Last week, we looked at a fairly obscure Old Testament character named Balaam – a man who wasn’t affiliated with Israel or any of the patriarchs or tribes associated with it, and yet he was a Prophet of Yahweh. Today, I’d like to do something similar, by turning the clock back by a half-dozen generations or so, to drop in on Melchizedek.
If you’ve ever read Hebrews 5, 6 and 7, you’re probably familiar with this name, because the author drops The M-bomb nine times in these three chapters. In light of this emphatic treatment, you’d think Melchizedek must have been a pivotal character, earlier in the Bible.
So maybe you looked him up, and were surprised to find just two mentions of Mr. Chizidek outside of Hebrews: one in the Psalms that’s in a similar vein to what we see in Hebrews, and one small passage in Genesis 14:18-20:
‘Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And praise be to God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand.” Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.’
Abram interacted with plenty of rulers and chieftains during his travels from Ur to Canaan, so it’s not immediately obvious what’s so special about his encounter with Melchizedek. And these 60 words don’t seem to provide enough information for the author of Hebrews to base all those dramatic assertions on, do they?
But there are a few points in the three short Genesis verses that are pretty interesting:
1. Abram gave him a tenth of everything: A tenth? Really? Seems like a pretty steep price for some bread, wine and a blessing, doesn’t it? There’s no indication that Melchizedek sent troops to help Abram defeat Kedorlaomer and co. in the preceding verses, so why would he get a tenth of Abram’s stuff?
2. Salem: Salem comes from the same root word as the Hebrew (shalom) and Arabic (salaam) words for ‘peace’.
3. Bread and wine: This is a familiar meal for us Christians, isn’t it?
The fact that Abram gave Melchizedek a tithe of all he had (just like Jews and Christians from antiquity to today are called to give a tenth [tithe] of their income to God), and the fact Melchizedek served bread and wine have caused some to speculate that perhaps the King of Salem (which means ‘peace’) was also the Prince of Peace – a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus Himself!
(That’s a pretty neat trick, considering that some people also think one of the three visitors who came to Abraham in Genesis 18 was also Jesus. But that’s not a problem, of course, since pretty neat tricks to us are business as usual for Jesus.)
Other theories in Judeo-Christian lore about Melchizedek’s identity include that he was Noah’s son Shem, or the Archangel Michael, or maybe a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. (I haven’t come across anything suggesting he’s Jimmy Hoffa yet, but I wouldn’t put it past us…)
This is fun to speculate about, but I’m not sure that trying to figure out his identity (if, in fact he’s anyone other than who Genesis 14 says he is) will get us any closer to being the people God created us to be. So let’s not get bogged down in the Maybe Game.
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So what can we learn from the story of Melchizedek that can help us?
Hebrews 7 is great reading, but unless you need to be guided out of obsolete attachments to the Mosaic Law in general and Aaronic priesthood specifically like First Century Jews did, it’s not terribly practical for today’s Christians.
So when I think about Melchizedek, I’d rather focus on what it says about him in Genesis 14, and in this text, I think there are at least two facts worth picking up on:
1. Genesis 14:18 says he was priest of God Most High.
2. Some Bible translations identify Salem, which Melchizedek was king of, as the spot we now know as Jerusalem.
So apparently, 14 generations before David, and six generations before Aaron, there was already a righteous king in Jerusalem, who happened to also be priest of God Most High. If God had already established a righteous priestly order and a benign and functional monarchy in Jerusalem, what on earth did He need Abram and his descendants for?
Only to be the people group that produces the Saviour of humanity … but none of them knew that at the time.
Do you ever feel like you’ve been called and anointed to fill a need, only to discover that someone else is already doing it, and doing it well? And if so, do you stop pursuing that call?
Good thing Abram didn’t do that.
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But setting all of those questions about Melchizedek’s identity, and why there was already a priest/king in Jerusalem, the word about Melchizedek that speaks loudest for me is much less grand, and it’s not even in the text.
You see, there’s nothing (that I can find) to indicate that prior to Genesis 14, Abram had any contact with any other believers. He’s called and sent by God in Genesis 12, and while some members of his family accompany him on his pilgrimage to Canaan, it’s pretty clear they’re (sometimes reluctantly) following Abram, not God.
Along the way, Abram makes allies, but I don’t get the sense that there’s a real connection with any of them. Abram’s only real friend is God, and he only hears from Him every couple of years, at most.
Being the only person in the world who knew God (to the best of his knowledge) had to make Abram feel pretty special, but pretty alone.
But finally, in Genesis 14, he meets up with a kindred spirit in Melchizedek. What a relief it must have been to finally find another believer!
Have you ever felt like you’re alone in a wilderness full of people who don’t know God?
Have you ever been comforted and strengthened when you’ve unexpectedly encountered another believer in that wilderness?
Is God calling you to be a Melchizedek to an isolated Christian in your world?
Salem be with you.