Rescuing Captives: From Abraham to David
When his nephew Lot is taken captive, Abram, known for his faith, acts decisively without divine consultation. David, renowned as a warrior, turns to God for guidance before saving his wives and the citizens of Ziklag, captured in an unexpected raid.
Abram Saves Captives from the Four Kings
A coalition of four kings, from Shinar (Mesopotamia; Gen 10:10; 11:1), Elasar (Alashiya = Cyprus?), Elam (later Persia, Iran), and Asia Minor (based on the name Tudhaliya, which is Hittite), put down a rebellion of five small city-states near the Dead Sea, taking their people as prisoners and their possessions as booty (Gen 14). One of the conquered cities was Sodom, the home of Lot, Abram the Hebrew’s nephew:
בראשית יד:יא וַיִּקְחוּ אֶת כָּל רְכֻשׁ סְדֹם וַעֲמֹרָה וְאֶת כָּל אָכְלָם וַיֵּלֵכוּ. יד:יב וַיִּקְחוּ אֶת לוֹט וְאֶת רְכֻשׁוֹ בֶּן אֲחִי אַבְרָם וַיֵּלֵכוּ וְהוּא יֹשֵׁב בִּסְדֹם.
Gen 14:11 They [the invaders] seized all the wealth of Sodom and Gomorrah and all their provisions, and went their way. 14:12 They also took Lot, the son of Abram’s brother, and his possessions, and departed; for he had settled in Sodom.
Abram was not involved in this fray. He received intelligence from an anonymous man who escaped the hostilities and sought him out (v. 13), a man who understood that according to the cultural norms, people are obligated to rescue and redeem their kin. Abram was not living alone—he had a household of 318 men who doubled as a tribal army—and he is quick to respond, pursuing the kidnapping kings all the way to the northern border of Israel:
בראשית יד:יד וַיִּשְׁמַע אַבְרָם כִּי נִשְׁבָּה אָחִיו וַיָּרֶק אֶת חֲנִיכָיו יְלִידֵי בֵיתוֹ שְׁמֹנָה עָשָׂר וּשְׁלֹשׁ מֵאוֹת וַיִּרְדֹּף עַד דָּן. יד:טו וַיֵּחָלֵק עֲלֵיהֶם לַיְלָה הוּא וַעֲבָדָיו וַיַּכֵּם וַיִּרְדְּפֵם עַד חוֹבָה אֲשֶׁר מִשְּׂמֹאל לְדַמָּשֶׂק.
Gen 14:14 When Abram heard that his kinsman’s [household] had been taken captive, he mustered his retainers, born into his household, numbering three hundred and eighteen, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. 14:15 At night, he and his servants deployed against them and defeated them; and he pursued them as far as Hobah, which is north of Damascus.
In order to rescue Lot and the other captives, Abram’s private army engaged the enemy in a night-time raid, far into Syria, north of Damascus. The details of the warfare are not reported, but it is clear that Abram’s maneuver involved stealth, calculation, and probably experience. In the end, he succeeds in releasing the captives and retrieving all the loot that was taken:
בראשית יד:טז וַיָּשֶׁב אֵת כָּל הָרְכֻשׁ וְגַם אֶת לוֹט אָחִיו וּרְכֻשׁוֹ הֵשִׁיב וְגַם אֶת הַנָּשִׁים וְאֶת הָעָם.
Gen 14:16 He brought back all the possessions; he also brought back his kinsman Lot and his possessions, and the women and the rest of the people.
Abram achieves recognition from the local priest-king of Shalem (apparently Jerusalem; see Psalm 76:3), Malki-Zedek, and he delivers ten percent of the captured property. This is in keeping with later biblical law (Num 31:25–27) as articulated in the story of Israel’s war with Midian.
As for the prisoners, the king of Sodom asks for their release:
בראשית יד:כא וַיֹּאמֶר מֶלֶךְ סְדֹם אֶל אַבְרָם תֶּן לִי הַנֶּפֶשׁ וְהָרְכֻשׁ קַח לָךְ.
Gen 14:21 Then the king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the persons, and take the possessions for yourself.”
Abram apparently frees all the prisoners, but goes on to concede all claims to any of the property:
בראשית יד:כב וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָם אֶל מֶלֶךְ סְדֹם הֲרִימֹתִי יָדִי אֶל יְ־הוָה אֵל עֶלְיוֹן קֹנֵה שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ. יד:כג אִם מִחוּט וְעַד שְׂרוֹךְ נַעַל וְאִם אֶקַּח מִכָּל אֲשֶׁר לָךְ וְלֹא תֹאמַר אֲנִי הֶעֱשַׁרְתִּי אֶת אַבְרָם.
Gen 14:22 But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I swear YHWH, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth: 14:23 I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours; you shall not say, ‘It is I who made Abram rich.’
The one exception is the shares that his retainers and allies had earned:
יד:כד בִּלְעָדַי רַק אֲשֶׁר אָכְלוּ הַנְּעָרִים וְחֵלֶק הָאֲנָשִׁים אֲשֶׁר הָלְכוּ אִתִּי עָנֵר אֶשְׁכֹּל וּמַמְרֵא הֵם יִקְחוּ חֶלְקָם.
14:24 For me, nothing but what my servants have used up; as for the share of the parties who went with me—Aner, Eshkol, and Mamre—let them take their share.”
Thus, Abram ends by freeing the prisoners and being generous in returning property while prudently allowing his allies and retainers to receive their share of the spoils.
David Saves Captives from the Amalekites
Another story about the rescue of captives appears in the book of Samuel. Before David was king, he ruled the town of Ziklag as a Philistine vassal. When David and his armed band were away from the town visiting King Achish of Gath, Ziklag was raided by Amalekites:
שמואל א ל:א וַיְהִי בְּבֹא דָוִד וַאֲנָשָׁיו צִקְלַג בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי וַעֲמָלֵקִי פָשְׁטוּ אֶל נֶגֶב וְאֶל צִקְלַג וַיַּכּוּ אֶת צִקְלַג וַיִּשְׂרְפוּ אֹתָהּ בָּאֵשׁ. ל:ב וַיִּשְׁבּוּ אֶת הַנָּשִׁים אֲשֶׁר בָּהּ מִקָּטֹן וְעַד גָּדוֹל לֹא הֵמִיתוּ אִישׁ וַיִּנְהֲגוּ וַיֵּלְכוּ לְדַרְכָּם.
1 Sam 30:1 By the time David and his men arrived in Ziklag, on the third day, the Amalekites had made a raid into the Negeb and against Ziklag; they had stormed Ziklag and burned it down. 30:2 They had taken the women in it captive, low-born and high-born alike; they did not kill any, but carried them off and went their way.
David and his men only find out about this raid upon their return to their empty, burned out village:
שמואל א ל:ג וַיָּבֹא דָוִד וַאֲנָשָׁיו אֶל הָעִיר וְהִנֵּה שְׂרוּפָה בָּאֵשׁ וּנְשֵׁיהֶם וּבְנֵיהֶם וּבְנֹתֵיהֶם נִשְׁבּוּ. ל:ד וַיִּשָּׂא דָוִד וְהָעָם אֲשֶׁר אִתּוֹ אֶת קוֹלָם וַיִּבְכּוּ עַד אֲשֶׁר אֵין בָּהֶם כֹּחַ לִבְכּוֹת.
1 Sam 30:3 When David and his men came to the town and found it burned down, and their wives and sons and daughters taken captive, 30:4 David and the troops with him broke into tears, until they had no strength left for weeping.
Abram, whose nephew was taken by an army, seems to have responded first and foremost stoically, as a military man who was determined to act. David and his men, on the other hand, are distraught—their first reaction is to cry until they could cry no more. David is as much a victim as his men, since his own wives are taken:
שמואל א ל:ה וּשְׁתֵּי נְשֵׁי דָוִד נִשְׁבּוּ אֲחִינֹעַם הַיִּזְרְעֵלִית וַאֲבִיגַיִל אֵשֶׁת נָבָל הַכַּרְמְלִי.
1 Sam 30:5 David’s two wives had been taken captive, Ahinoam of Jezreel and Abigail wife of Nabal from Carmel.
The people at first turn their anger inward, towards the failed leadership that let this occur:
שמואל א ל:ו וַתֵּצֶר לְדָוִד מְאֹד כִּי אָמְרוּ הָעָם לְסָקְלוֹ כִּי מָרָה נֶפֶשׁ כָּל הָעָם אִישׁ עַל (בנו) [בָּנָיו] וְעַל בְּנֹתָיו וַיִּתְחַזֵּק דָּוִד בַּי־הוָה אֱלֹהָיו.
1 Sam 30:6 David was in great danger, for the troops threatened to stone him; for all the troops were embittered on account of their sons and daughters. But David sought strength in YHWH his God.
The survivors of Ziklag were angry enough to kill him for taking them on his own exploits and leaving their families undefended; he apparently had no plan for how to protect the village or what to do in response to a raid.
David's morale had to be low; unlike Abram, who did not hesitate to pursue the hostile army, David was unsure what to do. So he consulted YHWH with a divine oracle, the ephod—the priestly pouch-vest worn by the priest Eviatar. David asked the Deity if he should chase after the Amalekites, and if so, would he succeed? The response was positive on both accounts (verses 7-8). Thus encouraged, David whipped into shape:
שמואל א ל:ט וַיֵּלֶךְ דָּוִד הוּא וְשֵׁשׁ מֵאוֹת אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר אִתּוֹ וַיָּבֹאוּ עַד נַחַל הַבְּשׂוֹר וְהַנּוֹתָרִים עָמָדוּ. ל:י וַיִּרְדֹּף דָּוִד הוּא וְאַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת אִישׁ וַיַּעַמְדוּ מָאתַיִם אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר פִּגְּרוּ מֵעֲבֹר אֶת נַחַל הַבְּשׂוֹר.
1 Sam 30:9 So David and the six hundred men with him set out, and they came to the Wadi Besor, where a halt was made by those who were to be left behind. 30:10 David continued the pursuit with four hundred men; two hundred men had halted, too faint to cross the Wadi Besor.
In Wadi Besor (possibly Nahal Gaza), David’s band found an enslaved Egyptian who had served one of the Amalekite raiders but was apparently left for dead. He agrees to show David where the enemy troops are camped, as long as David promises not to return him to his master. David’s band thus catches the Amalekites unaware, celebrating their victory and spoils, and he quickly destroys them:
שמואל א ל:יז וַיַּכֵּם דָּוִד מֵהַנֶּשֶׁף וְעַד הָעֶרֶב לְמָחֳרָתָם וְלֹא נִמְלַט מֵהֶם אִישׁ כִּי אִם אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת אִישׁ נַעַר אֲשֶׁר רָכְבוּ עַל הַגְּמַלִּים וַיָּנֻסוּ.
1 Sam 30:17 David attacked them from before dawn until the evening of the next day; none of them escaped, except four hundred young men who mounted camels and got away.
David succeeds in rescuing all the prisoners from Ziklag without exception:
שמואל א ל:יח וַיַּצֵּל דָּוִד אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר לָקְחוּ עֲמָלֵק וְאֶת שְׁתֵּי נָשָׁיו הִצִּיל דָּוִד. ל:יט וְלֹא נֶעְדַּר לָהֶם מִן הַקָּטֹן וְעַד הַגָּדוֹל וְעַד בָּנִים וּבָנוֹת וּמִשָּׁלָל וְעַד כָּל אֲשֶׁר לָקְחוּ לָהֶם הַכֹּל הֵשִׁיב דָּוִד.
1 Sam 30:18 David rescued everything the Amalekites had taken; David also rescued his two wives. 30:19 Nothing of theirs was missing—young or old, sons or daughters, spoil or anything else that had been carried off—David recovered everything.
David was able to catch the Amalekites unawares by dint of their false sense of security—they were celebrating their catch and thinking they were safe in their own territory. Thus they paid the price of their own surprise raid in their own coin, by being surprised themselves.
The rest of the story deals with the proper division of booty—the Amalekites had raided many towns, not just Ziklag, and brought back a big haul. David establishes precedent that all members of his army, whether they were in the battle or served in another capacity, should receive equal treatment (vv. 20–25). David further sends shares of the gain with towns across Judah, not just his own town and its warriors (vv. 26–31).
In both of these stories, we see the reaction to the abduction of loved ones by two of the Bible’s most famous heroic characters. Ironically, it is Abram best known for his faith, who springs into action without any divine consultation. David, in contrast, though best known as a warrior, is stunned by the unexpected attack, and must turn to God for the confidence he needed to accomplish the task to save his wives and the families of the Ziklagites from captivity.
In the cases of Abram and David, all was accomplished with fairy-tale-like speed and everyone was brought back alive. May Israel’s leadership receive the same inspiration and success and may all the hostages of the October 7th Hamas attack be returned safe and sound and as soon as possible.
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Prof. Edward L. Greenstein is Professor Emeritus of Bible at Bar-Ilan University. He received the EMET Prize (“Israel’s Nobel”) in Humanities-Biblical Studies for 2020, and his book, Job: A New Translation (Yale University Press, 2019), won the acclaim of the American Library Association, the Association for Jewish Studies, and many others. He has been writing a commentary on Lamentations for the Jewish Publication Society.