This is part three in a series of articles examining the life of Abraham through the lens of economics and the ethics of personal enrichment. In part one, we established Abraham’s uncompromising commitment to his nephew’s good, even at the expense of his safety and financial security. Part two explored how Abraham responded when Lot’s life was endangered in a local tribal conflict and the first reason why Abraham was unwilling to accept any of the spoils of war offered to him by the rescued king of Sodom. In part three below, we will examine the second reason that Abraham saw accepting anything from the king of Sodom’s hand as coming at too high a price.
Abraham responded to the king of Sodom by saying,
“I have lifted my hand to the Lord, God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth, 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.'”Genesis 14:22-23, ESV
Abraham understood that the giver gets the glory. Giving creates grounds for boasting.
Up to this point in the story, the relationship between Abraham and the king of Sodom had been one-sided. Abraham came to their rescue. It was Abraham’s soldiers who fought and rescued the men of Sodom. The king of Sodom contributed nothing to his rescue except the defeat that made it necessary. The story’s message up to this point is that the king of Sodom needs Abraham. Abraham at no point requires assistance from the king of Sodom. Abraham proves himself a superior military general by demonstrating uncommon kingly strength and intelligence. Abraham didn’t bear the title of king, but in a day in which kings led their armies into the fray, his character and battlefield prowess proved worthy of the distinction as he subdued his enemies, rescued his loved ones, and brought peace to a war-torn land.
The king of Sodom finds himself in a discomforting and (likely) novel situation. He was undoubtedly accustomed to others owing him money, loyalty, and honor, but the battle put that shoe on the other foot. It revealed his weakness, lack of strength, intelligence, and overall need. He was not omnipotent or self-sufficient. It was a tremendous shot at his pride personally and in the eyes of his people and the surrounding nations. The king of Sodom found himself indebted to Abraham and was desperate to rid himself of that debt as soon as possible.
That’s why the king of Sodom offered to give Abraham the spoils of war. It would erase his debt of gratitude, ease his gnawing conscience, and reverse the power imbalance with Abraham. It would serve the dual function of putting him in the king’s debt and allowing him to appear as though he was actually concerned with justice and doing rightly toward him.
Many of us have experienced the frustration of receiving a favor from a family member, friend, or colleague only to have them hold it over our heads at a future point. Abraham refused to put himself in that situation. By refusing to accept anything from the king of Sodom, Abraham ensured that the power imbalance remained entirely in his (and, by extension, God’s) favor. He refused to absolve the guilty conscience of the wicked king, ensuring that the king of Sodom and his people were seen for who they were: needy, weak, and immoral.
In so doing, Abraham’s and his God’s names were more respected throughout the land. Abraham’s refusal to be enriched by the king of Sodom announced to the surrounding nations and their rulers that there were currencies of more value than money. Abraham saw the value in honor, justice, righteousness, and faithful dependence. He was content with what he had and gave without expecting anything in return. The price of accepting wealth from the hands of wicked men was too high.
This idea isn’t novel to the Bible. One of the benefits of independent journalists like Glenn Greenwald is that (ideally) you avoid many of the conflicts of interest that often exist today between journalists and the multinational corporations that commonly own them. It would be a lot harder for Abraham to stand against the wickedness of Sodom if someone could turn around and say, “Didn’t you take a bunch of money from the King of Sodom?”
Abraham knew that he could enrich himself personally at the expense of God’s glory and the good of others, or he could practice in miniature when God does throughout the Bible to the wicked (including the people of Sodom a couple of chapters later):
Cut off the remembrance of his name.
The idea of a name has maintained several different senses throughout human history. It can refer to someone’s actual name. It could refer to someone’s reputation. And finally, it can refer to a person’s life itself; that which represents the ability of a party to continue to inflict their will on both the people around them and the world in general.
The king of Sodom is mentioned once by name (Bera) at the beginning of Genesis 14. The story refers to him four more times, but only as ‘the king of Sodom.’ Abraham refused to harm the wicked king physically, leaving room for God to handle that side of things. On the contrary, he overcame his evil with undeserved good for Lot’s sake. But his principled refusal to allow the king to launder his reputation ensured that that moniker would hang like a millstone around his neck for the rest of human history.
This story is a treasure trove of wisdom and far more timely and applicable to our lives than it might initially appear. That’s the goal of the fourth and final installment of this series.