Sodom or Salem
The walk of faith is seldom in a straight line. As we walk with the Lord and follow His direction, don’t we often end up in places we never would have guessed? How many of you, right now, are exactly where you thought you’d be five years ago? Even one year ago?
It was certainly that way for Abram. He obeyed God’s call to Canaan and that set in motion a series of events he never could have expected. I wonder if there was any point that Abram, on that night that he surveyed the camp of the eastern coalition all illuminated by campfire, and lifted high his sword or his spear, and gave the order to attack, wondered “How did I wind up here?”
1. The First World War
a. The Background (vv. 1-7)
Maybe you’re wondering the same thing. How did he wind up there? And why does it matter? The answer starts all the way back at the beginning of chapter 14 where we read twelve verses of some fairly detailed political and military history.
If you just read through these verses it looks like one big list of strange names and strange places, so let me try to sum it up.
There were four kings, from Abram’s old stomping grounds across the Euphrates, who had an alliance. And the head of this alliance was a king named Chedorlaomer. Five city kings in Canaan—including the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah—served Chedorlaomer, which likely meant providing him with a tribute of livestock or money. And after twelve years of this, they stopped serving him.
In response, Chedorlaomer rounded up his allies—which included the king of Shinar, right where Abram was from—and they went on a rampage. Verse 5 describes them going down the far side of the Jordan river, all the way down to the Red Sea, and then coming up the other side. And they basically conquer everyone in their path—including the Rephaim, who were likely giants of some sort. Chedolaomer was unstoppable.
b. The Battle (vv. 8-12)
So by the end of verse 7, we’ve seen these kings cut a huge swath of victory everywhere they’ve gone, and they’re finally getting close to their actual target. But the five rebellious kings don’t wait. Verse 8, where we get to the battle, says that the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah and the other three kings “went out, and they joined battle in the Valley of Siddim” with these four eastern kings.
Verse 10 tells us that this valley was full of pits of bitumen, which is basically like tar, and that “as the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, some fell into them, and the rest fled to the hill country” (Genesis 14:10).
Notice it doesn’t even tell us that the battle went bad against Sodom and Gomorrah and they had to flee? We just assume, after all of the peoples that these four easter kings have defeated, that of course they’re going to give a shellacking to these little Canaanite kings. And it sounds like a total bloodbath. Some are falling into tar pits and some are running to the hills and its just a disaster.
Verse 11— “So the enemy took all the possessions of Sodom and Gomorrah, and all their provisions, and went their way” (Genesis 14:11). Sodom and Gomorrah aren’t just defeated on the battlefield—their cities get totally plundered. Everything gone.
Now in case you’re wondering why this is all important, and why Genesis has taken all this time to tell us all this history, the punchline is found in verse 12: “They also took Lot, the son of Abram’s brother, who was dwelling in Sodom, and his possessions, and went their way” (Genesis 14:12).
Good old Lot. Lot was no longer just dwelling in a tent outside of Sodom. He’d actually moved into the city. And when he did that, he probably didn’t read the fine print. He didn’t know that Sodom was serving some Eastern king and that a rebellion was planned. He probably thought he was doing well, really moving up in the world. And now he’s a captive, being hauled back closer to the land of his birth, and all of his riches and possessions now belong to these marauding kings.
2. Abram’s Att
ack (vv. 13-16)
So now we get to the second major stop in our passage—Abram’s attack. Verse 13 tells us that someone escaped the battle, and they came and found Abram who was still living by the oaks of Mamre. Verse 13 gives us some important information about Mamre, “brother of Eschol and Aner. These were allies of Abram.” Abram had made an alliance with these three brothers, and we find out at the end of the chapter that they actually went with him on this expedition.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s look at verse 14: “When Abram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he…” How are we going to finish this sentence?
“When Abram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he said ‘Ha, ha, Lot. Too bad for you. Shouldn’t have been so quick to take the best for yourself, huh? Hope you learned your lesson.’”
No, that’s not what Abram says. Instead, “When Abram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, 318 of them, and went in pursuit as far as Dan” (Genesis 14:14).
Here we learn just how much Abram owned. He has so many servants or slaves that of the children born to his slaves, a full 318 have been trained as his personal fighting force. And Abram himself leads them forth as he goes in pursuit of Lot, together with his three Amorite allies and their own fighting forces, no doubt.
What we see Abram doing here is really important on three levels. First, notice how he rushes to protect Lot, putting himself in danger, leaving all of his own possessions unguarded, even though Lot had done everything he did in the last chapter. This is such a big idea that we’re going to come back to it at the end.
Second, we can learn from Abram here about a Biblical theology of war and even of violence. Abram does not use his fighting force to conquer territory for himself. He is not aggressive. But neither is he passive. He doesn’t sit back and do nothing when his nephew is captured. Abram uses force to protect and defend and recover. And that needs to be an important category in our theology of force.
The third aspect we need to notice is that Abram is basically acting like a king here. Leading forth his men and allies into battle against the Eastern alliance, he’s already acting like a leader of a great nation. Suddenly, God’s promise to make of him a great nation doesn’t sound so far-fetched anymore.
And we haven’t even gotten to the battle itself, in verse 15, where we hear about Abram’s two important battle tactics. First, he divided his forces, so the enemy had to split up to defend themselves. Second, he attacked at night, when they could have the element of surprise and the confusion that darkness brings.
Chederlaomer and his buddies had no idea what was coming. They had just wiped out everything in their path, and probably had a massive camp with all of the under they had gathered. They probably thought they were invincible. But they weren’t. Abram and his allies, verse 15, “defeated them and pursued them to Hobah, north of Damascus.” In other words, they chased them clean out of the Promised Land. Abram wasn’t trying to annihilate them, just get Lot back. And sure enough, verse 16, “he brought back all the possessions, and also brought back his kinsman Lot with his possessions, and the women and the people.”
We should notice that the text doesn’t sensationalize anything here. It doesn’t describe Abram like a hero or anything special. It just recounts the facts of his mission accomplished.
3. Victor’s Reception
Verse 17, which begins our third main stop in the text, continues this when it tells us that “After his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley)” (Genesis 14:17). Abram came back from doing what no other king had been able to do. Again, there’s no sensationalism here. And we’re going to see why this is so important in a moment.
But what Abram gets when he comes back is a victor’s reception. First, the king of Sodom—the defeated king of Sodom—comes out to Abram, who now has all of his stuff.
And what’s going to happen? What are they going to say to each other?
a. The King of Salem
We don’t find out, just yet, because this meeting gets interrupted by another king who also comes out to meet Abram. This is the king of Salem. And we know right away that this king is different. First of all, he just totally interrupts what was happening with the king of Sodom—at least that’s how it’s written here. And that suggests he’s really important.
Beyond this, there’s four main aspects to Melchizedek that the text draws out that we want to notice.
i. His feast (v. 18)
First is his feast. Whereas the king of Sodom just “went out,” the king of Salem “brought out bread and wine” (v. 18). Now, as Christians, we probably hear “bread and wine” and think about the Lord’s supper right away. To the original audience, this would have just sounded like a good meal. The kind of thing that would have normally been eaten by people like this.
The idea here is that the king of Salem is taking on the role of a benefactor, coming out to bless and provide for Abram.
ii. His identity (v. 18)
Second, we see his identity. We should know that “Salem” is most likely an early name for Jerusalem. You can see it there in the name of the city. This king’s name is Melchizedek, which means something like “the king of righteousness.” But the most interesting nugget about Melchizedek’s identity is found at the end of verse 18 which says that “He was priest of God Most High.”
Not just a king, but a priest. And not just a priest, but a priest of God.
And you might say, “Whoah, where did that come from?” And we should remember that it’s only been ten generations since the flood. While there’s been plenty of time for pagan religions and idol worship and moon worship to spring up, apparently there’s still some remnant of genuine worship of the one true God. Isn’t that amazing?
iii. His blessing (v. 19-20)
And the wonder and intrigue of Melchizedek continues in his blessing of Abram in verses 19-20. A blessing like this was typically made by someone who had some kind of spiritual seniority in relation to the other person. Speaking of this blessing, Hebrews 7:7 says that “It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior.” So Melchizedek was acting in the role of a priest and a spiritual superior when he says to Abram,
“Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” (Genesis 14:19–20).
This is the first time we see someone verbally blessing Abram, which is important because of God’s promises back in chapter 12—“I will bless those who bless you” (Genesis 12:3). And here it’s happening.
But it’s more than just a blessing. It’s an expression of worship. Because here, through Melchizedek’s mouth, we get the official interpretation of the events in verse 15. Abram prevailed over his enemies because God, who possesses heaven and earth, delivered those enemies into Abram’s hand.
That’s why Abram isn’t sensationalized as some kind of a hero. He’s just a servant of the One who owns the universe. God is the main character of this story. God is the one who decided how that battle would pan out. God is the one who deserves the worship and the blessing here. And Melchizedek, a priest of God, is the voice who makes sure we don’t miss this.
iv. His tribute (v. 20)
Now, things get even more interesting, when the last part of verse 20 tells us that “Abram gave him a tenth of everything.” Just to understand this a little bit more, we should know that kings often gave tribute to other kings who were greater than them or above them somehow. Abram’s gift here to Melchizedek acknowledges that Melchizedek is above him or is greater than him in some sense. As Hebrews 7:4 says, “See how great this man was to whom Abraham the patriarch gave a tenth of the spoils!” (Hebrews 7:4). Or as the NIV puts it, “Just think how great he was: Even the patriarch Abraham gave him a tenth of the plunder!” (Hebrews 7:4, NIV)
Abram is also acknowledging that the words of Melchizedek’s blessing were true. Melchizedek said that God gave Abram this victory, and Abram agrees by not keeping the plunder for himself but giving a portion to this priest.
We also can’t miss that Abram gives Melchizedek a tenth. This is the first time in the Bible that we see the principle of the “tithe” or a tenth. In the kingdom of Israel, the people were to give a tenth of their produce every year to support the priests and the Levites. It was kind of like their income tax.
The tithe is not a law for Christians, because we don’t live in that kingdom or under that covenant law. But many Christians even today find that 10% is a really good place to start in practicing generosity. And that principle of a tenth runs all the way through the Bible back to Abram, who give a tenth of everything to Melchizedek.
In all of this, the character of Melchizedek is shrouded in some measure of mystery. But as we see his feast, his identity, his blessing, and the tribute he took from Abram, we can’t help but see that, as a priest of God, he was a great man, greater in some respects than Abram. And his words are a strong confirmation to Abram—and to anybody else who was listening—that Abram certainly did have a very important place in the unfolding plan of God.
b. The King of Sodom
But we don’t get to linger too long here with the king of Salem, because in verse 21 the king of Sodom butts back into the conversation.
i. His offer made (v. 21)
And what does he have to say? “And the king of Sodom said to Abram, ‘Give me the persons, but take the goods for yourself.’” (Genesis 14:21).
That’s his offer made. And I hope we can see just how different it is from Melchizedek’s words. There’s no greeting here, no blessing, not even a “thank you.” Abram just risked his life to go after these powerful kings, and the king of Sodom’s first words are a rude demand. “Give me the persons.”
The king of Sodom also has no idea of his proper place here. He is acting like he is in charge and gets to call the shots. “Give me the persons, but keep the stuff,” as if that’s still his decision.
But it’s not. He was defeated and plundered by Chederlaomer. Abram defeated Chederlaomer and the plunder is now Abram’s, fair and square. Abram, not Sodom, is the guy who gets to call the shots now. But the king of Sodom doesn’t get that. He’s delusional. He thinks the plunder is his to give.
And so now Abram is in a tough spot. The plunder is his, fair and square. But if he keeps it, the king of Sodom is going to think that he gave it all to Abram. “I let Abram keep the all the spoils, you know. I’m the one who made him rich.” He’ll take the credit. He’ll take the glory.
ii. His offer rejected (v. 22-24)
And there is no way that Abram is going to let that happen. And so in verses 22-24 we see the king of Sodom’s offer rejected. “But Abram said to the king of Sodom, ‘I have lifted my hand to the Lord, God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth, that I would not take a thread or a sandal strap or anything that is yours, lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich’” (Genesis 14:22–23).
Notice how Abram is using language that Melchizedek used. He’s acknowledging that the Lord, his God, is the owner of everything. And he tells the king of Sodom directly that there’s no way he’s going to let him tell the story that it was him, and not God, who made Abram rich.
I hope we notice that this is one of those moments where people so often start to make excuses and justify these decisions. Think of how tempting all of that plunder would have been. If Abram keeps it, he’s going to be even more powerful and be able to compete and negotiate and basically act even more like a king in Canaan. He’d go from an outsider to a very potent political force.
And, you know, didn’t God promise him this land? Didn’t God deliver all of those spoils into Abram’s hands? Maybe this is God’s way of keeping His promises! God surely wouldn’t want Abram to throw away such an opportunity, would he?
That’s what we often do, isn’t it? But Abram doesn’t. He knows by now that Sodom is a wicked place. And there’s no way he’s going to let the wicked king of Sodom take credit that only belongs to God.
See, that’s why he has such a different approach here than he had with Melchizedek. The king of Salem acknowledged God and gave credit to God. So he could eat his food and give him tribute—because it all pointed back to God.
The king of Sodom, on the other hand, is going to take the credit for himself. And Abram won’t let that wicked man do such a thing.
Besides, that’s not what this was all about. Abram went to war to rescue Lot. He’s not interested in playing political games. He’d rather keep his hands clean and trust God to keep His promises in His way in His time.
And so Abram lets it all go. Verse 24: “I will take nothing but what the young men have eaten, and the share of the men who went with me. Let Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre take their share’” (Genesis 14:24). He takes nothing for himself.
This is really incredible moral courage. And it comes from faith that God will keep His promises, and He’s going to keep them in a way that won’t share credit with Sodom.
Faith, once again, leads to risky obedience and even risky generosity. Abram believes, and Abram lets go.
And so he ends up back where he started. He’s no richer, he’s no closer to inheriting the land, he’s no closer to having a son of his own, but he has demonstrated faith, expressed love, experienced God’s help, received blessing, and taken several more important steps in the walk of faith.
4. Enduring Truths
Now as we think about this chapter, there’s at least three enduring truths I hope we can walk away with into our walk of faith today.
a. Love for Lot
First is Abram’s love for Lot. How many people, in Abram’s shoes, would have shrugged their shoulders and said, “Well, guess he learned his lesson. Shouldn’t have moved into Sodom. Lot needs to take responsibility for himself. Not my problem.”
But not Abram. Abram goes to fight for Lot even after Lot was selfish and took the best for himself.
And in so doing, Abram shows the character of God. God didn’t say to us, “You blew it, now deal with it.” Rather, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). And we’re called to lay our lives down for each other just as Jesus laid down his life for us (1 John 3:16).
And yes, there’s times where love lets people experience the consequences of their actions, like when Paul tells the Thessalonians that “if anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). But we need to remember that he had to tell them that. Otherwise, their impulse would have been to help. Because that’s what Christians do.
There’s another angle to this whole thing that I’ve been thinking about this week. And it has to do with the divisions that sometimes come between the people of God. Abram and Lot had to separate, just like Christians sometimes need to separate over doctrine or other differences. But that separation should never put an end to love. We should still be willing to stand up and fight for our brothers and sisters even if we can’t “dwell together” the same way we previously could.
Some of you may find this surprising, but I deliberately cultivate relationships with Christians who see things differently than I do. Some of my best friends are people with whom I have major differences in doctrine and practice. I think they are wrong about some important things, and they think I’m wrong about some important things, and we probably couldn’t be members of the same church or even the same denomination. And I don’t enjoy that. I long for Jesus to come back “bid thou our sad divisions cease,” like we sing every year.
But until then, we can still love. Even if we can’t dwell with each other, we can fight for each other when the enemy tries to take us away.
And please hear, I’m not speaking about all differences here. There are some things we shouldn’t tolerate. I’m talking here about Christians who really love the Bible and are united in the gospel but have differences on some secondary matters.
And I would argue, with Francis Schaffer, that it’s actually a greater display of love to love someone with whom you have serious differences. If every Christian thought the exact same way about the exact same issue, who would be surprised that we loved each other? But isn’t it a greater display of the power of Jesus when two Christians who can’t agree say to each other, “I still think you’re really wrong about this, but I will love you, and I will fight for you”?
And Abram’s sacrificial love for selfish Lot gives us quite an example in these areas.
b. Sodom or Salem?
The second enduring truth has to do with the title of this sermon—Sodom or Salem? Abram chose the blessing of Salem over the riches of Sodom.
And you and I are going to have times in our life where a similar choice will be put before us. We’ll have to choose between earthly success and God’s approval. Between money and holiness. Between gaining the world or keeping our soul.
In my short lifetime I’ve seen many people fail at this point. “Surely, God wouldn’t want me to turn down an opportunity like this, would he?” The allure of stuff or success has led many to make a deal with the devil while they try to convince themselves that it’s actually God’s blessing.
Most of of us in this room likely never be in the spot Abram was, negotiating massive plunder with a wicked king. But don’t we need to watch out for the smaller forms of moral compromise that nip at our heels? Maybe it’s not reporting a few things on your taxes, or sharing your Netflix password even though you’re not supposed to because “it’s not that big of a deal.”
Maybe it’s picking up a new job or a new hobby that keeps you from being with God’s people regularly, but you know, God wouldn’t really expect you to miss out on that opportunity, would he?
If we don’t fight compromise in the little things, what makes us think we’ll have courage to show integrity when the big choices confront us?
So the question is before us, as it was before Abram: would we rather have the riches of Sodom or the blessing of Salem?
c. Our Great High Priest
Finally, let’s end with Melchizedek. He’s a mysterious figure who shows up out of nowhere and disappears just as soon. The next time he’s mentioned in the Bible is in Psalm 110, where David foresees the Lord saying to his descendant, “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek’” (Psalm 110:4).
David was from the tribe of Judah. There’s no way that his offspring could be a priest after the order of Aaron and the Levites. But, that’s not the only kind of priest there is, is there? David could have a son who is a priest like Melchizedek.
And we know who that son is. Jesus is our great high priest. And we might ask, how can Jesus be a priest when he’s from the tribe of Judah instead of Levi? And Psalm 110 gives us the answer.
Hebrews 6:19-20 says that “We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 6:19–20).
Chapter 7 of Hebrews continues to develop this idea. Verse 16 says that Jesus, like Melchizedek, “who has become a priest, not on the basis of a legal requirement concerning bodily descent, but by the power of an indestructible life. For it is witnessed of him, ‘You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek’” (Hebrews 7:15-16).
And on the basis of this new priesthood, Moses’ law and Aaron’s priesthood are set aside, and, as verse 19 says, “a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God.”
See, this isn’t just old names in an old book. Jesus, a priest after the order of Melchizedek, is our salvation. He’s how we draw near to God.
And this is good news. Hebrews 7:23: “The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:23–25).
The high priestly ministry of Jesus continues today as He lives to make intercession for His people. And that means that you can no more be separated from God’s love than Jesus could be kicked out of heaven.
I hope that’s good news to you this morning. I hope you know that, without a High Priest representing you before the throne in Heaven, you’d have no hope. Your sins would condemn you and Satan would accuse you and you would have nothing.
But in Christ, we have everything. In Christ, and His high-priestly Melchizedek-like ministry, the good news of the gospel is applied to us, today. And like Abram, we find that the presence of this priest helps us reject the seduction of Sodom. We’d rather have Jesus than anything the world can offer us today.
So I don’t know what’s ahead for you this week. I do know that you need a high priest. And in Christ, you have one. And even for the first time today, you can reach out by faith and receive all that God is for you in Jesus.