1¶ And it came to pass in the days of Amraphel king of Shinar, Arioch king of Ellasar, Chedorlaomer king of Elam, and Tidal king of nations; 2 That these made war with Bera king of Sodom, and with Birsha king of Gomorrah, Shinab king of Admah, and Shemeber king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela, which is Zoar. 3 All these were joined together in the vale of Siddim, which is the salt sea. 4 Twelve years they served Chedorlaomer, and in the thirteenth year they rebelled. 5 And in the fourteenth year came Chedorlaomer, and the kings that were with him, and smote the Rephaims in Ashteroth Karnaim, and the Zuzims in Ham, and the Emims in Shaveh Kiriathaim, 6 And the Horites in their mount Seir, unto Elparan, which is by the wilderness. 7 And they returned, and came to Enmishpat, which is Kadesh, and smote all the country of the Amalekites, and also the Amorites, that dwelt in Hazezontamar. 8 And there went out the king of Sodom, and the king of Gomorrah, and the king of Admah, and the king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela (the same is Zoar;) and they joined battle with them in the vale of Siddim; 9 With Chedorlaomer the king of Elam, and with Tidal king of nations, and Amraphel king of Shinar, and Arioch king of Ellasar; four kings with five. 10 And the vale of Siddim was full of slimepits; and the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, and fell there; and they that remained fled to the mountain. 11 And they took all the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah, and all their victuals, and went their way. 12 And they took Lot, Abram's brother's son, who dwelt in Sodom, and his goods, and departed.
Amraphel was a king of Shinar, which, remember, is the plain of Mesopotamia where Babel/Babylon was built. In the 1800’s scholars identified him with Hammurabi, a famous Babylonian king, noted for a legal code that archaeologists found. Jewish Rabbinic sources from the Middle Ages identify him with Nimrod. Some modern scholars have elected even another candidate. However, we only know from the Bible that he was allied with the other kings mentioned in their assistance of the king of Elam in retaining his power over the cities of Canaan which rebelled, interestingly enough, in the thirteenth year of their submission. Here is one example, as I mentioned earlier, of a period where Egypt did not exercise suzerainty over Canaan.
Arioch was thought a century ago to be a king who reigned contemporaneously with Hammurabi, over the Sumerian city, Larsa. Chedorlaomer, listed as the king of Elam here who ruled over Canaanite cities and is here, with his allies attempting to reestablish control. Tidal, king of nations, as he must reign over multiple people groups, is listed as another ally. These kings over small but growing empires are trying to bring back under authority kings over cities that would have been no more militarily mighty than the modern mayor of small town could hope to be, if that mayor had armed citizens to fight for him. It wouldn’t have taken a very large and expensive expedition to teach these people a lesson.
While others were disunited and weak the kings of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim, and Bela (Zoar) joined together to oppose this conquering force. The battle was joined and the rebellious kings and their forces fled with the kings leading Sodom and Gomorrah’s forces falling in battle. So, Sodom and Gomorrah, the cities, were plundered and along with their goods, Lot and his possessions, possibly his family, too, were taken.
Remember, the king of an ancient city was also its high priest. I want to add another point here that will be significant in the next passage. Diarchy, where two kings ruled at the same time, was known in the ancient world, the most famous of which was the city-state of Sparta in Greece. It is possible that this condition existed in at least some city-states of the Ancient Near East because a second king of Sodom is mentioned in the next passage, in addition to the one that fell in battle. It is possible then that one king was a religious figure and one went to war and held administrative functions.
Warfare against a city included warfare against its gods and its religion. Nothing was spared. But, these kings are more intent on reestablishing authority than on complete destruction. There are two worlds fighting here, the world of empires and control over different peoples versus the world of petty kings/priests over a specific location, what we would today consider to be nothing more than a small town with walls, a religion and gods of its own with family gods as well.