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Language Studies

Difficult Sayings

Abraham''s 318 Men
Genesis 14:14

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"Now when Abram heard that his brother was taken captive, he armed his three hundred and eighteen trained servants who were born in his own house, and went in pursuit was far as Dan." (Psalm 16:9, KJV)

A London based Pastor asked me the following question this week:

In Genesis chapter 14 v 14 - we are told that Abram had 318 trained servants who were born in his house. Is there significance to the number 318?

The answer is one of those easy Jewish ones, "yes and no". So I thought I would explain what I mean in this column. For someone to even ask the question makes one wonder if there is any significance, for why mention the exact numbers if not. Why not simply say "all his servants", or is there some vague reference to the profligacy of Abraham or his servants in the fact that 318 adult men were "born in his own house"?

The word for "trained servants" is a hapax legomena, i.e., it only occurs once in Scripture and is thus difficult to render accurately. It is from the Hebrew חָנִיך chânîykh (Strong's #2593) "dedicated" from חָנַך chânakh (Strong's #2596) "to dedicate" and from which we get the word chanûkkâh, the December-time Jewish festival of dedication. It may also be derived from an Egyptian word employed in the Execration texts of the late 19th Century B.C. of the retainers of Palestinian chieftains.

It would not have been uncommon in the second millennium B.C. for a man of Abraham's position to have had such a large retinue. Though not heavily occupied the land was nevertheless inhabited by various tribal groups, apart from Egypt, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, who were in the land. Abraham himself seems to have commanded a sizeable people group with his 318 fighting men from which it has been estimated that his whole following numbered around 2000 persons, men, women, children and the slaves he had (12:16; 15:2; 16:1). The treaty, rebellion and consequent battle in 14:1-9 pictures many goyiim (peoples, not necessarily modern nations) and typical tribal alliances.

The particular form of the Hebrew verb רוּק rûwq (Strong's #7324) used for "armed/led forth/called out" depending on your translation actually means to "cause to pour out" and can even be used of unsheathing a weapons such as a sword which is effectively what Abraham was doing. Some of the modern translations, as does the ancient Samaritan Pentateuch, assume a Hebrew typo and replace ר "r" with ד "d" making it the verb "to muster". Curiously, the Greek Old Testament version, the Septuagint, actually has a verb meaning "to number", arithmeô (from which we get arithmetic), here which may support the idea of "mustering". This "numbering", in turn, may have given later commentators the hint that the number itself held significance.

As the Hebrew alphabet has no numbers they are represented by full words or by the individual letters themselves standing for numbers; letters 1-9 represent the numerals, letters 10-18 the tens, and letters 19-22 cover the first four hundreds. It has gone unnoticed that Abraham's chief servant, Eliezer, and described as his sole heir in Genesis 15:2, has a Hebrew name that adds up to 318 = ע 1 + ל 30 + י 10 + א 70 + ז 7 + ר 200.

Because of the use of the word "dedicated" above to indicate in-house training, though not necessarily military and more likely domestic, later Jewish commentators in the Talmud wrote:

"R. Abbahu said in R. Eleazar's name: Why was our Father Abraham punished and his children doomed to Egyptian servitude for two hundred and ten years? Because he pressed scholars into his service, as it is written, 'he armed his dedicated servants born in his own house'. … Rab said, he equipped them by [teaching them] the Torah. … R. Ammi b. Abba said: Eliezer outweighed them all. Others say, It was Eliezer, for this is the numerical value of his name." (Talmud, Nedarim 32a)

This indicates early knowledge of the numerical equivalent with Eliezer and the idea that "dedicated" could mean "discipled" in Jewish belief as even some Christian commentators such as Calvin and Gill thought.

In the early church, in the late first and second centuries, some writers made use of 318 (made up of 300+10+8, rather than as in Eliezer's name) to signify Jesus on the cross. In Greek, which can also use the numerical=alphabetical system as it too is without numerals, Tau=300 and is equivalent to the Hebrew letter, Tau, both of which represent a cross in the shape of a capital 'T', which is closer to the shape of a crucifixion cross than a modern crucifix. The 18 comes from Eta plus Iota, which stood in the Greek alphabet order where ח cheth and י yodh stand in the Hebrew, thus they stood for 8 and 10 respectively, making the 18. Now, IH, in Greek is Iota-Eta, the first two letters of Jesus' name ΙΣΟΥΣ, iêsous, just as God's name, YHVH, could be represented by its shorter version YH (Yah). So the Epistle of Barnabas, written between 70-135 A.D. says:

For [the Scripture] saith, "And Abraham circumcised ten, and eight, and three hundred men of his household." What, then, was the knowledge given to him in this? Learn the eighteen first, and then the three hundred. The ten and the eight are thus denoted - Ten by I, and Eight by H. You have [the initials of the, name of] Jesus. And because the cross was to express the grace [of our redemption] by the letter T, he says also, "Three Hundred." He signifies, therefore, Jesus by two letters, and the cross by one. (Epistle of Barnabas 9.8)

Writing later in the 3rd century, Clement of Alexandria in his Stromata, "Miscellanies", on 'The Mystical Meanings In The Proportions Of Numbers, Geometrical Ratios, And Music' says:

As then in astronomy we have Abraham as an instance, so also in arithmetic we have the same Abraham. For, hearing that Lot was taken captive, and having numbered his own servants, born in his house, 318, he defeats a very great number of the enemy. They say, then, that the character representing 300 is, as to shape, the type of the Lord's sign, and that the Iota and the Eta indicate the Saviour's name; that it was indicated, accordingly, that Abraham's domestics were in salvation, who having fled to the Sign and the Name became lords of the captives, and of the very many unbelieving nations that followed them. (Clement, Stromata, Book 6, Chapter 11)

So Christian numerological interpretation is just as fanciful as some Jewish numerical word plays. Certainly, we can give full marks for ingenuity and there is no harm done in the meaning given. Nonetheless, it is more probably in a book like Genesis of history not prophecy that historical accuracy rather than symbolism is intended and what is being portrayed is Abraham's wealth and status in being able to raise 318 fighting men.

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KJ Went has taught biblical Hebrew, hermeneutics and Jewish background to early Christianity. The "Biblical Hebrew made easy" course can be found at www.biblicalhebrew.com.

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