The father of our faith had just extricated his nephew from an aweful scrape. Flushed with victory, Abram was journeying homeward from a rescue operation. With his clever military strategy, he had rid his new homeland of fourteen years of domination by Chedorlaomer, the Edomite king. A failed rebellion led by the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah had brought swift retaliation from Chedorlaomer and a coalition of his allies. When the retaliatory strike included the capture of Lot, his uncle set out in hot pursuit.
Abram, with his own trained militia of 318 men and a few Amorite cohorts, had been more than a match for the marauding forces. The pursuit had taken him north of Damascus, where he had rescued not only his new neighbors but also their possessions. “He brought back all the goods, and also brought back his nephew Lot with his goods, and the women and the people” (Gen. 14:16). At least Abram had proven his worth to the local citizens.
The new land to which God had called him was certainly not free from conflict. First there had been a dispute between his own herdsmen and those of Lot. That had been resolved by allowing his nephew his own choice of land on which to settle, and Lot had chosen the well watered plain by Sodom. It had afforded more desirable pasturage but was in harm’s way during the raid of Chedorlaomer. Lot and his family had been swept away by the superior forces and had been saved only by Abram’s rapid intervention.
On the homeward journey, the King of Sodom met him to offer congratulations and to petition for the safe return of his subjects. Close behind came the king of Salem, a priest by the name of Melchizedek, bringing bread and wine for both warriors and liberated captives. The name Salem meant “peace,” a welcome respite for the war-weary patriarch. He could do with a release from conflict. Melchizedek’s provision was not restricted to mere food rations, however. He brought with him other refreshment as well—a blessing and a reminder that the victory belonged to God.
Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand. (Gen. 14:19-20).
Abram found himself quite unexpectedly in the presence of one who worshiped “the Most High God who made heaven and earth.”
There is much speculation as to the identity of Melchizedek. Was this a theophanic appearance of Christ? Or had Melchizedek come at the invitation of the king of Sodom in order to pronounce a blessing in the name of the God whom Abram served? Was Melchizedek a pagan priest or one who knew the true and living God?
Centuries later we have evidence that the name “Most High God” was ascribed by Canaanites to other deities. Most significantly, Melchizedek maintained that the Most High God had made both heaven and earth, and in turn Abram identified the deity whom he worshiped in precisely the same way—“God most high, maker of heaven and earth” (Gen. 14:22). “Most high” (El Elyon) recurs frequently in the Hebrew Bible as a name for God (e.g., Num. 24:16; Deut. 32:8; 1 Sam. 2:10; 2 Sam. 22:14; Ps. 7:8-17; 9:2; 18:13; 21:7; 46:4; 47:2; 50:14; 56:2; 73:11; 77:10; 78:17, 35, 56; 82:6; 83:18; 87:5; 91:1,9; 92:1; 106:7; 107:11; Isa. 14:14; Lam. 3:35, 38; Dan 3:26; 4:2, 17, 24, 25, 32; 5:18, 21; 7:18,22, 25, 27; Hosea 11:7).
Let them know that you alone, whose name is the Lord, are the Most High over all the earth. (Ps. 83:18)
And so Abram the warrior and Melchizedek the priest united in worship. The God who spoke to Abram in Ur of the Chaldees was present here in Palestine as well.
As an act of worship to the Lord who summoned him to this new land, Abram offered Melchizedek a tenth of all that he possessed. Then the king of Sodom requested the release of those rescued rather than retain them as slaves. He was willing to concede that all material properties now rightfully belonged to Abram, but begged for the people. The patriarch replied that he had sworn to “God Most High” that he would claim nothing as his prize. All was to be restored to the previous owners. Only the Amorite allies must be properly rewarded for their role in the combat.
The story of Melchizedek’s blessing lived on in Israelite tradition and was memorialized by King David in a psalm speaking of royal enthronement. Some regard it as a hymn that was used at David’s own coronation, others thought that it was composed for the coronation of Solomon, and yet others thought that David had in mind the promised descendant who would sit on the throne forever. Even before the Christian era, Psalm 110 was regarded by Jews as a Messianic psalm that foretold the coming of Christ. Fragments are quoted by Jesus (Matt. 22:43-44; Mark 12:36-37; Luke 29:42-44) and by Peter (Acts 2:34-36). Both understood the psalm as referring to Jesus as Messiah. Actually, the New Testament applies this psalm to the ascended Christ no less than fifteen times.
It is the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, however, who makes extensive use of the portion that refers to the everlasting priesthood of Melchizedek (Hebrews 5:6; 7:17, 21). For another quotation from Psalm 110, see Heb 1:13. The epistle also has nine other allusions to the psalm: (1:3; 5:10; 6:20; 7:3; 8:1; 10:12, 12:2, 13).
The Book Of Hebrews
The authorship and dating of the letter cannot be established with certainty (though Priscilla is a strong contender). The treatise has been composed by one or more individuals who have not actually seen Jesus (Heb. 2:3), someone close to the apostle Paul and in contact with Timothy (13:23). The writer is steeped in the Hebrew scriptures and knows how to argue the case for Christianity among those who are wavering in their faith. The original recipients appear to have been hellenistic Jews who were reconsidering their decision to receive Christ as Savior and Lord of their lives. They had undergone persecution, and a return to traditional Judaism seemed safer and less stressful.
The religious rights of Jews were protected under Roman law, while Christians were regarded as atheists and immoral. The New Testament and later Christian writings bear witness to the mounting discomfort that diaspora Jews experienced as an increasing number of gentiles were received into the church. Although at first a significant contingent of Hebrew priests had adopted the good news (Acts 6:7), opposition mounted. By A.D. 62 the apostles were no longer safe in Jerusalem, and James the brother of Christ (apparently a zealous Pharisee, cf. Acts 15:5; 21:20) was slain by order of the high priest.
Just as Paul had written to the Galatians not to revert to Jewish legalism, so the author of Hebrews warns the hearers not to return to their old patterns of belief and practice. The treatise is written not in opposition to Paul, for the writer is an associate of the apostle and his coterie. Inspired by the Holy Spirit as was Paul, the author addresses a different set of problems with a different approach and a different logic.
Thus the writer’s audience is urged not to renounce their faith and to continue on in their quest for all that God has promised. Jesus is the fulfillment, the author and finisher of their faith. He is superior to the angels, the prophets and the priests. Rather than pointing to the temple at Jerusalem, the author turns to the tabernacle, that portable shrine that accompanied the Israelites throughout their wilderness journey. From its arrangement, a spiritual typology is drawn; for this author loved to allegorize physical realties into spiritual concepts.
As in Stephen’s defense (Acts 7:44-50), there is an insistence that God is not bound to the temple nor to its cult personnel. There is another priesthood to which true worshipers must turn, a priesthood symbolized by the ancient priest-king of Salem (a shortened form of Jerusalem, Ps. 76:2). Until the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in A.D. 70, the Holy City was the focal point of Jewish faith and practice. The author calls for a consideration of new patterns and paradigms.
Drawing The Analogy
Like Jesus, Melchizedek has no priestly pedigree. The Genesis account gives him no genealogy and no connection with the Aaronic priesthood. Thus the gentile Melchizedek bespoke a wider understanding of the priesthood as he blessed Abram, through whom God had promised to bless all the nations of the earth.
The writer points constantly to Christ’s completion of all that was foreshadowed in salvation history. Believers are encircled with a “cloud of witnesses,” those who demonstrated a faith in what was to come. They did not attain the fulfillment of God’s promises, and yet they continued in faith. Here women come to the fore. There was Rahab the prostitute who extended hospitality to the spies because she believed that God would give the land to Israel. There was Sarah who had the faith, even in her old age, to raise the promised child. There was Jochebed who dared to save the life of her infant son, Moses, so that the children of Israel might have a deliverer. These witnesses of the past encourage God’s people to move forward with faith in the “better things” that are in store for them.
But, in particular, the writer of Hebrews wishes to prevent the readers from returning to the ritual sacrificial system of the temple. The once-for-all sacrifice of Christ has done away with the need for recurring expiations. Through the offering of his own body, Christ assumed the office of priest, not through hereditary claim or human appointment, but through the efficacy of his work upon the cross. Unlike members of the Aaronic priesthood, Christ needed neither an offering of atonement for his own sin nor to repeat the redemptive act more than once. Like Melchizedek whose recorded ministry consists of a single deed, Jesus’ work of expiation was complete. Significantly, Melchizedek’s gifts were not sacrificial animals but bread and wine.
The shadowy figure of the gentile priest about whom we know so little—neither his qualifications for the priesthood, nor the circumstances of his birth, life, or death—portrays a notion that is far grander and more ancient than that of the descendants of Aaron. The unknowns become part of the allegory. Hebrew law rigidly restricted the Levitical priesthood to males with unblemished masculine bodies, descended from a limited number of families. Biblical history makes us aware of their faults and failings, their exclusivism and intransigence. In contrast, Melchizedek stands as a more universal priestly model, not bound to a physical building, rigid tradition, or religious establishment, free from the specifications of gender. He blesses the patriarch who is to become a blessing to all nations and brings nourishment for Abram’s body and soul. The great High Priest after the order of Melchizedek extends his ministry to Jew and gentile alike.