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No. 133: Abram’s 318 Men

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 133
Copyright (c) 2000 Biblical Horizons
September, 2000

Genesis 14:14 says that Abram mustered his trained men, “born in his house,” to rescue Lot, and gives their number as 318. It is clear that the precise number is provided for some reason, but what is it?

S. Gevirtz notes that 318 is the sum of all the prime numbers between 7 and 72, to wit: 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, 31, 37, 41, 43, & 47. [“Abram’s 318,” Israel Exploration Journal 19 (1969):110-113.] There are twelve primes in this set. Certainly, then, 318 is an interesting number, incorporating both 7 and 12. While this is true, it is not clear what it might have to do with the events in question.

The traditional rabbinic explanation is that 318 is the numerical value of the name of Abram’s chief servant, Eliezer (א = 1; ל = 30; י = 10; ע = 70; ז = 7; ר = 200). Gevirtz and others question this traditional explanation for two reasons. First, they say that there is no evidence for the use of gematria (see previous article) among the Jews prior to the Hellenistic period. To this we must reply that there is no evidence against it either. The fact is that just about the only Hebrew literature we have available to consult is the Old Testament. If we have a case of gematria here in Genesis 14, then that is evidence that it was employed from early times.

The second objection is that Eliezer is not mentioned in the story in Genesis 14, and that it is not clear how he would be connected to that story. Here, however, we can answer the objection clearly.

Genesis 15:1 begins “after these things.” Abram is afraid that Chedorlaomer will return, and God tells him not to fear. Abram also perceives that he is not in control of the promised land, and God shows him in a dream that his descendants will receive it eventually. Thus, Genesis 14 and 15 are one story, one event.

Now, in Genesis 15:2-3, Abram says that since he has not been given a son, his heir is Eliezer, a man “born in my house.” The phrase “born in the house” refers to adoption, not to a servant born of other servants, a slave born of slaves. Physical sons are offspring of a man’s body; adopted sons are offspring of his house. The ritual for such adoption as a second-class son, as a “son of the house,” under the Law is found in Exodus 21:5-6. (I have discussed this at length in my monograph Slavery in Biblical Perspective.)

Thus, Eliezer is Abram’s official son and heir, provided Abram never begets any children from his own loins. As such, Eliezer is clearly preeminent among all the other “homeborn sons” in Abram’s sheikhdom.

And this takes us back to Genesis 14:14. The 318 fighting men were all such adopted sons, “born in the house.” Eliezer was their captain. Thus, we have a clear link between the name Eliezer and the number 318 in this story.

Of course, this does not answer every question we have. It is interesting that the text tells us that 318 men went forth to rescue Lot, and that 318 is the number of the name of the lieutenant of this host. But why? Is this merely a curiosity?

I think that the explanation lies in the overall theology of Genesis. Repeatedly we are shown a younger son replacing an older son, as the second Adam must replace the first. The salvation of the older son is linked to the younger son: Joseph must save his older brothers; Esau’s salvation, if he wants it, is linked to Jacob.

In Genesis 13, Lot separated from Abram and moved into gentile territory, becoming part of the gentiles. Up until this point, Lot was Abram’s nearest relative, and thus his “son” and heir. Lot, thus, is like the older son who falls into sin. Now the younger son, Eliezer, comes with the father to rescue the wayward older son.

Practically speaking, neither Eliezer by himself, nor he and Abram alone, could have rescued Lot from Chedorlaomer’s army. They needed a company of men. But since the “homeborn” men numbered 318, and this links to Eliezer, captain of the “homeborn” men, the writer of Genesis wants us to make this connection. To use language closer to the New Testament: The father and his son, with the son’s church-people, ride forth to rescue the lost sheep.

In conclusion: It seems that for whatever reason, Abram took 318 men to rescue Lot. This may have been all the men he had, or all that were available. Or he may have had some other reason for taking this many. As it turns out, this number is the number of the name of Eliezer, captain of this host, and Abram’s son and heir. This coincidence happens in God’s providence, and is recorded for us so that we see once again the younger son moving out to rescue the wayward older son.

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