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Ellen Birnbaum





What Caused the War Between the Kings? Philo’s Dual Interpretation



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Ellen Birnbaum





What Caused the War Between the Kings? Philo’s Dual Interpretation






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What Caused the War Between the Kings? Philo’s Dual Interpretation

In his account of Abraham’s life, the first-century thinker Philo of Alexandria skillfully interprets the bewildering details in the story of the war between the four and five kings. Understanding the tale on a literal and allegorical level, he offers intriguing suggestions about what motivates both powerful rulers and forces within the soul.


What Caused the War Between the Kings? Philo’s Dual Interpretation

Melchizedek Blessing Abraham. (colorized) Jan Luyken (Dutch, Amsterdam 1649–1712)

“Four Kings against the Five”: A Non-Israelite Story?

Modern scholars have noted a disjunction between the story of the war between the four and five kings in Genesis 14 and the surrounding narrative about Abraham.  E. A. Speiser, for example, observes: “Genesis xiv stands alone among all the accounts in the Pentateuch, if not indeed in the Bible as a whole.  The setting is international, the approach impersonal, and the narration notable for its unusual style and vocabulary.” 

Speiser also remarks that Abram is portrayed as “a resolute and powerful chieftain rather than as an unworldly patriarch.”[1]  The description of Abram as a “Hebrew” in Gen 14:13 has further suggested to some writers that the chapter may have a non-Israelite source, since “Hebrew” is a designation for Israelites by outsiders.[2] 

Bewildering Details

Beyond its incompatibility with the surrounding narrative, the chapter itself presents a number of bewildering details.  It opens with a list of kings with strange names from unfamiliar places.  A group of these kings served one of them, Chedorlaomer, for twelve years but rebelled in the thirteenth.  Before we learn more about this uprising, though, we must first wade through another confounding list of peoples and lands subdued by Chedorlaomer.  It is a relief to reach the end of Gen 14:9, which summarizes the conflict simply as “four kings against the five.” 

Who are all of these kings and where are these various places?  Moreover, why did five kings revolt against the other four, and why and how is this battle relevant to the rest of the stories in Genesis?

Philo of Alexandria

These problems did not go unnoticed by the first-century biblical interpreter Philo of Alexandria (ca. 20 B.C.E.-50 C.E).  Living in the cosmopolitan city of Alexandria, Egypt, Philo was thoroughly immersed in both Jewish tradition and Greek culture.  In fact, he firmly believed that the best of Greek teachings were already anticipated by the Jewish lawgiver Moses. 

Influenced by the Platonic distinction between body and soul, Philo believed that besides their literal meaning, the Mosaic writings contained deeper truths about the soul.[3]  To uncover these truths, he used allegorical interpretation, whereby he understood concrete details to symbolize abstract values.  According to this approach, for example, Abram’s departure from the land of the Chaldeans symbolizes the soul’s leaving behind a way of thinking that equates creation with the Creator. 

Philo fully demonstrates this dual approach when he discusses the war between the kings in a biographical treatise on Abraham known as On the Life of Abraham (Abr.).  It appears that he intends this treatise for a broad audience, which may have included both Jews and non-Jews, whether friendly or hostile.  Since he wishes to present the Mosaic teachings in the best possible light, Philo reshapes the biblical narratives to make them as interesting and appealing as he can, while at the same time showing them to convey moral or religious lessons.[4] 

Before turning to Philo’s interpretations, we should note that what he calls “literal” here is not what we mean by the plain sense of the passage.  Instead he avails himself of information from other biblical verses, traditional interpretations, and perhaps his own imagination.[5]

In addition, Philo bases his interpretations not on the Hebrew Bible but instead on the Greek translation, which occasionally differs significantly from the Hebrew.  In the case of our chapter, though, we may rely on the summary of the Hebrew offered above, since the same questions are raised by the Greek account as by the Hebrew.[6]

Philo’s “Literal” Interpretation: Simplifying a Complex Narrative

Whereas Genesis 14 opens with a muddle of strange names and places, Philo sets the scene as follows:

That part of the inhabited world which lies towards the east was in the hands of four great kings who held in subjection the nations of the Orient on both sides of the Euphrates. (Abr. 226)[7]

Kings in the East

Sparing the reader from confusing details, Philo simply places the four dominant kings in the East, perhaps relying on Gen 10:10 and 11:2, where the land of Sennaar (Greek for שִׁנְעָר), which is mentioned in Gen 14:1, is associated with Babylon and the East. 

In addition, one of the kings, Thargal (Greek for תִדְעָל; Gen 14:1) is said to have ruled over Goiim (גּוֹיִם)—a term that might be the name of a place or may simply designate “nations” (as it is translated in the Greek).  The Aramaic Genesis Apocryphon (21:23-24) as well, a fragmentary text found at Qumran that retells tales from Genesis, specifically locates Goiim as “between rivers”—presumably the Tigris and the Euphrates.[8] 

Drawing upon these other biblical references and perhaps on the tradition reflected in the Genesis Apocryphon, Philo is able to place the kings in the east without overwhelming his readers with too many distracting details.   

Sodom’s Refusal to Submit Peacefully and Pay Taxes

After observing that other nations peacefully submitted to the kings and paid their annual taxes, Philo observes,

Only the country of the Sodomites, before it was consumed by fire, began to undermine this peaceful condition by a long-standing plan of revolt.  For, as it was exceedingly prosperous, it was ruled by five kings who taxed the cities and the land, which though not large was rich in corn and well wooded and teeming with fruits, for the position which size gave to other countries, was given to Sodom by its goodliness, and hence it had a plurality of rulers who loved it and were fascinated by its charm. (Abr. 226-227)

Again eschewing details by avoiding the names and places associated with the five kings in the region of Sodom, Philo simply refers to the area as “the country of the Sodomites,” alluding thereby to the most well-known of the regional cities.[9]  Here Philo includes some details not mentioned in Genesis—namely that other nations were peacefully submissive and that the Sodomites conceived the plan to revolt over a long period of time. 

Perhaps, however, Philo derives this latter detail from Gen 14:3-4, which specifies that the five kings met together and then rebelled in the thirteenth year, after they had already served Chedorlaomer for twelve years.  Moreover, whereas Genesis notes merely that the five kings “served” the four, Philo specifies that this service consisted of the payment of taxes.

The Lushness of Sodom’s Land

Philo now emphasizes the lushness of Sodom.  How did he know that the country was so rich in resources?  According to Gen 13:10, when Lot was surveying the area to decide where to live when he and Abram separated, he (Lot) saw “how well watered was the whole plain of the Jordan…all the way to Zoar, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt.”[10]

The Sin of Hubris

Many people largely associate Sodom with homosexual behavior, based upon the declaration of Lot’s neighbors in Gen 19:5.  There, when Lot shows hospitality to two visitors, the inhabitants of Sodom surround his home and demand that he bring them out “that we may be intimate with them.” (This interpretation of the episode is the origin of the term “sodomy.”) In narrating the war between the kings, however, Philo associates the Sodomites with arrogance.[11]

Philo notes that the five kings had continued to pay taxes, but

when they had been surfeited with good things, and as so often happens satiety had begotten insolence, they grew ambitious beyond their powers and first shook off the yoke and then, like bad slaves, attacked their masters, trusting to sedition or violence. (Abr. 228)

With this observation, Philo links the very lushness of the Sodomites’ land with the cause of the war.  According to him, the abundance of their environment fed the hubris of its rulers.  Indeed, the phrase translated here as “satiety had begotten insolence [in Greek, hubris]” is a commonplace found in several Greek writers.[12]

Even so, Jewish sources may also have influenced Philo in associating the Sodomites’ wealth with their haughty attitude.  Shortly after Gen 13:10 reports on the prosperity of the area, we read that “the inhabitants of Sodom were very wicked sinners against the Lord” (Gen 13:13).  While Sodom’s sins are not spelled out here, Ezekiel 16:49 explicitly identifies the sin of Sodom as pride, which led the inhabitants to ignore the needs of those less fortunate.  Addressing the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the prophet asserts: 

יחזקאל טז:מט הִנֵּה זֶה הָיָה עֲו‍ֹן סְדֹם אֲחוֹתֵךְ גָּאוֹן שִׂבְעַת לֶחֶם וְשַׁלְוַת הַשְׁקֵט הָיָה לָהּ וְלִבְנוֹתֶיהָ וְיַד עָנִי וְאֶבְיוֹן לֹא הֶחֱזִיקָה.
Ezek 16:49 Only this was the sin of your sister Sodom: arrogance!  She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquillity; yet she did not support the poor and the needy.[13]

Many other Jewish sources also consider the sin of the Sodomites to be arrogance and similarly understand their wealth to be the cause.[14]  Only Philo, however, further connects the wealth of the Sodomites and their resulting insolence with the very cause of the war between the kings.  In so doing, he may be the only interpreter, whether ancient or modern, to integrate this story of the war with the surrounding narrative.

Philo’s Allegorical Interpretation

If Philo provides a reasonable “literal” explanation for the war between the kings, he offers a similarly compelling explanation on the allegorical level. 

The Years of Peaceful Submission: Four Passions and Five Senses

Referring to biblical interpreters (like himself) who recognize the deeper meaning of Scripture, he picks up on the summary of the war in Gen 14:9 as “four kings against the five” and writes as follows:

[T]hose who can contemplate facts stripped of the body and in naked reality, …who live with the soul rather than with the body, will say that of these nine kings, four are the power exercised within us by the four passions, pleasure, desire, fear and grief, and that the five are the five senses, sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. (Abr. 236)

In line with Stoic thought, Philo identifies the four kings as the passions and the five as the senses and reports that while all nine “kings” have power,

the five are subject to the four, and are forced to pay them the tolls and tributes determined by nature.  Griefs and pleasures and fears and desires arise out of what we see or hear or smell or taste or touch, and none of the passions would have any strength of itself if it were not furnished with what the senses supply. (Abr. 238)[15]

According to this interpretation, then, the passions derive their power from such sensory input as colors, shapes, sounds, flavors, aromas, textures, and temperatures.  This input constitutes the “taxes” paid by the five kings, or senses, to the four, or the passions.  As long as this “payment” continues, peace prevails. 

The Rebellion: When in Old Age the Senses Stop Supplying the Passions

When the sensory input ceases, however, war breaks out. This, writes Philo,

happens when old age with its pains arrives.  For then, while none of the passions is weaker, …the eyes are dim and the ears dull of hearing and each of the other senses blunted, so that it cannot in the same way judge each thing with accuracy or make the same contribution in amount as before. (Abr. 240)

Understood as an allegory of forces within us, the war between the “kings” is seen to break out because of the debilitation of old age.  As Philo observes, when the five senses can no longer reliably provide “taxes,” “it is natural that they should easily be routed by the opposing passions” (ibid.).[16]

Abram’s Entry into the Struggle: Reason Prevails against All Nine “Kings”

Philo goes on to offer yet another explanation for the cause of the war.  On the basis of Abram’s entry into the struggle (Gen 14:14-15), Philo understands the patriarch to represent reason, another part of the soul, which restrains the senses from feeding the passions:

For the senses, though often they may maintain concord with the passions and provide them with the objects which they perceive, often too revolt and are unwilling any longer to pay the same dues or unable to do so because of the presence of reason, the chastener. (Abr. 243)

Indeed, not only does reason keep the senses from supplying the passions with sensory input, but, like Abram in the battle against Lot’s captors, it also prevails:

For when reason puts on its panoply of the virtues and the doctrines and the lore which embody them, armed with this irresistible power it mightily overcomes.  For corruptible and incorruptible may not live together. (ibid.)

According to Philo, reason, “whose stronghold is in the virtues,” is incorruptible, while “the nine overlords, the four passions and the five senses, are corruptible and the sources of corruption.”  Thus, when reason enters the battle, with God’s help it “wins an easy victory over the said overlords” (Abr. 244). Philo does not explicitly provide an allegorical meaning for Lot, but one might implicitly understand him to be the soul held captive by the passions.

Here Philo departs somewhat from the story line in Genesis, where Abram is victorious only over the four kings who had taken Lot.  By contrast, Philo groups the four passions together with the five senses (i.e., the four and the five kings) and envisions reason (i.e., Abram) as vanquishing all nine overlords together.  Nonetheless, this interpretation, like the one about old age, shows how Philo finds in the biblical narrative not only an account of events that may have happened in the past but also—influenced by his philosophical background—what he perceives as universal truths about the life of the soul.

Philo’s Two-Tiered Interpretive Approach

In presenting the war between the kings on both a literal and allegorical level, Philo renders a mystifying collection of details into a comprehensible, plausible, and edifying account.  In his “literal” interpretation, he explains puzzling features and gaps in the plain sense of the biblical narrative; in his allegorical interpretation, he probes more deeply into the narrative to uncover truths about the life of the soul.  Thus, for his literal interpretation, he draws upon other biblical references and later exegetical traditions to show how the Sodomites, grown arrogant because of their abundant resources, refused to pay tributes to their overlords and initiated a revolt. 

In his allegorical discussion, Philo views the war between the kings as a struggle within the soul between the senses and the passions. Weakened by old age, the senses can no longer supply the requisite sensory perceptions to keep the passions going.  From another perspective, both the senses and the passions together are subdued when reason, symbolized by Abram, enters the fray. 

In both his literal and his allegorical interpretations, then, Philo shows himself to be a careful reader and thoughtful exegete, eager to clarify and convey the meaning of the biblical narrative—whether as an account about some prideful rulers in the past or a reflection of psychological realities as they were understood in his time.[17]  For Philo, moreover, both tiers of meaning hold value.  As he observes elsewhere in On the Life of Abraham about Abraham himself: “…in both our expositions, the literal as applied to the man and the allegorical as applied to the soul, we have [shown] both man and soul to be worthy of our affection” (Abr. 88).


October 17, 2018


Last Updated

April 4, 2024


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Dr. Ellen Birnbaum is an independent scholar living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who has taught and/or done post-doctoral research at Harvard, Brandeis, and Boston University.  She holds a Ph.D. in Religion from Columbia University.  Together with Professor John M. Dillon of Trinity College Dublin, she has recently co-edited a new introduction to, translation of, and commentary on Philo’s On the Life of Abraham, to be published in the Philo of Alexandria Commentary Series by Brill and SBL Press.