Wednesday, August 01, 2018

929- Genesis 14: A King of Sodom Who Does Not Embody Middat Sodom

I learned this chapter with Rabbi Alex Israel's commentary found on By the time I was done, it was clear to me that it would make a great TV episode! It features intense battles, funny moments and a one-sided bromance. It also includes diplomacy and symbolism.

Back when I learned this story as a child, the approach I was taught was largely Midrashic. We spent a lot of time on the fact that Og the Giant was the palit (refugee who informed Avraham of Lot's whereabouts) and that Og actually desired Sarai and was hoping to take her while Avraham went off to war. We also talked about how the 318 men was actually a reference to Eliezer, Avraham's servant, because he had the might and strength of 318 men. There's a lot to appreciate in the midrashic approach, but I enjoyed Rabbi Israel's focus on presenting the text through the lens of the peshat aided by an understanding of the geography of the land of Israel and historical context.

The first thing Rabbi Alex Israel clarifies is that while this seems to be an evenly matched battle- four kings against five- it absolutely isn't. Kedarlaomer and Company are mighty men of means who are able to go on a lengthy campaign to crush those who rebel against them. (Rabbi Israel proves this based on history, showing how the places they come from are far away, maybe even Persia or Turkey, and through mapping the route and campaign trail they take and showing how this would require great wealth.) These four kings are the unquestioned rulers of Mesopotamia. In contrast, the five local "kings" of Sodom can be better understood as sheriffs. This is the story of local leaders fighting against wealthy powerhouses (think your local police going up against Special Ops). In that vein, I was put in mind of a clip from Game of Thrones where the Lannister force (here representing the local lords of Sodom) thinks they can hold out against Daenarys Targaryen (here representing the might of Kedarlaomer and Co)...only to realize they are wrong about that. 

Now for the funny moments. Rabbi Israel references Rashi who points out that all of the local leaders of Sodom are given names that point to their wickedness (there is a trope in Tanakh where people's names aren't always their given names but sometimes are used to make a point- consider Avigayil's husband Naval in I Samuel):

ברע BERA —Evil (רע) towards God and evil towards mankind (Midrash Tanchuma, Lech Lecha 8).
ברשע BIRSHA — Because he rose by means of wickedness (רָשַׁע) (Midrash Tanchuma, Lech Lecha 8)).
שנאב SHINAB — He hated (שנא) his Father (אב) in heaven (Midrash Tanchuma, Lech Lecha 8)).
שמאבר SHEMEBER — He set his wings (שם אבר) to fly, flapping them to rebel against the Holy One, blessed be He (Midrash Tanchuma, Lech Lecha 8)).
בלע BELA is the name of this king’s city (but the king’s own name is not mentioned here).
Now, the route that the four kings take involves their "taking back control of what we call the Derech HaMelekh/ King's Highway which goes through the mountain country of Ever HaYarden. It's one of the most important trade routes from Mesopotamia down to Egypt. Kedarlaomer and Company are going North to South as they defeat people." They aren't even interested in the kings of the Jordan Valley; they have a larger goal which is to reclaim the highway route. They want to ensure that this region stops causing trouble to the caravans and trade routes. In short, "they come to restake their claim and destroy most of the local forces."

Thus, when these four mighty kings fight against the five local lords, the result is unsurprising. The lords of Sodom flee and hide in clay pits or underground bunkers and the rest flee for the hills. The five mighty kings loot the valley and take all the food- here Rabbi Israel quipped that "an army marches on its stomach."

Rabbi Israel then clarified that likely when Avraham comes after Lot, he isn't chasing the whole mighty army (or else how could he possibly win?) It's more likely that he is fighting against the slower force at the rear that has the captives such as women and children and loot.

There are several instances in this chapter where close reading enhances our perspective.

1. Note that Lot has moved from being on the outskirts of Sodom to actually being in Sodom. Also note that Lot keeps on being referred to with the line "Lot and his Possessions" which symbolizes his materialism.

2. Avraham divides his 318 men into three divisions and attacks at night, which is similar to  what occurs later with Gideon and his 300 men, also dividing into three divisions and attacking at night.

3. This is just a hilarious tidbit, but note how the lord of Sodom goes out to meet Avraham, but then is undercut by MalkiTzedek, who takes control of the conversation, and in an effort to reclaim it, has to butt in with his demand, "Give me the people..." You can just picture his injured dignity in that moment.

4. (This is my own idea). Note that when MalkiTzedek greets Avraham with bread and wine, this is actually the customary gift offered to kings. We see that bread and wine are offered to Saul when he is appointed king (I Samuel 10), when David joins his service (I Samuel 16:20) and that Avigayil offers it to David when she tries to avert his wrath from coming down upon her and Naval (I Samuel 25). Thus, the very gift MalkiTzedek offers can either be the prototype of the later custom or could be a way of demonstrating that MalkiTzedek sees Avraham as an ally or equal.

5. Note the clever diplomacy that Avraham employs. MalkiTzedek is clearly some kind of monotheistic leader or priest, and he has a specific term for God.

יט  וַיְבָרְכֵהוּ, וַיֹּאמַר:  בָּרוּךְ אַבְרָם לְאֵל עֶלְיוֹן, קֹנֵה שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ.19 And he blessed him, and said: 'Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Maker of heaven and earth;
כ  וּבָרוּךְ אֵל עֶלְיוֹן, אֲשֶׁר-מִגֵּן צָרֶיךָ בְּיָדֶךָ; וַיִּתֶּן-לוֹ מַעֲשֵׂר, מִכֹּל.20 and blessed be God the Most High, who hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand.' And he gave him a tenth of all.

(As a side note, this may be one of the first places where we see a kind of terumah or tithing- Avraham perhaps giving MalkiTzedek as a priest 1/10 of his possessions.)

Later, when Avraham responds to the lord of Sodom, he cleverly uses the phrasing that MalkiTzedek used, verbally allying himself with him.

כב  וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָם, אֶל-מֶלֶךְ סְדֹם:  הֲרִמֹתִי יָדִי אֶל-יְהוָה אֵל עֶלְיוֹן, קֹנֵה שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ.22 And Abram said to the king of Sodom: 'I have lifted up my hand unto the LORD, God Most High, Maker of heaven and earth,

This is very diplomatic, because in refusing the lord of Sodom's offer, Avraham still allies himself with the other lord in the storyline- MalkiTzedek.

I also found Rabbi Israel's conclusion that there is much more to this story than Avraham rescuing Lot- that indeed, we can look at the story as proof of Avraham truly traversing the land (and thus, biblically speaking, taking possession of it) and additionally, MalkiTzedek of Shalem as opposed to the Lord of Sodom can be a larger symbolic dialogue between what Jerusalem stands for and what Sodom stands for- to be fascinating.

Now for something I noticed that I am still thinking over. In Genesis 14:21, the lord of Sodom requests that Avraham give him his people, allowing Avraham to keep the goods he looted.

כא  וַיֹּאמֶר מֶלֶךְ-סְדֹם, אֶל-אַבְרָם:  תֶּן-לִי הַנֶּפֶשׁ, וְהָרְכֻשׁ קַח-לָךְ.21 And the king of Sodom said unto Abram: 'Give me the persons, and take the goods to thyself.'
This struck me as interesting because of the rabbinic conception of what middat Sodom was. See Pirkei Avot 5:10:

אַרְבַּע מִדּוֹת בָּאָדָם. הָאוֹמֵר שֶׁלִּי שֶׁלִּי וְשֶׁלְּךָ שֶׁלָּךְ, זוֹ מִדָּה בֵינוֹנִית. וְיֵשׁ אוֹמְרִים, זוֹ מִדַּת סְדוֹם. שֶׁלִּי שֶׁלְּךָ וְשֶׁלְּךָ שֶׁלִּי, עַם הָאָרֶץ. שֶׁלִּי שֶׁלְּךָ וְשֶׁלְּךָ שֶׁלָּךְ, חָסִיד. שֶׁלִּי שֶׁלִּי וְשֶׁלְּךָ שֶׁלִּי, רָשָׁע:
There are four temperaments among men: the one who says "what is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours" -- that's an [average] temperament. And there are some who say that is the temperament of Sodom. [A second type is one who says] "what is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine" -- [that's an] am ha'arets (uneducated person). [A third type is one who says] "what is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours" -- [that's a] pious person. [A final type is one who says] "what is yours is mine, and what is mine is mine" -- [that's a] wicked person.
Even worse than this middas Sodom are anecdotes told about Sodom in the Talmud, all of which show wanton disregard for human life (specifically Sanhedrin 109b):

הויא ההיא רביתא דהות קא מפקא ריפתא לעניא בחצבא איגלאי מלתא שפיוה דובשא ואוקמוה על איגר שורא אתא זיבורי ואכלוה והיינו דכתיב (בראשית יח, כ) ויאמר ה' זעקת סדום ועמורה כי רבה ואמר רב יהודה אמר רב על עיסקי ריבה:
There was a young woman who would take bread out to the poor people in a pitcher so the people of Sodom would not see it. The matter was revealed,and they smeared her with honey and positioned her on the wall of the city, and the hornets came and consumed her. And that is the meaning of that which is written: “And the Lord said: Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great [rabba]” (Genesis 18:20). And Rav Yehuda says that Rav says: Rabba is an allusion to the matter of the young woman [riva] who was killed for her act of kindness. It is due to that sin that the fate of the people of Sodom was sealed.
On the one hand, you could argue that the lord of Sodom embodies the approach laid out in Pirkei Avot because he declares that the booty belongs to Avraham but the people belong to him. But on the other hand, you could also argue that the lord of Sodom is not embodying the approach because according to the ancient laws of warfare, everything should belong to Avraham as victor. In pleading for his people, the lord of Sodom is betraying the fact that he cares about their welfare- that even this wicked man has the noble impulse of desiring to protect his people, and that the people are worth more to him than material goods.

(Of course, a more cynical approach could be that he would not long remain in the role of lord or king if his people did not feel that he cared for them, and thus this is self-serving. It's possible he only wants them to be his subjects, and does not actually care about how they are treated. But let's assume for right now that it is not, and that it shows a true desire to focus on the welfare of his people as opposed to material possessions.)

If so, then the lord of Sodom would find himself in the company of others who were considered wicked but who had redeeming qualities when it came to their personal interactions. Two examples came to mind. First, there is King Ahab, a constant idolater. However, when famine comes, he is ceaseless in his efforts to locate Elijah in order to end it, and he also personally goes out searching (along with his head of house Obadiah) to find water. Malbim reads this as him hoping to find water in order to save his people.

ויאמר לכן צוה לו לבקש מזון לבהמותיו, ועל צד הצורה אמר אליו שיבקש מזון להבהמות ע''פ שאמרו במדרש כשאין בני אדם ראוים לגשמים יורד המטר בשביל בהמה, כי האדם הבחיריי ניתן לגמול ועונש, לא כן הבע''ח שלהם ברית כרותה, ברית הטבעי שלא יכרתו מיניהם, וע''י הברית הזאת יורד המטר גם על האדם הגם שהוא נידון לפי המעשים, וז''ש ,אולי נמצא חציר ונחיה סוס ופרד ועי''כ ,ולא נכרית מהבהמה, לא נגרע מהבהמה וע''י הבהמה לא יכרתו גם בני אדם :

Similarly, there is a tradition that the evil queen Jezebel had her hands and feet spared when the rest of her was eaten by dogs because she used to dance and make merry in front of the new brides.

Thus, both of these individuals are not irredeemable...and neither is the lord of Sodom.

If my reading is correct, this then sheds light on Genesis 18 when Avraham asks his famous question:

כג  וַיִּגַּשׁ אַבְרָהָם, וַיֹּאמַר:  הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה, צַדִּיק עִם-רָשָׁע.23 And Abraham drew near, and said: 'Wilt Thou indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?

Perhaps one of the reasons Avraham fights so hard for Sodom is because he has personal experience with the lord of Sodom, and recognizes that the lord cared more for his people than for physical objects. If so, it suggests there is goodness in him, and perhaps that goodness may also find root in others.


ADDENDUM: I spoke to my friend Yair who disagreed with Rabbi Alex Israel's characterization of the MalkiTzedek story and suggested an alternate reading.

"El was one of the many gods in ancient near Eastern mythology. One of his nicknames was Elyon, referring to the fact that he was seen as being above other gods. MalkiTzedek worshipped this deity. Avraham, in his response to the king of Sodom who likely worshipped El as well, is actually stating a polemic against the Canaanite gods- only Yahweh is worthy of the title 'El Elyon' and nobody else.

"These polemics occur hundreds of times throughout Tanakh and only once you know ancient near Eastern mythology can they be fully appreciated. As an example, Ba'al was known as Rochev Aravos. Tehillim 68 seizes upon this and says 'L'Rochev B'aravos-B'Yah Shemo'- it is only Yah (Hashem) who rides among the clouds, not your god, Canaanites."

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