Genesis 14 describes the war of four kings against five kings and the capture of Lot, and then describes how Avram mounted a rescue mission:

וַיִּשְׁמַע אַבְרָם, כִּי נִשְׁבָּה אָחִיו; וַיָּרֶק אֶת-חֲנִיכָיו יְלִידֵי בֵיתוֹ, שְׁמֹנָה עָשָׂר וּשְׁלֹשׁ מֵאוֹת, וַיִּרְדֹּף, עַד-דָּן.

וַיֵּחָלֵק עֲלֵיהֶם לַיְלָה הוּא וַעֲבָדָיו, וַיַּכֵּם;

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. 15 And he divided himself against them by night, he and his servants, and smote them...

Two details jump out here: the number of men he took, and that the attack was at night. Numbers of combattants are sometimes given (like the 12,000 men sent against Midian), but this is the only nocturnal fight that is recorded in torah.

What is the significance of these details?

  • Is 318 an unusually-large, unusually-small, or typical force for a battle in Canaan circa 1800 BCE? How would it compare to the armies in the war described earlier in the chapter? (Was Avram likely to be outnumbered?)

  • Was fighting at night "not done" (violation of custom), uncommon (special occasions only), or perfectly normal?

I am looking for answers that draw from the straight (pshat) Tanakh text and history of this time and place. For purposes of this question please assume that a man named Avram did rescue his "brother" (actually nephew) Lot as described here; I am not looking for allegorical interpretations (e.g. that Avram is represents somebody/something else).

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    Related is my answer to How big were the nomadic clans of the patriarchs? 318 is bigger than my estimate for Avram's clan. I'm not sure how many people could be mustered from the cities of the four kings, so that's not a complete answer. As for the night battle, it seems dangerous because of the potential for confusion. (See Gideon's rout of the Midianites.) I'm not sure the final paragraph will be necessary, but it doesn't hurt to make your criteria clear upfront! – Jon Ericson Jan 30 '13 at 19:40

One background commentary I have suggests that the size of the army is fairly substantial:

Here we discover that Abram has a household of significant size (318 recruits or retainers). The word used to describe these men occurs nowhere else in the Old Testament, but does occur in an Akkadian letter of the fifteenth century B.C. Whether Abram is placed within the early part of the Middle Bronze Age, when the area was predominantly occupied by herdsmen and villagers, or within the later Middle Bronze Age when there were more fortified settlements, this army would have been a match for any other armed force in the region. Even as late as the Amarna period the armies of any particular city state would not have been much larger.

Matthews, V. H., Chavalas, M. W., & Walton, J. H. (2000). The IVP Bible background commentary: Old Testament (electronic ed.) (Ge 14:16). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

The New American Commentary agrees: "Abram’s leading (“called out”) as many as 318 men, all born to his own household, shows the patriarch’s substantial wealth and power."1 However, it doesn't seem so cut and dry, as seen in Kidner's comment: "Abram’s success with so small a company is viewed sceptically by, e.g. von Rad, who seems to overlook not only Abram’s allies..."2 That said, Kidner's volume is somewhat older (and so von Rad), so I would tend to trust the other two volumes above which likely benefit from newer research in archaeology, etc...

Further, I'm inclined to think that the text is stressing his power since it seems to stress in so many other ways Avram's wealth and power as a result of God's favor (cf. 13:2). This passage in particular demonstrates the kingliness of Avram, which is often done in the Tanakh by stressing the wealth, armies, and victories of a king. It would seem to fit then, that the mention of 318 trained men is meant to show that Avram has a sizable army even in his own household.

As far as the second question about the night ambush, the same background commentary mentions, "Abram uses the strategy of nighttime ambush, which is attested in texts as early as the Judges period in Egyptian as well as in Hittite documents. This was similarly attested in the Baker Encyclopedia3:

In one of his documents the Hittite king Mursilis speaks of the trouble he encountered from a small army of irregulars who used the night ambush to disrupt his advance: “They did not dare to attack me in the daylight, and preferred to fall upon me during the night. [They said:] In the night we will attack him.”

There are other night battles in the Tanakh. While not quite a night battle, Joshua's army famously marches all night to Gilgal in order to surprise the camp there. Jon Ericson mentions above that Gideon's attack in Judges 7 occurs at night. And in 1 Samuel 14:36, Saul suggests a night attack on the Philistines. Obviously these accounts if historically true all occur well after the account of Avram, but I think it demonstrates that it wasn't highly unusual and nothing in any of the narratives suggests that these were dishonorable attacks that run afoul of the customs of the day.

1 Mathews, K. A. (2005). Vol. 1B: Genesis 11:27–50:26. The New American Commentary (147). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

2 Kidner, D. (1967). Vol. 1: Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (131). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

3 Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (191). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

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