Sunday, April 27, 2014

Who the Heck's Melchizadek?

Every once in a while in the Bible, a righteous, God-fearing person will pop up out of the blue, with no connection to the rest of the Biblical narrative.  They are not descended from the Holy Line and received no instruction from the Established Patriarchs.  Nevertheless, they know and believe in the One True God and are honored by Scriptures as righteous men.

Melchizidek is one such person.  His name means “Righteous King” or “King of Righteousness” and the text calls him “king of Salem”, which is presumed to be an older name for Jerusalem, and is related to the Hebrew word for “Peace.”  In addition to being a king, the text also says he was a priest of the God Most High.  He brings out bread and wine to refresh Abram and pronounces a blessing on him.
Blessed be Abram by God Most HighCreator of heaven and earthAnd blessed be God Most HighWho delivered your enemies into our hand.(Gen 14: 19-20 NIV)
Abram gives Melchizadek a tenth of the spoils.  How this works out, since a couple verses later Abram rejects the King of Sodom’s offer of a share of his own, the text doesn't explain.

That is the last we hear of Melchizadek, at least in Genesis.  Psalm 110 makes an interesting reference to him, though.  The psalmist, in this case identified as King David, speaks of one to come, who will be exalted to the LORD’s right hand and who will rule from Zion, (the mountain on which Jerusalem was built).  In the midst of his description of glory and might and his military imagery, the psalmist adds:
 “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind.  “You are a priest forever, in the Order of Melchizadek.”  (Psalm 110:4)
Granted, the Psalmist might not be referring to a proper name here; a more recent Jewish translation renders this verse as “... You are a priest forever, a rightful king by My decree.”

Either way, Christians have interpreted this psalm as speaking of the Messiah.  In fact, the author of the Book of Hebrews cites this passage in his lengthy meditation on Christ the Great High Priest; (Hebrews chapter 7, and heck, most of the rest of the epistle as well).  But what does it mean to be a priest in the Order of Melchizadek?

The priests of the Old Testament, who served in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple in Jerusalem, were all descendants on Aaron, the brother of Moses, and so can be considered the Order of Aaron.  Melchizadek predated Aaron and Moses and even, one might argue, Abraham.  So if there is a priestly tradition of Melchizadek, then it lies outside of and independent from the Abrahamic tradition; yet also parallel to it, in that it grows out of the same Semetic culture that Abraham did, and also worships the One True God.

Unlike the priests of David’s day, Melchizadek was both a priest and a king.  It actually wasn’t all that uncommon in ancient times for kings to participate in religious duties; we get a glimpse of this much later in the Roman Empire, where one of the Emperor’s titles was Pontifex Maximus, and performed public sacred rituals on important holy days.  Moses, however, decreed a kind of separation of church and State.  The priesthood was a hereditary vocation with rigidly defined duties and qualifications; and secular leadership was something else.  In the book of 1 Samuel we see King Saul getting in trouble for presuming to perform a sacrifice himself, (1 Sam. 13) and later on King David’s desire to move the Ark of the Covenant to his political capitol caused problems as well.

Martin Luther speculated that Melchizadek might have been Shem, one of the sons of Noah.  If you want to play the game of trying to reconcile the various genealogies listed in Genesis, you can work out a fair argument that Shem could have been alive at the time of Abraham, and therefore he could plausibly have been the King of Salem around then.  Maybe.

Another idea is that Melchizadek was the pre-incarnate Christ, on the theory that the Second Person of the Trinity must of been doing something while he was hanging around waiting for The Fullness of Time and so he’d pop into the Biblical narrative every now and then and do cameos.

Put that way, it does sound kind of silly, and I don’t think I buy it.  It gains a little support when we remember that the name “Melchizadek” means “Righteous King” and that as ruler of “Salem” he was in a sense the “Prince of Peace”; but I still think it works better to regard him as a pre-figuring of Christ rather than a ret-conned previous appearance.

I prefer to think of Melchizadek as a reminder that although the Old Testament is mostly concerned with the Line of Abraham and with telling the story of the Children of Israel, that God was interested in other people too; and that other people sought him and worshiped him in their own ways.

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