifestation of the future sphere of malkhut, out of which David, his descendant, will emerge.

2.2 Lot: Excessive Hesed and the House of David

Lot was righteous, but also characterless; he represents an incorrect, excessive type of hesed. Lot wants to do good to everyone, and even agrees to be the judge in Sodom despite its monstrous laws. He is ready to offer his own daughters to the Sodomite crowd in order to protect his guests, but cannot even demand proper behavior from his herdsmen. This shows that while he is generally a kind person, he does not have the right yardstick for assessing his own actions and those of other people, nor the principles on which he could properly base his hesed. As opposed to Abraham, Lot’s hesed does not have a clearly defined ethical mindset.

We discussed earlier that Abraham took Lot with him to the land of Canaan, even though there was no instruction from God regarding this. Lot went to, and left, Egypt along with Abraham. When they separate, Abraham does so in a way that allows him to not go far from Lot and stay in contact with him. Subsequently, Abraham starts a war against the four kings in order to free Lot. Thus, he is ready to even risk his own life for Lot’s sake. It is therefore evident that Lot is very important to Abraham.

Afterwards, Lot’s two daughters will conceive from their father and bear sons, from whom the Ammonites and Moabites will originate. These two nations stood in stark contrast to Abraham: they completely lacked the category of hesed, to such a degree that Jews were forbidden to accept Moabite and Ammonite men, that is, they were forbidden to convert them. However, the Ammonite and Moabite women were allowed to convert to Judaism: the Moabite Ruth and the Ammonite Naamah not only joined the Jewish people but also became part of the Davidic royal dynasty. Ruth married Boaz (her story is told in detail in the Book of Ruth), and their great-grandson was King David, and his son, Solomon, was married to Naamah. Thus, the royal line and the Messiah of Israel come, in part, from Lot.

Lot possessed something truly necessary for the eventual creation of the Jewish royal dynasty. Therefore, when his herdsmen considered him Abraham’s heir, they were not entirely mistaken. Lot provided an additional spark of hesed, which was superfluous for the nation as a whole, but nonetheless essential for the building of the House of David.

The reason for this is that the royal house was always in need of additional hesed with respect to the entire nation. As we remember from the Book of Ruth, Ruth became a Jew only because her hesed was greater than that of those surrounding her, and so she, so to speak, “pulled out” that spark which was in Lot to later pass it on to the Jewish royal house.

In principle, kings of all nations tend to display gevura, that is, power and dominion; they must coerce, punish, and even execute. Kings’ sons know from childhood that they have enormous control over their country, and this often corrupts even the most morally stable souls. Therefore, the royal line is in danger of quick deterioration. In order to avoid degradation, the royal line requires additional hesed in relation to the common people, that is, a desire embedded in the “spiritual genotype” to give to others rather than take for oneself. In the Jewish royal dynasty, in the House of David, this hesed entered through Ruth and was further strengthened through Naamah.

As a result, the House of David has a heightened resistance to damage caused by power, and this is one of the reasons for its exceptional importance to Jewish history. Of course, the Davidic dynasty also had its unrighteous kings, idol-worshippers, etc., but generally the proper mindset remained throughout their entire five-hundred-year reign. In other lines, even if their founding fathers had earned power through the merit of their outstanding righteousness, their children or grandchildren quickly degraded and lost their spiritual grandeur, which could never again be recovered. Most notably, this happened to the Hasmoneans of the line of Maccabees. The first generation of Hasmoneans who started a revolution against the Greeks and took over the royal throne, was considered to be laudable, and were supported by the entire nation; but their descendants quickly descended below this level, as power corrupts immensely. They set up a corrupt and unrighteous system of government, and began to lead unnecessary civil wars and wars of conquest, losing the pre-existing spiritual heights. Thanks to the particular character of the House of David, it is considered in the Jewish tradition to be the ideal kingdom, and Jews pray for its restoration, while but no similar honor is bestowed upon the House of the Hasmoneans.

2.3 The Confirmation of Abraham’s Covenant with God after his Separation from Lot

(14) And HaShem said unto Abram, after that Lot was separated from him, ‘Lift up now thine eyes, and look from the place where thou art northward, and southward and eastward and westward. (15) For all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever. (16) And I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth: so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then shall thy seed also be numbered’. 

God emphasizes “to thy seed,” that is, emphasizes the decision to separate from Lot was indeed correct. From weak material such as Lot, sympathetic to Abraham’s ideas but unwilling to realize them, it would be impossible to create the Chosen People.

God’s promise emphasizes the indivisibility of the country: “all the land” (and, indeed, the view from Mount Baal Hazor, where Abraham was at the time, extends over the entire country). The territorial division with Lot is temporary, and in the future the entire country must belong to Abraham’s descendants. However, since Abraham nonetheless divided the country with Lot, God makes it that the Jewish people do not control the country entirely at any given stage in their development. In particular, in some chapters of the Book of Genesis, the Covenant applies only to Canaan, in which case the Torah talks about “territory of seven nations,” and sometimes the Covenant includes the lands to the east of the Jordan River and the Red Sea as well, and in this case the Torah talks of the “land of ten nations.”

2.4 God’s Covenant with Abraham regarding the People and Country

We have already noted that during the span of Abraham’s life, God makes several successive covenants with him. The first took place in Haran, when God called Abraham to depart for the Holy Land. The second time, it was in Shechem; the third, after the separation from Lot. In every instance God speaks of the future nation and its country, and nowhere is the Torah mentioned in the sense of a system of commandments.

This is typical of all of God’s covenants with the forefathers. They all speak of the creation of a nation of many people and of obtaining their country. Furthermore, these covenants all talk about a connection with God, ideals, and the integration of mercy and justice (we will study this in more detail below). The commandments as a concrete code of conduct are given only at Sinai during the time of Moses, and are not mentioned as such in the covenants of the forefathers.

In Judaism therefore, first comes the nation, the country, and a connection with God, while commandments and laws exist only as a method of achieving these values.

(This approach is contrary to the understanding of Judaism in the Diaspora, and therefore many religious leaders in the 19th century opposed Zionism, which, to their understanding, replaced the “spiritual” elements of Judaism with “material-territorial-national” values. In response, one Zionist leader formulated his approach in this way: “We will have exactly as much sky above our heads as ground beneath our feet.”)

2.5 Abraham’s Resettlement in Hebron

Further, God says to Abraham:

(17) Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for unto thee I will give it.

Abraham could not remain in one place, even if it was the center of the country. He had to personally walk the entire country for his descendants to own it. Here, again, the principle of “the deeds of the fathers are a sign for the sons” is made evident. That which the forefathers do is projected upon their descendants; so, in order for Abraham’s descendants to control the land in the future, Abraham had to first travel all of it himself.

And Abram moved his tent, and came and dwelt by the terebinths of Mamre, which is in Hebron, and built there an altar unto HaShem. (13:18)

Hebron, much like Beth El, is located on “a mountain” (the central mountainous ridge of the Land), but farther south, that is, closer to Sodom where Lot settled. And, more importantly, Hebron is the City of Kingship (it was precisely here that King David began to reign), and life in this city will demand from Abraham a display of gevura, a quality which God wants to develop in Abraham.

2.6 The War of Kings

Right after this, in the fourteenth chapter of the Book of Genesis, we read about the “world war” in which one coalition of kings fought against another, and into which Abraham also got dragged. From a historical-political perspective, the war began because one group of kings started a revolt against the rule of another group of kings. However, in the dialogue between God and Abraham, dragging Abraham into the war was God’s response to Abraham not wanting to form an appropriate hierarchical relationship with Lot and choosing to simply break away from him. Not wanting to make a harsh decision, Abraham gave Lot part of the Land, and faced a war in return. (Had Lot not been captured, which happened because Lot broke away and settled in Sodom, Abraham would not have been dragged into the military operation.)

Abraham was trying to avoid even a small conflict, and as a result got drawn into a large conflict. This is a common development of similar situations. The reluctance to make local, harsh decisions today turns into a necessity to fight on the larger scale tomorrow.

The Torah describes the war between the kings in the following way:

(1) And it came to pass in the days of Amraphel king of Shinar, Arioch king of Ellasar, Chedorlaomer king of Elam, and Tidal king of Goiim, (2) that they made war with Bera king of Sodom, and with Birsha king of Gomorrah, Shinab king of Admah, and Shemeber king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela–the same is Zoar. (3) All these came as allies unto the vale of Siddim–the same is the Salt Sea. (4) Twelve years they served Chedorlaomer, and in the thirteenth year they rebelled. (5) And in the fourteenth year came Chedorlaomer and the kings that were with him, and smote the Rephaim in Ashteroth-karnaim, and the Zuzim in Ham, and the Emim in Shaveh-kiriathaim, (6) and the Horites in their mount Seir, unto El-paran, which is by the wilderness. (7) And they turned back, and came to En-mishpat–the same is Kadesh–and smote all the country of the Amalekites, and also the Amorites, that dwelt in Hazazon-tamar.

Without going into a detailed historical identification of all the kings, the geography of their kingdoms, and the regions of military operations, we can note in general that the coalition of Chedorlaomer includes the kings of the different regions of Babylon and its surrounding countries. The name Shinar directs us to the story of the Tower of Babel (11:2). Since the previous king of Shinar (10:11) was Nimrod, Amrafel is associated with him.

The kings who were subordinates of the Babylonians and then “rebelled,” were the kings of the city-states located around the Dead Sea (as we noted above, this region and that of the Jordan Valley belonged to the Babylonian sphere of influence).

Thus, the kings under Babylonian rule start a rebellion, and then the suppression of the uprising begins. During the military operations, the Babylonian kings conquer the areas surrounding the Dead Sea and Sodom, but do not go upland into the Land of Canaan, where Abraham lives, because this is already in Egypt’s sphere of influence.

(8) And there 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–the same is Zoar; and they set the battle in array against them in the vale of Siddim; (9) against Chedorlaomer king of Elam, and Tidal king of Goiim, and Amraphel king of Shinar, and Arioch king of Ellasar; four kings against the five. (10) Now the vale of Siddim was full of slime pits; and the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, and they fell there, and they that remained fled to the mountain.(11) And they took all the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah, and all their victuals, and went their way. (12) And they took Lot, Abram’s brother’s son, who dwelt in Sodom, and his goods, and departed.

The Valley of Siddim is the southern part of the Dead Sea. It is very shallow and sometimes dries over completely, turning into an asphalt swamp. Then many tar pits are created there, into which the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fell. The “mountain” onto which the survivors fled is in the Hebron region, where Abraham lived at the time (since this was Egypt’s sphere of influence, one could hide there from the Babylonian troops). When everyone fled, the Babylonian kings took all of Sodom’s and Gomorrah’s property, all of their food stores, and Lot, Abraham’s nephew, and began to move back towards Babylon.

We should note, then, that as a result of this war, all the nations which lived around the Jordan River and the Dead Sea were wiped out. Thus, these regions became sparsely populated, and people from Abraham’s family would later settle there, namely, the descendants of Lot, Ishmael, and Esau (this is the reason for the Torah’s detailed lists of the participators and geographic regions of this war).

(13) And there came one that had escaped, and told Abram the Hebrew–now he dwelt by the terebinths of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol, and brother of Aner; and these were confederate with Abram. (14) And when Abram heard that his brother was taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, three hundred and eighteen, and pursued as far as Dan. (15) And he divided himself against them by night, he and his servants, and smote them, and pursued them unto Hobah, which is on the left hand of Damascus. (16) And he brought back all the goods, and also brought back his brother Lot, and his goods, and the women also, and the people.

Abraham suddenly appears before us in a totally unexpected light: it turns out he has political and military allies (that is, there is a military alliance which is spread over Hebron and its surrounding areas) prepared to fight the Babylonians, in addition to the considerable military force at his disposal, with whose help he achieves victory.

The expression “Abraham the Hebrew” emphasizes that Abraham acts here from both religious and national-relative considerations. (We noted above that this is the first place in the Torah where the ethnonym “Hebrew”/ “Jew” is used, and explained the connection between the concept of a “Jew” and the monotheism of Abraham and his family.)

However, as so often happens in the history of the Jewish people, the main difficulty lies not in the victory of the war, but in the proper usage of the results of this victory.

2.7 Abraham and the King of Sodom

(17) And the king of Sodom went out to meet him, after his return from the slaughter of Chedorlaomer and the kings that were with him, at the vale of Shaveh–the same is the King’s Vale. (18) And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine; and he was priest of G-d the Most High. (19) And he blessed him, and said: ‘Blessed be Abram of G-d Most High, Maker of heaven and earth; (20) and blessed be G-d the Most High, who hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand.’ And he gave him a tenth of all. (21) And the king of Sodom said unto Abram: ‘Give me the persons, and take the goods to thyself.’ (22) And Abram said to the king of Sodom: ‘I have lifted up my hand unto HaShem, G-d Most High, Maker of heaven and earth, (23) that I will not take a thread nor a shoe-latchet nor aught that is thine, lest thou shouldest say: I have made Abram rich; (24) save only that which the young men have eaten, and the portion of the men which went with me, Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre, let them take their portion.’

In reading this story, we often, habitually, admire Abraham’s generosity, his “non-possessiveness,” his reluctance to take a portion of the far-from-fairly acquired spoils of Sodom. However, if we think deeper about this story, we can see it in an entirely different light.

Upon Abraham’s return, he is given a triumphant reception in the Valley of Shaveh, also known as the King’s Dale, and is now called the Kidron Valley in the Jerusalem region. All the surrounding kings, including the kings of Sodom and Jerusalem, greet Abraham and are willing to recognize his supremacy, since after the victory of the war, Abraham became the dominating military-political figure in the region, and had all the rights of supremacy over the rescued from invasions neighbors.

As a result of the war, the territory under Abraham’s sphere of influence expanded significantly. Initially, his sovereignty was recognized by the town of Shechem in the center of Samaria where Abraham’s students settled. Hebron, the center city of the future region of Judea, was also under the control of Abraham and his allies. After the war, the flowering Jordan Valley and the regions around the Dead Sea also should have fallen under his rule, because he defeated the kings who came from Babylon. Finally, even the king of Jerusalem Melchizedek, the region that unites Judea and Samaria, was willing to recognize his authority. Hence, Abraham could become king of a fairly large kingdom spreading over the central part of the Land.

It seems Abraham has come close to realizing God’s promise about him gaining power over the Land. However, Abraham rejects this opportunity because he has not yet recognized that he must create a nation and, consequently, build a kingdom. Abraham does not want to be a political ruler, controlling the lives of his subjects with his commands. He still thinks his main mission in life is to propagate, bring people closer to God and to moral lives, exclusively on the basis of their own personal choice. He therefore rejects the power which comes into his hands on its own.

When Melchizedek comes out to greet Abraham, the Torah emphasizes he is “the priest of God the Most High.” If Abraham had considered himself the forefather of a nation—and, consequently, a political leader—he would not have given Melchizedek “a tenth of all” but would have proclaimed himself ruler of the Land and appointed Melchizedek as a priest within Abraham’s kingdom. However, Abraham does nothing of the sort. He behaves not as a leader, but as an individual, a private person who gives one-tenth of the acquired goods to the priest.

When the Sodomite king sees the way the events unfold, i.e. it turns out that the victor is not planning on seizing power after all, he does not feel gratitude, in accordance with the typical mentality of Sodom, but rather becomes impertinent. He says to Abraham, “Give me the persons, and take the goods to thyself,” thereby demonstrating his Sodomic character, because by the laws of war, both the property and people of Sodom belong to Abraham, as he is the victor of the war. The king of Sodom, instead of expressing gratitude to Abraham for saving him and his nation and acknowledging himself to be Abraham’s subordinate, proposes to divide people and spoils, as if he had equal credit in the victory.

Abraham, naturally, acts nobly by refusing to take anything from the king of Sodom’s property. But was this the proper behavior? Possibly, Abraham should have done the opposite: he should have declared that both the property and the people all belong to him, and that the king of Sodom is now obligated to obey him, in particular, obligated to change the disgusting laws of Sodom to more humane ones. Abraham should have tried to re-educate the Sodomites at least slightly, but he did not make any such attempt. As a result, Sodom sank lower and lower until they had to be destroyed, and Lot and his family had to settle in a cave, and because of this Lot’s daughters give birth to the Ammonites and Moabites from their father. So, Abraham is indirectly to blame for all of this.

Abraham did not desire to reign; he wanted to teach those around him a moral lesson, for it to be evident to all that under no circumstances was it acceptable to take from the unjust king of Sodom. This type of behavior was very noble on an individual level, but completely erroneous on the level of a king. In other words, from the point of view of individual ethics, Abraham acts as an absolutely righteous man here, but if expected to reach a national level of ethics, Abraham does not pass the test. For a person not to seek unrighteous money is a virtue, but for a national leader to refuse to make demands of Sodom is a sin. Abraham does not want to use political means to achieve spiritual goals because politics and controlling a government require coercion, but Abraham is a person of hesed and not gevura. Abraham wants his goal of advancing civilization to be achieved on the basis of personal spiritual advancement, in an atmosphere of friendliness and love between all. He continues to interpret his mission on the level of teaching and students, but not on the government level, and because of this does not take the opportunity that came his way for historical breakthrough. Building a nation and government will therefore become possible only after the subsequent stages of spiritual advancement to be brought about by Isaac and Jacob.

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