Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Lech Lecha
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated in the memory of

Amram son of Sultana

Parashat Lech Lecha

The War of the Kings and its Significance

This week’s Torah portion describes at great length the war between the four and five kings, detailing their names and lands. Yet, what is so important about this particular battle that caused the Torah to describe it in such detail?


Rabbi David Dov Levanon

1. The Why of the War of the Kings
2. A Spiritual War
3. "318 Fighting Men"

The Why of the War of the Kings
This week’s Torah portion describes at great length the war between the four and five kings, detailing their names and lands. And the question therefore begs to be asked: What is so important about this particular battle that caused the Torah to describe it in such detail? Could it be that all of this information is important to know in order that we better appreciate the miracle of Abraham’s victory over the four kings who were so mighty that they managed to defeat the five?! Such an explanation, though, is not satisfactory, for why should scripture have had to go into such detail regarding a war which on the face of things is so unrelated to Abraham, the forefather of the Jewish people, if it contains no lesson for us whatsoever?

It would appear that the answer to this question lies in the following Midrash (Bereshit Rabba 42:1):
"And it came to pass in the days of Amraphel king of Shinar..." (Genesis 14:1). Rabbi Yehoshua of Sakhnin spoke in the name of Rabbi Levi, saying (Psalms 37:14): "The wicked have drawn out the sword and have bent their bow to cast down the poor and needy, and to slay such as are of upright ways. Their sword shall enter into their own heart." The words, "The wicked have drawn out the sword," refer to Amraphel and his cohorts; the words, "to cast down the poor and needy," refer to Lot; the words, "and to slay such as are of upright ways," refer to Abraham; "Their sword shall enter into their own heart" refers to that which is written: "He divided [his forces] against them [and attacked] that night - he and his servants" (Genesis 14:15).

The sages, in their great wisdom, understood that this "world war" was entirely for the sake of the patriarch Abraham. This is reflected in the words of the Midrash, "The words, ‘and to slay such as are of upright ways,’ refer to Abraham." Yet, how is it possible to reach a similar conclusion based upon a simple and straightforward understanding of the scriptures, which tell of a attempt by five kings to gain control over land and enslave nations and how, when the five kings revolted, the four kings marched against them, defeated them and reestablished control? Is it really possible to interpret all of this as an attempt to capture Lot in order to draw Abraham into war against them in order to kill him?

We must conclude that the sages wish to teach us how to understand the monumental events which take place in the world - that all of them transpire in order to clarify God’s reign. Therefore, it must be that they have some connection to Abraham, the father of the Nation of Israel, whose purpose it is to reveal God’s sovereignty. In accordance with this principle, the sages teach the following (Bereshit Rabba 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."

A Spiritual War
Possessing this understanding of the War of the Kings we can find hints between the lines of scripture to the effect that this war was actually aimed at Abraham. To begin with, the leader of the rebellion against the five kings is "Amraphel" (lit. "said fall") who told Abraham to "fall into the fiery furnace." This is in fact Nomrod who is referred to as "a mighty trapper before God," who, "knows his Master yet desires to revolt against him." Therefore, his victory and dominion over the entire world was liable to dampen Abraham’s ability to spread the true religion in the world. In this light did the sages interpret the name of the place wherein the four kings settled after their victory: "‘They then turned back and came to Eyn Mishpat (lit. eye of justice), now Kadesh...’ (Genesis 14:7) ...It was the eye which performed justice in the world that they desired to blind." In other words, the victory of the kings caused what the sages refer to as the "eye of the world" - i.e., the outlook of the patriarch Abraham, who awakened people’s consciousness the King of the World - to be covered over. Of Abraham it is written, "For I have known him in order that he command his sons and his house after him that they keep the way of God, to perform goodness and justice," and these kings did the opposite of goodness and justice.

Here, Abraham is referred to for the first and only time as "Ivri" ("Hebrew"; "Ivri" can also mean "On the other side"): "Those who escaped came and brought the news to Abraham the Hebrew" (Genesis 14:13). And the sages expounded upon these words, saying that the entire world was on one side and Abraham was on the other. Why does this idea find expression here of all places? We must conclude that here, with Amraphel’s victory, the entire world was indeed as if siding with him in his struggle to revolt against the Kingdom of Heaven - leaving Abraham the Hebrew on the other side. And the question is, who will overcome whom?
Therefore, we find that the sages saw in this war a sanctification of God’s name and an expression of Abraham’s fear of Heaven. They even compare it to the episode of the binding of Isaac, concerning which the Torah says, "For now I know that you fear God" (Genesis 22:12; Bereshit Rabba 43).

"318 Fighting Men"
Regarding what transpired as Abraham was about to set out for war, we find a number of explanations in the Midrash (Bereshit Rabba 43). Let us make mention of a couple:
"When Abraham heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he called out all his 318 fighting men who had been born in his house." Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Nechemiah (each gave his own interpretation of this verse). According to Rabbi Yehudah, they defied Abraham. They said, "If five kings could not stand up to them, how are we expected to stand up to them?" Rabbi Nechemiah said, Abraham defied them. He said, "I will go to battle [alone] and give my life for the sanctification of God’s name."
On the face of things, Abraham’s readiness to give his life in order to sanctify God’s name through saving Lot is difficult to understand. What possible justification could there be to risking one’s life to save somebody if it cannot possibly succeed? If, though, we understand Abraham’s actions according to what we have said above - i.e., that what we are dealing with here is a war of light against darkness, a struggle for the ability to publicize faith in God worldwide - it becomes understandable why one should risk his life for such a cause.

According to Rabbi Levi, Abraham told them, "Whoever is frightened or weak-hearted, let him go and return to his house" (see Deuteronomy 20). Why was he ready to part with so many soldiers, releasing from duty all who were frightened and faint-hearted? Because it was a war for faith in God, it was most fitting to take to the battle only those who were believers.
Reish Lakish said in the name of Rabbi Bar Kafrah: Eliezer alone joined Abraham in pursuing the kings. We know this because the numerical value of the name "Eliezer" in Hebrew is 318. The meaning of the name, too, is significant here. "Eliezer," which means "God is my guide," also hints ata the fact that this is a war for faith.
The Talmud brings an additional interpretation of this episode. According to Rav, Abraham strengthened the fighters with words of Torah. This too proves that what we are dealing with here is a spiritual war.

The Midrash tells us: "He divided [his forces] against them [and attacked] that night - he and his servants." The Almighty said, their forefather took action with me at midnight; I too will take action with his offspring at midnight. When? In Egypt, as the verse states, "And so it was, at midnight God struck every firstborn...."
On the face of things, what connection is there between these two events? What sort of measure for measure action is there here? Answer: The war which Abraham waged was an attempt to reveal God’s sovereign rule over creation. He therefore merited the revelation of God in the form of the striking of the firstborn, as the Passover Haggadah says - "Myself, not through the agency of an angel."

And when Abraham was victorious, God’s name was sanctified in the world, and people once again began to believe in God. The sages indeed relate: "After he (Abraham) returned from his victory over Chedorlaomer and his allied kings, the king of Sodom came out to greet him in Level Valley..." (Genesis 14:17). Rabbi Berchiah and Rabbi Chaninah said in the name of Rabbi Shemuel bar Nachman, that in that place all of the idolaters leveled the ground and cut down the trees and built a large stage and placed Abraham upon it up high. They showered Abraham with praise, saying, "You are our king, you are our prince, you are our God." Abraham said, "The world lacks not its true King, neither does it lack its true God." Abraham did not take the honor and the credit for himself but rather attributed it to the Almighty.

People’s faith in God was greater after Abraham’s victory than it was when Abraham was saved from the fiery furnace in Ur Casdim. The Midrash teaches: Rabbi Azariah and Rabbi Yonatan ben Haggai said in the name of Rabbi Yitzchak, "When Abraham descended into the fiery furnace and was saved, some idolaters became believers, while others clung to their idolatrous ways. When the king of Sodom went down to Chemar and was saved, they began to believe Abraham retroactively.
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