Genesis 14 And Ancient Coalition Warfare

The first account of the Bible of organized warfare as we would recognize it (in terms of campaigns and armies) takes place in Genesis 14, or what is often known as the War of the Four Against The Five.  This particular account of warfare tells us much about war as it was practiced even in early human history, and gives particular insight into the problems of coalition warfare.

The War of the Five Against The Four

Let us examine Genesis 14:1-10 so that we may understand this very early military campaign, its participants, and its objectives.  Doing so will give us a better understanding of why empires right and how coalitions are built.  Genesis 14:1-10 reads as follows:  “And it came to pass in the days of Amraphel king of Shina, Arioch king of Ellasar, Chedorlaomer king of Elam, and Tidal, king of nations, that they made war with Bera king of Sodom, Birsha king of Gomorrah, Shinab king of Admah, Shemeber king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar).  All these joined together in the VAlley of Siddim (that is the Salt Sea).  Twelve years they served Chedorlaomer, and in the thirteenth year they rebelled.  In the fourteenth year Chedorlaomer and the kings that were with him came and attacked the Rephaim in Ashtoreth Karnaim, the Zuzim in Ham, the Emin in Shaveh Kiriathaim, and the Horites in their mountain of Seir, as far as El Paran, which is by the wilderness.  Then they turned back and came to En Mishpat (that is, Kadesh), and attacked all the country of the Amelites, and also the Amorites who dwelt in Hazezon Tamar.  And the king of Sodom, the king of Gomorrah, the king of Admah, the king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar) went out and joined together in the Valley of Siddim against Chedorlaomer king of Elam, Tidal, king of nations, Amraphel king of Shinar, and Aricoh king of Ellasar–four kings against five. Now the Valley of Siddim was full of asphalt pits; and the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled; some fell there, and the remainder fled to the mountains.”

There are a few aspects of this story that are particularly important to note.  First, let us note the two coalitions of kings.  The first coalition is that of the four rulers.  Though Amraphel king of Shinar is listed first among the four kings in the account (Genesis 14:1), it is Chedorlaomer, king of Elam, who is listed as the predominant king of this coalition (Genesis 14:4-5).  Two of the kings are shown as rulers over part of Mesopotamia:  Amraphel of Shinar and Arioch king of Ellasar (better known as the city of Larsa, which had a small empire at this particular time in history[1]).  Elam is well known as being part of what later became the empire of Persia, and Tidal, king of nations, appears to be a Hittite ruler before their empire became centralized, quite possibly the ruler of a city like Kanesh, which had extensive trading relationships with Mesopotamia during this period [2].

The second coalition is made up of the five kings of the Valley of Siddim and some unlikely allies who are more obscure in history than they deserve to be.  After all, let us not forget that Sodom and its allies was merely the last stop in an extensive campaign made against several groups of Canaanites, Horites, and Amorites.  Of the five kings of the city-states, the king of Bela (that is Zoar) is not even named, while the other four kings are (Genesis 14:2).  This may signify that even among the city-states of the time, the city of Bela was a particularly unimportant town even when compared with its neighbors.  This is a bit of evidence suggesting that Lot’s plea to flee to Zoar because it was a little town and not all the way in the mountains (where the defeated kings of the valley fled to after their defeat in Genesis 14:10) was itself an accurate phrasing of the situation of the area (Genesis 19:18-22).

It is the other peoples of this unlikely alliance that are particularly noteworthy, though they may appear random at first glance.  For example, King Og of Bashan is said to be the last of the remnant of the Rephaim, or giants, in the area, when he was defeated and killed by the Israelites on their way past the Dead Sea towards the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 3:11).  Likewise, the people of Ammon were said to have defeated a group of the Rephaim (or giants) called the Zamzummim (Deuteronomy 2:20-21), just as the Philistines defeated another group of the giants called the Avim (Deuteronomy 2:23) and the Edomites had defeated and dispossed a people known as the Horites of Seir (Deuteronomy 2:22).  As it happens, among the peoples defeated by the Mesopotamian coalition of monarchs included the Rephaim of Ashtoreth Karnaim, a few intriguingly named other groups of Rephaim called the Zuzim and Emim, as well as the Horites of Seir and some of the Amorites of Hazezon Tamar, which is also known as En-Gedi (Genesis 14:1-7; 1 Chronicles 20:2).

In short, more is going on here than meets the eye.  For one, these are ancient peoples, many of whom had been dispossessed by the time that Israel entered the Promised land, testifying to the antiquity of the account.  For another, this punitive raid appears to have been undertaken because there were a large number of peoples and city states, not just Sodom and its allies, that had decided that Elam and Mesopotamia were far enough away that one did not need to bother paying one’s tribute.  Since there was a coalition of kings and not just one centralized empire, it would appear as if the political state of Mesopotamia at the time was not as fully centralized as would be the case later during the time of the classical empires of Assyria, Chaldea, and Perisa in the region.  In fact, at least one of the allies was king of a sufficiently obscure region not to have risen above the status of tribes into the company of unified peoples (namely Tidal).  The coalition of kings, therefore, despite being stronger than the city-states and tribes of Canaan, were not mighty compared to the truly great kings and emperors that would appear later, though.

Abraham’s Counter Attack

Perhaps the most shocking part of the account of this very early war comes next, though, to those who think of Abraham and the Patriarchs as obscure shepherds in the wilderness.  Genesis 14:11-17 reads as follows:  “Then they took all the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah, and all their provisions, and went their way.  They also took Lot, Abram’s brother’s son who dwelt in Sodom, and his goods, and departed.  Then one who had escaped told Abram the Hebrew, for he dwelt by the terebinth treas of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eschol and brother of Aner, and they were allies with Abram.  Now when Abram heard that his brother was taken captive, he armed his three hundred and eighteen armed servants who were born in his own house, and went in pursuit as far as Dan.  He divided his forces against them by night, and he and his servants attacked them and pursued them as far as Hobah, which is north of Damascus.  So he brought back all the goods, and also brought back his brother Lot and his goods, as well as the women and the people.  And the king of Dodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley), after his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him.”

Here we see the third coalition, that of Abraham and his neighbors in Hebron.  It should be noted that he was sufficiently close with the men of Hebron to purchase a family grave site from these men when his wife died (Genesis 23:1-20), though he was apparently allied with the Amorites and not with the Hittites in Genesis 14.  Abraham and his Amorite allies in Hittite (or perhaps just Abraham alone) were able to arm 318 servants for war and defeat a coalition of Mesopotamian kings burdened with plunder and probably not expecting an attack.

Lest we laugh at the existence of an army of 318 men engaged in international warfare, let us remember that even as recent as the 1850’s an army of similar size, if well-armed and well-trained could have taken over a country like Nicaragua [3].  The fact that Abraham was able to keep 318 armed servants capable of warfare means that he was definitely a force to be reckoned with in the Promised land at the time.  This is the same man able to make party treaties with a local Philistine ruler in a city like Gezer (Genesis 21:22-34).  We must remember that Abraham was not an unsophisticated shepherd but a mighty prince who was recognized as an equal by the rulers of the city-states of his time as the ruler of a potentially mighty semi-nomadic tribe of Hebrews.

Let us note as well what a broad area this counterattack took in, extending from the area around Hebron to north of Damascus.  This was no minor expedition, but rather a massive rescue mission that led to the defeat of a mighty army and the full rescue of the spoils taken from the cities of Sodom and its allies.  Small wonder that the king of Sodom wanted to meet Abraham in person to thank him for the defeat.  One has to wonder as well if it was this incident, which assured that Sodom had an unwitting ally in Abraham thanks to the presence of his nephew Lot, which is what turned Lot from a mere dweller in Sodom and its surrounding areas to an elder among the people, which later led to resentment among the other citizens of the city who neglected to appreciate the divine favor shown on Abraham and his family for their obedience to God and never forgot that Lot was a foreigner (Genesis 19:9).  While the people would have forgotten the details of their salvation, the king would have remembered to which of his citizens he owed his fortuitous alliance with Abraham and would have rewarded Lot accordingly.

Tainted Spoils And Tithing

The third part of this account that is fascinating and full of puzzling importance is the account of Abraham’s dealings with the mysterious Melchizedek, king of Salem, which precedes his dealing with the king of Sodom, which raises some interesting questions about tithing and tainted spoils that are worthy for Christians to consider today with regards to the biblical way of war.

Genesis 14:18-24 reads as follows:  “Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was the priest of God Most High.  And he blessed him and said:  “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand.”  And he gave him a tithe of all.  Now the king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the persons and take the goods for yourself.”  But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have raised my hand to the Lord, God Most High, the Possessor of heaven and earth, that I will take nothing, from a thread to a sandal strap, and that I will not take anything that is yours, lest you should say, ‘I have made Abrham rich’–except only what the young men have eaten, and the portion of the men who went with me:  Aner, Eschol, and Mamre, let them take their portion.”

This is a fascinating passage for a variety of reasons.  For reasons unconnected to the biblical way of war, the author of Hebrews makes a great deal of emphasis in showing the greatness of the mysterious Melchizedek, who is compared to Jesus Christ.  For our purposes here we should note that the taking of the bread and wine in light of the blessing given to Abraham and the identification of Melchizedek with Christ appears highly significant, and would be all the more so if it was a Passover meal with unleavened bread, symbolic of the New Covenant.  The fact that Abraham tithed to Melchizedek and received a blessing from him meant that whoever he was, Melchizedek was higher on the “food chain” than Abraham was.  The fact that Abram tithed his spoils but refused to keep any of the “increase” from the tainted spoils of Sodom is also noteworthy.

It is noteworthy for a few reasons.  For one, Abraham appears to have made an oath to Melchizedek not to take any of the spoil (his statement to the king of Sodom echoes the language of the blessing given to him by Melchizedek very closely).  It was God who made Abraham rich, not the corrupt king of Sodom, after all.  Additionally, the food eaten by the young men in the course of the mission and its return and the share of his Amorite allies was not covered by the oath.  Apparently his own oath to God did not bind his allies, who were presumably not worshipers of the God Most High.  Only those in a covenantal relationship with God were bound by the oath.  A ruler does not have the authority to bind his allies to his own promises and covenants, a useful principle of biblical warfare.

It is also highly significant that Abraham deals with Melchizedek before dealing with the king of Sodom, and the difference between his view of each.  Abraham and Melchizedek enjoy a solemn meal, and Abraham receives a blessing from God before he deals with the king of Sodom rather abruptly.  Abraham wisely deals with his responsibilities to God before dealing with sinful and corrupt man, and his lack of greed and avoidance of owing any apparent obligation or “blessing” from a wicked ruler is a good lesson for Christians to follow as well.  Our obligations to God are supreme over all others (Acts 5:29), and avoiding unnecessary entanglements with the corruption of wicked and ungodly mammon, given the wickedness of the conduct of the people of Sodom, is also a very wise and sound policy (Matthew 6:24).


In short, Genesis 14 provides a surprising array of lessons about God’s involvement in history.  For one, God’s involvement in the movement of peoples connects this incident with the conquests of Israel in the Promised land, and demonstrates God’s providential control over history.  The events in this chapter, historically and theologically speaking, are obscure in the extreme.  Fascinating enigmas exist about the identity of the Mesopotamian rulers as well as that of Melchizedek.  Additionally, this chapter gives some very important indications about the importance of coalition warfare and the limitations one has on binding the behavior of one’s allies.  This chapter also provides a fascinating glimpse at the military might of Abraham as well as the still greater position of Melchizedek within the plan of God, to whom Abraham gave tithes and received a blessing over bread and wine.  This chapter also explains why Lot received such dignity from Sodom, and why the king of Sodom was glad to have Abraham as an unwilling ally.  For these reasons, Genesis 14 remains a fascinating account of biblical warfare rich in both importance and mystery.  After all, no ally is more important than God when one engages in coalition warfare, and only Abraham had God as an ally among the participants in the war examined here.



[3] William Walker took over Nicauragua in 1855 with a force of 330 armed mercenaries, including his own troops, local allies, and other adventurers.  Abraham’s force would have been roughly equivalent in size to this expedition, which succeeded in taking over a country.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical Art of War, Christianity, History, International Relations, Middle East, Military History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Genesis 14 And Ancient Coalition Warfare

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  12. E.David Simons says:

    Hi Nathan: I’ve just discovered your blog. The study of the First War recorded in the Scriptures has for several years intrigued me greatly. Might you possible be able to shed some more light unto myself as to the meanings of the 4 Kings: Chedolomar, Tidal, Aramphrael & Arioch; the equivalent cities of today which they reigned over, along with the historical spiritual meaning of the very place in which this 1st recorded war took place, Ein Mishpat-Kadesh.?
    I would be most appreciated. E.David Simons

    • Thank you for your request. I would like to do so in a future blog entry if you would like, but it will take fair amount of research first. It sounds like a project that would be greatly enjoyable though :).

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