Who is Melchizedek?

Introduction

The question as to the identity of this mysterious personage, Melchizedek has given rise to a great deal of modern speculation. Some have claimed that he was a theophany, others believe, a literal human being, an angel, or the pre-incarnate Christ and in rabbinical literature, Melchizedek was said to be from the lineage of Shem. The purpose of this paper is to attempt to answer the question, who is Melchizedek? The paper would evaluate the views in light to the relevant biblical passages as well as other sources that are relevant to discussions Melchizedek.

Defining Melchizedek

D.N Freedman states that the name “Melchizedek” is a compound of two Hebrew words, which have been joined together. Melech is the Hebrew word for “king” and Zedek, which mean “righteousness.” Melchizedek in Hebrew is malkı̂-ṣedeq (מַלְכִּי־צֶדֶק)

The meaning of the name is “King of Righteousness,” which is stressed by its being written in Genesis 14:18–20 and in Psalms 110:4 in two parts joined by a maqqēp, as if it were a title rather than a personal name. He is described as king of Salem and priest of God Most High (˒ēl ˓elyôn). The historical record about Melchizedek is contained in Genesis 14:18–20, Psalms 110:4 and also in Hebrews 5:10; 6:20; 7:1–17.

Biblical References

The incident at Kedorlaomer describes the king of Elam, with three other Mesopotamian kings, raided a vassal alliance of five kings. In the ensuing massacre and rout by the Mesopotamian alliance, Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family and possessions were captured (Genesis 14:1–12). Abraham led an attacking force in pursuit of Lot’s captors, achieved victory, retrieved the plunder, and secured the release of Lot and his family (vv 13–16). Upon his return, Abraham was greeted not only by the grateful kings but also by Melchizedek, king of Salem, who gave Abraham bread and wine along with his blessing as “priest of the most high God” which is in Hebrew referred to as; El Elyon (Genesis 14:18). Melchizedek is identified as the priest-king of Salem, which W.C. Kaiser identifies Salem as Jerusalem (cf. Psalms 76:2).

Genesis 14:18–20

Who is El Elyon?

P. P. Enns comments that El Elyon is the title of the true God who created heaven and earth—an idea foreign to the Canaanite religion (cf. Genesis 14:22; Psalms 7:17; 47:2; 57:2; 78:56). Melchizedek viewed Abraham as worshiping this same God (Genesis 14:22) and praised God for giving victory to Abraham. Abraham identified himself with the worship of the one true God represented by Melchizedek in that he received his gifts and blessing and gave him a tenth of everything, thus recognizing Melchizedek’s higher spiritual rank as a patriarchal priest. In contrast, Abraham disassociated himself from Canaanite polytheism by declining gifts from the king of Sodom.

Psalm 110:4

In this Psalm, W. A Elwell comments that David envisioned one greater than himself whom he called “Lord” in (Ps 110:1). Thus, the perfect messianic king was not an idealisation of the present ruler but someone to come. In addition, he was to be not merely a man but more than this. The Messiah would be the Son of God as well as the son of David. The divine oracle of Psalm 110:4 is addressed to the Messiah: “You are a priest forever in the line of Melchizedek.” The significance of this statement is left for the inspired author of the letter to the Hebrews to develop.

Hebrews 5:6–11; 6:20–7:28

The argument of the writer of Hebrews is that the priesthood of Aaron has been superseded by the superior priesthood of Jesus Christ and this superiority of Christ’s priesthood is demonstrated by its Melchizedekian character. Both Christ and Melchizedek are kings of righteousness and kings of peace (Heb 7:1–2). They both have a unique priesthood that does not depend on family pedigree (Heb 7:3) and equally they exist as priests continually. Melchizedek was superior to Abraham, the father of Levi, because Melchizedek gave gifts to and blessed Abraham, and received tithes from him (7:4–10); David predicted the succession of the Melchizedekian priesthood over the Levitical priesthood, showing the imperfection of the latter (Heb 7:11–19). The Melchizedekian priesthood of the Messiah was confirmed by a divine oath, which was not true of the Levitical priesthood (Heb 7:20–22); and the Melchizedekian priesthood possessed an unchangeable and permanent character (Heb 7: 23–25) notes J. A. Fitzmyer.

Theories of Melchizedek Identity

We will look at the various speculations that describe this mysterious character and weigh out the evidences.

Melchizedek was Shem

Hebrew tradition notes that Melchizedek was Shem, Noah’s Son that was still alive at the time of Abraham and would certainly make him be the oldest man alive qualifying him as a candidate for the order of Melchizedek. Abraham lived to 2121 B.C. and Shem lived to 2156 B.C. Abraham’s father was Terah who was in the line of Shem so this would make tribal sense that Abraham knew Shem and that he was the priest /king over their tribe. Noah predicted that Canaan would serve under Shem (Gn.9:26) Shem is also attributed to be the father of the children of Eber which is where we get the word “Hebrew” which means crossed over the river or one who came from the other side ( such as from paganism to true worship) (Gen.10:21, 11:10-27). In addition, the Messiah comes from the line of Shem. However there seems to be a flaw in him being the candidate because we know his line and descendants. It states for Melchizedek we do not know his genealogy, which rules out Shem.

Those who believe that Melchizedek was a theophany or a Christophany of Christ use the scripture in Hebrews 7:3 to support their argument. Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, made like the Son of God, he remains a priest forever. The saying “made like” in Greek means, “to produce a model or copy” states J.H. Thayer. The priesthood continues, which is a type of Christ’s perpetual priesthood. The idea is that no human could be without father or mother having no beginning days or end of life. The Greek makes it clear and is translated “ without father, without mother without recorded genealogy.”   “This could mean if interpreted as such, as of divine origin, meaning he was without human origin remarks Thayer.”  

Melchizedek was a Theophany

Except their are a few flaws in this view. It seems to be making the point of having no human parentage. This does not mean he was never born nor never died. There are others who are also named in the Old Testament without any parentage. We do know that Christ had a Father being always an eternal Son (terms of relationship not in the literal sense). It is referring to human descent and since all priests were taken from men, we need to consider he also had a human mother in the future when he became a man. Another way to look at this is that the author is stressing the point that there is no record of his ancestry meaning there is no information biblically or orally pertaining to who he was or his lineage comments F. F Bruce.

A.T. Robertson states that he is not to be understood as a miraculous being without birth or death. Melchizedek has been made more mysterious than he is by reading into the interpretation what is not there.” Merrill F. Unger states “Without father…(Heb.7: 3)” refers to priestly genealogies. Melchizedek is not found on the register of the only line of legitimate priests; no record of his name is there; his fathers name is not recorded, nor his mother’s; no evidence points to his line of descent from Aaron. It is not affirmed that he had no father, that he was not born at any time, or died on any day; but that these facts were nowhere found on the register of the Levitical priesthood.” Hebrews 5:9-11 identifies the Son as the author of eternal salvation to all who obey him. This Son is called by God the high priest, of the order of Melchizedek which never ends. 

Bruce comments that the book of Hebrews is written to Jews who were struggling with going back into Judaism to avoid being persecuted. The first chapters set the theme using comparisons of the Son to Angels, the priesthood, and the sacrifices showing he is better and greater. In (Heb. 7: 15) the author states “And it is far more evident, if in the likeness of Melchizedek, there arises another priest who has come, not according to the law of the fleshly commandment, but according to the power of an endless life.”  Here is the comparison of the first that we know of, to the second, or another who is a permanent replacement functioning forever in this priesthood. The former in relation to the fleshly commandments, the later related to an endless life. The author of Hebrews contrasts the two priesthoods. Jesus did not serve as a priest on earth because he was not of the tribe of Levi but of Judah (Hebrews 7:14; 8:4). In the Old Testament, a priest was required to be a descendant of Levi. High priests who performed the atoning sacrifice on the Day of Atonement were required to be descendants of Aaron, Levi’s great grandson (Numbers 18; Hebrews 5:1-4). 

To be an Aaronic priest one had to trace their ancestry to Aaron, to be a Melchizedek priest was of a divine appointment. Christ is a priest from the line of David, which would certainly exclude him from the Levitical order, since they could not be a priest being from the tribe of Judah. The author parallel’s this priest with Jesus, in contrast Aaron’s priesthood was temporary and continually changed due to death of the priest. Since the Levitical priesthood is connected to the Law of Moses which was temporary (Heb.8: 6,13) to do away with Moses law also meant to do away with the Levitical priesthood that practiced the sacrifices. While the Levitical priesthood ministered to only one nation, the Melchizedek priesthood ministers to all, Bruce.

Upon Christ’s resurrection, he became an eternal priest “according to the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5:5-10; 6:19-20). Jesus is the eternal Son who died once and resurrected continuing in his priesthood forever (based on an endless life). Therefore, his mediatorial role in the Melchizedekian order is superior. This new priesthood is based on the promise 7:20-21 and the one who can guarantee it as the mediator of the New Covenant vs.22-28. This is a perfect priesthood continuing forever unlike the old which changed, this is administered by the eternal Son of God to all who are in the house of God (Heb.9: 15-10:21).

In Hebrews 7:4, the author of Hebrews states “now consider how great this man was, to whom even the patriarch Abraham gave a tenth of his spoils.” One of the requirements for being a priest is that one had to be of human ancestry. This is one of the strongest arguments against he being a pre-incarnate Christ.  Since all priests were taken from among men, the priesthood being strictly a human function.  Another reason for not being Christ is that in the Old Testament theophanies came and went.  He gave his message and disappeared. They did not stay permanently on earth to function in the office of a priest or king.  This man whoever he was is presently the King of Salem a historical city at the time. When the scripture compares Christ to the Melchizedek priest, it states made like the Son of God not he is the Son of God, notes G.W. Bromiley.

There are some similarities paralleled in ministry, but not in the nature of his being. Therefore, in this way he was a type of Christ in his mediatorial office but not Christ himself. In addition, we need to note this was probably not a Christophany, for the reason when the Angel of the Lord shows up there is an awe and worship. In this setting of tithing and communion, there is none, which we would certainly consider should be if he was in fact the angel of the Lord. Christ became the high priest after he sacrificed his life and went to heaven, now sitting down in his mediatorial role. In (Heb.7:26) he became higher than the heavens, (Heb.7: 28) “For the law appoints as high priests men who have weaknesses, but the word of the oath, which came after the law, appoints the Son who has been perfected forever”Here it clearly states Gods promise came after the law fulfilled by his Son in his earthly ministry. Hebrews Chapter 8 explains how he is in heaven functioning in the true Tabernacle.

Melchizedek a High Level Spiritual Being

In New Age circles, Melchizedek is thought of as a group of high-level spiritual beings who is custodians and teachers of ancient esoteric secrets. The group is sometimes called “The Cosmic Priesthood” or “Order of Melchizedek.” We can certainly rule out this view, as there is no biblical basis for this theory.

Melchizedek a Very High Place in Heavenly Hierarchy

J. A. Sanders states that the Essenes of the Qumran community gave Melchizedek a very high place in their heavenly hierarchy and eschatology. He is the central character in a fragmentary midrashic work which interprets a number of verses from Isaiah, Leviticus, and other Old Testament books dealing with remission of debts and liberation of slaves at the end of a jubilee cycle as referring to the last judgment and the final triumph of good over evil during the tenth jubilee of the Essene eschatological era.

The faithful ones will be included in the lot of Melchizedek, and their transgressions will be forgiven. Melchizedek will be the judge both of the saints of God and of Belial and the wicked spirits of his lot. Assisted by all gods of righteousness, he will accomplish the utter destruction of Belial. It has been assumed that the Qumran sect identified Melchizedek with the archangel Michael remarks Y. Yadin. The evidence for these theories on Melchizedek are based primarily on “revelation” which in inconclusive and mystical. 

Melchizedek also Prefigured Jesus

Melchizedek also prefigured Jesus in that his names refer to Christ as King of righteousness and peace. Abraham does not worship him, which is consistently done in previous appearances of the angel of the Lord. What we do find is this priest offering bread and wine, giving a type of communion service, which predates the Passover commemoration. The significance of this meeting is that when one man blesses another it shows superiority in position, the greater blesses the lesser notes Freedman.Jesus currently holds to all three offices eternally but he functions in them chronologically. He came as a prophet (John.4:44). Currently He is holding the office and functioning as high priest (Heb.5: 6,10). He was announced as King at His first coming but was rejected (Mt.12:22-45). At his second coming he will be realised as king and function as one (Isa.9: 6 Mt.25: 34-45).

Both type and fulfilment of Melchizedek are king and priest, by their being no genealogical line without any record of birth or death he prefigures Christ as the priest who continues forever. In the Old Testament, no King could be a priest; no priest could function as a King. Only Christ is able to fill the office of being a Priest, a Prophet and a King (Heb.7: 17, 20, 24). If Melchizedek were Christ, we would have to deal with two incarnations, since all priests were taken from among men. If he were a type of the one who was to come, then it would certainly fit the Biblical account and make more sense. This however remains an enigma with scholars debating on both sides but all agree together in its typology.

The Significance of Melchizedek

William Binnie explains that the transition from Genesis to Hebrews takes place by means of Psalm 110. Hebrews takes up its consideration of the greater priesthood of Jesus in the light of the fact that David records, ‘The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, you are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek’ (Psalm 110:4). As Binnie states, ‘if the Psalms 110, teaches what the epistle to the Hebrews deduces from it, it is a prophecy that cannot have come by the will of man’. Binnie is arguing that there is no one except the Messiah to whom the words can refer; against the modern critics, Binnie says that this psalm is in the form of a new oracle or revelation from God in Israel.

Unlike other psalms, which reflect on what God has revealed, this psalm is cast in the form of a prophetic oracle. The opening words ‘The Lord says to my lord’ Binnie sees this  as being equal to the prophetic phrase ‘thus saith the Lord’. He translates, ‘Thus saith Jehovah to my Lord’, and says that ‘both in form and substance it is a new revelation, a prophecy respecting Christ, a divine oracle delivered in song. He goes on: The psalm contains two distinct oracles – two declarations that, at the time of their publication, were revelations of new truth to the ancient church, and not merely authentic echoes of truth elsewhere revealed.

There is first, in the opening verse, the announcement of Messiah’s exaltation to the right hand of God; and then, in the fourth verse, the memorable proclamation of his Royal Priesthood. 

Therefore, this is new revelation, dependent upon the historical appearance of Melchizedek in three verses of Genesis 14, and anticipating the glorious appearing of one who could fulfil the terms of the prophecy.

Conclusion

F. F. Bruce concludes from the evidence, “ in the silences as well as in the statements-he is a fitting type of Christ; in fact, the record by the things it says of him and by the things it does not say has assimilated him to the Son of God. It is the eternal being of the Son of God that is here in view; not His human life . . . In His eternal being the Son of God has really, as Melchizedek has typically, ‘neither beginning of days nor end of life’; and more especially now, exalted at the right hand of God, He ‘abideth a priest continually.’ Melchizedek remains a priest continually for the duration of his appearance in the biblical narrative; but in the antitype, Christ remains a priest continually without qualification. And it is not the type that determines the antitype, but the antitype that determines the type; Jesus is not portrayed after the pattern of Melchizedek, but Melchizedek is ‘made like unto the Son of God”

It is plain from the original Greek text, from an understanding of rabbinical forms of argument, and from what the Bible reveals elsewhere, that Melchizedek was not Christ before his human birth. Melchizedek was a historical figure, the priest of Almighty God who lived in the days of Abraham. Very little is known about him other than the fact he was the priest-king of Salem (Jerusalem). Obviously, he was named to the office of priest by God and not by the requirements of the law. Therefore, he is a fitting type of the spiritual priesthood of Christ.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bromiley, G.W. The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, Vol. 3. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986.

Bruce, F. F. The Epistle to the Hebrews. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans.1988.

Elwell, W. A & Comfort, P. W. Tyndale Bible dictionary. Wheaton, Ill: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001. 

Enns, P. P. The Moody handbook of theology. Chicago, Ill: Moody Press, 1997.

Freedman, D. N. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Kaiser, W. C. Hard sayings of the Bible. Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity, 1997. 

Keter, J. Encyclopaedia. Jerusalem: Publishing House, 1972.

Robertson, A.T. A Grammar of the New Testament in the Light of Historical ResearchNashville: Broadman, 1934.

Thayer, J.H. Greek-English Lexicon, T.&T. Clark: Edinburgh, 1958.

Unger, Merrill F. Ungers Bible Dictionary, Chicago: Moody Press. 1966.

JOURNALS

Fitzmyer, J. A. Essays on the Semitic Background of the New Testament.Missoula, MT. Journal of Biblical Literature 86: 25–41,1974.

Sanders, J. A. The Old Testament in 11Q Melchizedek. Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society of Columbia University: New York, 1973.

Yadin, Y. The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Epistle to the Hebrews. Scripta Hierosolymitana: Jerusalem, 1958.

WEBSITES

Binnie, William The Psalms, their history, teaching and use, e-book. London: Hodder and    Stoughton, 1886.

Living Light Ministry, Who is Melchizedek? Internet, available on (http://www.livinglightministry.com/who1.htm, Kailua-Kona Hawaii) accessed on 11 November 2005.



Categories: Theology

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