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Genesis 14 - the Battle of Nine Kings

What is the task being tackled?

Genesis 14 relates a striking episode in the life of Abraham. Four kings forming a consortium under the leadership of Chedorlaomer king of Elam conducted a military sweep to the south of Canaan, and were confronted by five kings from the Dead Sea area. Abraham became involved when he heard that his nephew had been captured, and pursued the offending party with 318 men. Successfully defeating them in a night attack, he recovered Lot and his possessions and liberated the other captives. It is one of the few times in Abraham's life when the events of international politics intersected his own actions.

The question at hand is whether the details supplied can be used to estimate a date for these events.

Names and places of origin of individuals involved

On Chedorlaomer's side we have:
  1. Chedorlaomer (Hebrew kedhârelâ‘ômer or in consonantal form k-d-r-l-‘-m-r) king of Elam
  2. Amraphel (Hebrew ’am'râphel or in consonantal form ’-m-r-p-l) king of Shinar (Babylon)
  3. Arioch (Hebrew ’ar'yôwkh or in consonantal form ’-r-y-v-kh) king of Ellasar
  4. Tidal king of Goiim (or king of nations)
and on the opposing side we have:
  1. Bera king of Sodom
  2. Birsha king of Gomorrah
  3. Shinab king of Admah
  4. Shemeber king of Zeboiim
  5. the unnamed king of Bela (also called Zoar)

Elam did indeed have a period of dominance in the early 2nd millennium, during which such an expedition would have been feasible. This era was brought to an end by Hammurabi (approx 1800 conventionally, or 1600 NC). Thereafter, Elam was able to attain small territorial gains only for short periods of time, until the demise of the Babylonian empire. It would, therefore, have been both strategically unwise and tactically difficult for an Elamite ruler in these later periods to have taken on such a task. The names of Elamite rulers are not reliably known from this era, but the form of the name is Elamite. The name-form Kudur-X meaning "servant of X" is attested, with X being a deity name, for example Kudur-mabuk was an Elamite official who occupied the city of Larsa (on the river Euphrates) and appointed his sons Warad-Sin and subsequently Rim-Sin as kings (These names are Semitic in origin, Sin being the moon-god). The name given in Genesis may originally have been Kudur-el-Amur. Amur as a name-element is attested from this era. Alternatively the deity name may have been Lagamar, the chief goddess of the Elamite pantheon.

Amraphel may be a distortion of Amar-pul, or possibly Amur-pi-el, or indeed other variations such as Amud-pa-ila. Several names ending pi-el are known from the time of Hammurabi. Names similar to Amud-pa-ila are known from the Mari texts to be of a typical West Semitic form from lower Mesopotamia. Identification with Hammurabi has been suggested, but is most unlikely on linguistic grounds - the main motivation seems to have been chronological. In NC terms, this alliance is before the Old Babylonian dynasty of Hammurabi (the first known member being Sumuabu).

Considering the other two members of this alliance, Arioch is attested in the Mari archives (conventionally c. 18th century BCE, NC c. 16th century) in the form Arriyuk or Arriwuk, and from Nuzi (about 2-300 years later) as Ariukki. Ellasar may be Alasia, a name for Cyprus. Tidal king of nations suggests the later Hittite name Tudhaliyas, which has been suggested as an early proto-Hittite name based on the topography of the area. The known Hittite rulers of this name were somewhat later. The only name surviving from this early era is Anittas, but the Cappadocian records indicate that amongst the many cities in the region, one ruler would periodically emerge as a Great King by subduing his neighbours.

The names of rulers on the defending side, attributed to various cities near the Dead Sea, cannot of course be attested, as these small places did not leave such a significant record in history. The existence of settlements in this area is certain, but evidence reported earlier from the Ebla tablets alleging confirmation of the names of the Biblical 'cities of the plain' is in doubt at present. Likewise, a name matching Bera was claimed to have been found, but is also in doubt. Several methods of direct investigation under the Dead Sea to attempt to locate the cities have been frustrated by the technical difficulties of the enterprise. There appears to have been a substantial decline of population in the Trans-Jordan area in which the cities of the plain may have been located, between the 19th and 13th centuries BCE conventionally (about 200 years later NC), suggesting that an alliance involving rulers from here as partners would have to be before this period.

Political and military aspects

The focus of the raid was primarily in the transJordan area, and Abraham's pursuit took him near to Damascus. However, there is no mention either of Aramean kingdoms, or the transJordan kingdoms of Edom, Ammon and Midian which arose as significant political entities in the Iron Age. The arena is one of individual city states forming coalitions at need, rather than unified regional kingdoms. This would suggest the episode took place before the Iron Age consolidation into larger political units.

As alluded to above, such an expedition, from Elam across to the eastern border of Canaan involving a round trip of perhaps 2000 miles, appears surprising. However, other kings from Mesopotamia carried out similar raids in this general era. For example, Sargon I of Akkad (approx 2350 conventionally, or 2100 New Chronology) sent a military expedition to parts of Syria and possibly further north-west. There are known links between Byblos (on the Mediterranean coast) and the Ur 3 dynasty (conventionally c. 21st century BCE, NC 19th century). Shamshi-Adad I of Assyria (a contemporary of Hammurabi) sent an expedition to Lebanon. Thus, the particular foray related in Genesis 14 is not incredible. Until the collapse of Assyria and Babylon in the mid-first millennium, only at the start of the 2nd millennium was Elam aggressively involved in the Levant area.

The scale of the "armies" involved should also be taken into account. Abraham successfully recaptured Lot and his possessions with 318 men. Even assuming he achieved an element of surprise, this indicates that the raiding party from Mesopotamia was small. We are not dealing here with a full-scale invasion, but rather a small punitive expedition. This accords with the general scale of actions from this time. For example, in one of the Mari letters Hammurabi indicates to Ibal-pi-Il that he intends to send similar sized parties to assist: "I am sending Sakirum with 300 troops to Shabazum, and the troops which I have sent are 150 [Hanu], 50 Suku, and 100 troops from the bank of the Euphrates River, and there are 300 troops of Babylon". This should be contrasted with later battles - for example the two sides at Kadesh each had a few thousand chariots and some tens of thousands of foot soldiers. Typical battle accounts reported in the Old Testament in the monarchy period again number the armies in the thousands or tens of thousands.

The word used in Gen. 14:14 for Abraham's men - chânîykîm - is used only here in the entire Old Testament. The word is usually translated as "trained men", "armed supporters", or "retainers". It is found, with the same meaning, in the Egyptian Execration texts and once in the Taanach letters from the 15th century BCE. No later literary parallels are known.

Systems of 'power alliances' of the kind described are a feature of international dealings only for a limited period of time, especially when Mesopotamian countries were participating. As a general rule, they did not occur before the Akkad dynasty (say 2300 BCE conventionally, or 2100 NC) or after the end of the Old Babylonian dynasty (say 1500 BCE conventionally, or 1300 New Chronology). Examples of multiple groups of kings forming alliances and fighting rival groups in this way are known from the Akkad dynasty, from Rim-Sin of Larsa, from the early Hittite kingdom, and from the time of Hammurabi who formed part of one such alliance and defeated another in a parallel manner to the episode involving Abraham. After the close of the Old Babylonian period the nature of Mesopotamian alliances changed. Typically whichever Mesopotamian state was in supremacy at the time was in sole command of one side, often facing a group of rebels (such as, for example, at the battle of Qarqar in which Ahab of Israel seems to have participated). This was, however, a different pattern to that seen in Genesis 14 where a group of rulers cooperated on more-or-less equal terms. Only in this early era were the various Mesopotamian powers and alliances unstable enough to result in the kind of alliance we see here.

Summary

This brief analysis shows that the description given in Genesis 14 may be credibly dated to the period of history in which Abraham naturally belongs - the start of the 2nd millennium BCE. The names and places of origin of the protagonists are reasonable for this time, and the political pattern of alliances is appropriate. As with other time indicators in Genesis, either an early date or a very late one (into the 1st millennium) must be chosen - attempts to place these accounts in the middle range of, say, the 2nd half of the 2nd millennium (1500-1000 BCE) are simply not possible given the details supplied. Other considerations, for example the army size, or the general political situation presented for transJordan, favour the early date. The description given of the battle of nine kings is entirely credible for an event supposed to have occurred near the start of the 2nd millennium.

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