Fightin’ Abraham’s 318 Men + 1 Eliezer
Genesis 14 and 15:2
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אַבְרָ֗ם אֲדֹנָ֤י יֱהוִה֙ מַה־תִּתֶּן־לִ֔י וְאָנֹכִ֖י הֹולֵ֣ךְ עֲרִירִ֑י וּבֶן־מֶ֣שֶׁק בֵּיתִ֔י ה֖וּא דַּמֶּ֥שֶׂק אֱלִיעֶֽזֶר׃ (Biblia Hebraic Stuttsgartensia)
And Abram said, Lord GOD, what wilt thou give me, seeing I go childless, and the steward of my house is this Eliezer of Damascus? (KJV)
We rational moderns look askance (and rightly so) at numerology and its alleged powers of carrying hidden meaning, but the ancients took this stuff seriously. In ancient and kabbalistic, mystical Hebrew writings, this placement and observation of numerology is called gematria, a practice borrowed from Plato and the Greeks. Given the fact that writers of Biblical Hebrew deployed gematria on occasion, we students of the Bible will do well to recognize and understand it as part of our Bible interpretation.
We’ll look at one example. For this Bible Bit we’ll examine the gematria in the name of Abraham’s devoted servant, Eliezer of Damascus.
אֱלִיעֶֽזֶר = Eliezer
But before fleshing this out, let’s catch up on what is happening in Genesis 14, a somewhat odd chapter which seems out of place with the rest of the book.
Abraham and Lot get mixed up in the military adventure of two opposing alliances of regional kingdoms. Lot and his extended family live in the fertile Jordan valley just north of the Dead Sea, where he conducts his sizable livestock and ranching operations. Unfortunately for Lot, the kings of nearby Sodom and Gomorrah are part of the four-member losing coalition, and when the five-party victors seize the valley regions and haul away prisoners and bounty, all of Lot’s family, labor force, and valuable possessions are captured and hauled away to the north and into certain slavery. The lands of four losing coalition kingdoms are not the only victims of the conquering invaders. In addition to the organized four, we count in the chapter 14 narrative seven additional peoples and neighboring lands overtaken. The powerful invaders head north, presumably headed back to Babylon (Shinar) and other places to the east and north along the fertile crescent highways. Abraham’s nephew Lot and all of Lot’s family business is part of the booty.
The heroic Abraham gathers up a large personal army of 318 men. We had no idea he possessed such a thing. We know he has a large ranch staff. Can this staff and friendly neighbors provide a battalion of 318 men?
The previously passive — as far as we knew — sheep farmer charges off to northern territories and uses his previously unmentioned military prowess to ambush the pillagers, save Lot, and return home with his nephew and the entirety of Lot’s family and property.
Abraham makes it look easy. Here’s the King James Version:
Gen 14:11-16 And they [the invading coalition of five] took all the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah [where Lot lived], and all their victuals, and went their way. And they took Lot, Abram’s brother’s son, who dwelt in Sodom, and his goods, and departed. And there came one that had escaped, and told Abram the Hebrew; for he dwelt in the plain of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol, and brother of Aner: and these were confederate with Abram. And when Abram heard that his brother was taken captive, he armed his trained servants, born in his own house, three hundred and eighteen, and pursued them unto Dan [far up north]. And he divided himself against them, he and his servants, by night, and smote them, and pursued them unto Hobah, which is on the left hand of Damascus. And he brought back all the goods, and also brought again his brother Lot, and his goods, and the women also, and the people. (KJV)
These 318 men in Abraham’s army are a curious thing. Where did they come from? We know Abraham is wealthy and has a large ranch staff. He has friendly neighbors, but does he really have at his disposal the number of employees and friends, with males of fighting age, plus his own grown children and grandchildren and servants “born in his own house,” in numbers sizable enough to form a posse of 318 men trained in security and combat? And, by the way, old Abraham and Sarah do not yet have children of their own. Where do these 318 come from?
And while 318 seems like a large number of soldiers serving a personal army, it is likely tiny in size compared to that of the invading alliance of five kingdoms which just rolled through eleven small kingdoms in Canaan and Syria. Can a sheep farmer attack and defeat a practiced army that just whipped a large portion of the regional communities?
We do know that Abraham has God on his side.
He also has Eliezer. Abraham’s chief of household staff is a foreigner from Damascus named Eliezer. Shortly after our military story, a few verses later in chapter 15, the childless Abraham contemplates adopting Eliezer (if he hasn’t already), and making his steward his heir.
Gen 15:2 And Abram said, Lord GOD, what wilt thou give me, seeing I go childless, and the steward of my house is this Eliezer of Damascus? (KJV)
Now let’s look at the gematria of Eliezer. Here’s the name in Hebrew:
In the Hebrew, Eliezer is spelled with the six letters Aleph, Lamed, Yud, Ayin, Zayin, and Reish. The numerical values assigned to these letters, per the rules of Hebrew gematria (and moving from right to left), are:
The “value” of the name Eliezer, per the numerical values of each Hebrew letter, is
1 + 30 + 10 + 70 + 7 + 200 = 318
So, did the military commander Abraham have a force of 318 armed soldiers with him? Or did he have only his prospective heir Eliezer? And God?
Does your study Bible or favorite commentary address the gematria of Eliezer? And suggest an interpretation of the 318-man fighting force other than taking the number at face value? And accepting that a 318-man force can defeat a hardened enemy without the help of God?
Does Bible Bits err in our doubt that Abraham’s private herding business, large as it may be, is nevertheless large enough to contain a fighting force of 318?
If you choose to reply to this Bible Bit, please stick narrowly to this topic, quote scripture, and cite the remarks of learned scholars and interpreters of holy scripture.
We encourage you to read the Bible for yourself, and may God bless you!