When Avram heard that his relative had been taken captive, he armed three-hundred-and-eighteen trained men who were born in his household, and he pursued them as far as Dan.

-- Breshis 14:14

Classic Questions

What is the significance of "318 trained men"? (v. 14)

Rashi: Our Sages said that it was Eliezer alone, and the number 318 represents the gematria (numerical value) of his name.

Targum Yonason: Avraham picked Eliezer since he was Nimrod's son, who was as strong as all the 318 warriors put together.

Bachaye: Does this mean to say that the 318 men which the Torah mentions did not really exist, and are merely an allusion to Eliezer? Surely, the verse must be taken literally? In fact, however, after Avraham and his 318 staff mobilized themselves for war, he dismissed any warrior not free of sin, since it is merit which wins a war and not numbers. The only remaining warriors were Avraham and Eliezer.

Gur Aryeh: There were definitely 318 warriors. Rashi informs us that the war was won in the merit of Eliezer and Avraham alone.

The Rebbe's Teachings

Eliezer's Role in the War (v. 14)

Since Rashi confines himself to explaining scripture at the literal level (Rashi on Bereishis 3:8) his comment here on verse 14 is difficult to understand. Are we to accept that at the literal level the soldiers were in fact "only one"—namely, Eliezer—since the numerical value of his name equals 318? Surely, this is a totally non-literal interpretation?

Admittedly, Rashi does write, "Our sages said that it was Eliezer alone," indicating that this interpretation is not a purely literal one but a teaching of the sages. However, there must be some difficulty with the verse at the literal level which forced Rashi to cite this explanation.

Furthermore:

  1. Avraham's victory against four powerful kings (who had already defeated five kings) with an army of only 318 men is an outstanding miracle in itself. What forced Rashi to add an additional miracle by saying that the entire defeat was brought about by Eliezer alone?

  2. The Torah states explicitly, "He and his servants [plural] divided themselves [to pursue the enemy] through the night" (v. 15). So how can Rashi write that "it was Eliezer alone"?

The Explanation

Rashi was troubled about why the Torah describes Avraham's war in such extensive detail, "He armed three hundred and eighteen trained men... he pursued them as far as Dan. He and his servants divided themselves [to pursue the enemy] through the night, and smote them, and pursued them as far as Chovah (i.e., Dan), which is to the left of Damascus. He brought back all the possessions, etc." (v. 14-16). Why does the reader need to know all these details?

Rashi came to the conclusion that the Torah stated these specific details to stress an additional dimension to the magnitude of Avraham's miraculous victory.

In what respect was the miracle so great?

Rashi explains that the 318 men allude to a teaching which is not explicitly recorded in the Torah, but was handed down by our Sages, that Eliezer alone secured the victory.

Of course, this does not mean that the 318 men were not present at all, since the Torah states explicitly that "he and his servants divided themselves" (v. 15), and not merely "Eliezer alone." Rather, Rashi wishes to teach us that Eliezer was primarily responsible for the victory. Not that he led the army—for we can be sure that Avraham took this role—but rather that Eliezer (together with Avraham) secured the victory.

(Based on Sichas Shabbos Parshas Lech Lecha 5748)