Success is great, but sometimes it brings its own problems. It can test our integrity, reveal our true allegiance and priorities, and confront us with tricky decisions. Abram faced these kinds of problems in the aftermath of his victory over four kings in Genesis 14.
His victory was so complete that he found himself overflowing with booty – spoils of war – and this abundance attracted the attention of others. So the king of Sodom comes out of the woodwork, confronting Abram in the Valley of Shaveh (v. 17). Having done nothing to contribute to the victory, he’s now sniffing out a share of the plunder. It becomes apparent in v. 21 that he wants to strike a deal with Abram.
Would Abram have been tempted, if the story moved straight from verse 17 to verse 21? If nothing else had happened, he may well have been enticed by the prospect of maximum gain. Had he been alone in the valley with the king of Sodom, might he have hesitated to offend a powerful neighbour? But we’ll never know. Because someone intervened at this point to completely change the course of events in the Valley of Shaveh. Melchizedek.
Melchizedek, one of the most fascinating and mysterious characters in the whole Bible. Later in the Bible he’s referred to as head of an order of priests (Psalm 110:4), which would eventually come to include Jesus Himself (Hebrew 7). Particular attention is paid to the fact that he’s both king and priest – ‘king of Salem’ (the future Jerusalem) and ‘priest of God Most High’. This dual role, although not unheard of in other cultures, runs against the grain of later Israelite practice, where kingship and priesthood were separate offices performed by different people.
Jesus brought the two roles together: He was royal by being both the son of God and an earthly descendant of King David; but He was also priestly because of His role in atoning for the sins of His people before God. This double-role is reason enough to associate Jesus with Melchizedek, leading many to presume that Melchizedek is just a fore-runner of Jesus, in a similar way to David. To play this part, Melchizedek must have been a special person, although it seems unlikely that he was immortal or divine.
There are clues, though, in this brief Genesis encounter, as to why Melchizedek is so special. He is the first named priest in the whole Bible, and the first person outside of the line of Adam-Seth-Noah-Abram who had any real relationship with God. Before there was any formal established priesthood, this man must have had a direct anointing and appointing from God. Not only that, but the reference here to God as ‘God Most High’ is another innovation, showing that human perceptions of God were changing and becoming more sophisticated.
With no prompting, he comes out to refresh and bless Abram. He brings bread and wine, and with no hint of any sacrifice or libation, we must presume that this was for refreshment after a time of exertion – I love how the Bible can be so practical like this. Though that’s not to say that the appearance of communion materials in the hands of Jesus’ precursor isn’t richly steeped in symbolism – I believe it is. And he comes to bless Abram, echoing God’s own words from chapter 12.
What was the effect on Abram? I think Melchizedek’s influence on Abram would have been at least four-fold. First, Abram would have been encouraged and reassured to hear God’s blessings repeated and re-emphasised. Secondly, he would have been vindicated in rescuing Lot, to be so commended by God after the action. Thirdly, he would have grown in his understanding of God, learning from a man who possibly knew even more about God than he did. Fourthly, and most importantly, he was left in no possible doubt about where the credit belonged for this victory. He was told ‘praise be to God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand’ (v. 20). No room for pride or boasting here. Yes, Abram had done his part, in having trained men ready, and by being swift and decisive in action, but without God’s backing he would not have prevailed.
This four-fold influence of Melchizedek is shown in the response from Abram. First, he is moved to spontaneous generosity. There is no command here making the tithe compulsory – Moses’ law still lay centuries in the future – Abram gives it because he wants to. And isn’t that a great lesson for us? We should give willingly, not out of obligation. That’s why Paul says that ‘God loves a cheerful giver’ (2 Corinthians 9:7). It seems that giving a tenth was a common practice in the ancient Near East, meaning it was for Abram what it should be for us: a guideline. There’s plenty of scope to go beyond it.
Secondly, Abram showed great integrity in how he dealt with money. Not only was he generous in giving away a tenth of what had come to him, but he was also resisted temptation in abandoning the other 90%. Abram could have done very well for himself by taking the rest, but he was more interested in the good of his soul, a soul which would be damaged by grasping avarice. He accepts nothing from the king of Sodom because he understands full well that in doing so he would become beholden to him. Thanks to Melchizedek’s brief homily, Abraham knows that he is indebted to God alone, and that no one else should have any hold over him. Had Abraham kept ‘the goods’ of Sodom he might have become entangled by the greed and worldliness we see rife in Sodom a few chapters later (Genesis 19).
Instead, he walks away, content with what God has already given him. He avoids making the mistake that Lot made in the previous chapter, and which now Lot makes again in choosing to return to Sodom. Abram does, however, show his fairness by ensuring that his allies (Aner, Eshkol and Mamre, the men who had helped him) got their proper share (v. 24).
So Abram walks away, unencumbered with inappropriate worldly ties and right with God. It is surely significant that in the very next verse, at the start of chapter 15, God chooses to speak to Abram and make a covenant with him. He rewards him for his obedience and loyalty to the promises given in Genesis 12:1-3 and 13:14-17 by building upon those promises, adding more detail, extra generosity and deepening their relationship.
This should remind us that God is no one’s debtor. We never end up worse off after giving to Him. This story warns us not to set too much store by temporary worldly things, encouraging us instead to be generous and self-disciplined. If this passage challenges our attitude to wealth and material possessions, it also shows us a God who is generous and faithful, who blesses those who stick by Him. He is a God worth following.