Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Lech Lecha: How Many People Fought Alongside Avraham?

In parshat Lecha Lecha, Avraham hears that Lot is captured, and he and his servants go to rescue him. In Bereishit 14:
יג וַיָּבֹא, הַפָּלִיט, וַיַּגֵּד, לְאַבְרָם הָעִבְרִי; וְהוּא שֹׁכֵן בְּאֵלֹנֵי מַמְרֵא הָאֱמֹרִי, אֲחִי אֶשְׁכֹּל וַאֲחִי עָנֵר, וְהֵם, בַּעֲלֵי בְרִית-אַבְרָם. 13 And there came one that had escaped, and told Abram the Hebrew--now he dwelt by the terebinths of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol, and brother of Aner; and these were confederate with Abram.
יד וַיִּשְׁמַע אַבְרָם, כִּי נִשְׁבָּה אָחִיו; וַיָּרֶק אֶת-חֲנִיכָיו יְלִידֵי בֵיתוֹ, שְׁמֹנָה עָשָׂר וּשְׁלֹשׁ מֵאוֹת, וַיִּרְדֹּף, עַד-דָּן. 14 And when Abram heard that his brother was taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, three hundred and eighteen, and pursued as far as Dan.
טו וַיֵּחָלֵק עֲלֵיהֶם לַיְלָה הוּא וַעֲבָדָיו, וַיַּכֵּם; וַיִּרְדְּפֵם, עַד-חוֹבָה, אֲשֶׁר מִשְּׂמֹאל, לְדַמָּשֶׂק. 15 And he divided himself against them by night, he and his servants, and smote them, and pursued them unto Hobah, which is on the left hand of Damascus.
A midrash states that this was not really 318 men, but really just Eliezer Avraham's servant, for the gematria of Eliezer is 318.

Before anything else, my own insight. It is not simply the gematria that sparks this derash, though it worked to confirm it. Rather, it is the subsequent pasuk, pasuk 15:
טו וַיֵּחָלֵק עֲלֵיהֶם לַיְלָה הוּא וַעֲבָדָיו, וַיַּכֵּם; וַיִּרְדְּפֵם, עַד-חוֹבָה, אֲשֶׁר מִשְּׂמֹאל, לְדַמָּשֶׂק. 15 And he divided himself against them by night, he and his servants, and smote them, and pursued them unto Hobah, which is on the left hand of Damascus.
which is likely being read as Avraham split his company in two -- he and his servant (though of course it says servants in the plural) separately, and he (singular) pursued them until Chova, which was on the left side of Damesek. It is Damesek in the context of servants that sparks reference to Eliezer, for we read in the very next perek:
ב וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָם, ה אלקים מַה-תִּתֶּן-לִי, וְאָנֹכִי, הוֹלֵךְ עֲרִירִי; וּבֶן-מֶשֶׁק בֵּיתִי, הוּא דַּמֶּשֶׂק אֱלִיעֶזֶר. 2 And Abram said: 'O Lord GOD, what wilt Thou give me, seeing I go hence childless, and he that shall be possessor of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?'
Indeed, Rashi and Midrash Rabba on this pasuk (15:2) note the connection:
Damascus Heb. דַמֶשֶׂק. According to the Targum, he was from Damascus, but according to the Midrash Aggadah (Gen. Rabbah 44:9) [the meaning is] that he pursued the kings until Damascus.
Furthermore, while this pasuk 15 has avadav in plural, as Rashi himself notes, the ketiv or else the krei of chanichav in pasuk 14 is chanicho -- the singular. As Rashi notes:
his trained men Heb. חִנִיכָיו It is written חִנִיכוֹ [in the singular], his trained man, (other editions: It is read). This is Eliezer, whom he had trained to [perform the] commandments, and it [חִנִיכָיו] is an expression of the initiation (lit. the beginning of the entrance) of a person or a utensil to the craft with which he [or it] is destined to remain, and similarly (Prov. 22: 6):“Train a child ;” (Num. 7:10):“the dedication of (חֲנֻכַּת) the altar ;” (Ps. 30:1):“the dedication of of (חֲנֻכַּת) the Temple,” and in Old French it is called enseigner [to instruct, train].
Therefore, there are in fact multiple textual cues being interpreted and picked up upon. Still, gematria is notoriously fickle, and can be made to connote good or bad things as it needed.

Rashi cites the midrash that the 318 is really just Eliezer. He writes:
three hundred and eighteen Our Sages said (Gen. Rabbah 43:2, Ned. 32a): It was Eliezer alone, and it [the number 318] is the numerical value of his name.
The gemara in Nedarim 32a:
And he armed his trained servants, born in his own house. Rab said, he equipped them by [teaching them] the Torah. Samuel sand, he made them bright with gold [i.e., rewarded them for accompanying him]. Three hundred and eighteen: R. Ammi b. Abba said: Eliezer outweighed them all. Others say, It was Eliezer, for this is the numerical value of his name.
Which sort of connects the 318 people and Eliezer.

Note that this is an ikka deAmrei in the gemara, which I typically read as a girsological variant. Therefore, the "Others" is other manuscripts, and this statement is attributable to R. Ammi bar Abba.

While Rashi cites this midrash that Eliezer is gematria 318 and thus it was only Eliezer, supercommentaries on Rashi are bothered by this. Thus, see Siftei Chachamim who discusses the issue. As he says, "Ein Mikra Yotzei Midei Peshuto," the Scriptures does not leave its plain sense, even if you cite and apply midrashic methods. And the plain text of the Torah states that there were indeed 318 (plural) servants accompanying Avraham.

I am not so convinced that Rashi would really see this as a problem, perhaps viewing these three textual cues, including as the singular chanicho, as sufficient backing to declare this midrash to be peshat. Indeed, over and over Rashi presents what we would call midrash as peshat. But perhaps not.

They resolve the issue by claiming that Avraham really brought along all these other servants as well, but not to fight but only to scare the enemy with their large number. Another answer is that Avraham of course kept the Torah, and so warned all those fighting for him that if they feared, or if they had a new house, etc., they should return from the battlefield. And only Eliezer was left. Indeed, this appears in

It is an interesting idea, and one that manages to preserve both the peshat and derash levels simultaneously. Indeed, it is mentioned in Midrash Rabba in context, as an explanation of וַיָּרֶק אֶת-חֲנִיכָיו. And in Tanchuma, that he did this and got thus got rid of everyone except for Eliezer. However, in Midrash Rabba, it is Resh Lakish who gives this explanation of Eliezer = 318, and earlier, he cites Bar Kappa offering a different explanation of וַיָּרֶק אֶת-חֲנִיכָיו.

I am unsure that this is what Rashi had in mind when citing the midrash, though. Based on what he says both here and in Nedarim, and based on what he does not say, my strong inclination is that he is putting forth an idea of Eliezer throughout the narrative.

Ibn Ezra dismisses the gematria forthwith, saying it is midrash and that one can readily do anything with gematria, interpreting a name towards good or towards bad. Rather, it was 318 actual people.



Anonymous said...

Often Rashi says something like "that was pshat, now here's the midrash". When he brings only one explanation without calling it either pshat or midrash, can we be so sure he thinks it's pshat? Maybe he thinks it's midrash?

joshwaxman said...

it certainly is a plausibility.

there is that famous Rashi where he sets out his methodology that he only comes to teach peshuto shel mikra and to aggada haMeyashevet divrei haMikra.

I would classify this, and the vast majority of Rashis, as "aggada haMeyashevet divrei haMikra." And indeed, midrash comprises the vast majority of Rashi. Does he intend this to give a midrashic picture of Mikra? Despite what he says and how some interpret it, it is certainly possible that this is one of his goals.

In this particular case, by giving it as the only peshat, not just local to this pasuk, but in two other pesukim as well (including in the next perek), it seems (to me) like he is painting a specific picture in the text of what happened in this pasuk, such that this should be *the* interpretation, rather than an interesting midrash which is orthogonal to his primary aim.

But other readings of this, and Rashi's approach in general, are certainly plausible.


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