Mysterious Melchizedek: A Working Theory of Hebrews 7 (Part 1)

Abraham and Melchizedek. Juan Antonio de Frías y Escalante (1633-1670)

Part One: The Loud Silence

The writer to the Hebrews (perhaps Apollos?) is trying to convince tottering Jewish believers to remain true to Jesus Christ. He is also trying to comfort these believers who are shaken up because some of their peers had turned away from faith in Jesus Christ and returned to non-Messianic Judaism.

The writer is out to prove that faith in Jesus is better than Judaism without Jesus by proving that Jesus is Superior to anything Judaism has to offer. Prior to chapter 7, he has proved Jesus’ superiority by asserting His deity. Now he is proving Jesus’ superiority in His humanity. The Melchizedek argument demonstrates that Jesus (in His humanity) is superior to Abraham, the man considered the Father of the Jewish faith.

Jewish imagination did a lot with Melchizedek, and during the medieval times, they viewed him as none other than Noah’s son, Shem. The Jewish Encyclopedia gives many examples of Jewish creativity:

According to Midr. Teh. to Ps. xxxvii., Abraham learned the practice of charity from Melchizedek. Philo speaks of him as “the logos, the priest whose inheritance is the true God” (“De Allegoriis Legum,” iii. 26).

The writer to the Hebrews has a different goal in mind. Here is his argument:

  • Abraham recognized Melchizedek as spiritually superior to himself.
  • Jesus is of the order of Melchizedek (his successor).
  • Therefore, Jesus is greater than Abraham.

Christian commentators embrace a number of views about who this Melchizedek is. Some view him as the pre-incarnate Son of God, an angel, a specially created man or being, etc. The purpose of this series is not to examine the various positions, but to offer this author’s paradigm for understanding this mysterious priest-king. My interpretation is fallible. The text is not. I grant you permission (not that you need it) to completely or partly disagree with me!

My main idea is this: Melchizedek was a mere mortal man whose background was purposely glossed over so he could become an amazing type of Jesus Christ. The loud silence of the text in Genesis is crucial. Thus the Melchizedek mystery is unlocked from its vault by the key of Midrash. The writer to the Hebrews inserts and turns the key.

Who Was Melchizedek?

To understand this passage in general, you must understand that it is a Midrash, an elaboration of a text based upon an ancient Jewish way of thinking. Midrash majors in bringing out meanings of texts that are not immediately obvious. These unobvious meanings, once developed, may be called “mysteries.”

In this case, the author is bringing material out of a text based upon what is not said in the text, since we would have been expected much more to have been said. The author builds his case upon a “loud silence.”

This is an important question: Why would God briefly introduce a figure like Melchizedek in Genesis 14, say very little about him, and then declare that the Messiah would be a priest after his order? My answer: To keep Melchizedek intentionally mysterious so that he could be a type of the Jesus.

If we knew more about Melchizedek, he would no longer be a type (a foreshadowing) of Jesus!

Note the Argument from silence: a case of intentional mystery.

Melchizedek in the OT

Here are the only First Testament verses that mention this extremely important man, Melchizedek.

Genesis 14:17-20 (passim, Tree of Life Version):

Now after he (Abram) returned from defeating Chedorlaomer …Then Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought out bread and wine—he was a priest of El Elyon. He blessed him and said,

“Blessed be Abram by El Elyon, Creator of heaven and earth, and blessed be El Elyon, Who gave over your enemies into your hand.”

Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.

Psalm 110:4

The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.”

Notice Melchizedek appears with no genetic credentials. This does not mean that he had no genetic credentials, but that the Scriptures intentionally fail to mention them — even though he is an extremely important personage. There is no record of his parents, birth or death, and thus appears in the record as seemingly timeless. He seems to surface out of nowhere and then returns to nowhere.

Hebrews 7:3 (ESV) reads,

He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever.

Note the word “resembling.” This should make it clear that he is not the Son of God, but merely resembles (in type) the incarnate Son of God.

Although his credentials are omitted, his identity is clearly stated. He is the real earthly king of a real earthly city. He is not “king for day” or “priest for an hour.” The people of Salem knew him. He was no phantom.

His dynasty — or at least part of a dynasty name tradition — probably continued up to and including Salem’s king during the time of Joshua, Adoni-zedek. Salem is the same city as Jebus or Jerusalem. This Canaanite king is mentioned in Joshua 10.

Besides being a king, Melchizedek is also presented as a real earthly priest of El-Elyon (God Most High). It was not unusual for small “city-states” to have a king who was both king and priest.

There were believers in the One God, believers who apparently abstained from idolatry. Job, for example, is thought to have been alive at this same time. His friends, although theologically misguided, also had knowledge of this one true God.

Later, we read of Jethro who was a priest of God yet not a Hebrew. Balaam, though corrupted, was also a gentile prophet of God.

Although the Canaanites worshipped a particular god (among others) known as “El,” El was worshiped as an idol. We are right to assume that either during the time of Melchizedek, the Canaanites in Salem refrained from idolatry — or at least Melchizedek did. We can assume this because Abraham recognized Melchizedek as God’s true representative. This priest may not have known God’s Personal Name (Yahweh), but He at least knew Him by one of His titles, “God Most High.”

Ed Vasicek Bio


Ed Vasicek was raised as a Roman Catholic in Cicero, Illinois. During his senior year in high school (1974), Cicero Bible Church reached out to him, and he received Jesus Christ as his Savior by faith alone. Ed earned his BA at Moody Bible Institute. He has served as pastor of Highland Park Church since 1983. Ed and his wife, Marylu, have two adult children. Ed has written many weekly columns for the opinion page of the Kokomo Tribune, published articles in Pulpit Helps magazine, and posted many papers at his church website. Ed has also published the The Midrash Key and The Amazing Doctrines of Paul As Midrash: The Jewish Roots and Old Testament Sources for Paul’s Teachings.

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Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I'm definitely a midrash skeptic, but a few things I have to acknowledge from the start:

  • The Genesis reference to Melchizedek does indeed seem to be intentionally mysterious (or "loudly silent").
  • Psalm 110 only adds to the mystery.
  • The basic argument in Heb 7 is certainly a "Christ's priesthood is superior because it's Mechizedekian" argument.

I'm inclined to agree also that he was a historic king, and probably merely human.

But--and I think Ed would mostly agree with this--the writer of Hebrews is not doing the "just make up whatever you like" kind of midrash. If it's midrash at all, it's more the  "let's not miss what's really there" kind (if that really is a kind).

Also, I know this point is controversial from a hermeneutical standpoint, but I don't think the way inspired writers use the OT is necessarily a model of how we are able to use it. Because they were inspired and receiving new revelation, they are able to "see into" texts in ways we cannot in our own exegesis.

G. N. Barkman's picture

How very true.  But it's also  true that if inspired writers were given insight into OT texts that were not apparent to those who had nothing but the OT texts, there could well be additional interpretations that are not apparent on the surface.  This thought is disturbing to the "everything must be interpreted literally" students.  But clearly Everything must Not be interpreted in the most literal way possible.  Too many inspired writers have given us interpretations that are not strictly literal.  It seems to me that these should serve as hints to interpreting the OT.  It's strange reasoning that recognizes inspired writers gave us a significant number of non-literal interpretations, but we are not allowed to consider the possibility that there might be more.

Is is just possible that inspired NT writers gave us enough non-literal interpretations to point the way toward more?

G. N. Barkman

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

"Is is just possible that inspired NT writers gave us enough non-literal interpretations to point the way toward more?"
Sure. Just as soon as some of us become divinely inspired writers.

alex o.'s picture

My view. We will see.

Why did He bring out bread and wine? Where was the sacrifice if He was a priest? My thinking is He embodied the sacrifice somehow since bringing out bread and wine foreshadows Christ's institution of the sacrificial observance in the upper room. All the blood sacrifices were shadows of what Christ would offer ultimately. Today, for now, we don't have a temple but still portray Christ's death.

It seems to me that the early observance among the Jews was daily and possibly during the two daily sacrifices at 9&3. The Gentile observance every first day of the week is when they met. It seems the observance was vital. When He said "as often" He was probably referring to a more frequent remembrance than the monthly thing most follow. Again, my view.

"Our faith itself... is not our saviour. We have but one Saviour; and that one Saviour is Jesus Christ our Lord.  B.B. Warfield

http://beliefspeak2.net

Ed Vasicek's picture

The Midrash we see in the New Testament should not be confused with the allegorical interpretations done by Christians later.  This is not a pattern of hermeneutics, but a deck that was "stacked" for the writers of the New Testament to develop. The writer to Hebrews would be in the same category as Paul when it came to penning inspired Scrpture.  The concepts of apostolic authority and TRANSITION are crucial.

From my book, The Amazing Doctrines of Paul As Midrash:

Paul did not merely interpret texts as you or I or a respected Talmudic sage could. He often began with Old Testament Scripture, but he hybridized it in light of the New Covenant age, the current form of the Messianic Age. The apostles were not merely organizational leaders, theologians, or teachers, but were foundation layers (Ephesians 2:20), authorized to make such a transition. Paul was perhaps most instrumental in defining the place of gentile Christians within the church, though not without the approval of the other apostles and leading elders (Acts 15:1-30).  

 

 

"The Midrash Detective"

alex o.'s picture

Does any have an argument to establish that Jebus (if that was the original name of this city) was ever called "Salem." Most of these cities in the land were renamed and when it is referred as Jerusalem (in Joshua?) it is reflecting its later name after David conquered it.

That he "resembled" I take as the manifestation of the appearance. Sometimes The Angel appears in a bush other times as The Captain of a host among examples. M. resembled the future Jesus.

The "human interpretation" is wrong, no human exceeded Abraham during this time by design. God needed a human to establish where the "Seed" would come from: "of whom was the Christ."

Paul says a heavenly Jerusalem exists and the temple on earth was designed from the heavenly one presented in a sketch. Therefore M. could be called King of Salem (the heavenly one).

I am writing these things to articulate the point and fix them in my mind and maybe use the points somewhere else. I doubt I can convince any here.

Why Jesus was literally in the line of M. was that He was not Jesus until the incarnation. The Word became flesh, therefore a different status existed after the incarnation than just a theophany.

M. was a priest and The First Advent was Jesus making peace between the kingly and priestly offices predicted by Zechariah. Jesus was always the king (in waiting) but not yet The High Priest until the crucifixion it seems to me. Possibly he was a priest too but that is not clear to me yet. For sure however is the fact that Jesus is both King and High Priest now and that M. was a theophany. To think it a author's device as stated in the opening post to present Jesus is just wrong on many levels.

Christians need to recover the supernatural as Michael Heiser would say.

 

"Our faith itself... is not our saviour. We have but one Saviour; and that one Saviour is Jesus Christ our Lord.  B.B. Warfield

http://beliefspeak2.net

Ed Vasicek's picture

Alex, there are a number of interpretations of this passage.  My paper does not analyze them but presents one view from a Midrash perspective, a take it or leave it proposition.  So you disagreement is welcomed.

That Salem = Jerusalem is something that most of the authorities believe; the Jews are particularly clear in expressing  that viewpoint.  Of course, that doesn't mean they are necessarily right.

I personally think there is something special about the location we call Jerusalem, and that this predates the Temple.

"The Midrash Detective"

alex o.'s picture

Though the place is special, the Jebusites were not. Since it is referred to Jebus- Jebusite, then those people did not refer to it as Jerusalem, at least it is clear to me. Joshua was written much later than the events it records: notice Joshua 10.14. If no day was like it since, the writer was composing this later. There is other evidence that the book was written later and so the writer refers to the city by its Israelite-given name.

No loud silence exists about M. after Hebrews was written but of course its cryptic in Genesis, but not very cryptic, it didn't need to be. Its plain He was the sometimes-visible YHWH. Before the common era the Jews believed in two YHWHs in heaven, one as sometimes appearing and, of course, the invisible God. Alan Segal has written a book that I am about to buy that discusses this: The Two Powers in Heaven. I have only heard the reports about it and am about to investigate further. Link: http://drmsh.com/the-naked-bible/two-powers-in-heaven/

Reading the N.T. the Jews clearly believed in an eternal Messiah. Of course after the Christian Era started, they revised many of their beliefs. I do not know exactly what they believe now about this but from the N.T. it is clear what they believed at the time. I believe it was the nature of Jesus that they objected. They could not envision the Messiah that would not extinguish a smoldering wick or break a bruised reed, One who was a man of sorrows acquainted with grief. This is why Caiaphas tore his robe when Jesus explicitly quoted Dan.7, the clearest Messianic passage. They missed the memo that the Messiah was also High Priest and embodied all the previous shadows of sacrifices.

The real ruler behind killing Jesus was not Caiaphas either, it was unseen forces of evil. Since Jesus conquered by His indestructible life, He now has the key of death to unlock eternal life for believers. Had the rulers known who Jesus was, they never would have crucified Him (1Cor. 2.8).

Michael Heiser's The Unseen Realm is revolutionary since most have lost much of the supernatural aspect of what the bible affirms.

 

 

"Our faith itself... is not our saviour. We have but one Saviour; and that one Saviour is Jesus Christ our Lord.  B.B. Warfield

http://beliefspeak2.net

Ed Vasicek's picture

Alex, there are other views about Melchizedek other than mine, and you are free to embrace the view that rings true to you after study and contemplation.

As far as this below, though, your conclusions are not necessarily the only ones:

Though the place is special, the Jebusites were not. Since it is referred to Jebus- Jebusite, then those people did not refer to it as Jerusalem, at least it is clear to me. Joshua was written much later than the events it records: notice Joshua 10.14. If no day was like it since, the writer was composing this later. There is other evidence that the book was written later and so the writer refers to the city by its Israelite-given name.

The evangelical scholars I have read suggest a very different scenario from yours.  They suggest that books like Joshua (and even the Pentateuch) were written by their respective authors, and then edited later, usually ascribing a possible early editor as Samuel (postulated) among others, and the final editor as Ezra (with some Jewish traditional evidence suggesting this). The Bible is clear that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, but Genesis was probably compiled by Moses from earlier writings.  Likewise, the end of Deuteronomy is generally thought to have been finished up by Joshua.

 

"The Midrash Detective"

alex o.'s picture

Sorry to throw you Ed. If you say they were edited later, then your view is essentially mine. Of course I hold to the absolute veracity of the text, God supervising the transmission with either written or oral intermediate accounts.

Lets get back to Melchizedek. Judges also was edited and updated in language with an editorial note while preserving the truth of Israel's history. Here is a section from Judges 19 showing the renaming of this city:

10 But the man would not spend the night. He rose up and departed and arrived opposite Jebus (that is, Jerusalem). He had with him a couple of saddled donkeys, and his concubine was with him. 11 When they were near Jebus, the day was nearly over, and the servant said to his master, “Come now, let us turn aside to this city of the Jebusites and spend the night in it.” (ESV)

Therefore, if the city was called Jerusalem during Abraham's time, how is it now referred to as "Jebus" during the time of the incident in Judges with the editor clarifying its name to current readers as "Jerusalem?"

I have found no evidence that the city was called "Salem" (peace) before the time of David. The overwhelming data points to M. being the king of a heavenly city of peace: Jerusalem. Therefore M. was a theophany resembling when The Word became flesh bring forth bread and wine in the observance of the New Covenant.

 

 

"Our faith itself... is not our saviour. We have but one Saviour; and that one Saviour is Jesus Christ our Lord.  B.B. Warfield

http://beliefspeak2.net

Ed Vasicek's picture

I was thrown off.  I had no doubt about your convictions regarding the inspiration of the Word, but there are many views as to how this actually worked out.  You could not be registered on SI if you didn't hold to a conservative view on inspiration.

Your view about Melchizedek is one I am familiar with.  On this point, we must simply agree to disagree.  Fortunately, this is certainly a non-essential.

Therefore, if the city was called Jerusalem during Abraham's time, how is it now referred to as "Jebus" during the time of the incident in Judges with the editor clarifying its name to current readers as "Jerusalem?"

I thought I was saying that the city was called Salem in Abraham's time, called Jebus in Joshua's time, and then renamed later as Jersusalem, building upon its original name.   Locations may change names, but sometimes their older name is still retained as a memory.  Much like we call a refrigerator an ice box or Iran Persia.

God bless.

"The Midrash Detective"

alex o.'s picture

Obviously, I should have finished reading his work and digested for a while before commending it. What I can say is his book, Reversing Hermon, takes wild leaps of inference. I couldn't finish such speculation and withdraw any commendation to any of his works at this time. Scholars will need to weigh his ideas and counter them or say: so what? This was my reaction to the "Unseen" book. Several ideas he took from Klein with which I only partially agree.

"Our faith itself... is not our saviour. We have but one Saviour; and that one Saviour is Jesus Christ our Lord.  B.B. Warfield

http://beliefspeak2.net

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