Posted by: mattcolvin | November 26, 2011

Melchizedek king of Sodom in Genesis 14?


(”The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek” by Dierik Bouts the Elder, 1464-1467. For art-historical analysis, see here.)

In Genesis 14, we are given the story of Abraham’s return from his rescue of Lot:

17 And the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley), after his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him:
18 Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was the priest of God Most High. 19 And he blessed him and said:

“ Blessed be Abram of God Most High,
Possessor of heaven and earth;
20 And blessed be God Most High,
Who has delivered your enemies into your hand.”

And he gave him a tithe of all.
21 Now the king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the persons, and take the goods for yourself.”
22 But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have raised my hand to the LORD, God Most High, the Possessor of heaven and earth, 23 that I will take nothing, from a thread to a sandal strap, and that I will not take anything that is yours, lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich’— 24 except only what the young men have eaten, and the portion of the men who went with me: Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre; let them take their portion.”

Now, I am not a higher critic, but I have read the collected works of David Daube, and I have learned that where there are difficulties and ugly seams in a narrative, it is worth digging to see if there is an elegant solution to the problems. I think the following facts require consideration:
1. “Melchizedek king of Salem” appears with no introduction. He is not mentioned anywhere earlier. He is not among the 4 kings on one side or the 5 kings on the other. The chapter is swarming with kings, but the king of Salem is not among them until he is suddenly introduced apropos of nothing.
2. The “king of Salem” is mentioned one verse after we are told that “The king of Sodom went out to meet Abraham after his return…” If the king of Salem is one person, and the king of Sodom is another, then verse 17 shows Abraham meeting the king of Sodom, when suddenly the king of Salem intrudes and gives Abram a blessing. Meanwhile, what is the king of Sodom doing? Just standing around watching this transaction?
3. Why would the king of Salem give Abraham a blessing? The king of Sodom, on the other hand, has just been defeated and plundered by Chedorlaomer and company, so he would naturally be thankful and full of good feelings for Abraham, who has just defeated Chedorlaomer et al. in turn.
4. Further, no sooner has Melchizedek blessed Abraham than the king of Sodom resumes conversation with Abraham as though they had never been interrupted! Such convolutions fly in the face of everything that Robert Alter has taught us about the economy of reported speech in The Art of Biblical Narrative.. And the king of Salem vanishes, never to be mentioned again until Psalm 110:4 (and again in Hebrews 6-7). Abraham and the king of Sodom act like the king of Salem had never been there. They act, that is, as if they are the only two parties present or active.

All these considerations are very old. They have exercised the Rabbis, who give creative solutions.

5. Verse 20 says that “he gave him a tithe of all.” The author of Hebrews of course takes this to mean that Abraham tithed to Melchizedek. But the verb would most naturally taken with the same subject as the previous verbs, which were “And he blessed him and he said…” Furthermore, why would Abraham give tithes to an unknown king?

Imagine… if the king of Salem is actually the king of Sodom, we would have…
1. No interruption of the narrated meeting, but rather, further information given about it: the single king (of Sodom/Salem) is given a name so that we can know who he is before he exchanges words (and would-be gifts) with Abraham.
2. No need for a sudden change of subject (#5 above), since unlike the king of Salem, the king of Sodom has a very good reason to give Abraham a tithe, for Abraham is the victorious conqueror of the conqueror of the king of Sodom.
3. A much better unity to the passage. The discussion of whether Abraham should take the goods and give the king of Sodom the persons follows very naturally on the information that the king gave him a tithe. Recognizing his indebtedness to Abraham, he attempts to pay him with a tenth of all he has, but requests the favor of keeping the persons. Abraham refuses to take anything, just as will also insist on paying for the cave of Machpelah instead of accepting it as a gift from Ephron the Hittite in Genesis 23. He will have no debt-friendships with peoples of the land at all.
4. The word Salem (שלם) is somewhat similar to Sodom (סדם), so that it is just possible that “Salem” is a corruption of “Sodom”. But it may be possible to come up with other explanations for the substitution of the city name Salem for Sodom in verse 18. For instance, Wikipedia notes that W. F. Albright reads “melek-shelomo” = ”a king of his peace”, sc. ”a king allied to him”. It adds, “if the Albright reading is accepted, this would then imply that the whole interchange was with the King of Sodom.” This seems to me a highly desirable conclusion from a narratological viewpoint. (The estimable Jesuit scholar of Aramaic, Joseph Fitzmyer, mentioned Albright’s suggestion here.)

Downsides? This would mean that Hebrews 6-7 conflicts with Genesis concerning who actually paid tithes to whom. But then, I’m also convinced that there are other such problems. For instance, the context of Genesis 15:6 (the very next chapter!) actually means that Abraham counted “it” (the reiteration of the still unfulfilled promise of an heir and land) as righteousness to Him, that is, to YHWH. After all, it is YHWH’s righteousness that is in question because of His unfulfilled promises. If so, then Paul’s citations of this verse in Romans and Galatians are what Harold Bloom would call “strong misreadings.” But this gets us into some very deep and dangerous waters concerning how the New Testament writers use the Old Testament.

What do you think?


  1. Gen 13:12-13: Lot settled among the cities of the valley and moved his tent as far as Sodom. Now the men of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the LORD.
    Gen 14:2: these kings made war with Bera king of Sodom

    Melchizedek king of Salem (righteous king of peace) blessed Abram by God Most High, and blessed God Most High (by…Himself? Interesting considering Heb 7:7: “the inferior is blessed by the superior”)

    Abram gave him a tenth of everything (thereby accepting the blessing).
    Seeing this, “the king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me [Bera, king of the wicked, great sinners (save Lot)] the persons [those of Sodom], but take the goods for yourself.””
    This could mean: Don’t also give me a tenth. Or worse: Don’t give this Melchizedek anything.
    I don’t think this king is Melchizedek rejecting the tenth. Abram’s response in verses 22-24 is a rejection of this king’s request.
    It’s good for God Most High to bless Abram from His possession of heaven and earth, but not good for the king of Sodom to claim to have blessed Abram with anything leading to riches (except the food eaten, and that probably from Melchizedek directly or at least indirectly).

    • Yes, Frank, you are right to point out that the king of Sodom is named Bera in 14:2. I also agree that it is possibly evil that he wants “the persons”, given the description of the depravity of Sodom and how the inhabitants treat strangers.

      Your reading would have Bera and Abraham haggling over how to divide the spoil from the battle. But Bera was not a co-victor in that battle, only a loser in the previous battle. Why is he entitled to anything?

      A very puzzling passage.

      • Not necessarily haggling. Bera requested only the people back. Abram refused and added he wouldn’t keep even the minutest portion of spoil for himself. (Melchizedek probably accepted the whole tenth because no one could claim to possibly or probably lead someone to riches if that someone already possesses heaven and earth.) Abram’s refusal seems to be telling Bera that the people are not with Bera any longer.

      • Well, on the traditional reading, Abraham is paying tithes to Melchizedek, and Bera is offering gifts to Abraham. No word about Bera giving either tithes or gifts to Melchizedek.

        If Abraham refused to give the persons to Bera, to whom do they belong? To Abraham?

        Perhaps the simplest explanation is that Bera, conflating both battles into one, sees himself as a sharer in the victory, and thus entitled to divide spoils with Abraham.

    • Verse 10 is possibly implying that Bera died during the battle. So Melchizedek could quite well have been the new King of Sodom afterwards.

      • Elegant solution!

  2. > Well, on the traditional reading, Abraham is paying tithes to Melchizedek
    > and Bera is offering gifts to Abraham.
    What gifts? Some of the “goods” of v21 _were_ Bera’s, then his enemy’s, then the men of Abram and/or those people the men rescued/saved.

    “the enemy took all the possessions of Sodom and Gomorrah” [v11]
    Abram “brought back all the possessions, and also brought back his kinsman Lot with his possessions, and the women and the people.” [v16]

    >If Abraham refused to give the persons to Bera, to whom do they belong? To Abraham?
    I think so. It appears they now belong to a blessed, superior protector and king-conqueror (either by force, acceptance, or choice).

    • “allies of Abram” v13.

  3. Thanks for helping me work through this, Frank. I’ll be thinking about it.

  4. The KIng of Sodom’s arrogant, ungrateful, greedy, dismissive disrespectful attitude towards God is plainly revealed in his request for the people after witnessing the tithing of everything Abram had in his posession which was great— material goods and employees/servants. Additionally, Considering the victory won. It is likely we was envious that 318 men were more victorious than his army and those armies of kings in alliance with him against his/their mutal enemy.
    The emotions had to run high —consider the historic selfish attitude of some people in authority and the highly probable emotionally charged exchange between he and Abram(Abraham). Consider Abram response he said he did want/would Not take a thread from him.
    NOT a thread, LoL.

    what could be done with a thread nothing but Abram was fully aware of the extent of the King of Sodom’s hostile attitude towards God and others. The King of Sodom spat at the what Christ Jesus stated is the greatest commandment Shema and love your neighbor as yourself the fulfillment of A-L-L, ALL of the law and the prophets. This was like a show down. A gauntlet thrown. What followed was a feeling of fearfulness on Abram after this exchange in that THe Lord God had to remind him that He is his Shield and exceedingly great reward and the covenant was cut after God reassured him of His plan of blessing the entire world and Abram’s offspring. Even still Abram was moved by God to pray for the salvation of Sodom and its king before the judgement of fire and brimestone. Twice he stepped on faith. Many more times I’m convinced that Our long siffering God pleaded, wooed, admonished, rebuked, rescued, and chastised the flourishing city on a well watered plain before it was devasted and became a source of salt. I wonder how many millions of people will make it into heaven because of Abram’s attitude and acts of obedience, the demonstrated longsuffering, mercy and grace of God just in this historic event not to mention other things that happen in the lives of individuals.

    • I have read this many times but never noticed this conflict. So I googled.
      Very insightful to this lowly handmaid.

  5. The King of Sodom and King of Salem are the same king: Jesus. Jesus does not want our money or tithe; He just wants people. He wants our fellowship. Tithe is a representation of what God wants from our hearts after Jesus’s sacrifice. I believe God gave me this revelation through the Holy Spirit.

    • Unfortunately, your interpretation creates more problems than it solves: Why doesn’t Abraham accept the transaction?

      • My opinion is that verse 23’s reference to a shoe latchet is a foreshadowing of John the Baptist’s attitude toward Jesus. In Mark 1:7, John mentions not being worthy of even being a helper to Jesus. Worshipful reverence of Melchizedek, whom Abram was talking with, is the reason for his response, I think. He wanted to bless Melchizedek, whom I believe is also the King of Sodom mentioned.

      • Thanks! I will think about this.

  6. the author of the article have the same opinion:

  7. The King of Salem is Christ in the old testament. Hence the tithes and the breaking of bread. Hebrews ties this up.

  8. […] quick bit of googling brought me up to speed on the general idea. From Melchizedek king of Sodom in Genesis 14? by Matt […]

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