You’ve heard about the Battle of Five Armies (in the Hobbit); what about the Battle of Nine Kings (in Genesis)? What we have in Genesis 14 is, along with some tablets and monuments from ancient Mesopotamia, one of the earliest military operations in history recorded in tactical detail. Up to now in Genesis we’ve seen hints of warfare: Tubal-Cain was a great forger of weapons (Genesis 4:22), Nimrod was a renowned warrior (Genesis 10:8), and the sins of the pre-flood area probably included what today’s courts would term war-crimes; but chapter 14 gives us the first in-depth account of a conflict.
The only reason we know about it is because Abram and Lot were caught up in it – not as protagonists, but as collateral damage. My last post: ‘A Lot of Complications’ (https://mjhmusings.wordpress.com/2015/05/24/a-lot-of-complications/) listed a succession of incidents in which Lot proved a distraction and a burden to his uncle Abraham; one of these was his poor choice of location: deciding to live in rich but vulnerable Sodom. As is so often the case, it’s the most lucrative areas that are the most fought-over, and so the same wealth of Sodom which attracted Lot in the first place also attracted the avarice of others. Kedorlaomer, king of Elam, is hardly one of the Bible’s more famous rulers: but he held sway over much of the Near East in Abram’s day. Verse 4 explicitly tells us that he had been overlord to five kings for 12 years, including the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah – Lot’s masters. Like Lot, King Bera of Sodom and King Birsha of Gomorrah chose poorly, deciding to rebel in a campaign doomed to end in failure. It was their rout in battle against their master (v.10) that led to the sack of Sodom and the enslavement of Lot and his family (v.12).
Lot might have been a burden to Abram, but the great patriarch did not hesitate when his nephew needed rescuing. We’re told in verse 14 that,
“When Abram heard that his relative had been taken captive, he called out the 318 trained men born in his household and went in pursuit as far as Dan.”
Here was a man full of compassion and familial devotion, who acted with courage in a time of crisis. How quick are we to leap to the aid of our friends and family when they’re in trouble?
Maybe you, like me, have often pictured Abram/Abraham as a kindly old gentleman, a benevolent bearded and sandaled tent-dweller. He’s famed for his obedience, praised for his faith, and revered as a progenitor of many nations. But one thing this caricature completely misses is one crucial characteristic: he was rock hard. He was a warrior, and a leader of troops. Even if this is the only recorded instance of him undertaking a military operation, the details reveal clearly that he could handle himself. He wasn’t daunted by the overwhelming numbers and prestige of an enemy who had just crushed all his nearest rivals. He set out with the same alacrity he showed when responding to God’s call to leave his family (Genesis 12:1-4), or sacrifice his son (Genesis 22:1-3). He got the job done.
I love the simple mention of the fact that he had ‘318 trained men born in his household’, showing no surprise that such a body of troops existed. The number is precise enough to be believable, but close enough to the customary small rear-guard of legendary battles past to evoke images of Leonidas and his Spartans at Thermopylae. Abram was a nomad and a livestock herder, but he was no fool; he knew the land God had called him into was a strategic, much fought-over corridor – just as it is today – and that therefore he needed to take precautions, and be ready for trouble.
This mindset has much to teach us today. Christianity isn’t all singing songs and watering pot plants (as Blackadder I so brilliantly portrays it) – it involves discipline; it requires training. Make no mistake, we face a constant battle. Don’t believe me? Read Ephesians 6:10-20 and 2 Timothy 2:3-6. Paul frequently used military metaphors to describe the Christian life, knowing that it was difficult and required dedication.
It’s one thing to rely on God, but quite another to expect Him to drop everything in your lap while you sit idle. How would Abram have got on if He didn’t have those 318 trained men ready, assuming instead that God would send a celestial squad of angels to fight for him? No, Abram trusted God for victory, but he was ready for trouble. Like Abram, we need to trust God to bring us through, but we also have a responsibility as Christians to be ready for what life throws at us. This is what Jesus is getting at in His parables about the wise and foolish virgins (Matthew 25:1-13), and about the servants whose master left them for a while and returned unexpected (Matthew 24:45-51).
Being ready for what life throws at us means training. Spiritual training to hone spiritual muscles, just like physical training hones physical muscles. Paul says to Timothy: “physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” (1 Timothy 4:8). How are your spiritual muscles? Are they strong and ready for action, kept sharp by prayer and contact with God’s word, or are they flabby, and likely to fail you in the race/fight?
How does the story end? With victory. Total, decisive victory.
“During the night Abram divided his men to attack them and he routed them, pursuing them as far as Hobah, north of Damascus. He recovered all the goods and brought back his relative Lot and his possessions, together with the women and the other people.” (Genesis 14:15-16)
Showing the cunning encouraged in men of God (Matt 10:16), Abram struck in a devastating night-time attack, putting to flight a force many times his own number. As with all the best military stories, the odds were against the small force that eventually triumphed. The odds don’t matter when God is on your side. Abram not only rescued Lot and his family, but brought back all their possessions as well. In fact, he took so much plunder from the defeated kings that issues arose over how to use it (see my next post for more on this). His success is a resounding testament to the two-fold wisdom of being right with God, but also ready for action himself. This is a lesson we would do well to learn, so that we can triumph over the challenges that life throws at us.