For all you Mesopotamian history buffs, Genesis 14 is the chapter for you! We start to delve into the war of four kings versus the five kings, and there is just a wealth of trivia nuggets from the Euphrates to the Jordan Valley, from Ur Kasdim to Egypt!
We have the fight between Avraham and Lot’s shepherds. Lot made his residence in the Jordan Valley, while Avraham went to Chevron. Then there were these four kings way off in Mesopotamia. By the way, did you know that vassal cities in Canaan were paying taxes to the rulers in modern Iraq?
For most of us here, these wars and their details are thrilling. But the problem is, that there are some people who don’t find this chapter so exciting… Yet, amidst these dry stories, there is a deeper story that is unfolding.
Avram & Lot
A critical part of this picture is the relationship between Avram and his deceased brother’s son, Lot. At the end of Noach, Lot joins Avram on his journey to Canaan. Now, in Lech Lecha, the Torah tells us that the economic tensions between these two men led to a separation. Avram declares that we should not fight, after all, we are brothers.
The land is before you, if you go left, I will go right and if you go right, I will go left.(Gen. 13,9)
Rashi indicates that Avram meant to tell him that even when they depart, Avram would still be next to Lot, as a protector. As Rashi comments, “wherever you are, I will not go far.” But still, this is a separation and that itself can breed ill will.
Lot went off to live in the place where people are wicked and sinners unto G-d. As soon as he makes that departure, G-d tells Avram to lift his eyes and look north, south, east and west, the land that will be given to his seed eternally.
Get Our Your Map!
And that is where we get into some juicy details of Bronze Age history. Get out your maps, as a group of four powerful kings from the across the Euphrates river join together to teach their vassal cities in the Jordan-Valley a lesson.
Jordan-Valley? Hold on a second, I know someone who lives there. Oh yeah, that’s right, it’s Lot the nephew of Avram. The four kings travel from Iraq, through Syria all the way to the Valley of Siddim near the Dead Sea. The local Kings are routed by the powerful foreign forces. Captives are taken, including Lot. Then comes a critical verse:
And then came the fugitive and told Avram the Ivri who dwelled in the plains of Mamre… And Avram heard that his brother was taken captive and he armed his disciples.
Avram then pursued the four kings all the way to the northern part of Canaan where the tribe of Dan would later dwell.
Avram the Ivri
Avram was a resident of Canaan, but here he was called Avram the Ivri. Ivri is a lot like Ivrit (Hebrew), so in a sense he was called Avram the Hebrew. Rashi comments that he was called Ivri, for he came M’ever, from the other side of the River, the Euphrates that is.
But still, why was Avram of all people called upon in this moment? On one level, he was the uncle of the captured Lot. Avram still related to Lot as his kinsman, as the Torah states, he heard that his brother had been taken captive.
Now Lot had chosen to depart from Avram for Sedom. Can you imagine the reaction most people would in this situation when Lot lands in trouble? Wow, that’s so sad about Lot and all. I wonder what his new life behind bars will be like. Avram’s response was quite different:
And Avram heard that his brother was captured, and he armed his disciples.(Gen. 14, 14)
So one reason Avram was called upon was because he was the relative of Lot. But was he really the only relative around from any of the captives that could be summoned? Actually, Avram was not only the uncle of Lot. He was also Avram the Ivri.
The well-known Midrash points to the depth of this phrase. Avram was called Ivri because the entire world was on one side and he was on the other. The literal phrase means that he came from across the river. Avram stood apart from the world as a person who worshiped HaShem.
When was this precise moment that it became recognized that he was on one side and “the whole world” was on the other? It was that moment that Lot and other captives were carried away. When a vacuum appeared, this unique figure was called upon to fill it.
Avram was a spiritual person. He built alters, prayed, received prophecy and called out to G-d. And yet, a huge part of his character was not only a spiritual response to the transcendental world. A major part of him is the sense of accountability in difficult human circumstances.
When a void or vacuum appears, what happens? Avram the Ivri had a sense of accountability. He hears that it is his brother and garners others to the chase. He brings forward everything that he has. This is what puts him on one side of the world. The “whole world” is wrapped up in their own local, personal needs. Avram the Ivri was on the other side.
That accountability comes across in many ways. The King of Sedom offered to pay Avram for his services. Avram refused stating that he had lifted his hand to HaShem swearing that he would not take from a thread to a shoe strap. Why?
Avram’s goal was only to step into the vacuum. He did so out of devotion to G-d, nothing else. He felt that taking payment would undermine the very mission that he had achieved. It’s not about money, it is part of his devotion to G-d.
A major factor in our moral world is accountability for the real human world that we live in. The recent book The Jews Should Keep Quiet cites new evidence about how FDR sought to work against the Jews during the Holocaust.
Even when most Americans favored allowing Jewish refugees into the country, Roosevelt worked to make sure that nothing of the sort took place. Roosevelt derailed many rescue plans. Not only did he turn around the St. Louis ship packed with German Jewish refugees, but he also helped to derail a plan where the Dominican Republic would take in 100,000 Jews.
This is to say nothing of his negligence in ignoring the opportunity to bomb the train tracks upon which Jews taken to the death camps.
Who are the great people of history? Great leaders take whatever resources they have as they stand in the breach in times of crisis.
You don’t have to be president of the United States to fill in a vacuum. We are the students of Avraham. We stand up in the situations where there is an acute need for accountability.
In such moments, you might find that there is a community member facing a financial challenge or a colleague at work who is overlooked by their management or a family member in need. There just may be a vacuum where we can step into the breach.
In those moments, you might feel like you stand on one side of the world while everyone stands on the other. When that happens, remember the power of accountability and remember your ancestor Avram the Ivri.