Bridgewater, Massachusetts, February 1, 2004

Genesis 14:1-20 The battle of the nine kings

In the days of Amraphel king of Shinar, Arioch king of Ellasar, Kedorlaomer king of Elam, and Tidal king of Goiim, these kings made war with Bera king of Sodom, Birsha king of Gomorrah, Shinab king of Admah, Shemeber king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar). All these joined forces in the Valley of Siddim (that is, the Dead Sea). Twelve years they had served Kedorlaomer, but in the thirteenth year they rebelled.

In the fourteenth year Kedorlaomer and the kings who were with him came and subdued the Rephaim in Ashteroth Karnaim, the Zuzim in Ham, the Emim in Shaveh Kiriathaim, and the Horites in the hill country of Seir as far as El Paran on the edge of the desert; then they turned back and came to Enmishpat (that is, Kadesh), and subdued all the country of the Amalekites, and also the Amorites who lived in Hazazoth Tamar.

Then the king of Sodom, the king of Gomorrah, the king of Admah, the king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar) went out, and they joined battle in the Valley of Siddim with Kedorlaomer king of Elam, and Tidal king of Goiim, Amraphel king of Shinar, and Arioch king of Ellasar, four kings against five. Now the Valley of Siddim was full of tar pits; and as the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, some fell into them, and the rest fled to the hill country. So the enemy took all the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah, and all their provisions, and went their way; they also took Lot, the son of Abram's brother, who lived in Sodom, and his goods, and departed.

One who had escaped came and reported this to Abram the Hebrew. Now Abram was living near the great trees of Mamre the Amorite, a brother of Eshcol and Aner, all of whom were allied with Abram. When Abram heard that his relative had been taken captive, he called out the trained men born in his household and went in pursuit as far as Dan. During the night Abram divided his men to attack them and he routed them, pursuing them as far as Hobah, north of Damascus. He recovered all the goods and brought back his relative Lot and his possessions, together with the women and the other people.

After Abram returned from defeating Kedorlaomer and the kings allied with him, the king of Sodom came out to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King's Valley). Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying, "Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand." Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.

Matthew 4:1-11 Jesus tempted in the desert

Then Jesus was led by the spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. After fasting for forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, "If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread."

Jesus answered, "It is written: 'One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'"

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. "If you are the Son of God," he said, "throw yourself down. For it is written: 'He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'"

Jesus answered him, "It is also written: 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor, and said to him, "All this I will give you if you bow down and worship me."

Jesus replied, "Away from me, Satan! For it is written: 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'" Then the devil left him, and angels came and took care of him.

Arcana Coelestia #1659.3 Wars symbolize temptations

In the most ancient times many things were represented by wars, which people called "The Wars of Jehovah." These meant nothing but the conflicts fought by the Church and by those who belonged to the Church. In other words, they symbolized their temptations, which are nothing but battles and wars against the evils present within themselves and so against the devil's crew, who stir up evil things and try to destroy the Church and those who belong to the Church.

Then Jesus was led by the spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. (Matthew 4:1)

Among the various terrains in which wars can be fought, the desert is one of the most severe and unforgiving. Intense heat; choking dust; parching dryness; sand in which both humans and machines get bogged down; rocks and boulders strewn everywhere; it is a harsh, unforgiving landscape that gives none of the comforts of more hospitable environments. As the Germans discovered in their North African campaign in World War II, the desert is merciless to those who are unprepared for its rigors--and even those who are prepared must fight the onslaughts of the desert itself while fighting their human enemies.

This harsh, arid desert environment is precisely where Jesus fought the first of his temptations recorded in the Gospel story. It was right after he was baptized in the cooling waters of the Jordan that the spirit led him into the desert. We read that he fasted forty days and forty nights--and the number forty, especially when it is mentioned together with fasting, corresponds to temptation. The Children of Israel wandered forty years in the desert before they could enter the Holy Land. And Moses twice fasted forty days and forty nights on Mt. Sinai when receiving the Ten Commandments and all the accompanying laws.

After Jesus had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was tempted by the devil. And in the three temptations recounted, we have a summary of all of the Lord's temptations, on all three levels: in his outward actions, in his thoughts, and in his heart:

Turning stones into bread would be taking mere correctness in outward behavior and believing that this made him truly good, kind, loving, and spiritual. His verbal battles with the Pharisees throughout his ministry were often over this very issue.

Throwing himself down from the pinnacle of the temple would be thinking that because he knew the teachings of the church thoroughly (symbolized by the temple and its pinnacle), he did not actually need to live by those teachings, but whatever he did, he would be rescued by God and heaven.

Bowing down and worshiping the devil in return for the kingdoms of the world and their splendor would be allowing his heart to be ruled by a desire for power and glory among humans rather than by a love of doing the saving work that he had come to do.

Notice that each time the devil tempted him, even when the devil himself quoted Scripture, Jesus answered with a Scripture from the Law of Moses. In this way he showed us by example that it is by the power of "every word that comes from the mouth of God" that we can resist temptation and gain spiritual life.

Turning to our story from Genesis, we find from Swedenborg's interpretation of this very first battle of the Bible--the battle of the nine kings, four against five, in the Valley of Siddim--that the Lord's early temptations were fought more on his outward levels than deep within. These first temptations of the Lord took place, not when he was an adult, but when he was a young boy. In this, too, he was different from every mortal human being. Although we do have struggles as we grow up, we face genuine spiritual temptation only when we have reached adulthood, and are able to make the ultimate choices for ourselves.

Yet with that adjustment, the overall process of temptation that we go through parallels what the Lord went through. We first struggle to clean up our outward thoughts and behavior, and then, as we prevail in those temptations, we move deeper and deeper within, eventually facing the darkest corners of our inner hearts and minds, and struggling in agony against our own weakness, doubt, and despair. These agonies of inner temptation are shown in Christ's life right toward the end, in his agonies in the garden of Gethsemane before he was crucified.

But here in Genesis the temptations are the earlier ones, before we face the full depth of the evil and falsity within us. These come when we are first "cleaning up our act," so to speak. They come when we are carrying out our first commitment to live in the Lord's way instead of our own way.

When we do this, we tend to do so from a sense that we are pretty good and pretty strong for being able to overcome the faults in our behavior and character. We have not yet learned through hard experience that if we fight from our own strength, we will go down in defeat. We have not yet learned that the moment we start facing our more deep-seated evils, we are entirely at their mercy unless we recognize that we can overcome them only from the Lord's power, and not from our own. And so, in our story from Genesis, we find four kings from Babylonia--a foreign power--engaging in a spectacularly successful campaign of subduing various cities and nations in Canaan that the Children of Israel would later face as enemies in its own conquest of the Holy Land.

Spiritually, in our early battles the Lord allows us to think that we can conquer our wrong ways of thinking, feeling, and acting by our own strength. The Lord allows us to fight from Babylonian strength--the strength of taking credit for our own actions--because in those early stages of spiritual growth, if we didn't have some sense of pride and self-worth in our battles and our successes, we would probably not engage in them at all. Gaining a sense of self-worth provides a powerful motivational engine that enables us to engage in a successful campaign, as young adults, to move beyond our youthful waywardness, get our lives on track, and begin living in a constructive and responsible way. The popular "self-esteem" movement may not be the ultimate way of spiritual life, but it does give many people their first sense that their lives are worth something, and that they should fight the good fight and make something of themselves. Like the Babylonians, it gets the job done.

Though we have been talking about our human struggles, the same dynamic was going on in the Lord's young life, too. Though even as a young boy he did have a sense of his higher calling, he had still not experienced the full depths of his divinity. And so, when he first began to engage in inner battle against his spiritual enemies, he believed that it was his lower, human side that was doing the fighting, not realizing that the power came from his divine soul. In Jesus, too, the Babylonians got the first victory.

And yet, when we do get the job done from a sense of "self-esteem," or in theological terminology, from a sense of our own "merit," we can find our lives quickly taken captive by the Babylonians. We read that since Lot was living in Sodom, one of the conquered cities, he and his family and possessions were carried off by the four victorious kings. Lot, as we learned earlier, represents our outward life. And when we have "cleaned up our act" and started living in a more virtuous way than before, we can easily get carried away by the pride in our own accomplishments that is represented by Shinar--or Babylon.

This is when Abram comes to Lot's rescue. Abram, in contrast to Lot, represents our inner, spiritual life. When we find ourselves getting carried away by our own pride and sense of superiority over others because we are so much better and more spiritual than they are, we do need to be rescued--from ourselves! That is when Abram, our deeper and more thoughtful side, can step in and remind us that on our own, we will get carried away just when we feel we have gotten the victory. Our deeper, spiritual self reminds us that it is by the Lord's strength, and not our own, that we gain the victory.

It is remarkable that Abram, with only 318 trained warriors, gained a great victory over four powerful kings who had just swept through the land conquering everyone in their path. The Lord does not conquer by strength of numbers or by pride. The Lord conquers through our trust in his power. And once we realize that on our own we are actually very weak when facing our enemies, then the Lord can come through our weakness and give us a true, inner victory. This leaves us, not with a sense of pride in ourselves, but with a sense of humble thankfulness to the Lord, who has fought and won the battle for us.

Turning again to the Lord's temptation battles, his first sense that he had gained the victory from his outer, human side gave way to a realization that it was the Divine Being within who was doing the fighting, and who gave the victory. This, too, was part of his process of "glorification"--of uniting his human side with his divine side, and becoming completely one on all levels: divine, spiritual, and natural.

Each time Jesus fought and overcame the evil tendencies that he had inherited from his mother, and that pressed in on him from the human society around him, he realized more fully the presence of his divine soul dwelling within him. As he overcame and destroyed all the evil and falsity that blocked the inner pathways, his soul was opened up to God the Father, from whom he came. This opening up went deeper and deeper, until by the end of his life on earth, at the time of his resurrection, there was no longer any barrier, nor even the thinnest veil, between his human side and his divine side. He had become completely one with the Father. This is why we know him today as the Lord God Jesus Christ.

All of these teachings feed our minds with an understanding of the Lord's temptations and our own. Now let's turn to the heart side of things. Because our battles in the desert are not merely battles of the head; they are struggles over who will own our heart.

I would venture to say that each one of us has felt the inner anguish of struggle and temptation within our souls. Some of us may be struggling with issues of destructive outward behaviors. Some of us may be struggling with faulty beliefs and attitudes that cause us to veer off course, saying and doing things that seem to bring pain and brokenness rather than joy and deeper relationship with others. And some of us may be struggling with fundamental issues about whether we really care, whether we are really worth anything, whether we should just give up, give in, and not even bother struggling onward anymore.

All of these temptations bring us into our own spiritual desert. No matter where we are on our path of spiritual rebirth, the struggles we face are struggles for our mind, our heart, our soul. And the farther along we go, the more desperate the battles become. We may feel that instead of getting better, we are getting worse. As new parts of ourselves open up, we see new layers of ugliness, muck, and mire within our thoughts and feelings that we had never realized were there. We see more clearly than ever before our own self-centeredness, our disregard of others' needs, our desire for our own pleasure and control, and realize that these have been driving us all along. As these painful self-revelations come to us, we find ourselves sinking into the tar pits of self-pity, hopelessness, weariness, and despair.

And we feel that we are all alone. We feel that we are abandoned; that no one understands; that even God is not there for us. We may cry out within our souls, as Jesus did on the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46; Psalm 22:1).

It is precisely when we have reached the point of despair that we are finally ready for the Lord to come into our lives in a new way. It is precisely when we realize that on our own, by ourselves, we are lost, that the Lord is able to show us that there is a higher power, a divine power, that is more than equal to every struggle we face. It is then that we realize, like the Apostle, that "because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted" (Hebrews 2:18).

Jesus has fought every evil; Jesus has struggled against every wrong; Jesus has experienced the deepest and bitterest desert warfare of the soul, and has come out of it victorious. On our own, we would succumb to the blasting heat, the choking dust, the terrible drought, the harsh sand and rocks of inner conflict. But the Lord has fought the desert battle, and has won it. And he will rescue each one of us, if we will turn to him and trust in him. Amen.

Original Artwork: The Alpha and Omega
Courtesy of Greg Olsen

~ Used With Permission ~

Music: God Grant Us Peace
ęBruce DeBoer - Used with Permission



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