The Torah in Parashat Lekh-Lekha tells of the war waged between four powerful kingdoms against the armies of the five cities of the Jordan River Valley (led by the two major cities, Sedom and Amora). The five cities had been subservient to Eilam, one of the four empires, and then rebelled. These cities attacked the armies of Eilam and its allies in the Eimek Ha-sidim region, where they were resoundingly defeated by the four kingdoms. The Torah tells (14:10) that the kings of Sedom and Amora fell into “be’erot cheimar” – mudpits – in Eimek Ha-sidim, before the armies of the four powers plundered Sedom, Amora and the other cities, seizing all their possessions and taking their populations as captives. Avraham later mobilized an army and launched a surprise attack on the four armies, defeating them and freeing the captives.
After the war, the Torah (14:17-20) tells of a celebration held in Avraham’s honor, which was attended by the king of Sedom. Whereas earlier we read that Sedom’s ruler – along with the king of Amora – “fell” into the mudpits, we now read that he survived the war. Ibn Ezra and Chizkuni (14:10) explain that when the Torah tells of these kings “falling” in the mudpits, it means that they hid there, not that they were killed. Others, however, explain that they had fallen into and been trapped in the mudpits, but the king of Sedom managed to survive. Rashi (14:10) cites the Midrash as explaining that Sedom’s king miraculously survived the mudpits, adding that God performed this miracle because some did not believe the story of Avraham’s having survived the furnace into which he had been thrown for rejecting idolatry. When God miraculously rescued the king of Sedom, this somehow confirmed the miracle of Avraham in the furnace.
What might be the significance of this miracle, and how does it relate to Avraham’s miraculous survival in the furnace?
It has been suggested that the king of Sedom’s experience of being trapped in “cheimar” (mud, or cement) symbolizes submergence in “chomer” – physicality, indulgence in worldly pleasures. The population of Sedom and the surrounding cities was selfish and indulgent, “submerged” in the pursuit of wealth and enjoyment. As we know from earlier in this parasha (13:10), Lot chose to live in this region because of its luxurious lifestyle. And later (chapter 19), we read of how the people of Sedom forbade hospitality. This was a society obsessed with material delights and luxury, to the point of forbidding sharing their benefits with any outsiders. The image of the kings of Sedom and Amora submerged in “cheimar” might thus illustrate their society’s “submergence” in “chomer,” physical indulgence. The miracle of the king’s rescue, then, might be understood as the Midrash’s reassurance to those who feel trapped in the “mudpits” of excessive indulgence. The Midrash perhaps teaches that even when we find ourselves “submerged” in physicality, trapped in a pattern of sinful habits, and even when we feel there is no way to escape, we must not despair, because we are capable of extricating ourselves from the “pit” and returning to the proper path of behavior.
And for this reason, it has been explained, the Midrash likens this miracle to Avraham’s emergence from the fiery furnace. Our yetzer ha-ra (evil inclination) is commonly compared to a fire which rages within us and lures us to act against our values and principles. Avraham’s miraculous survival in the furnace, then, might symbolize not only his descendants’ miraculous survival in the face of unrelenting persecution, but also each individual’s ability to spiritually survive even when engulfed by the “flames” of sinful impulses. We are endowed with the ability to resist negative pressures and temptations of all kinds, to extricate ourselves from the “mudpits” of vain pleasures even when it might appear that we are trapped with no possibility of escape.