I am not suggesting Abaye is one of the 36 Men of God but the conversation Abaye begins in the Talmud, Sanhedrin 97b, begins to raise the curiosity levels. This is one of two accounts, in writing, that there are a group of uniquely righteous individuals living among us. The verses in Genesis alone are not enough to warrant a search of righteous people or give the reader any insight into what characteristics made these individuals righteous. The account of God’s sparing of life only acknowledged the importance of not destroying the righteous.
Abaye said: The world must contain not less than thirty-six righteous men in each generation who are vouchsafed [the sight of] the Shechinah’s countenance, for it is written, ‘Blessed are all they that wait ‘lo’ [for him]'[Isaiah 30:18]; the numerical value of ‘lo’ is thirty-six. But that is not so, for did not Raba say: ‘The row [of righteous men immediately] before the Holy One, blessed be He, consists of eighteen thousand,’ for it is written, it shall be eighteen thousand round about? — That is no difficulty: the former number [thirty-six] refers to those who see Him through a clear screen, the latter to those who contemplate him through a dim one. But are there as many? Did not Hezekiah say in the name of R. Jeremiah on the authority of R. Simeon b. Yochai: I have seen the sons of heaven, and they are but few; if there are a thousand, I and my son are included; if a hundred, I and my son are included; and if only two, they are myself and my son? — There is no difficulty: the former number [thirty-six] refers to those who enter [within the barrier to contemplate the Shechinah] with permission; the latter [uncertain number] to those who may enter without permission.
By the time of the Talmud there were multiple accounts of a unique group of special people who are able to interact with God on a high level. The text in Sanhedrin notes two such groups; the 36 and the 18,000. Both seem to be special but interact with God differently. The 18,000 are able to contemplate God and the 36 are able to see God through a clearer lens as H. Freedman notes; “Only thirty-six see Him with absolute clarity. The others receive a clouded vision of Him.”
What I find remarkable is the amount of sages who are involved in the discussion. While they may debate the number and the how these groups interact with God, what they do agree upon is that such a group exists. Since the time of Abraham, God/man realized the importance of a righteous subgroup of people. It seems that our sages knew that a specific group(s) existed in each generation.