How Abraham got roped into a world war and won

My grandmother always used to say you must have “mazal” — or good fortune — for everything. I think that even the stories we tell, and those we hear, need a little luck to get our attention. Some of the weekly Torah readings are so full of big drama that “minor” stories get little or no notice. This week, Parshat Lech Lecha is packed with interesting and gripping stories, to the extent that the war of the four kings and five kings in chapter 14 gets short shrift. In addition to containing what sometimes seems like a laundry list of names and places, the very mention of God’s name and Abraham’s name do not appear until midway though the story. The reader is left to wonder what the purpose of the chapter is.

The midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 42:1) uses the verse in Psalms 37:14 to explain the entire incident of the war. The whole motivation of the warriors in capturing Lot was just to kill Abraham the “upright.”

The wicked have drawn out the sword, and have bent their bow;
to cast down the poor and needy, to slay such as are upright in the way;

The wicked have drawn out the sword, and have bent the bow (Psalms 37:14) — this alludes to Amraphel and his companions. To cast down the poor and needy (ibid.) — to Lot. To slay such as are upright in the way (ibid.) — to Abraham. Their sword shall enter into their own heart (ibid. v. 15), as it is written, And he fought against them by night, he and his servants, and smote them, etc. (Genesis 14:15).

The Zohar (1:6) continues in this line of thought and explains the whole chapter as a world war, the sole purpose of which is to rid the world of Abraham and his ideology. The Torah is establishing that all world events, no matter how far removed, are somehow related to Jews.  The king who leads the coalition in the verse is called Amraphel, whom the sages chiefly identified as Nimrod, Abraham’s arch enemy in the midrash. Nimrod’s very name suggests rebellion (mered), and the midrash understands that the man knew God and rebelled against Him.

The patriarch is identified in verse 13 as “Avraham ha-ivri” — Abraham the Hebrew, or, indeed, the upright, or the one on the other side — is part of the reason the Zohar sees this war as ideological. It specifically targets Abraham the upright, the one who is different from the others, to rid the world of him and his teaching about God.

And they took Lot and his possessions, the son of Abram’s brother, and they departed, and he was living in Sodom” (v. 14)

This verse is full of repetition. If you’ve been paying attention to the biblical text thus far, you already know that Lot is Abraham’s nephew, and you know where he has been living. Why bother stating as much again here? The Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin) explains that the repetition of this verse in proximity to the war of the kings indicates that Lot was captured specifically and only because he was Abraham’s nephew. The soldiers are presented as having left the battlefield to search Lot out specifically, in the city of Sodom.

The midrash continues (Bereishit Rabbah 44), quoting Rabbi Nechemiah: “Abraham said, ‘I will go to battle [alone] and give my life for the sanctification of God’s name.’ Why is going out to save Lot a sanctification of God’s name? Only if this battle is larger than Lot and is one that is publicly dedicated to removing God and His representatives from the world and then Abraham is obligated to defend God’s presence in this world.”

And behold, Abraham is successful. The two personalities he meets after his victory both respect him and recognize his God.

This chapter is not just plain facts of who is fighting whom and why, but also an inspirational chapter of redemption, personal and national.

The Ramban explains that this chapter is foreshadowing. Just as Abraham fights against four kingdoms and wins against all odds, so too the people of Israel will suffer under the reign of four kingdoms and emerge victorious, even though they will be outnumbered, just as Abraham was. This narrative therefore teaches that, even against all odds, Jews will see victory over their enemies and escaping their servitude.

Moreover, Abraham became the redeemer of the land that he “captured” from the kings, including the land of Israel, according to the midrash. And the Italian commentator Umberto Cassuto points out that the kings’ journey mirrors — or preludes — that of the Israelites’ departure from Egypt and entering the land of Israel.

It is worth noting as well that, in addition to the redemption of Lot, this parsha hints to the redemption of the whole world that will come through Lot’s descendant. That is, as the progenitor of the nation of Moab, he is the forefather of Ruth, the Moabitess who follows Naomi to the land of Israel, and is the great-grandmother of David, king of Israel. David himself, of course, is the ancestor of the messiah.

Again, it is the midrash that makes that point explicit (Bereshit Rabbah 42:7): Rabbi Elazar bar Avinah says, ‘If you see kingdoms engaging each other in conflict, anticipate the appearance of the messiah. Know that this is true, for, in the days of Abraham, redemption came to Abraham through kingdoms engaging each other in war.”

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