The adventures of Avram and his sojourn to and in Eretz Canaan are interrupted by what looks to be a war of monumental proportions. Four nations posed against five nations in a long-lasting, all-encompassing war which seems to have overtaken the whole world that Avram lived in. Avram, too, got caught up in this battle in order to save his nephew, Lot, who had been taken hostage. Avram took to the chase and, along with his allies, defeated his adversaries and rescued Lot.
Midrash Tanhuma takes up this episode, giving it a cosmic, world affecting perspective by associating it with verses from a Psalm which seeks to contend with the ascendancy of evil and with God’s ultimate conquest over it. This theme is especially pronounced in the verses the midrash quotes: “A sword have the wicked have unsheathed and drawn taut their bow to take down the poor and needy to slaughter those on the straight way. Their sword shall come home in their heart and their bows shall be broken.” (Psalms 37:14-15)
The midrash presents us with an etiological history (a history of origins) of the evolution of human violence from its inception with the very first murder (Cain killing Abel) through to what the midrash thought to be the world’s first war. Avram, God’s agent, ultimately quells this threat and saves the world being overcome by chaos. We quote here two of its three episodes:
And it came to pass in the days of Amraphel (Gen. 14:1). Rabbi Tanhuma the son of Abba opened with the verse: ‘The wicked began with the sword, and have bent their bow; to cast down the poor and the needy, to slay such as are upright in the way; their sword shall enter into their own heart, and their bows shall be broken’ (Psalms 37:14–15). ‘The wicked began with the sword’ alludes to Cain, who slew his brother Abel before any other man was slain. ‘Their sword shall enter into their own heart’ refers to the fact that Lamech later killed Cain…
Another comment: ‘The wicked began with the sword’. This refers to the four kings, Amraphel and his companions. Though war had not previously been waged in the world, they introduced the use of the sword and waged war. Therefore, the Holy One, blessed be He, said to them: Wicked ones, because you have introduced the use of the sword to subdue the poor and the needy, their swords shall enter into their own hearts (Ps. 37:15). Hence, Abraham arose and smote them. (Tanhuma Lekh Lekha 7)
The message of this midrash is two-fold. It wants us, first, to realize that human violence is a contagion, starting on the individual level and then expanding from there, one violent act leading to another, before exploding and spreading its harm and chaos in all directions, until it is uncontrollable, ultimately posing a threat to the orderly world established by God. Avram is portrayed here as God’s agent, tasked with overcoming this encroaching chaos. He is intended to serve as a paradigm of God’s expectation for us. It is not necessary to be a warrior to battle chaos and evil in the world. It is enough, for a start, to try to right wrongs when we see them, to have a caring attitude and to try to do good.