Genesis 13-16: Abram’s exploits

Abram, his wife, and Lot went to Canaan, along with their plentiful cattle, silver, and gold.  Abram and Lot each had so many flocks and herds that they quarreled over the land, so they decided to separate.  Lot chose the plain of Jordan and settled near Sodom, while God repeated his promise to give Canaan to Abram.  During a war between local kings, the victorious side pillaged Sodom and carried off Lot and his possessions.  Abram gave chase and brought back all the possessions and people.  King Melchizedek of Salem came out to bless Abram, and the king of Sodom offered to split Abram’s booty, but Abram gave him all of the booty instead.  God spoke to Abram again, reiterating the promise of land and progeny.  He predicted that Abram’s descendents will be enslaved in a foreign land for 400 years, but God will execute judgment on the nation, after which they will go free with great wealth.  To seal the deal, God asked Abram to split a she-goat, a ram, and a turtledove in two; at night, God passed in between the split animals.

Sarai, Abram’s wife, was barren.  She offered to let Abram use her maid, Hagar the Egyptian, to produce children.  He did so, and Hagar gave birth to Ishmael.  Hagar started looking down upon Sarai, so Sarai treated her so harshly that she ran away.  God appeared to Hagar, commanding her to return to Sarai, but promising to make her descendents a great nation as well.

Commentary:

  • King Melchizedek of Salem is an enigmatic figure.  He is said to be “a priest of God Most High” (Hebrew: El Elyon), and is mentioned nowhere in the Hebrew Bible except Psalm 110:4.  Salem probably refers to Jerusalem, and because the passage about Melchizedek interrupts the narrative about the king of Sodom, the passage may have been inserted to establish the antiquity and holiness of Jerusalem.
  • The cutting of animals in half and passing between them is found elsewhere in the Bible, and also in Mesopotamia.  It was probably a self-curse: usually, two people walk through the animals after making a deal, and whoever violates the deal would become like the animals.  Here, only God walks in between the animals, indicating the deal is unconditional.
  • God promises to assign to Abram the land “from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates” (15:18).  Israel was never this large, either in the Bible or at any time in its history.
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