Living Among Others in the Ancient Land

October 19th: Lech Lecha
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

We usually dwell on the call of Abram, where God comes to him and says, “Lech lecha, Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great…” (Genesis 12.1-2) This is the origin of what we now know as Judaism.

However, once Abram and Sarai get to the Land of Canaan, life is very interesting and sometimes dangerous, and the narrative gives us some interesting looks into the social milieu. First, Abram’s nephew, Lot, who had come with them from the Old Country (Haran in Syria), decides to go off on his own—so his flocks and Abram’s will not be competing for pasture land. Then, in Genesis 14, an ancient war erupts. The kings of Shinar, Ellasar, Elam, and Goiim waged war on the kings of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim, and Bela (also known as Zoar). The four ruled over the five for a dozen years, at which point they rebelled. Two years later, the four attacked and pillaged a number of other kingdoms and, among other things, took Lot as a hostage. This got Abram involved. “A fugitive brought the news to Abram the Hebrew, who was dwelling at the terebinths of Mamre…When Abram heard…he mustered his allies and retainers—those born into his household, a total of 318 fighters, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. At night, he and his servants deployed against them (the four kings) and defeated them; and he pursued them…beyond Damascus. He brought back all the possessions; he also brought back his kinsman Lot and his possessions, and the women and the rest of the people.” (Genesis 14.13-16)

 When he returned from defeating the four kings—returning from Syria to the Jerusalem area, “the king of Sodom came out to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh, which is the Valley of the King. And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was a priest of God Most High (El Elyon). 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 a tenth of everything.” (Genesis 14.17-20)

 From this, we learn that Abram was part of the ancient society of The Land—that he had allies and enemies, and that he was active in the affairs of the area. We also learn that he had assisted the kings of Sodom (where Lot lived) and Gomorrah. And, we learn that Abram was not the only person focused on the One God. Apparently, others worshipped God as well, and there was even a priest who lived in a place called Salem, a place where Abram prayed. Could that have been what was later called Jerusalem? 

 In any event, we also learn about a kind of moral difference between Abram and some of his neighbors—particularly the King of Sodom. “Then, the king of Sodom said to Abram, ‘Give me the persons, and take the possessions for yourself.’ But, Abram said to the kind of Sodom, ‘I swear to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth: I will not take so much as a thread of a sandal strap of what is yours; you shall not say “It is I who made Abram rich.” For me, nothing but what my servants have used up; as for the share of the men who went with me—Aner, Eshkol, and Mamre—let them take their share.’” (Genesis 15.21-24)

 Abram’s participation in the campaign was not for the booty—though that was, apparently, the practice of those who lived around him.

 Sometimes, our reading of the ancient stories reveals a very narrow look at ancient life. One could get the idea that our only interactions with other tribes or nations involved problems: slavery, attacks, and moral temptations. However, there are also portions which show how our ancient ancestors were parts of their societies—being Jewish in a non-Jewish world. There were neighbors and allies, and some of the allies were not as admirable as the others. Nonetheless, we were part of that world, and our navigating through its various situations required intelligence, flexibility, and a firm moral core.


One final note: this background of neighborly relations with Sodom and Gomorrah gives us a clue as to why God consults Abraham about their fates. We shall study that story next week.