Three Plus Four
By Julia Blum July 21, 20226 comments
The Puzzling Title
My dear readers, as probably most of you know by now, I love series. I am starting a new series today, and I bet the title of this series will intrigue you. I will explain in a second why I chose this name. However, first I need to tell you something.
You all know the expression: I have good news and bad news. This is exactly my case today. The bad news is that this blog is switching to “a post per month” format (instead of one post per week, as it has been all these years). I suppose it would be disappointing news for many readers, and it was very disappointing news for me as well – but the decision is not mine, so I am just letting you all know. The good news is that I hope and have reasons to believe that it would be just a temporary step, and that at some point the blog will go back, to “a post per week” format. Let’s hope and pray that it will happen soon!
Now, why “Three plus Four”? Years ago, I was invited for the Passover Meal (Seder) to one of the most religious homes I had ever been by then. If you have ever been to the real Seder, you have probably experienced that moment when the ritual part is over and the starving guests can finally start eating – only this time the hosts found out that there was another Passover song that they forgot to sing. “Echad Mi Yodea” is a very long cumulative song where each verse is built on the previous verses and therefore, each verse is longer than the previous one. The song has 13 verses, and demonstrates how every number can and should relate to God: “Five are the books of the Torah;… two are the tablets of the covenant; One is our God, in heaven and on earth”. There are numbers three and four, of course; can you guess what they correspond to? “Three are the Fathers”, and “Four are the Mothers”. That’s right, the Jewish people have three fathers and four mothers – and this is the reason why I called my new series: “Three plus Four”, Originally, I planned to dwell for a while on these biblical characters, dedicating several articles to each one of them. It doesn’t seem like an option anymore, since the articles will be separated by the whole month. However, I am still intending to proceed with this series, just instead of detailed research of each character I will publish an article with some Hebrew insights into this character, We will start with Abraham, of course. He is the first father. I am lucky to have still two posts before the end of this month, so there will be two articles on Abraham – and one on everyone else.
Abram and Melchizedek
I have no doubt that most of my readers have been students of the Bible for a long time, and know their Bible very well. Most of you probably think you know all there is to know about Abraham. Yet, there are stories in the Torah that when read in Hebrew (or at least, with some Hebrew understanding), seem almost unrecognizable! Today, I will share with one of such stories – and I hope that it will enrich your understanding of Abraham.
Our story happens in Genesis 14, but in order to understand the events of this chapter, we need to start earlier. At the end of Genesis 11, we read that Haran, Abram’s brother, died an untimely death, leaving his son Lot an orphan. Was Lot a sweet little boy, a bitter teenager, or a completely grown young man with his own family when his father passed away? Was it at this time of mourning and grief that Lot formed this special relationship with his uncle Abram? Had Abram become almost a father to his fatherless nephew? Had Lot become almost a son to his childless uncle? We don’t know all the answers; but we do know that in Genesis 12, when Abram departed for Canaan in full obedience to God’s call, he was ready to leave behind everything and everybody. And took only his very own with him – and his nephew Lot belonged to this group of Abram’s “very own”: So Abram departed as the Lord had spoken to him, and Lot went with him… Then Abram took Sarah his wife and Lot his brother’s son…
In chapter 13, once Abram is back from Egypt, uncle and nephew part company. Genesis 13:6 describes the moment where they part: Now the land was not able to support them that they might dwell together. True, we read that their possessions were so big that they could not dwell together, but somehow the reader gets the feeling that there was more to this conflict than just sharing the land. I think, Abram, exhausted by their endless fights, finally gave up and said with a heavy heart to his “almost son”: “Please let there be no strife between you and me, and between my herdsmen and your herdsmen; for we are brethren…. Please separate from me…”
Very soon, Lot finds himself in trouble. The trouble happens in the next chapter when the neighboring kings made war with… (the) king of Sodom and also took Lot, … and departed. The Scripture doesn’t tell us how Abraham feels when he hears that his nephew is taken captive; instead, we learn that he chased the culprits as far as Dan in the north, nearly 300 kilometers from Sodom; that he crushed the enemies at Hobah, north of Damascus; that he freed his nephew and recovered Lot’s possessions; and that he did all this with 318 of his servants (who served as soldiers in this battle, but clearly were not trained to be soldiers). An angry bear protecting her cub is capable of anything, and it seems that Abram’s deeds that we witness here belong to this same category.
As far as we know, Abraham was a very peaceful man. We don’t see him involved in battles like David. In fact, this is the only time we read about him going to war. This says a lot about him, because it wasn’t even his war; he definitely could have stayed at home. Instead, he gets up and runs 300 kilometers to rescue Lot. He wins the battle and brings back Lot, and all the captives and their possessions. It must have been a triumphant return indeed! The rescued captives were full of joy; Abram himself was extremely thankful to God for this miraculous victory; and who then meets him, in this victorious moment?
Here, at the end of chapter 14, our story begins. A Christian reader knows this episode as “Abram and Melchizedek” (many English Bibles even insert this title before verses 18-20 of Genesis 14) – but in fact here, in the Valley of Shaveh (“ethat is, the King’s Valley”), not one, but two kings approach Abram: Bera, king of Sodom, greets him in verse 17, and then Melchizedek, King of Salem, brings out bread and wine and blesses him in verses 18-20.
17 And the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley), after his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him.
18 Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was the priest of God Most High
Not one, but two kings are here – but for some reason, this fact, along with the whole dramatic tension of the entire situation, is usually overlooked. Why do these two kings, representing completely different values, appear together?
This story gains so much more clarity when read in Hebrew, where the very meanings of the Hebrew words and names illuminate us as to what is actually going on here. The meeting takes place at the Valley of Shaveh, and the Hebrew rootשוה (shaveh) has two main meanings: equal or worth. Moreover, in Hebrew we have an expression: to reach the Valley of Shaveh,להגיע לעמק שווה – which means “to reach a compromise”. The two kings approach Abram simultaneously because this is a test that Abram has to pass. Their offers might seem almost equal, but Abram had to choose “the worthy one”. The name “Melchizedek” is a transliteration of the Hebrew מַלְכִּי־צֶדֶֿק (malki-tzedek), “my king is righteousness”. The name Bera: בֶּ-רַע means “with evil” or “in evil”. Thus, the Hebrew makes it apparent that it is here, at this Valley, that Abram had to choose between righteousness and evil; it is here, in this valley, that Abraham was tested and tempted to compromise his principles, his integrity – his faith. While Melchizedek blesses Abram and God Most High, ensuring that Abram knows that it was God who “delivered your foes into your hands” , the king of Sodom offers him a subtle temptation. Thankfully, Abram recognizes the truth and the authority of Melchizedek, and refuses Bera’s temptation – and thus passes yet another test of faith.