Abram Rescues Lot, Tithes to Melchizedek (Genesis 14)
The first nine verses of this chapter are packed with the kind of detail historians crave. But as yet, none of it helps to conclusively identify the nine kings listed here in the surviving records we have of the city-states of Canaan and Mesopotamia.
This chapter, along with the previous one, is also interesting for the glimpse we are given of Abram's life in Canaan. Abram was rich in flocks, herds and gold. He possessed a large household consisting of those persons whom he acquired, either by purchase or through voluntary association. But this chapter also shows Abram as allied with three Canaanite chieftainsMamre, Eshcol and Anerand Abram himself is able to field a fighting troop of 318 men. Abram also appears to be rather skilled in the art of warfare. While it may seem odd for this man of God to be so engaged, one should bear in mind that Canaan was not a place of pleasant pastures and relative safety. Bandits often roamed the hill country, the Negev was often raided from the south and east, and relations between the various city-states were sometimes uneasy. And Abram was right in the middle of this.
Indeed, the common picture many have today of Abram as a simple nomadic shepherd is incorrect. For in Genesis 23:6, he is identified as a "mighty prince" among the people of the land. Though he was certainly rich in flocks, we should see him more as a "merchant prince" leading a wealthy caravan. In fact, the places he chose to dwell, and that Isaac and Jacob chose after him, were important locations on trade routes. This being their true occupation is perhaps why Joseph had to later tell his family to state that they were shepherds in order to be segregated from the Egyptians (46:31-34). This would not have been a lie as it was technically correctyet the term shepherds was by no means a full and apt description of what they were. Indeed, the implication seems to be that if they had not said they were shepherds, they would have been fully welcomed among Egyptian high society just as Abram had earlier beenenough so that his wife Sarah was able to be noticed by the princes of Pharaoh's court (12:15). And Joseph didn't want that.
Getting back to the account here, it is interesting to see Abraham's approach concerning his wealth and military capability. After pursuing and defeating the confederacy headed by Chedorlaomer and rescuing Lot, Abram returned. Coming out to meet him were the king of Sodom and Melchizedek, the King of Salem (i.e., of Jerusalem or simply of Peace). The mention of bread and wine brought by Melchizedek has caused some to suggest that these transactions occurred around the time of Passover. It is interesting to note that, flush with victory, Abram had God uppermost in mind. To Melchizedek Abram gave a tithe, or tenth, of all he had taken in battle. To the king of Sodom Abram returned the remaining goods, refusing to take any payment lest Abram's wealth be attributed to his battle victory instead of the graciousness of God.
Concerning tithing, the Bible doesn't say whether any of Abram's ancestors or contemporaries also practiced it. Yet secular history reveals it as quite prevalent in the ancient world. The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary states: "Just when and where the idea arose of making the tenth the rate for paying tribute to rulers and of offering gifts as a religious duty cannot be determined. History reveals that it existed in Babylon in ancient times, also in Persia and Egypt, even in China. It is quite certain that Abraham knew of it when he migrated from Ur (Gen. 14:17-20). By Abraham's day the giving of tithes had been recognized as a holy deed (cf. Heb. 7:14)." Indeed, the Encyclopaedia Britannica says that "the custom was almost universal in antiquity" (11th ed., vol. 26, "Tithes," p. 1019). For this godly custom to have been so widespread, it is reasonable to believe that God had earlier given instructions to mankind regarding itperhaps as far back as Adam and Eve.
Consider then: Did Abram tithe to simply honor God with a popular religious custom of the day? Or did he understand tithing to be a divine law instituted by the Creator? God later said of him, "Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws" (Genesis 26:5). This disproves the widespread belief that the law of God didn't come into effect until 400 years later in Moses' day. For what statutes did Abraham keep? Interestingly, the practice of tithing is later listed as a statute of God (compare Leviticus 26:46; 27:30); therefore we would conclude that this was one of the statues Abraham kept. Rather than tithing being something Abram came up with on his own or simply copied from pagan societies of his day, it is far more logical and scripturally consistent to conclude that God had revealed tithing as a sacred dutya law to obey.
And what of Melchizedek? This chapter is the first of two Old Testament references to him. He is called King of Salem (which, Hebrews 7:2 points out, means King of Peace) and priest of the Most High God. In Psalm 110:4 the coming Messiah is said to be made Priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek. In Hebrews, it is stated that Melchizedek is "without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life," that He "remains a priest continually" and that He still lives (Hebrews 7:3, 8). This description can fit no mere human being. Comparing all the scriptures that mention Melchizedek, He is revealed to be none other than the preincarnate Jesus Christ. (For more information about who and what Jesus was before His human birth, request or download our booklet Who Is God?)
Supplementary Reading: "Who Was Melchizedek?," Who Is God?, pp. 32-33; "Why Tithe in Today's World?," What Does the Bible Teach About Tithing?, pp. 3-4.