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Notes from Limmud 2011

Melchizedek as a Prototype for Ancient Jews and Christians

Rabbi Joshua Garroway, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor of Early Christianity and Second Commonwealth, Hebrew Union College

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed. This post is formatted for LiveJournal; if you are reading it on Facebook click on "View original post" for optimal layout.]

In Genesis 14, Abraham weighs in to a war between the Canaanites and Mesopotamians. Afterwards, we read:

Genesis 14:17-14:20 בראשית יד יז-כ
When Abram returned from defeating Chedorlaomer and the other kings with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him, at the valley of Shaveh, which is the king's dale. And Melchiṣedeq king of Shālēm brought forth bread and wine; he was the priest of the G-d Most High. He blessed him, saying, "Blessed be Abram of the G-d Most High, possessor of heaven and earth: And blessed be G-d Most High, Who has delivered your enemies into your hand." Then he gave him a tenth of everything. וַיֵּצֵא מֶלֶךְ־סְדֹם לִקְרָאתוֹ אַחֲרֵי שׁוּבוֹ מֵהַכּוֹת אֶת־כְּדָרְלָעֹמֶר וְאֶת־הַמְּלָכִים אֲשֶׁר אִתּוֹ אֶל־עֵמֶק שָׁוֵה הוּא עֵמֶק הַמֶּלֶךְ׃ וּמַלְכִּי־צֶדֶק מֶלֶךְ שָׁלֵם הוֹצִיא לֶחֶם וָיָיִן וְהוּא כֹהֵן לְאֵל עֶלְיוֹן׃ וַיְבָרְכֵהוּ וַיֹּאמַר בָּרוּךְ אַבְרָם לְאֵל עֶלְיוֹן קֹנֵה שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ׃ וּבָרוּךְ אֵל עֶלְיוֹן אֲשֶׁר־מִגֵּן צָרֶיךָ בְּיָדֶךָ וַיִּתֶּן־לוֹ מַעֲשֵׂר מִכֹּל׃

If Abram was the first monotheist, how did Melchiṣedeq get to be not only a recogniser, but a priest of G-d Most High!? He's not a son of Aaron [which is the definition of "priest" in Judaism]! And Abram recognised him as such! This is a big problem, because then someone could step forward and say "I am a descendent of Melchiṣedeq; let me be High Priest!"

Of course, he may be not have been a priest of the monotheistic G-d, but of the Canaanite chief god El (which name also means "god"), but this isn't how Jews in the first century would view it, which is what this talk is concerned with.

Biblical Critical Interpretation

The Biblical critical solution is to regard the story as an insert, showing that it wasn't David who first made contact with Jerusalem when he conquered it; it was Abraham centuries before:

Original narrativeInsert
When Abram returned from defeating Chedorlaomer and the other kings with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him, at the valley of Shaveh, which is the king's dale.
And Melchiṣedeq king of Shālēm brought forth bread and wine; he was the priest of the G-d Most High. He blessed him, saying, "Blessed be Abram of the G-d Most High, possessor of heaven and earth: And blessed be G-d Most High, Who has delivered your enemies into your hand." Then he gave him a tenth of everything.
Then the king of Sodom said to Abram, "Give me..."

This is called a wiederaufnau, a resumption clause.

Rabbinical Interpretation

The second, and last, reference to Melchiṣedeq in the Bible is:

Psalms 110:4 תהילים קי ד
The LORD has sworn, and will not change his mind, "You are a priest for ever after the manner of Melchiṣedeq." נִשְׁבַּע ה׳ וְלֹא יִנָּחֵם אַתָּה־כֹהֵן לְעוֹלָם עַל־דִּבְרָתִי מַלְכִּי־צֶדֶק׃

Some people said it originally said אַתָּה־כֹהֵן לְעוֹלָם עַל־דִּבְרָתִי מַלְכֵּי צֶדֶק "You are a priest forever after the manner of righteous kings", which can be read from the same letters.

So, Melchiṣedeq not only has an priesthood outside of the Levites, but it's eternal, and includes David!

How did the rabbis resolve this?

Nedarim 32b נדרים לב ב

R. Zechariah said in the name of R. Ishmael: G-d intended to bring forth the priesthood from Shem; thus, the Torah says, "he was a priest of G-d Most High."

But when Melchiṣedeq blessed Abraham before he had blessed G-d, G-d decided to bring forth the priesthood from Abraham.

Notice what the Torah says: "He blessed him, saying, 'Blessed be Abram of the G-d Most High, possessor of heaven and earth: And blessed be G-d Most High.'" Abraham said to him, "Should you really bless a servant before you bless his master?"

Straightaway the priesthood was given to Abraham...

That is why Psalm 110:4 said, "The LORD has sworn, and will not change his mind, 'You are a priest for ever after the manner of Melchiṣedeq'", that is to say, after the word of Melchiṣedeq.

That is also why the Torah says, "he was a priest of G-d Most High": He, Melchiṣedeq, was a priest, but his descendants were not.

אמר רבי זכריה משום רבי ישמעאל ביקש הקדוש ברוך הוא להוציא כהונה משם שנאמר והוא כהן לאל עליון

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

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

והיינו דכתיב והוא כהן לאל עליון הוא כהן ואין זרעו כהן

Christian Interpretation

There's another group of ancient Jews who had to deal with the problem: first-century Christians.

They saw a great opportunity here. The Temple had been destroyed, because it was inadequate; for them, this was because a greater sacrificer had offered a greater sacrifice than the priests in the Temple, on a once-and-for-all basis.

So, what kind of priesthood was Jesus? Answer: the Melchiṣedeqian priesthood:

The answer is in the Epistle of Paul to the Hebrews 7:10—which is not an epistle but a sermon, not by Paul (or even claimed to be by Paul, but just lumped in with the Pauline letters), and not to the Hebrews, but to a bunch of early Christians asking shouldn't we be doing the priestly stuff in Leviticus?

For this Melchisedek, king of Salem, priest of the most high God, who met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings, and blessed him; to whom Abraham gave a tenth part of all. His name means, on the one hand, "King of righteousness"; and, on the other, "King of Salem", which is, "King of peace". Fatherless, motherless,* without descent, and having neither beginning, nor end; he resembles the Son of God; and is a priest forever.

See how how great Melchisedek is! It says that Abraham the patriarch gave him a the tenth of the spoils.

According to the Torah, the descendants of Levi, who hold the priesthood, have the right to take tithes from the people—that is, from their brethren, though they come out of Abraham's loins as well.

Melchisedek, on the other hand, who does not share this genealogy, took a tithe from Abraham and blessed him...

Now, nobody can dispute that lesser people receive blessings from greater people. In the case of the Levites it is mortal men who take the tithes, but in the case of Melchisedek it is one about whom it says he lives. One could even say that Levi, who takes tithes, gave a tithe to Melchisedek through Abraham, since he was in Abraham's loins when Melchisedek encountered him!

1. How do we know he was fatherless and motherless? Simply because the text doesn't mention a mother or father! Philo also says this. Compare Melchiṣedeq's not dying with Enoch's living for ever.

So, when David says "You are a priest forever after the manner of Melchiṣedeq", David is talking to Jesus.

Dead Sea Scrolls

There is also another ancient Jewish group who draw on the Melchiṣedeq story. The Qumranites are marked by a disdain for the Temple and the priesthood. Why so? Because the group of people who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls might have begun when the Maccabean king John or Simon proclaimed himself High Priest too. The High Priest thus displaced may have been the founder of the Qumranite sect, and may have been the Teacher of Righteousness.

They imagine an apocalyptic drama in which the Temple is rebuilt and cleansed. But what about the priesthood? Is there a pure [lacuna]

11QMelchizedek 2:5–6, with partial Hebrew (which was not in my notes!), and a small portion of the English, which went past too fast for me to transcribe, from here (with uncertain letters underlined) and here (without, but with some overdotting I couldn't be bothered to transcribe):

For the last days refers to the captives who […] and whose teachers have been hidden and kept secret, and from the inheritance of Melchiṣedeq for[r…] …and they are the inherita[nce of Melchiṣe]deq, who will make them return. And liberty will be proclaimed for them, to free them from [the debt of] all their iniquities. לא[ל פשרו ]לאחרית הימים על השבויים אשר[…]ואשר¶ מוריהמה החבאוׄ וׄסתר[ו] ומנחלת מלכי צדק כי[א -- ] והמה נחל[ת מלכי צ]דק אשר¶ ישיבמה אליהמה וקרא להמה דרור לעזוב להמה [משא] כול עוונותיהמה

Brackets indicate lacunae in the text; ellipses lacunae that we can't figure out–see this photo of the original for why these are necessary! I have put pilcrows in to indicate the line breaks in the original.

Picking up again at 11QMelchizedek 2:7:

And the D[ay of Atone]ment is the e[nd of] the tenth [ju]bilee in which atonement shall be made for all the Sons of [Light and] for all the men [of] the lot of Mel[ch]iṣedeq.

[…] upo[n the]m […] For this is the time decreed for “the year of Melchiṣ[edeq]’s favor” (Isaiah 61:2, modified), [and] by his might he w[i]ll judge God’s holy ones and so establish a righteous ki[n]gdom, as it is written.

But, Melchiṣedeq will carry out the vengeance of Go[d's] judgements, [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 G-d, 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 price it is seven weeks" (Dan. 9:25).]

וי[ום הכפ]ורים ה[ואה ס]וף [ה]יו]בל העשירי¶ לכפר בו על כול בני [אור ו]אנש[י ]גׄורל מל[כי ]צדק[ .

  -- ]ם עלי[המ]ה הת[ ]לפ[י ]כ[ול עש]ותמה כיא¶ הואה הקץ לשנת הרצון למלכי צדק ולצב[איו ע]ם קדושי אל לממשלת משפט כאשר כתוב¶

ומלכי צדק יקום נקם משפטי א[ל ביום ההואה.  ויצי]ל[מה מיד ]בליעל ומיד כול ר[וחי גורלו].  ¶ ובעזרו כול אלי [הצדק זה]ואה א[שר …]כול בני על והפ[…]¶ הזואת הואה יום ה[שלום א]שר אמו[ …ביד ישע]יה הנביא אשר אמר [מה] נאוו¶ פשרו ההים [המה] הנביאי[ם ]המה א[…]…[…] לכול …[…]¶ והמבשר הו[אה ]משיח הוע[ח] כאשר אמר דג[יאל עליו עד משיח נגיד שבועים שבעה]¶ [ -- מלכי צדק אשר יצי]ל[מה מי]ד בליעל.  ואשר אמר והעברתמה שו[פר ב]כוׄל [א]רץ.

For the Dead Sea Scrolls sect, who foresaw a pristine [priesthood in the End of Days], it was reasonable for them to identify with this obscure original priest Melchiṣedeq in the Bible and look to him for a form of redemption.

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