Question and Answer About Melchizedek

So, yet again, a move has put me off of posting for a couple of months straight. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I’ve been doing nothing: Johnny McMahon and I have continued to jam on the Iron Show, and I’ve got an upcoming gig with Paul Kennedy on the Acts 17:11 Radio Network that we’ll hopefully get recorded Wednesday night (depending on his trucking schedule). In preparation for that interview, I’ve added a new page to the blog, Article Collections, where I will be posting pdf collections of the various articles that have gone up on the blog over time in order to make finding and using the info a lot easier. The first collection is entitled Some Assorted Articles on Studying the Scriptures (which I know lacks any pithiness or catchiness).

One of the things I really like about being a regular guest on the Iron Show is getting emails and questions from Johnny’s many (and well-earned) fans. I got the following from Robert Hall last week and thought it would make for a good post. He asks,

First, who was Melchizedek? I under stand who the bible says he is but that still leaves questions. So he was king of Salem, which means king of peace and his name means king of richousness. To me this sounds allot like Yeshua, a pre-incarnate Yeshua. Especially when he breaks out the bread and the wine. Genesis 14:18-20 Malki-Tzedek king of Shalem brought out bread and wine. He was cohen of El ‘Elyon God Most High, so he blessed him with these words:“Blessed be Avram by El ‘Elyon,maker of heaven of earth. and blessed be El ‘Elyon,who handed your enemies over to you.”Avram gave him a tenth of everything.

This was the high priest of the most high! Abraham gave him a tenth of everything. I guess my question is could he be a pre- incarnate Yeshua?

The idea that Melchizedek is a pre-incarnate Messiah is one that has a long pedigree in Christendom, so you’re far from alone. However, I would argue that Psa. 110:4 indicates that this cannot be the case. In the Psalm, the Son of David is said to be a priest “after the order of” or more accurately, “in the manner of” Melchizedek. If we took Melchizedek to be an appearance of the Angel of the Lord before the Incarnation, this would be the equivalent of saying, “Yeshua will be a priest forever in the manner of Yeshua.” It comes out as meaningless within the context of the psalm.

Another possibility that has been raised is that Malki-Zedek (“King of Righteousness”) is a name or title for Shem, Noah’s son. If we assume that the Masoretic Text of Genesis 11 gives us a complete geneology with no gaps, then Shem’s life overlaps Abraham’s, so this would be a possibility. However, if either the Septuagint’s record better reflects an older Hebrew copy of the Torah or if the geneology contains gaps (as even many geneologies within the Bible do–see Matthew 1), then Shem would have died before Abraham came to Canaan. Furthermore, we know who Shem’s father was, when he was born, and how long he lived before dying, which would kinda ruin the point of Hebrews.

Personally, I believe that the Scriptures have, as Hebrews makes a point of telling us, deliberately not given us any information on Melchizedek. While this makes him mysterious, I think we have enough to understand why Abraham’s encounter with him is included in Genesis:

  1. It establishes that Abraham was not the only one in the ancient world who knew the Most High God. Therefore, this is not a new cult overturning the established order (as the pagans would have seen it), but a very old, if minority, faith in the world.
  2. It establishes that the Holy One was not known only by the Jews, and that therefore from the very beginning His intent has been to make Himself known to all nations.
  3. Like the narrative of Balaam, it establishes that God had not left the Canaanites without a witness, and therefore He was just to judge them when they ignored the kings, priests, and prophets that He had sent them for four hundred years before Israel drove them out.

When the author of Hebrews says that Melchizedek had no parents, no beginning, and no end, he does not mean for us to take this as the literal historical truth. Rather, he is making a very rabbinic midrash (basically, a homily) that the original Jewish audience would have understood. One of the ways a midrash is made is to take some small detail in the text and take it with the most wooden literalness possible in order to illustrate a point.

For example, Deuteronomy 4:11 talks of the day when Israel stood “under the mountain.” Now obviously, the plain interpretation of this passage is that Israel stood at the foot of the mountain, perhaps in such a way that they were in its shadow. However, there is a popular rabbinic midrash that God actually picked up Mt. Sinai, held it over the camp, and told Israel that He would drop it if they didn’t accept the Torah.

Now obviously, there’s no historicity in that interpretation. (Though some ultra-orthodox insist that it’s literally true.) It’s meant solely to make the homiletic point that yes, Israel alone of all the nations accepted the Torah, but we should not be proud, for we did so out of fear rather than out of nobility–a point that follows from Israel’s reaction to hearing the voice of God in Exodus 20.

With that in mind, let us retrace the steps of the author of Hebrews. His problem, and that of his audience, is not one that Christians are sensitive to: He believes that the Torah has not been annulled and that Jews should continue to keep every yod and penstroke (Mat. 5:17-19, Acts 21:20-26, Gal. 5:3, etc.). However, a major part of the Torah is the sacrificial service that by the Messiah’s own word, he knows will soon be destroyed, this time for far more than 70 years. How can we be Torah-observant Jews without a priesthood?

Then he looks at Psalm 110, which says that the Davidic King would be a priest like Melchizedek. So he goes back to study everything we know about Melchizedek (which isn’t much) and realizes the following:

  1. Like Yeshua, Malki is both a king and a priest. In fact, his name/title means “king of righteousness.”
  2. Like Yeshua, Malki is greater than the Levitical priests–in fact, he is greater than Abraham himself, who tithed to him! (You have to be Jewish or really understand the Jewish awe of the Patriarchs to understand how mind-boggling this is.)
  3. Malki is the king of (Jeru)salem.
  4. Malki has no geneology and no death recorded in the Torah. It’s almost as if he is simply a fact of the universe, not having a beginning or and end.

Point #4 is the midrashic point. There are lots of people in the Bible whose parents, births, and deaths are not recorded for us. Take Namaan the Syrian, for example. But none of them are explicitly compared to the Messiah. The author of Hebrews isn’t saying that because Malki doesn’t have parents, birth, and death recorded that he is literally eternal, nor would he claim that this prophesies that the Messiah would be eternal. Rather, he already knows from other, plain texts that the Messiah has an eternal nature and he reads this back into Genesis 14 (deliberate isogesis) in order to understand the full import of Psalm 110.

Therefore, I think that the Bible very deliberately does not tell us who Melkizedek was in terms of his parentage, nation, or personal backstory on purpose. What we do know is that he was a truly righteous Gentile who was a point of light in a dark and savage pagan time.

And the fact that the Annointed Davidic King could be a priest like Melchizedek answers the conundrum of Messianic Jews: We can keep the Torah because a priest far superior to Levi intercedes for us with a superior sacrifice in the true Heavenly Holy of Holies. Yes, the earthly copy of the temple was destroyed and the earthly copy of the service cannot presently be carried out, but because of Yeshua’s sacrifice and priesthood, all of the commandments regarding the temple service have been and are being fulfilled in their truest form.

Far from being what most Christians think it is–a kind of Galatians for Jews telling us to forsake our “old” religion–Hebrews is actually a dissertation on how Yeshua the Messiah has made a post-temple Torah-observant Judaism possible for those who put their faith in Him.

There was a second part of Robert’s question regarding Sodom and Gomorrah that I hope to get to shortly. Stay tuned.

Shalom

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4 thoughts on “Question and Answer About Melchizedek

  1. >> If we took Melchizedek to be an appearance of the Angel of the Lord before the Incarnation, this would be the equivalent of saying, “Yeshua will be a priest forever in the manner of Yeshua.”

    Well, not really, for the very reason you changed the name. It could read, instead, “Yeshua will be a priest forever, after the manner of his-appearance-as-Melchisidek.”

    Like saying (horrible analogy) “Superman will be Clark Kent forever.”

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    • Actually, it would be more like, “Superman will be *like *Clark Kent forever,” which still wouldn’t make sense unless it’s said ironically by a character who doesn’t know that they’re the same person or has some other clarifying context.

      Shalom

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      • Well, no, because of the ‘priest’ and ‘manner’.
        I agree with your overall point, but I don’t think your linguistic dismissal of this works. The situation of someone with possibly various incarnations leads to strange linguistics.

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      • I see your point, though I don’t think the possible reading you’re suggesting matches the plain sense of the passage. If that were intended, I would expect the verse to read, “You *are* Melchizedek, a priest forever,” not, “You are a priest forever *in the manner of* (like) Melchizedek.”

        Put it this way: How else could the Psalmist have made it clear that he was comparing the Son of David to Melchizedek instead of saying that the Davidic king is Melcizedek?

        Shalom

        Like

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