The Torah in Parashat Lekh-Lekha tells of Avraham’s miraculous military over the four armies that had captured the people and property of Sedom. After the battle, the king of Sedom greeted Avraham, and offered, “Tein li ha-nefesh ve-ha-rekhush kach lakh” – “Give me the people, and take the property for yourself” (14:21). The king was prepared to allow Avraham to keep all the property he had rescued, in exchange for the return of all the captives. Avraham refused to accept any of the property of Sedom, expressing his fear that the king would then take credit for Avraham’s wealth.
Netziv, in his Herchev Davar, raises the question of whether Avraham’s refusal to accept the property meant that he received the people as his servants. Did Avraham refuse to take both the property and the captives, or did he relinquish his rights to the property in exchange for rights to the people whom he freed, whom the king of Sedom wanted returned to him?
Netziv notes that the Gemara and Midrash seem to be divided on this issue. The Gemara in Masekhet Nedarim (32a) cites Rabbi Yochanan’s remark that Avraham was punished for “keeping people away from coming under the wings of the Shekhina” – and citing this verse in Parashat Lekh-Lekha as his source. This seems to mean that Avraham did not insist on receiving the freed captives, which meant that instead of coming under his influence and likely embracing monotheism, the people instead returned to the sinful, corrupt influence of Sedom (and were, presumably, later killed when God destroyed the city). Clearly, Rabbi Yochanan understood that when Avraham declined the offer to receive the property, he did not ask for the people in exchange, and they returned to Sedom.
However, the Midrash in Bereishit Rabba (48:6) comments in reference to Avraham’s declining the king’s offer that he embodied the description in Sefer Yeshayahu (33:15) of “no’er kapav mi-temokh be-shochad” – one who refuses to accept bribes. The Midrash quite clearly understood the king’s offer to Avraham as an attempted bribe, an attempt to lure Avraham to relinquish his rights to the people whom he freed by granting him the property in their place. Avraham refused to accept this “bribe” – and, apparently, insisted on keeping the freed captives.
Netziv then proceeds to explain that the people whose status was being negotiated were not the ordinary citizens of Sedom, but specifically the king’s servants. Although Avraham relinquished his rights to the property which he had rescued from the four armies, he refused to hand over the servants. Netziv explains that these servants did not want to return to the king’s service, and so it would have been wrong for Avraham to give up his rights to them. Although Avraham did not want to take anything from Sedom, he felt he did not have the right to adhere to this policy at the expense of these servants; he could not send them back to serve the king of Sedom against their will just because of his preference not to benefit from the war he just waged. He therefore refused the “bribe” offered by the king, and he took these servants under his wing.