This Melchizedek was king of Salem and priest of God Most High.
[Pictured is Melchizedek blessing Abraham]
For years I’ve wondered about this enigmatic priest whose narrative takes up just three verses out of the entire Old Testament (Genesis 14:18-20) and then gets a mention in just one other verse, Psalm 110:4. Yet he gets a whole chapter in Hebrews devoted to him.
The author of Hebrews makes a strong typological connection between Jesus and Melchizedek. (The word “typology” comes from the Greek term typos, which can mean “pattern, prefiguration, model, impression, foreshadowing.”) He has already shown that Jesus is superior to the Jewish tradition, including Moses, the Sabbath, the Law, and even angels. Now he will show the priesthood of Jesus, foreshadowed by Melchizedek, as superior to Levitical priesthood, which like Ron Burgundy, was “kind of a big deal.”.
So who was Melchizedek?
Melchizedek was a priest-king of the city Salem (which later became Jerusalem), who met Abraham as he returned from routing some invading kings. In the OT narrative, four kings marched on a confederation of five kings from Sodom, Gamorrah, Admah, Zeboiim, and Bela. The armies of these five were defeated in a valley called Siddim and their cities plundered. Abraham’s nephew, Lot, was among the captives taken from Sodom. A servant who escaped the battle went and told Abraham this news. Abraham went all “crazy eyes” and pursued these captors to Dan, where he staged a night-time attack and took his nephew back. After his return home, both the king of Sodom and Melchizedek came to meet Abraham. The author of Hebrews focuses on Abraham’s encounter with Melchizedek, in which Abraham gave him a tenth of everything and received a blessing from him.
The author points out that Melchizedek’s name means “king of righteousness,” alluding to the Hebrew words melek (which means “king) and seleq (which is commonly rendered “righteousness”). Further, he interprets “Salem” as coming from the root salom, meaning “peace” or “well-being.” Thus he is also “king of peace.” These concepts of righteousness and peace are appropriate for one who prefigures the one through whom will be the true approach to God, superseding priests in the line of Levi, as well as animal sacrifices.
The author uses what was a common exegetical practice known as “argument from silence,” capitalizing on what is not mentioned in the text, namely a genealogy. Big figures had their ancestry listed in sacred texts, but there is nothing when it comes to Melchizedek. So he concludes the eternal quality of his priesthood and shows that it did not come through the line of Levi as all Jewish priests did. He doesn’t have the qualifications or the parameters given by the law of Moses concerning Levitical priesthood. Levitical priests died. This Melchizedekian priesthood goes on forever as Psalm 110:4 tells us.
The other major point that’s made is Abraham giving a tenth of the spoils to this Melchizedek, meaning that he was greater than Abraham. Levi came through Abraham’s family tree (he was one of Abraham’s great-grandsons), so Melchizedek was way greater than Levi and all the priests who would come down through that blood line.
So la de frickin’ da, right? What’s the point?
Well, there’s a couple points to take in. We see how to view and interpret Scripture from the example of this author’s exegesis*. First off, we see he uses “verbal analogy”, meaning he lets Scripture interpret Scripture. We see this by his comparison of Genesis 14 with Psalm 110. This is solid practice which has been going on for a long, long time.
Secondly, he interprets his Old Testament Christologically. This is huge for us as Christians. We believe that Jesus is the key that unlocks all of life and all of Scripture. Have you ever seen The Sixth Sense or The Book of Eli? The ending changes everything, and you have to rethink the whole movie to make sense of it. You want to immediately watch it again in light of your illuminating discovery. This is what Jesus did for Scripture. We believe it now comes together, making sense in ways the original authors may very well have had no knowledge of or even intention toward. Without Jesus, we read this OT account of Melchizedek and probably would just think, “Wow, that’s strange. Why is that in there?” Now we know.
For Christians, Christ is the ultimate point of reference for biblical truth, indeed all truth. He is the North Star by which we get all of our bearings. I’m not sure we always grasp how Christ transcends everything, even OT. That can sound heretical to some, but seems obvious upon a close reading of NT writings.
*Critical explanation or interpretation of a text, especially of scripture.
In the Name of Jesus,
Soli Deo Gloria