Jerusalem in the Torah (II): Avram's Encounter with the King of Sodom and with Malki-Tzedek

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Jerusalem in the Bible
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #05:

Jerusalem in the Torah (II)

Avram's Encounter with the King of Sodom and with Malki-Tzedek

Rav Yitzchak Levi



            As discussed in the previous shiur, Jerusalem is not mentioned explicitly anywhere in the Torah.  Its first appearance by name in all of Tanakh is in Yehoshua 10:1, where Adoni-Tzedek is mentioned as being King of Jerusalem.  Nevertheless, the name is hinted at in Sefer Bereishit in two incidents involving Avraham:


·                    In Bereishit 14, when Avram returns from his victory over the northern kings, he is welcomed by Malki-Tzedek, King of Shalem – which is recognized as the King of Jerusalem.

·                    In Bereishit 22, Avraham is commanded to offer up is son, Yitzchak, as a sacrifice upon Mount Moriah – which is also in Jerusalem.


In this shiur we will address the first instance, Avram's encounter with Malki-Tzedek, King of Shalem, and with the King of Sodom.


A.        A geographical look at the meeting


            The meeting is described in its entirety in Bereishit 14:17-24:


The King of Sedom went out to meet him (after he returned from smiting Kedarla'omer and the kings who were with him), at the Valley of Shaveh, which is the King's Valley.  And Malki-Tzedek, King of Shalem, brought out bread and wine; he was a priest to the Supreme God.  He blessed him and said, "Blessed is Avram to the Supreme God, possessor of the heavens and the earth.  And blessed is the Supreme God Who has delivered your enemies into your hands." Then he gave him a tithe of everything.  And the King of Sodom said to Avram; "Give me the people, and take the goods for yourself." But Avram said to the King of Sodom.  "I have raised my hand [sworn] to the Lord Supreme God, possessor of the heavens and the earth, that I will take nothing, from a thread to a shoelace, nor will I take anything that is yours, that you shall not say, 'I made Avram rich' – except only for what the young men have eaten, and the portion of the men who went with me – Aner, Eshkol, and Mamrei; let them take their portion."


1.  Topographical background


            Avram lives in Hebron, and it is there that he returns after his campaign.  The Torah does not detail the route that he took from the North following his victory, but we know that there are three possible main routes for a southward return journey from the North: along the King's Highway, on the eastern side of the Jordan; along the Jordan Valley; and on the "Patriarchs' Highway" – from the Jezreel Valley southward via Jenin, Shekhem, Beit-El, and Jerusalem.


            Whichever route Avraham chose, it is exceptionally difficult to ascend towards Hebron directly from the east, from the Dead Sea region.  Logic therefore dictates that even if Avram journeyed home along the eastern side of the Jordan or along the Jordan Valley, somewhere around Jericho he must have turned westward, towards Jerusalem.  The Jerusalem area is topographically lower than its more northerly and southerly environs, and it is therefore quite likely that Avram journeyed through there on his way home.


2.  "The Valley of Shaveh, which is the King's Valley" (14:17)


            From the above information and from the description in verse 17, it is difficult to determine exactly where the meeting took place.  The "King's Valley" is mentioned in one other place in Tanakh: in Sefer Shemuel (II 18:18) we read that Avshalom, during his lifetime, built "a pillar that was in the King's Valley… and it is called 'Avshalom's monument' to this day."  But even this mention – on the assumption that we are speaking of the same "King's Valley" – does not allow for easy identification of the site [1], and there are several opinions on the matter:


-            Flavius Josephus [2] places the King's Valley at a distance of two "ris" from Jerusalem.

-            The author of the apocryphal scroll on Bereishit [3] writes: "He came to Shalem, which is Jerusalem, and Avram stopped over at the Valley of Shaveh, which is the King's Valley, in the Beit Ha-kerem Valley."  A place by the name of Beit Ha-kerem is mentioned in Yirmiyahu 6:1 and in Nechemya 3:14.

-            Some scholars [4] locate the place not far from the "King's Garden" in Jerusalem (see II Melakhim 25:4; Yirmiyahu 22:30; 39:4; Nechemya 3:15), in the region of the meeting point between the Ben-Hinnom Valley and Wadi Kidron.

-            Peress [5] identifies the place as the Valley of Refaim, based on the assumption that "the Shaveh (lit. "balanced," "equal") Valley" can also mean a "straight valley, with no rises" – a description that fits Emek Refaim.  Perhaps the name "the King's Valley" arises from David's victory over the Philistines there.  The distance between the City of David and Emek Refa'im matches the distance of "two ris" (370m) mentioned by Josephus.

-            Prof. Elitzur z"l [6], posited that the place is located to the north of the Old City's Damascus Gate today.


            What is common to all of these opinions is that all agree that THE PLACE IS CLOSE TO JERUSALEM.  Thus, while we cannot point to a specific site, it is clear that the valley in question is in the region of Jerusalem – and in this regard the description matches several possibilities (Wadi Kidron, Emek Refaim, and others).


3.  Shalem


            It is clear that the identification of Shalem, the place where Malki-Tzedek ruled, can help us to understand Avram's route on his return journey to Hebron, and convey the proper significance to the encounter in the "Valley of Shaveh, which is the King's Valley."


-            Several sources simply identify Shalem as Jerusalem.  The origin of this opinion is to be found in several rabbinical sources, for example in the Midrash Rabba (Bereishit Rabba 43, 6):

"Malki-Tzedek, King of Shalem" – this place makes it inhabitants righteous (matzdik): Malki-Tzedek, Adoni-Tzedek (Yehoshua 10:1).  Tzedek (righteousness) is called "Jerusalem," as it is written (Yishayahu 1:21), "Righteousness lodged in it." [7]


The Midrash identifies Malki-Tzedek, King of Shalem, as King of Jerusalem on the basis of the appearance of the word "tzedek" in his name.  Firstly, this word also forms part of the name "Adoni-Tzedek" – concerning whom we are told explicitly (Yehoshua 10:1) that he was King of Jerusalem, as well as the name of Jerusalem's last king – Tzidkiyahu.  Secondly, Jerusalem itself is called "Tzedek."  Accordingly, the names "Malki-Tzedek" and "Adoni-Tzedek" may be understood to mean, "The King of Tzedek," and "the Master of Tzedek," respectively [8].

The Aramaic translators also render the name "Shalem" – "Jerusalem."


Josephus writes [9]:


The first to build the city was the ruler of the Canaanites, whom our forefathers called "Melekh Tzaddik" ("righteous king") – and he was just like his name, for he was the first who ministered to God, and it was he who first built the Temple, AND GAVE THE NAME "JERUSALEM" TO THE CITY THAT HAD FORMERLY BEEN CALLED "SHALEM" [10].


            The author of the apocryphal book on Bereishit, as well as Rav Sa'adya Gaon in his commentary on Bereishit and many of the Rishonim, adopt the same explanation.  The Ramban (on Bereishit 14:8) bases this identification on the verse, "His Tabernacle is in Shalem, and His dwelling place in Zion" (Tehillim 76:3), making "His Tabernacle" equal to "His dwelling place," and "Shalem" the same as "Zion."


-            Another ancient source – Heronimus [11] – writes that Shalem is not Jerusalem but rather a city close to Skitopolis (Beit Shean), which – he claims – was called "Shalem" even in his days, and where the palace of Malki-Tzedek was displayed.  In the Book of Yehudit 4, 4 [12] a city named "Shalem" is mentioned, located in the Beit Shean region.  Rav Hoffman upholds this view in his commentary on Bereishit [13].

-            Shadal writes, quoting the Netivot Shalom, that some opinions maintain that Shalem is the name of the region rather than the name of a specific city.


Following the view of the Rishonim, we shall adopt the view that Malki-Tzedek was the King of Jerusalem [14].


            It should be noted that, according to this interpretation, the very fact that Malki-Tzedek participates in the welcome for Avram strengthens our assumption that the "Valley of Shaveh," which is the King's Valley, is located near Jerusalem.  Since Malki-Tzedek does not approach Avram as a debtor, but rather receives him and blesses him as the victor in the first world war against the northern powers, it is reasonable to assume that he would not exert himself and travel far for this purpose.  He simply goes out to greet Avram with bread and wine as the latter passes by on his way home, close to Malki-Tzedek's city of Shalem.


            Thus far we have focused on a general geographical analysis, clarifying the identity of "the Valley of Shaveh, which is the King's Valley," and of Shalem.  We shall now move on to an analysis of the three-way encounter between Avram, the King of Sodom, and Malki-Tzedek.


B.  Analysis of the encounter and its significance [15]


            Avram unquestionably returns as a great victor, having overcome the four northern powers and succeeding in restoring both the captives and the property.  On the simplest level, then, the encounter may be viewed as a royal welcome extended to the person who liberated the Canaanite nations from the northern threat.  Indeed, this is reflected in Chazal's interpretation of the words, "Emek Shaveh" (Valley of Shaveh):


"Rabbi Berakhya and Rabbi Chalbo said in the name of Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman, "There all the idolaters were humbled and they cut cedars and made him a great podium and sat him atop it and they praised him, saying (Bereishit 23:6), 'Hear us, our lord: you are a prince of God in our midst!' They said to him, 'You are our king, you are our prince, you are our god!' He said to them, 'Let the world not lack its King, nor let the world lack its God.'  (Bereishit Rabba 42:5)


The Midrash here aptly reflects the political situation in the region, as we understand it from the verses.  The kings of the region – the King of Sodom and the King of Shalem – wanted to coronate Avram in the wake of his great victory over the northern powers.  But Avram, according to the Midrash, was not interested in being king, since he understood that earthly rule is opposed to the rule of God [16].


            Let us now turn our attention to the meeting itself.  The participants are the King of Sodom [17], Malki-Tzedek, King of Shalem, and Avram.  But – surprisingly enough – the actions and statements of Malki-Tzedek are presented in a sort of parenthetical way, creating a break between the departure of the King of Sodom to welcome Avram (described in verse 17) and his words to Avram (which appear only in verse 21).  Why does the Torah not describe in a smoother and more consecutive fashion the arrival of the King of Sodom and his statements, and only afterwards the actions and statement of Malki-Tzedek, King of Shalem? It would seem that the Torah seeks to present these two kings in contrast with one another, and between them – in the middle – Avram, who adopts a very clear position: he accepts the bread and wine from Malki-Tzedek, along with his blessing, and gives him a tithe of everything [18], but rejects any connection with or obligation towards the King of Sodom. 


            Malki-Tzedek, King of Shalem, owes Avram nothing.  The war did not take place in his land, nor was anything taken from him – neither captives nor property.  Nevertheless, he acts with great generosity, he brings out bread and wine, and blesses Avram and the Supreme God for Avram's victory.  In light of this treatment, Avram sees fit to give Malki-Tzedek a tithe from all the property [19].


            The King of Sodom is the complete contrast to Malki-Tzedek and his attitude towards Avram.  According to the customs of the Ancient New East, whoever went out to war and was victorious was then sovereign over whatever he plundered or brought back from that war - in this case, both the captives and the property.  There can be no doubt that this principle was quite familiar to all those present: to Avram, to Malki-Tzedek, and to the King of Sodom.  Nevertheless, the King of Sodom "negotiates" with Avram and proposes a sort of "compromise deal": "Give me the people, and take the property for yourself."  He foregoes the property, as it were, to Avram, asking only for the captives.  Not only does the King of Sodom not show any gratitude to Avram or congratulate him on his victory and the salvation of the lives and the property; he even tries to negotiate over the captives – while both the captives and the property clearly belong to Avram by law.


            Thus the Torah deliberately contrasts the two kings – the King of Sodom and Malki-Tzedek, with Avram in the middle.  The Or Ha-Chayim comments on verse 18 as follows:


The reason for the Torah creating a break with the matter of the King of Shalem, in between the King of Sodom going out and the reporting of Avraham's words, is to speak the praise of the righteous and [to emphasize] the contrast between them and the wicked.  For the King of Sodom went out empty-handed to greet Avraham, even though he should rightfully have received him with a royal welcome, but that wicked one went out empty-handed, while the righteous Shem – owing him no favors – greeted him with bread and wine.


The textual contrast highlights the enormous ingratitude on the part of the King of Sodom, and its opposite – absolute generosity, with no obligation – on the part of Malki-Tzedek.  Malki-Tzedek goes out to greet Avram with bread and wine and he blesses him, while the King of Sodom goes out empty-handed, but full of demands and requests (which already tells us something about the character of Sodom).  Avram, required to respond to both of them, chooses unequivocally to accept the blessing of Malki-Tzedek and even to give him a tithe, while rejecting any connection to or commitment towards the King of Sedom: "…that I will take nothing, from a thread to a shoelace, nor will I take anything that is yours, that you shall not say, 'I made Avram rich'" (Bereishit 14:23).

Thus the Torah contrasts Sodom and Jerusalem: the righteousness of Malki-Tzedek, King of Shalem, as opposed to the ingratitude of the king of Sodom.


C.  Summary


            In this shiur we examined the encounter between Avram and Malki-Tzedek.  We first reviewed the geographical background and concluded that Avram returned from the war in the North to Hebron, via the Jerusalem region.  According to the view that we adopted, the King of Shalem is the King of Jerusalem, and the encounter apparently takes place in one of the valleys around Jerusalem.


            Concerning the significance of the encounter, we noted Chazal's opinion that its purpose was to coronate Avram in the wake of his victory, and we demonstrated the sharp contrast in the Torah's presentation of the kings with whom Avram meets: Malki-Tzedek, who owes Avram nothing, welcomes him with bread and wine, congratulating and blessing him on his victory, while the King of Sodom – who owes Avram everything, both lives and property – not only fails to express any gratitude, but even demands that the people be handed over to him.  Avram chooses to align himself with the King of Shalem by giving him a tithe of all that he has, while having nothing to do with the King of Sodom.  Thus, there is a clarification of Avram's connection with the righteousness of the King of Shalem, along with an absolute rejection of the ingratitude of Sodom.


            In order to understand this fundamental point, we shall devote the next shiur to the significance of Jerusalem as the city of justice and righteousness.



[1] Some authorities identify the "King's Valley" as Wadi Kidron, on the basis of the identification of "Avshalom's monument" as a monument from the end of the Second Temple Period that is located there.  In truth, there is no way of relying on an artifact from the Second Temple period to identify the site.  This reservation, of course, does not invalidate the possibility that the encounter took place in the southern part of Wadi Kidron – perhaps where it meets up with the Ben-Hinnom Valley – but there is no way of proving this.

[2] Antiquities of the Jews, Book VII Chapter III, Shalit edition p. 249.

[3] Apocryphal Scroll on Bereishit, Avigad-Yadin edition, Jerusalem 5717, p. 30, page 22 lines 13-14.

[4] Biblical Encyclopedia, under "Emek ha-Melekh," vol. 6, p. 296.

[5] Eretz Yisrael Topographical-Historical Encyclopedia, ed. Y. Press, Jerusalem 1955, vol. IV, p. 735.

[6] I heard this from him personally.  The same location is proposed by J. Simons, Jerusalem in the Old Testament, Leiden 1952, pp. 14-15.

[7] Our next shiur will be devoted to the significance of Jerusalem as the city of righteousness.

[8] Support for this interpretation is to be found in the fact that the King of Bazak is also called "Adoni-Bazak" (Shoftim 1).

[9] History of the Wars of the Jews Against the Romans, Book VI Chapter X, Simchoni edition, Ramat Gan 1963, p. 371.

[10] In Antiquities of the Jews, Book I Chapter II, Shalit edition, p. 20, Josephus formulates it thus: "…But afterwards he called 'Shalem' – 'Jerusalem.'"

[11] Quoted by Rav D.Z. Hoffman's commentary on Sefer Bereishit, vol. II, p. 233.

[12] Books of the Apocrypha, Kahana edition, vol. II p. 358.

[13] Rashbam, in his commentary on Bereishit 33:18, comments on the verse, "Yaakov came 'shalem' (whole, in peace) to the city of Shekhem": "To a city whose name was Shalem," apparently located near Shekhem.  It is interesting that to this day there is a village on the eastern side of Shekhem called "Salem."

Chizkuni adopts a similar line (ad loc): "He came to Shalem, which is one of the cities of Shekhem, who was the prince of the land."  He adds, "It is not correct to say that Shelem is Jerusalem, as in "Malki-Tzedek, King of Shalem," for nowhere is there evidence that Shekhem ruled over Jerusalem." Chizkuni makes no comment as to the identity of Shalem in Bereishit 14:18.

[14] The connection between the names "Shalem" and "Jerusalem" will be discussed in a future shiur focusing on the name "Jerusalem."

[15] Here we follow the beautiful analysis by Nechama Leibowitz in her "Iyunim be-Sefer Bereishit," pp. 93-96.

[16] This Midrash touches on a weighty issue – the relationship between mortal rule and the rule of God – which obviously extends far beyond the scope of this shiur.

[17] He is not mentioned by name, but rather by title – even though the Torah mentions his name explicitly in verse 2.

[18] From the words, "He gave him a tithe of everything," it is not clear who gives the tithe and who receives it.  Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Ramban understand the phrase as meaning that Avram gave a tithe to Malki-Tzedek, while the father of Radak, Radak himself, and Chizkuni maintain that it is Malki-Tzedek who gives a tithe to Avram.

The giving of the tithe by Avram to Malki-Tzedek – in accordance with the first interpretation – hints at the establishment of the tithes given to the Kohanim in Jerusalem; this, then, is another example of the principle of "the acts of the fathers are a sign for their descendants."  Chazal likewise teach (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, chapter 27): "R. Yehoshua ben Karcha said, 'Avraham was the first to tithe; he took a tithe from all that he had obtained from the property of Sodom and Gemorra, and all the tithes of the property of Lot, his nephew, and he gave it to Shem, son of Noach, as it is written, 'He gave him a tithe from everything.'"

[19] Malki-Tzedek recognizes the Supreme God, Whom he perceives as the Father of the gods – the Most Supreme of all the gods, and Creator of the heavens and the earth.  It is interesting that in his response to the King of Sodom, Avram uses the title "LORD Supreme God, possessor of the heavens and the earth" – as if to say, "the God Who identified Himself and was revealed to Avram – Who is the Supreme God, creator of the heavens and the earth."

            M.D. Cassuto ("Jerusalem in the Books of the Torah" in "Eretz Yisrael: Mehkarim bi-Yedi'at ha-Aretz ve-Atikoteiha III," Jerusalem 5714, p. 15) seeks to use this as testimony to the eternal sanctity of Jerusalem since earliest antiquity. Even when inhabited by a pagan population, accustomed to worshipping many gods, in Jerusalem the inhabitants were able to worship only their Supreme God – Who is the Only God of Israel.


Translated by Kaeren Fish