In Judaism the farther back a proof text or story goes the more standing it holds as proof. The best example of this is when deciphering law, Poski’im (deciphers of Jewish law) always try to use biblical text rather than rabbinic text to strengthen their argument.
For the sake of our exploration of the Lamed Vavnickim (36 Righteous Men of God) my learning brought me to Genesis 18. This is most commonly titled “The Story of Sodom and Gomorrah.” In this story Abraham pleads with God to allow a certain number of lives to be spared. While we do not get to the number 36 anywhere in this text, it seems that Abraham is asking God to spare the lives of the righteous, possibly knowing there must be a certain amount of people who, even in the worst of times, stood out as special people. Our text reads:
16 When the men got up to leave, they looked down toward Sodom, and Abraham walked along with them to see them on their way. 17 Then the Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? 18 Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. 19 For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.” 20 Then the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous 21 that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.” 22 The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the Lord.23 Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” 26 The Lord said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.” 27 Then Abraham spoke up again: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, 28 what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five people?” “If I find forty-five there,” he said, “I will not destroy it.” 29 Once again he spoke to him, “What if only forty are found there?” He said, “For the sake of forty, I will not do it.” 30 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?” He answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.” 31 Abraham said, “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty can be found there?” He said, “For the sake of twenty, I will not destroy it.” 32 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?” He answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.”
Did the concept of the Righteous 36 exists even during Abraham’s time? Probably not. But God did, for the sake of a righteous few, save the world? Yes. This is the launching pad of a concept that eventually finds its way into our Talmud, Zohar and other Jewish books.
Rashi on verse 18 states “And Abraham will become: [According to] a Midrash Aggadah (Prov. 10:7): ‘The mention of a righteous man is for a blessing.’ Since He mentioned him, He blessed him. Its simple meaning is, however: Shall I conceal this from him? He is so dear to Me as to become a great nation, and through him will be blessed all the nations of the earth.” It seems that Abraham, and note a similar comment for Noah before him, is righteous and righteousness is a blessing. This blessing is the blessing of the nations of the earth. There seems to be a connection that God is using righteous to bless mankind, beginning through these people Abraham (and Noah). Of course, we do not have other accounts to add to a specific number outside of the 1 and Abraham is more than righteous but a man publicly connected to God. As I noted in the post about Rabbi Eugent, and as we will see in future learning, the belief was that the 36 were/are hidden. Maybe after Biblical or even Prophetic times the 36 needed to conceal their identities due to the world around them.