“When Abram heard that his relative had been taken captive, he led out his trained men, born in his house, three hundred and eighteen, and went in pursuit as far as Dan.” Gen. 14:14
Abram seems quite ambitious here. There were four kings and their armies that just defeated and subdued five other kings and their armies, and Abram plans to rescue his newphew Lot, who was taken captive during the battle. Six peoples in all Chedarlaomer and the other kings and their armies defeated even before they got to the main battle: The Rephaim (who were believed to be giants), the Zuzim, the Emim, the Horites, the Amalakites and the Amorites were all just in the way of Chedarlaomer before they faced the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah. We must stop and wonder why Abram got involved in this fight – was it worth risking his life (and the lives of those with him) just to rescue Lot and his family? I mean after all, God had just given Abram these wonderful promises but said nothing about violence and fighting. There is the possibility that Lot was specifically chosen as a prisoner, as Abram may have been known as a wealthy man who could have paid a ransom. In any case apparently Abram felt Lot was worth the risk.
Abram was not completely alone of course – the scriptures tell us he took 318 trained men to fight with him. This does not sound like many, however the Midrash points out that 318 is the numeric equivalent of the name “Eliezer”, a name which means “God is my help”. Also interestingly, one of Abram’s 318 men is named Eliezer of Damascus – Abram voices his concern to God that Eliezer of Damascus will be his heir since he is childless (Gen. 15:2) though God of course informs Abram that he will have a son as the heir.
So what do we make of this? Some scholars say that only two men went in to fight – Abram and Eliezer (representing the 318 with his name), or that Abram went alone, and the 318 represented that God was his help. Do we consider the possibility that Eliezer was somehow God incarnate? It would seem an odd fit, but perhaps this is the case. One of my Torah commentaries also points out that if you add together all the prime numbers between 7 and 49 (7 x 7) that you arrive at 318. There is no doubt there is much symbolism in Genesis and other parts of scripture involving the number seven, but I do not know if that is significant to the story here. My opinion is that if the interpretation is useful to understanding the story, and glorifies God, then it is sufficient.
My position is that there were 318 actual men that went out to fight, as scripture goes out of its way to tell us that these men were A) trained, and B) born in Abram’s house. We would not expect such details to be mentioned if we were only speaking symbolically of God’s help. Regarding Eliezer of Damascus, I believe he was also an actual man of Abram’s household, as God said of him “This man will not be your heir…” (Gen. 15:4) Again, this conversation would not have taken place if Eliezer was not a real person. This does not completely rule out that Eliezer may have been an incarnation of God, only that even if that were the case, there were 318 actual men fighting.
I do believe that there is an intended significance that 318 men were taken; that Eliezer = 318, and that Eliezer means “God is my help”. I can believe this without believing the other speculations above because, quite simply, God is God and knows how to weave significance into His story. I believe this is an early picture showing us as believers that we can accomplish great things and win great battles when God is on our side. This is underscored by two things: 1) in Genesis 15:1, right after this battle, God tells Abram “I am a shield to you.” Also note that the other five armies, despite preparing for war (while the other armies were already expending energy fighting) and despite choosing their own turf as a battleground (Gen. 14:3), which should have offered a great advantage, the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah and their armies still lost the battle and fled for their survival.
And so this passage exists to tell us that if God is our help, and we have the correct intentions, we can still emerge victorious despite being vastly outnumbered. This is in contrast to the five kings and their armies, who probably outnumbered their enemies but still lost on their own turf because God was not with them. Gen. 13:13 tells us of the exceeding wickedness of the men of Sodom, and even the names of their kings speaks volumes: Bera (king of Sodom) means “with evil” or “son of evil” and Birsha (king of Gomorrah) means “with wickedness” or “with iniquity”.