Make your own free website on Tripod.com

The Patriarch and the Priest-King:

An Examination of Genesis 14:18-20

in its Historical, Literary and Theological Context

 

In an earlier paper, a survey of the biblical texts on tithing was presented, which included a cursory analysis of Gen. 14:20. Proponents of the view that this verse is perpetually paradigmatic for the practice of tithing usually base their argument on the pre-Mosaic setting of the passage. This paper will supplement the previous paper's argument that such a view fails to take into account the context and larger narrative framework.

 

Introduction: Hermeneutical Considerations

In recent decades, there has been a growing interest in literary approaches to biblical interpretation, as evidenced by the plethora of books on the subject. In particular, the importance of paying attention to the literary genre of biblical texts has been especially helpful. One writer comments,

A literary approach is this characterized by a focus on the form and characteristics of a passage as the key to what it says. [T]hree impulses combine in the Bible - the theological, the historical, and the literary. Biblical texts can be approached in all three ways, though the best results occur when an approach is applied to the type of text to which it corresponds.

Another hallmark of the literary approach to the Bible is its emphasis on the unity of books and passages. A literary approach to the Bible is thus characterized partly by attention to the unifying patterns in biblical texts.

Our passage under consideration is part of a larger narrative. As one reads through the Bible, it is hard not to see that a large part of the OT is made up of narratives or stories. Each narrative in turn is part of the larger plot-line of God's story, as progressively unfolded in the whole Bible. As such, it is important to see the larger picture when examining individual narratives.

In their classic introduction to the Bible, Fee and Stuart suggest ten helpful principles and eight cautions to guide the interpretation of narratives. In particular, the warning about "decontextualizing" seems especially pertinent to our discussion here:

Ignoring the full historical and literary contexts, and often the individual narrative, people concentrate on small units only and thus miss interpretational clues. If you decontextualize enough, you can make almost any part of Scripture say almost anything you want it to.

The Place of Genesis 14 in the Abraham Narrative

All narratives contain characters, setting, and of course, plot(s). Genesis 14:18-20 is a part of the story of Abraham that may be structured as follows:

Patriarchal History (Gen. 12 - 50)

The Story of Abraham (12:1 - 25:11)

The Call of Abram (12:1-9)

Abram in Egypt (12:10-20)

The Separation of Abram and Lot (13:1-18)

Abram Rescues Lot (14:1-24)

The Covenant with Abram (15:1-21)

The Birth of Ishmael (16:1-16)

The Covenant Reaffirmed (17:1-27-18:15)

The Judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah (18:16-19:38)

et cetera

As I mentioned in my paper on tithing, we need to ask how the narrative of Lot's rescue by Abram and the subsequent encounter between Abram and Melchizedek fits into the flow of the narrative. A careful reading of the entire narrative of Abraham reveals how the writer artistically and intentionally fits the individual stories together using a variety of literary devices. At first reading, chapter 14 seems so out of place in the flow of the narrative. However, there are several links that tie chapter 14 with the rest of the narrative (especially chapter 15).

 

ABRA(HA)M

LOT

   

called by God (Gen. 12)

goes with Abram

 

separates from Abram and settles in Sodom (Gen. 13)

rescues Lot; meets Melchizedek and king of Sodom (Gen. 14)

taken from Sodom (Gen. 14)

covenant with God (Gen. 15)

 

covenant affirmed (Gen. 17-18:15)

 

Abraham intercedes for Sodom

(Gen. 18:16-33)

 
 

spared from destruction of Sodom

(Gen. 19)

 

A detailed examination of all the interrelationships is outside the scope of this brief paper, so we will examine only a few points relevant to Gen. 14:18-20.

Notice, for example, how the narrator weaves the Lot/Sodom episodes together. The mention of the wickedness of Sodom (13:13) anticipates the further elaboration given later in the narrative (18:20,21; 19:4-11). The destruction of Sodom (and Gomorrah) is mentioned in passing in 13:10, preparing the reader for the judgment episode (19:12-29). How then does chapter 14 fit in?

 

Genesis 13

Genesis 14

   

"Lot settled among the cities of the Jordan region next to Sodom" (vs. 12)

"Lot was living in Sodom" (vs. 12)

   

"Lot, who was traveling with Abram, also had flocks, herds, and tents their possessions were so great " (vss. 5,6)

"took Abram's nephew Lot and his possessions " (vs. 12)

   

"before the LORD obliterated Sodom and Gomorrah" (vs. 10)

"took all the possessions and food of Sodom and Gomorrah" (vs. 11)

   

"Abram went to live by the oaks of Mamre in Hebron" (vs. 18)

"Abram was living by the oaks of Mamre"

(vs. 13)

(scripture citations above are from the NET)

The continuity of the narrative from chapter 13 to chapter 14 is maintained by the above links. Similarly we shall see that are some very interesting elements of continuity that link chapters 14 and 15 together. The point is: it is important to consider the narrative function of chapter 14 in the flow of the Abraham narrative, and not to just lift a few verses (i.e. 14:18-20) out of its literary context.

We recall that the promise made to Abram in Gen. 12:1-3 is essentially two-fold: land and posterity. In chapter 13, we see that Lot has decided to separate himself from Abram by settling in Sodom. Though a definitive location for Sodom cannot be determined, it is generally thought to lie at the southeastern boundary of Canaan by the Dead Sea. Hence, Lot, as it were, has placed himself "outside" the Promised Land.

In chapter 14, we read of a battle between the coalition of kings who lived in the area near the southern end of the Dead Sea and the kings from the east. In the course of the battle, Lot is captured by the eastern kings. At this point, Abram enters the narrative (vs. 13). Note that Abram is called a "Hebrew" here. Is this significant? Although the etymology of the word is unclear, some have sought its derivation from the Akkadian terms Habiru/Hapiru. Consequently, some have thought the term "Hebrew" originally had connotations such as "foreigner", "fugitive", and "outsider", often used in a derogatory sense. This description would fit Abram's situation quite nicely: "By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger" (Heb. 11:9; ISV).

We read how Abram, with only a small number of "trained men", was able to defeat the eastern confederacy, and rescue Lot. Of particular note is the narrator's comment that Abram "chased them as far as Hobah, which is north of Damascus." (vs. 15; NET). Since the northern boundary of the Promised Land was north of Damascus, perhaps this is a literary allusion to Abram driving out the enemies out of the promised land, thus foreshadowing the conquest. (Note that Abram in journeying from Haran to the Negev, and then settling in Hebron, has walked through the Promised Land, again a symbolic allusion perhaps).

So, we can see that chapter 14 is not just an isolated story about a petty regional war. We see in Abram's victory an illustration of the promise that Abram's seed shall be "a great nation". Further, we see here that Abram is portrayed as a "major player" in the world of the ancient Near East. He scores a military victory over some of the regional powers, and receives a blessing from Melchizedek. Elsewhere, Abram is treated with respect by the Pharaoh in Egypt (Gen. 12) and by Abimelech (Gen. 21); further he is called a "mighty prince" by the sons of Heth (Gen. 23:6). This again accords with the promise made to him: "I will bless you, and I will make your name great" (12:2). This point will be climatically underscored in Abram's encounter with Melchizedek.

With this broad overview of chapter 14 in mind, we can now narrow our focus on Genesis 14:18-20.

Genesis 14:18-20: Interruption or Irruption?

And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine;

he was a priest of God Most High. He blessed him, saying,

"Blessed be Abram of God Most High,

Creator of heaven and earth.

and blessed be God Most High,

Who has delivered your foes into your hand."

And [Abram] gave him tenth of everything.

Gen. 14:18-20; NJPS

In vs. 17, the king of Sodom goes out to meet Abram after his military victory. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a mysterious figure appears, breaking the flow of the narrative:

vs. 1-12: account of the battle of the kings; capture of Lot

vs. 13-16: Abram defeats the oppressors; rescues Lot; recovers possessions

vs. 18-20: Abram and Melchizedek

vs. 17,21-24: Abram and the king of Sodom

Why does the narrator at this point (vs. 18) interrupt the story to introduce this hitherto unknown figure of Melchizedek?

Before proceeding to details, here is a summary of some of the narrative links between chapters 14 and 15.

Genesis 14

Genesis 15

   

"the Amorite" (vs. 13)

"the Amorite" (vss. 16, 21)

tyir.B "by treaty with" (vs. 13)

tyir.B "covenant" (vs. 18)

"possessions" (vs. 16)

"possessions" (vs. 14)

!eGim "delivered" (vs. 20)

!eg'm "shield" (vs. 1)

vUk.r'h "possessions" (vs. 21)

.r'k.f "reward" (vs. 1)

(scripture citations above are from the NET)

In verse 17, we discover that the meeting place of Abram's encounter with Melchizedek and the king of Sodom was "the Valley of Shaveh (known as the King's Valley)" (14:17; NET), which is thought to be just a few miles south of Jerusalem. This would correlate with Salem, which is generally considered to be Jerusalem.

In verse 18, Melchizedek meets Abram with "bread and wine" (royal fare) and blesses him in the name of El Elyon (/oyl=u# la))). The artistic skill of the narrator is further demonstrated by the fact that Abram's name appears seven times in this chapter, and each of Melchizedek's two blessings contain seven words. Furthermore, the root for "bless/blessing", $rb, (which occurs 3 times in this chapter) is a paronomastic allusion to Abram's name (~'r.b;a).

Melchizedek has apparently heard about Abram's victory, and attributes it to God. As noted in the table above, the word "delivered" in 14:20 shares the same root as the cognate term "shield" in 15:1. Thus the God who "delivered" Abram's enemies into his hand is the One who promises to be his "shield". This wonderful artistry is further seen in how the "318" men (14:14b) who assisted Abram is linked to Abram's servant, Eliezer, using the literary device known as gematria. Interestingly, Eliezer's name (r,z,[yil/a) means "God is my helper". Lastly, the author may have had Deut. 20:1ff in mind, where the assurance that God's presence will "be with" ('$y,h{l/a) the Israelites in war despite their smaller numbers. The point is that it is Yahweh who has accomplished this victory.

In response to Melchizedek's blessing, Abram gives a tenth of the booty to him. This may be analogous to the one-time payment described in Numbers 31:27ff. Ultimately, however, Abram gave in response to Melchizedek because he agrees with him that it was God who gave him victory, thus reminding him of God's faithfulness to his promise (12:1-3); specifically, he will possess the Land as a gift. Abram giving a tithe to Melchizedek perhaps also illustrates the promise made to him earlier: "I will bless those who bless you, but the one who treats you lightly I must curse" (Gen. 12:3a; NET)

At this point, the narrative resumes in vs. 21 with the exchange between Abram and the king of Sodom. The stark contrast is seen in that this king does not bless him (or even thank him) for routing the oppressors and restoring the people and the possessions. Further, he does not bring out any refreshments to the wearied patriarch. However, the king of Sodom does recognize that Abram is a mighty warrior, and that it might be wise to seek an alliance with him. Hence he offers him the recovered possessions. However, Abram rejects this offer; and once again, we see the use of a literary device to make a theological point. As can be seen from the above table, the letters for the word "possessions" is reversed to form the word "reward" in the next chapter, when God says: "Fear not, Abram! I am your shield and the one who will reward you in great abundance." (Gen. 15:1). Further, Abram's refusal to be "made rich", yiT.r;v/[ (14:23), involves a play on the word for "tithe", ref][;m, in verse 20. Finally, in his oath, Abram not only addresses God in the same words as Melchizedek ("God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth"), but significantly adds the name "Yahweh" (vs. 22).

Finally we need to consider briefly the NT citation of this passage by the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews. In Hebrews 7:2 (ISV), we read, "In the first place, his name means 'king of righteousness'. He is also king of Salem, that is, 'king of peace'." This is interesting, since a closer reading of chapters 14 and 15, reveals once more the narrative art at work, namely, how the q,d,c in Melchizedek's name, q,d,c-yiK.l;m, is linked to the term h'q'D.C "righteousness" in 15:6: "Then he [Abram] believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness." (Gen. 15:6; NASB). We see once again, how a theological truth has been so beautifully expressed through the narrator's skillful use of literary art.

Further, the name of the place, "Salem", ~el'v, is suggestive of ~w{l'v "peace" in Gen. 15:15: "As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you will be buried at a good old age." (NASB). And what is this peace? It is nothing less than the hope of eschatological rest that Abraham looked forward to by faith in the "God of peace [who is able to bring] back from the dead" (Heb. 13:20). Indeed, Abraham looked forward beyond the Promised Land to "for he was looking forward to the city with firm foundations, whose architect and builder is God" (Heb. 11:10; NET). Hence, it is the eschatological, not the earthly Jerusalem ("city of peace") that Abraham will inherit.

We see then, that 14:18-20 is not really an interruption after all, but rather an irruption ("breaking in"), symbolic of God's intervention to fulfill His purposes in redemptive history. Therefore, the sudden appearance/disappearance of Melchizedek helps to make this point in the unfolding drama of God's story.

We see then, how the narrator has employed various literary techniques to link individual narrative units together. In particular, chapter 14 is skillfully woven together with what precedes and follows. In light of this, it is a gross injustice to the narrative to just lift a verse (vs. 20) out of its context and narrative flow, and utilize it as a proof-text to establish a binding obligation to tithe. Is this really the main point of the narrative? In light of our analysis, the answer is a resounding "No!"

Conclusions

What then can we learn from Genesis 14? Simply this: that the inheritance of the Promised Land is to be received as a gift from God in faith. This is anticipated in chapter 13, where Abram generously allows Lot to pick what he thought was "the best" portion of the land. The irony of this is of course obvious when we read chapter 14. Thus Abram's faith is demonstrated by way of narrative. Indeed, when viewed as a whole, the narrative of Abraham portrays one who walked by faith, and at the end of the day, is commended as one who obeyed God and kept his commandments (Gen. 26:5).

The tithing of the booty (14:20) is clearly NOT the main point of the narrative as evidenced by the plot and links to other narratives. Also, how the NT uses this incident shows that the main point was Christological: to demonstrate the superiority of Christ's priesthood, already anticipated in the person of Melchizedek. Hence, Jesus and the New Covenant that He has inaugurated fulfills and transcends the Old Covenant and all the institutions associated with it (including tithing).

Furthermore, we must keep in mind that doctrines are usually not directly taught propositionally in narratives; rather, doctrine may be presented implicitly by way of illustration. Further, what characters do in a narrative is not necessarily an example for us to follow. At a secondary level then, one may perhaps argue for an etiological dimension to the story (Abraham's tithing as an example to encourage Israelite's tithing later).

Further, those who attempt to use Abram's example, tend to spiritualize it, by speaking of the "spirit of tithing". But it would seem more preferable to speak of the spirit of "giving". If words are to have any meaning at all, then they must mean what they mean! "Tithe" means "one tenth"! Abram's response to Melchizedek's blessing is certainly commendable, but his response does reflect cultural customs of the time. In any case, Abram gave from the booty, which did not belong to him.

Some will speak of the need for a "guideline". But why do we need to go back to this rather unique and isolated incident, when we have a much superior example? What about: "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. He was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, in order to make you rich through his poverty." (2 Cor. 8:9; ISV)? Or what about: "I have been crucified with Christ. I no longer live, but Christ lives in me, and the life that I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." (Gal. 2:19b,20; ISV)? If Christ and His sacrificial giving of Himself on the cross for undeserving sinners like us cannot motivate us, then nothing else will! The New Covenant paradigm for the Christian life is clearly Christocentric and "cruciformic".

It is NOT the amount, but the attitude that really matters. The use of the term "tithing" should be abolished since it focuses on the amount ("tithe" means "one tenth"!), and because it inevitably gets associated with the obligation of tithing under the Mosaic covenant. The point of the NT teaching is that we give according to our ability and according to the needs at hand, from a heart of overflowing gratitude that has truly grasped the goodness and generosity of God's grace.

In closing, Isaac Watts says it all better than I could ever hope to, in his moving and beautiful hymn:

When I survey the wondrous cross

On which the Prince of glory died,

My richest gain I count but loss,

And pour contempt on all my pride.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,

That were a present far too small;

Love so amazing, so divine,

Demands my soul, my life, my all.