Military History Now opens their article about history’s earliest wars in an excellent way: “WARFARE IS AS OLD AS CIVILIZATION ITSELF.” And of course, this is true. Humanity has yet to find a way to get along with one another. A look through the history of warfare reveals that moments of peace are few and far between for humanity and any seeming gaps in the history of violence can likely be attributed to a lack of historical data, and not a true absence of conflict.
In Genesis 14, we get the first biblical war. This isn’t the first war that we have a historical record for, but it’s the earliest war that’s mentioned in the Bible. In short, five kings rebelled against Chedorlaomer, the king they ruled under. Chedorlaomer called upon three other allies to put down the rebellion and this whole conflict became known as the Battle of Siddim. Amongst the kings who rebelled against Chedorlaomer were the kings of Soddom and Gomorrah (who will of course be important later when God torches their cities).
The kings of Sodom and Gomorrah were presumably not winning the Battle of Siddim, and so they both fled, leaving all of the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah behind for Chedorlaomer and his allies to take. Amongst all of these goods was Lot, Abram’s nephew, and he was taken away. When Abram learns of this, he wages a war of his own to rescue his friend who has been captured.
The story is pretty remarkable and strange. When I imagine a war between nine kings, I imagine a massive war between very powerful people, and if the five kings that challenged Chedorlaomer were defeated, it’s outlandish that Abram would have defeated Chedorlaomer with an army of just 318 men. But this is the Bible we’re talking about, it’s full of wild underdog stories.
One interesting point for a Christian reader would probably be Abram’s commitment to his nephew Lot. In Matthew Henry’s commentary, he says this about Abram’s war:
We have here an account of the only military action we ever find Abram engaged in, and this he was prompted to, not by his avarice or ambition, but purely by a principle of charity; it was not to enrich himself, but to help his friend. Never was any military expedition undertaken, prosecuted, and finished, more honourably than this of Abram’s.
Now, the historicity of Abram’s war is disputed, but if it is a true event, then this does seem to have been what we might be tempted to call a noble war. This was not an imperial war over resources or money, it was a war Abram fought for the liberation of his friend.
Another interesting point for a Christian reader is Abram’s rejection of Sodom’s goods. Instead of reaping the rewards of his goods, he returns the goods to Sodom. This wasn’t really meant as an act of charity towards the Sodomites but rather it was an act of tremendous principle on the part of Abram. If you’re familiar with the Old Testament, you know that God doesn’t have a good opinion of Sodom which tells us that Abram probably didn’t either. Abram’s stated reason for not accepting the goods is that he didn’t want the King of Sodom to be able to say, “I made Abram rich.” So, in a sense, Abram is defending his reputation here.
There are some broadly applicable life lessons here. Abram’s principled stance against the King of Sodom is certainly admirable and the war he wages against a powerful enemy for the sake of his friend seems pretty inspiring. But reading this from my modern perspective, I can’t help but think that there are quite a few things left out here.
In Wikipedia’s entry on Abraham, Abram’s war against Chedorlomaor is described as a slaughter. Now granted, we’re talking about Wikipedia here, but this seems consistent with scripture, which says that Abram “routed” Chedorlomaor. The trouble here, is that Abram didn’t defeat Chedorlomaor, Abram’s army defeated Chedorlomaor’s army. And we know very little about either army.
One of the things I find disturbing about the way war is reported to us throughout history (and even in the modern day), is that it often erases the real experiences of the human beings who were involved. We talk about Abram defeating Chedorlomaor, but we don’t talk about all of the soldiers that were killed or maimed in the process. The “slaughter” that Wikipedia talks about is not the slaughter of Chedorlomaor, but the slaughter of a group of young men that probably had no stake in Chedorlomaor’s war. The Bible is not unique in this, this is the way war is reported even in the modern day, but I think that the victims of war deserve better. They deserve a more complicated analysis. To say that Abram’s war was noble because he was fighting for the sake of his friend doesn’t seem to be exactly right considering the fact that he probably sacrificed the lives of people who weren’t involved in his conflict in order to rescue Lot.
It’s probably true what Military History Now says about war. War is probably as old as civilization itself, and perhaps we may never find a way to live at peace. But I think the first step in achieving real and meaningful peace is to acknowledge the true costs of war. The real human beings who are lost forever in all the “glorious” battles in history. Perhaps then we’ll see that war is never glorious, it’s never beautiful, it’s never noble. It’s always brutal and horrifying and sad.