The war1 of the four kings of what one day would become Assyria2 against the five kings of the Dead Sea region was fascinating, not because of the feats of the conquering armies or because of the staggering death count, but because of the role that Abraham our patriarch played in it.

The Political Background

Chedorlaomer, king of Elam, ruled much of the region to the north and east of the Land of Canaan but remained unsatisfied. He led his army in a series of wars, massacring whoever crossed his path, building an empire of countries whose kings were loyal and willing to pay an annual tribute.

After twelve years, five countries within the empire banded together and stopped answering to Chedorlaomer.3 The dictators of each of these lands were strong and cruel. United, they quit paying tribute for thirteen years4 and formed a coalition against him.

Although three kings remained faithful, Chedorlaomer prepared to serve the insurgents a heavy blow they wouldn’t forget.

The War

In the fourteenth year of this insubordination, Chedorlaomer traveled south, flanked by the armies and kings of the three nations who had remained faithful:5 Amraphel, king of Shinar (Rashi maintains that is actually Nimrod, the king who threw Abraham into the furnace in Ur Kasdim6); Arioch, king of Elasar; and Tidal, king of Goyim.

Meanwhile, the five rulers in the south—King Bera of Sodom, King Birsha of Gommorah, King Shinab of Admah, King Shemever of Zevoiim, and the king of Bela which is Zoar—met up in the Valley of Siddim.7 They believed that they would enjoy an important advantage, being that they were five against four. They also hoped that nearby kings who were similarly oppressed by Chedorlaomer would join their cause.8

When the two groups met, war broke out.

Entire cities were wiped off the map by the powerful northern armies. Other mighty nations in the area were also badly smitten.9 The five defending armies were left weak and in disarray.

Tar pits dotted the Siddim Valley, their asphalt used for construction.10 Many of the fleeing soldiers fell and died in these pits, as did the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Midrash reveals that, miraculously, the king of Sodom was able to climb out of the pit and survive.11 The soldiers who managed to avoid the pits escaped to the hills of Judea.12

Chedorlaomer and his allies returned home victorious, having captured many victims, seizing all their possessions and food supplies.

Abraham Enters the Picture

As the four kings plundered Sodom, they were determined to capture one victim in particular: Lot, nephew of Abraham.

Lot used to live alongside his uncle, but they parted ways as their herds grew, to avoid disputes over pasturing grounds. Lot settled in Sodom, where he rose to prominence as one of the city’s councilmen. The four kings made sure to capture and torture him13 because of his kinship to Abraham, whom they despised.14

A refugee, who managed to flee for his life, came to tell Abraham that Lot had been captured.

According to Midrashic tradition, this was Og, the giant who survived the Great Flood, and was now the sole survivor of the battle in Refaim—the second major calamity he was among the lucky few to survive.

His intentions, however, were far from noble. According to Rashi, he said to himself, “I know that Abraham is a kind man. When he hears that Lot has been taken captive, he will spare no effort to rescue him from the enemy army. Surely, he will be killed.” Og hoped that he would then marry Sarai, Abraham’s beautiful wife.15

Og was right. Well, sort of. When Abraham learned of his nephew’s predicament, he gathered the 318 loyal members of his household to join him on a daring rescue mission. Abraham sensed their fear, rebuked them for their lack of faith, and gave them money and precious stones. He even offered them a way out, “Is there anyone among you who is faint-hearted? Is there anyone who is afraid to go into battle? Let him return home now.” Most took up the offer, leaving just a few men at Abraham’s side, including Eliezer, his longtime faithful servant.16 As for Abraham, he was not afraid; his indomitable faith in G‑d made him certain he’d succeed.

Wishing to utilize the element of surprise,17 Abraham and his small army set out in the darkness of night. Although they were ten days’ travel from the four kings, they miraculously reached Damascus—where the kings were—in a single day.18 19

Abraham’s Victory

When Abraham and his small army faced their opponents, Abraham threw dust and straw in their direction. Miraculously, when the dust and straw were airborne, G‑d transformed the dust into spears and the straw into arrows. Conversely, the arrows and spears that were directed at Abraham were transformed into dust.20

When the kings realized that they were powerless against Abraham they ran for their lives. Abraham pursued them until night fell. When it became too dark to see where they were heading, Abraham divided his men into groups to seek the enemy in as many directions as possible. Three of the four mighty kings were killed. Only Amrafel survived.

Abraham returned with Lot, whom he had freed from captivity, and all of the possessions and people that were taken in the war. The king of Sodom—the ringleader of the five rebellious kings—emerged from the pit where he had been hiding and asked Abraham to return his subjects and wives, “graciously” offering that Abraham keep the possessions.

(The Torah pauses here to inform us of the kind gifts that Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought to Abraham and the warriors who were with him. Midrash Tanchuma says that this is despite the fact that Abraham killed Melchizedek’s descendants in battle,21 to show us that Abraham had no problem receiving gifts which came from a moral source, and why he rejected the offer of the King of Sodom. The Ohr Hachayim gives the explanation that this draws a clear contrast between the behavior of the just and that of the wicked.22)

Abraham said to the king of Sodom, “I will not take from you so much as a thread or a sandal strap; you shall not say, ‘It is I who made Abraham rich.’”

Afterthought

A cornerstone of Jewish faith is that G‑d controls the world and everything happens by His will. Abraham chose to go into a seemingly hopeless battle only because of his trust in G‑d.

There is a saying in the Talmud that those on the path to performing a mitzvah will not be susceptible to harm.23 When we follow Abraham’s example and choose to follow the path of goodness and kindness, we can be certain that no harm will befall us.