Published: 16 August 2021

Abraham The Mercenary?

Abraham the mercenary.
Melchizedek blessing Abraham (1897 illustration by Charles Foster)

Abraham was likely a Habiru and possibly a mercenary. Some Habiru hired themselves out as mercenaries to provide protection for cities. It may surprise you to learn there is biblical evidence suggesting that Abraham may have been a Habiru mercenary.

Genesis 14 records the rebellion of five vassal kings from their distant overlords. One of the city-states that rebelled was Sodom where Abraham’s nephew, Lot, had taken up residence. The coalition of four kings who came to put down the rebellion took Lot, and others, captive.

Abraham to the rescue

One who escaped the battle came and told Abram (Abraham) what had become of the cities and his nephew.

14 When Abram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, 318 of them, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. 15 And he divided his forces against them by night, he and his servants, and defeated them and pursued them to Hobah, north of Damascus. 16 Then he brought back all the possessions, and also brought back his kinsman Lot with his possessions, and the women and the people.” (Gen. 14:14–16 ESV)

Why would a nomadic shepherd like Abraham have 318 men who had combat training? Furthermore, they were “born in his house” indicating they were not men he’d hired for protection. How did men who were born in Abraham’s house and part of his entourage receive such training? 

Abraham expertly deployed his men and achieved the objective of rescuing the captives. What’s more, he did so against what was surely a much larger force (four kings) and put them to flight! Was Abraham a highly skilled military leader? Was Abraham the one who trained the 318 men who were born in his house? Could Abraham have been a mercenary?

Abraham the mercenary? 

Dr. Steven Collins, the archaeologist who discovered the ruins of ancient Sodom, has some interesting thoughts about this question.

“It was also common for an ‘Apiru band—often numbering into the hundreds—to “run protection” for city-states as mercenaries, providing front lines of defense for their host kings, who in turn allowed them to graze their animals on city-state lands by contract. The leaders of ‘Apiru groups were, for all practical purposes, warlords.”[1]Collins, Steven; Scott, Latayne C.. Discovering the City of Sodom: The Fascinating, True Account of the Discovery of the Old Testament’s Most Infamous City. (Kindle Location 1153). Howard … Continue reading

Regarding the 318 trained men Collins says:

“Why did Abram have these men at his disposal, in his own household? Certainly they weren’t necessary merely for protecting flocks and shepherds. Instead, they were part of a security force that Abram hired out, as did other ‘Apiru leaders. In exchange for grazing rights around certain city-states, Abram and his mercenaries provided a first line of defense against invaders and other enemies. (Abram’s example was carried on by his descendants: his grandson Esau, hardly the pastoral type, also had a personal security force of four hundred in his household—Genesis 33:1.)”[2]Ibid., Kindle Locations 1222-1228.

Who was Abraham running protection for?

Collins’s suggestion is very interesting. It explains why Abraham would have such a force at his disposal, but it also explains what comes next. 

“17 After his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley). 18 And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.) 19 And he blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; 20 and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.” (Gen. 14:17–20 ESV)

Abraham’s tithe

Why would Abraham give Melchizedek ten percent of the spoils? Melchizedek was a priest of God, so is Abraham’s gift foreshadowing the tithe required in the Mosaic law? Perhaps, but Collins has another explanation.

 “A warlord’s troops took the risks when engaging in a battle should it occur. For this, they were entitled to anything they took from those they defeated. However, as suggested by Abram’s arrangement with Melchizedek, the king of the city-state the warlord protected had a right to part of those spoils—in this case, 10 percent, to be exact. 

What happened in the Valley of Shaveh outside of Jerusalem or Salem shows that Abram had made, in fact, such a mercenary’s agreement with the king of Salem, Melchizedek. And though the author of the book of Hebrews would later appropriate the symbol of one person rendering a toll to another (Abram giving tribute to someone to whom he owed allegiance and who could bless him), the Genesis event in history is about an agreement between a warlord and the king of the city-state he’d sworn to defend, to divide spoils of war according to a prearranged percentage.

The fact that Melchizedek also served as priest for the same-named God who’d called Abram out of Mesopotamia to come to this land was even more reason for Abram to give freely to Melchizedek and to feel affinity with the king who came out from his palace into the valley of royalty, who greeted him with bread and wine, praise and fellowship.”[3]Ibid., Kindle Locations 1240-1255.

Collins’s insights certainly explain a lot about this event. However, there is one more puzzling statement Abraham made which now makes sense in light of this information.

A mercenary non-compete agreement?

King Bera offered Abraham all the goods from Sodom which he had liberated in the raid of the four kings. Abraham bluntly refused the offer.

22 But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have lifted my hand to the LORD, God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth, 23 that I would not take a thread or a sandal strap or anything that is yours, lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’ 24 I will take nothing but what the young men have eaten, and the share of the men who went with me. Let Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre take their share.”” (Gen. 14:22–24 ESV)

Why would Abraham respond to king Bera in such an abrupt manner?

“Abram’s statement “I have raised my hand to Yahweh… and have taken an oath” no doubt refers to specific language used in the formulation of the Abram/Salem pact, with part of that being some kind of general stipulation against making a like covenant with a nearby competing city-state like Sodom.”[4]Ibid. Kindle Location 1276. 

As we might say today, Abram signed a noncompete contract with Melchizedek. He wanted to be clear that he had upheld his agreement with Melchizedek. He had not entered into an underhanded or competing agreement with another city-state. In responding this way for all to hear, Abraham was protecting his reputation.

Conclusion

If Dr. Collins is correct about Abraham’s mercenary side gig, it reveals an entirely new side of the Patriarch. Not only was he a great man of faith and the father of the Jewish nation, he was also a powerful man who was a force to be reckoned with. Even so, Abraham had God Almighty as his ally (Gen 13:3). One man with God on his side is always a majority.

References

References
1 Collins, Steven; Scott, Latayne C.. Discovering the City of Sodom: The Fascinating, True Account of the Discovery of the Old Testament’s Most Infamous City. (Kindle Location 1153). Howard Books. Kindle Edition.
2 Ibid., Kindle Locations 1222-1228.
3 Ibid., Kindle Locations 1240-1255.
4 Ibid. Kindle Location 1276.