Who Assumed Melchizedek’s Priesthood?
In the recently published Minor Characters Have Their Day, Jeremy M. Rosen, an English professor at the University of Utah, considers the contemporary literary and dramatic landscape in which sidekicks, villains, and bit players from the great western canon have been propelled into starring roles. Among the unexpected protagonists trotted out in recent years: Penelope, Cassandra, Hamlet’s buddies, King Lear’s jester, and Huck Finn’s father. Even the wolf from The Three Little Pigs is finally getting his due.
This “minor character elaboration,” as Rosen calls it, is nothing new. Ancient examples abound. Aeneas, sporadically mentioned in the Illiad, is fully fleshed out by Virgil; Joseph’s wife, Asenath, finds expression in an ancient novella known as Joseph and Asenath. The little-known biblical figures of Enoch and Baruch become apocalyptic heroes in the books of Enoch and Baruch respectively.
So, too, Melchizedek. The oft-overlooked priest-king of Salem scarcely appears in the Bible, yet centuries later he becomes a source of fascination in Jewish and Christian literature alike.
Inserting Melchizedek, the Priest-King of Salem
Melchizedek appears but twice in the Tanakh, in Gen. 14:18-20 and Psalm 110:4. Modern interpreters generally regard the first episode as a later insertion into Abram’s encounter with the king of Sodom, especially since his mention by name is framed by a reference to an unnamed “king of Sodom”:
בראשית יד:יז וַיֵּצֵא מֶלֶךְ סְדֹם לִקְרָאתוֹ אַחֲרֵי שׁוּבוֹ מֵהַכּוֹת אֶת כְּדָר לָעֹמֶר וְאֶת הַמְּלָכִים אֲשֶׁר אִתּוֹ אֶל עֵמֶק שָׁוֵה הוּא עֵמֶק הַמֶּלֶךְ.
Gen 14:17 When he returned from defeating Chedorlaomer and the kings with him, the king of Sodom came out to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh, which is the Valley of the King.
יד:יח וּמַלְכִּי צֶדֶק מֶלֶךְ שָׁלֵם הוֹצִיא לֶחֶם וָיָיִן וְהוּא כֹהֵן לְאֵל עֶלְיוֹן. יד:יט וַיְבָרְכֵהוּ וַיֹּאמַר בָּרוּךְ אַבְרָם לְאֵל עֶלְיוֹן קֹנֵה שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ.יד:כ וּבָרוּךְ אֵל עֶלְיוֹן אֲשֶׁר מִגֵּן צָרֶיךָ בְּיָדֶךָ וַיִּתֶּן לוֹ מַעֲשֵׂר מִכֹּל.
14:18 And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was a priest of God Most High.14:19 He blessed him, saying, “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. 14:20 And blessed be God Most High, Who has delivered your foes into your hand.” And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.
יד:כא וַיֹּאמֶר מֶלֶךְ סְדֹם אֶל אַבְרָם תֶּן לִי הַנֶּפֶשׁ וְהָרְכֻשׁ קַח לָךְ.
14:21 And the king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the persons, and take the possessions for yourself.” (NJPS with adjustments)
Verse 21 picks up right from v. 17—“the king of Sodom went out to meet him (v. 17) . . . and the king of Sodom said (v. 21)—suggesting that the Melchizedek scene has been added.Usually this insertion is explained as an effort to legitimate the Davidic throne in Jerusalem. Melchizedek, the hoary king of Salem—that is, Jerusalem—blesses the patriarch whose descendent, David, will one day make that city his capital.
Others say it is David’s priest, Zadok, who finds legitimation through Melchizedek. On this reading, Zadok was the Jebusite cult leader in Jerusalem whom David, following his conquest of the city, appointed over the Israelite cult. A biblical editor foreshadows David’s endorsement of a non-Israelite priest by showing Abraham pay a tithe to a non-Israelite priest, Melchizedek, who presides over a cult in (Jeru)salem dedicated to “God, the Most High” (Gen. 14:18).
Melchizedek in Psalms
Either interpretation might account for the other biblical appearance of Melchizedek, in Psalm 110:4:
תהלים קי:ד נִשְׁבַּע יְ-הוָה וְלֹא יִנָּחֵם אַתָּה כֹהֵן לְעוֹלָם עַל דִּבְרָתִי מַלְכִּי צֶדֶק.
Ps 110:4 YHWH has sworn and will not relent, “You are a priest forever, after the manner of Melchizedek.”
This royal psalm praises someone as a priest like Melchizedek, but whom? Is David here hailed by God as possessing priestly responsibilities? David is said on occasion to have offered up sacrifices (2 Sam. 6:13, 17-18; 24:25; 1 Kings 3:4, 15). Or is God validating David’s selection of Zadok by likening him to the paradigmatic non-Israelite priest of yore? Or is this psalm addressed to a later king or high priest in Judah?
The limitations of the evidence preclude a consensus, and thus the biblical Melchizedek remains elusive. Later traditions will nevertheless exploit this bit player to serve their own theological aims.
Defrocking the Kohanim – Early Christian Interpretation
For early Christians who considered Christ to be the latest and greatest high priest, such as the author of the anonymous New Testament treatise known as the Epistle to the Hebrews(ca. 100 ce), Melchizedek provided the perfect precedent. According to Hebrews, Jesus is the archetype—the ideal Platonic form—of all things biblical. To borrow a line from Annie Get Your Gun, the theme of Hebrews seems to be “anything Jews can do, Christ can do better.” Jews have angels, but Jesus is superior to all angels. Jews have prophets, but Jesus surpasses even Moses. Jesus represents a better covenant, a better tabernacle, a better sacrifice, and yes, a better high priest than Judaism provides.
Identifying Jesus as the ultimate high priest is fraught with problems, however. Jesus was thought by Christians to have descended from David, a Judahite. Not being a Levite, how could Jesus be the ideal and eternal high priest for the God of Israel?
Enter Melchizedek. The author of Hebrews latches on to the mysterious king of Salem and acclaims him as the founder of an archetypal priesthood fulfilled by Jesus:
Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek. For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him; and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything. He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace. He is without father or mother or genealogy, and has neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever.
See how great he is! Abraham the patriarch gave him a tithe of the spoils. And those descendants of Levi who receive the priestly office have a commandment in the law to take tithes from the people, that is, from their brethren, though these also are descended from Abraham. But this man who has not their genealogy received tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior. Here tithes are received by mortal men; there, by one of whom it is testified that he lives. One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him. (Hebrews 6:20-7:10; RSV)
Melchizedek thus inaugurated a priesthood superior to the one later awarded to the Levites. Levitical priests are mortal, while Melchizedek, seeing as neither his parents nor his death are recorded, must be immortal. Abraham recognized the superiority of Melchizedek’s priesthood when he paid him a tithe and received a blessing as his subordinate. The coup de grace is the claim that Levi, inasmuch as he was in Abraham’s loins, also offered a tithe to Melchizedek.
The Levitical priesthood, which offers inferior sacrifices by mortal priests, is thereby defrocked by the author of Hebrews. Jesus, the eternal priest “after the order of Melchizedek,” offers the perfect once-and-for-all sacrifice, himself.
Defrocking a Priest – Rabbinic Interpretation
The rabbis, in contrast, were hardly looking to legitimize an alternative priestly line. To them, Melchizedek threatened the exclusivity of the Levitical priesthood. By no means did they consider Melchizedek inimical. He is identified with Noah’s son, Shem, and is said to have composed psalms, taught torah to Abraham, and helped God to name Jerusalem. The rabbis, however, simply could not countenance the idea that this non-Levite is called a priest of God the Most High—and in Jerusalem, no less! The Torah later insists that God’s priesthood belongs perpetually to the descendants of Levi through Aaron, so how can there be an eternal priestly order through Melchizedek?
The issue is resolved in the Talmud (b. Nedarim 32b):
אמר רבי זכריה משום רבי ישמעאל: ביקש הקדוש ברוך הוא להוציא כהונה משם, שנאמר: והוא כהן לאל עליון,
Rabbi Zechariah said in the name of Rabbi Ishmael, “the Holy Blessed One wished to bring forth the priesthood from Shem, as it is said, ‘[Melchizedek] was a priest of God Most High.’
כיון שהקדים ברכת אברהם לברכת המקום הוציאה מאברהם, שנאמר: ויברכהו ויאמר ברוך אברם לאל עליון קונה שמים וארץ, וברוך אל עליון, אמר לו אברהם: וכי מקדימין ברכת עבד לברכת קונו?
When [Melchizedek] blessed Abraham before blessing God, God brought forth the priesthood from Abraham, as it is said, ‘and [Melchizedek] blessed him, saying, “blessed is Abram of God the Most High, maker of heaven and earth, and blessed is God the Most High.”’ Abraham said to [Melchizedek]: Does one bless a slave before blessing his owner?
מיד נתנה לאברהם, שנאמר: נאם ה’ לאדני שב לימיני עד אשית אויביך הדום לרגליך, ובתריה כתיב: נשבע ה’ ולא ינחם אתה כהן לעולם על דברתי מלכי צדק – על דיבורו של מלכי צדק;
Immediately [the priesthood] was given to Abraham, as it is said, ‘the word of the LORD to my lord: sit and my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.’ Afterward it is written, ‘The LORD hath sworn, and will not repent: “Thou art a priest for ever after the manner (dibrati) of Melchizedek.”’ After the utterance (dibburo) of Melchizedek.
והיינו דכתיב: והוא כהן לאל עליון, הוא כהן – ואין זרעו כהן.
And this is what is written, ‘he was a priest of God the Most High.’ He was a priest, but his seed was not a priest!”
According to Rabbi Ishmael, Psalm 110 was spoken by God to Abraham at the time of his encounter with Melchizedek. God indeed appointed Melchizedek the first priest, but God became disappointed with him when he blessed Abraham before blessing God, and therefore punished him by transferring the priesthood from his descendants to the descendants of Abraham. Psalm 110 therefore opens with God relegating Melchizedek to be Abraham’s footstool.
God goes on to call Abraham “a priest forever” on account of Melchizedek’s rash utterance, an interpretation made possible by a clever misreading of the phrase עַל דִּבְרָתִי. The word dibratiis read as if it were a different word with the same root, dibburo, such that Psalm 110 has God say “You are a priest forever after the utterance of Melchizedek.” In other words, “You, Abraham, have become a priest because of what Melchizedek mistakenly said.” The coup de grace in this reinterpretation comes when Rabbi Ishmael notes that Gen. 14:18 can be read in a limited sense: yes, Melchizedek was a priest, but it does not say that his descendants would also be priests.
Thus, the Talmud is able to have its cake and eat it too. Melchizedek can be a priest, even the first priest, just as the Torah says, but the right to the priesthood thereafter is limited to the descendants of Abraham through Levi and Aaron.
From Priest-King to Angelic Redeemer – Qumran Interpretation
Writing before either the Christians or the rabbis, the community represented by the Dead Sea Scrolls appears to have taken little interest in Melchizedek’s priesthood even as they wrote extensively about him. Among the Scrolls is a midrashic treatise (11Q13) in which the role of Melchizedek is so prominent that scholars named it after him: 11QMelchizedek. This text marshals verses from Isaiah, Daniel, Psalms, and other biblical books in portraying an eschatological period of judgment and redemption featuring Melchizedek, not as a priest, but as an angelic judge and redeemer at the end of time (11QMelch II:13-18):
13 ומלכי צ֗דק יקום נק֗ם֗ משפ֗ט֗י א[ל וביום ההואה יצי]ל֗[מה מיד ]ב֗ליעל ומיד כול ר֗[וחי גורלו.] 14 ובעזרו כול אלי [הצדק וה]ו֗אה א[שר ·· ]כ֗וֹל בני אל . והפ[ ] 15 הזואת הואה יום ה֗[שלום א]שר אמ֗ר֗[ ·· ביד ישע]יה הנביא אשר אמר[ מה ]נֹאוו 16 על הרים רגל[י] מבש[ר ם]שמיע שלום מב[שר טוב משמיע ישוע]ה֗ [א]וֹמר לציון [מלך ]א֗לוהיך. 17 פ֗שרו ההר֗י֗מ[ המה] ה֗נֹביאיֹ[ם ]המה א[ ·· ]°מ֗ לכול °°[ ·· ] . 18 והמבשר הו[אה ]מ֗שיח הרוֹ[ח] כ֗אשר אמר דנֹ[יאל עליו עד משיח נגיד שבועים שבעה.
But, Melchizedek will carry out the vengeance of Go[d’s] judgments, [and on that day he will fr]e[e them from the hand of] Belial and from the hand of all the sp[irits of his lot.] To his aid (shall come) all “the gods of [justice”; and h]e is the one w[ho …] all the sons of God, and … […] This […] is the day of [peace about whi]ch he said [… through Isa]iah the prophet, who said: [“How] beautiful upon the mountains are the feet [of] the messen[ger who] announces peace, the mess[enger of good who announces salvati]on, [sa]ying to Zion: your God [reigns”] (Isa. 52:7). Its interpretation: The mountains [are] the prophet[s …] … […] for all … […] And the messenger i[s] the anointed of the spir[it] as Dan[iel] said [about him: “Until an anointed, a prince, it is seven weeks” (Dan. 9:25).]
In this role, Melchizedek resembles the angel Michael as he is portrayed elsewhere in the Scrolls (1QM 17:5-8) and in Daniel 12:1-4, and it is possible the community considered the two as one.
In either case, the prominence of Melchizedek in the Scrolls is a historical curiosity. Why did the Jews who composed 11QMelch choose Melchizedek, of all the biblical characters, to reprise in the role of an eschatological hero?
Defrocking the Maccabees?
While the exaltation of Melchizedek in the Scrolls is typically attributed to the Qumranites’ interest in mysterious biblical figures or to what might be understood as the heavenly office afforded the unnamed addressee of Psalm 110 (e.g., “YHWH is at your right hand”), one intriguing proposal holds that the Dead Sea sect was actually reacting to the deployment of Melchizedek in the royal propaganda of the Maccabean dynasty. Simon Maccabeus, the brother of Judah, had himself declared high priest in 141 BCE despite lacking a Zadokite pedigree. His grandsons, Judah Aristobulus and Alexander Jannaeus, took the title “king” despite lacking a Davidic pedigree. A few sources hint that these Hasmonean rulers might have capitalized on the mysterious priest-king of Salem in order to justify their acquisition of titles for which they did not qualify.
Unable to proclaim themselves Zadokite high priests or Davidic kings, perhaps they presented themselves as priests and/or kings “after the order of Melchizedek.” Indeed, one scholar has even proposed that Psalm 110 is of Maccabean vintage, composed by the ruling family to validate its claim to the priesthood. Tantalizing is the possibility that the first letters from the first four lines are meant to form an acrostic spelling out the name “Simon,” shimon.
Admittedly, few scholars consider Psalm 110 Maccabean propaganda. Even if the psalm was produced centuries earlier, however, it is still possible that the Maccabees adduced this psalm, as well as the Melchizedek episode in Gen. 14:18-20, to provide historical precedent for their usurpation. Certainly it provides a reasonable scenario to explain why the Dead Sea sect, staunch opponents of the Maccabees, themselves embraced the figure of Melchizedek and turned him into a hero suited to their own aspirations.
A Minor Biblical Character Becomes a Star
No reader of the Torah would come away thinking that King Melchizedek of Salem is a significant character. He could easily be forgotten alongside other obscure kings mentioned in Genesis 14, like Chedorlaomer of Elam, Amraphel of Shinar, or Birsha of Gomorrah. Yet, what precious little the Torah does say about Melchizedek made it impossible for many readers in antiquity to overlook him. A priest from Jerusalem to whom Abraham paid a tithe presented a boon for early Christians, a threat to the rabbis, (possibly) an antecedent for the Maccabees and, for reasons that remain uncertain, a heroic savior for the residents of Qumran.
As the great western canon is for contemporary writers, so the Torah has been for Jews: a tree of life to nourish the soul, but also a living tree whose every branch, even every twig, might be reinvigorated by the next generation of readers. For many ancient readers of the Torah, Melchizedek resonated peculiarly with the political and theological questions of the day. Which twig might be due for a promotion in our own day and age?
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Dr. Rabbi Joshua Garroway is the Sol and Arlene Bronstein Professor of Judaeo-Christian Studies at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles. He holds a Ph.D. from the Religious Studies Department at Yale and ordination from HUC-JIR in Cincinnati. He is the author of, The Beginning of the Gospel: Paul, Philippi, and the Origins of Christianity.
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