Mysterious Melchizedek: A Working Theory of Hebrews 7
By Ed Vasicek
Part One: The Loud Silence
The writer to the Hebrews (perhaps Apollos?) is trying to convince tottering Jewish believers to remain true to Yeshua as Messiah. 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. He has proved Jesus’ superiority earlier by asserting His deity. Now He is proving Jesus’ superiority in His humanity.
The Melchizedek argument is intended to demonstrate that Yeshua (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, some rabbis 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), so 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.
I. 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.
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.
“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.
Verse 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.”
Part Two: The Argument from Midrash
There are different approaches to the subject of midrash (or its plural, midrashim). Put simply, a midrash is a Jewish style of elaboration, exposition, or “mining” of a text. The idea is to find both obvious teachings and teachings not immediately obvious — but still latent within the text. In my view, when a New Testament author “unlocks” teachings not immediately obvious, he has uncovered a “mystery.” Jesus did this to prove the resurrection from the Torah, much to consternation of Sadducees (Matthew 22:29-32).
The Book of Hebrews is one midrash after another. For example, chapter 6 is a midrash of Numbers 13-14. Chapter 7 is a midrash on Genesis 14:17-20 and Psalm 110:4. And it highlights the “loud silence” in these Old Testament texts.
To our thinking, midrash can sometimes be a bit of a textual stretch. That is why we trust the New Testament writers: they were supernaturally inspired of God. On the other side of the coin, we should demonstrate hesitation toward non-canonical midrash.
II. How Does Melchizedek Provide a Type of Christ?
Let’s compare and contrast Jesus and Melchizedek. The Genesis text offers no mention of Melchizedek’s genealogy. In His deity, the Son of God is actually without genealogy. Like Jesus in His humanity, Melchizedek was not a descendent of the priestly tribe of Levi or the specific priestly family of Aaron (13-14). Thus no priests in the order of Melchizedek descended from Aaron.
Melchizedek’s name foreshadows Who Jesus is: He is both the King of Righteousness and the priest who provides peace (“Salem” equals “shalom” which translates to “peace”). Unlike the Old Testament kings who could not qualify as priests, Jesus can be both King and priest, but a priest in the order of Melchizedek.
Thus the believer can draw near to God through Jesus. He makes intercession before God’s throne as our guarantor; He assures our continued salvation and status before God (25).
Just as there is no record of Melchizedek’s priesthood ending (but he did die, and his service as priest did end), Jesus’ priesthood is actually eternal (16). Again, the argument from silence paints a picture of one who appears to go on simply because we lack the information as to when he died. This lack of information is intentional on God’s part. If we had a record of Melchizedek’s death, then he would not accurately foreshadow our eternal and immortal priest. If we knew more about the man, he would have little value in foreshadowing Jesus.
III. How Does the Genesis Text Prove Melchizedek (and thus Jesus) Is Greater than Abraham?
Since the Jewish people revere Abraham as the Father of Judaism, if the writer to the Hebrews can successfully argue that according to the Old Testament Melchizedek was greater than Abraham, he can embolden the wavering members of this congregation to stay the course and continue following Jesus Who is of Melchizedek’s superior order. He can also demonstrate that those who have forsaken Jesus and returned to non-Messianic Judaism have returned to something inferior.
It might seem obvious that a Messiah Who is deity has to be greater than any mortal. No Jew, for example, would assert that Abraham was greater than Yahweh. The writer to the Hebrews has proven that the Messiah had to be deity based upon a variety of Old Testament passages. This is something mainstream Judaism did not see.
Yet we must remember this: the reason we accept Jesus’ deity is because He proved it through His humanity. It was in His flesh that He asserted that He and the Father were One (John 10:30). It is in His bodily resurrection that He is declared to be the Son of God (Romans 1:4). If we prove He is a dependable teacher of God’s truth, then we have to accept His claims to deity. So the writer to the Hebrews is getting to the same point another time through a different route.
By proving that Melchizedek was greater than Abraham, the writer to the Hebrews will burst the bubble. If anyone can be greater than Abraham, than perhaps Jesus’ claims to be greater are not as audacious as they seem (John 8:53, 58). If the Old Testament suggests that Melchizedek is greater than Abraham, and if it prophesies that the Messiah will be after the order of Melchizedek, it follows that the Messiah is greater than Abraham, and thus pre-Messianic Judaism (represented by Abraham) is inferior to Messianic Judaism/Christianity (represented by Jesus).
Here is the argument: Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek, and Melchizedek blessed Abraham (6). One pays tithes to a priest who is somehow spiritually privileged in a way the contributor is not. Melchizedek is, in at least some sense, the “greater man of God.” Second, blessing another suggests the one blessing is superior in some way. When Jacob blessed his sons, he was conveying the blessing downward. In Jacob’s case, he was reverenced because he was older and was their father. In that sense he was superior. But Melchizedek’s blessing is from a priest to a layman. In at least that sense (his position), he was superior to Abraham.
The writer to the Hebrews follows the tradition of Midrash by extending the Genesis text even further. Since some of Levi’s genes were present in Abraham (Abraham was his great-grandfather), in a sense Levi was paying tithes to Melchizedek. Since Levi’s descendent, Aaron, would become the first priest in the Aaronic order (the priesthood under the Law), the Aaronic priesthood (through Abraham) acknowledged the superiority of the Order of Melchizedek.
It might seem quite a stretch, but there is a clear logical path to what the writer is asserting.
The Law appointed priests based upon inheritance (descent from Aaron), but the Father prophesied He would appoint the Messiah as a priest by an oath (Psalm 110:4). Thus Jesus was appointed priest by God’s intentional oath (20-21).
Although some have tried to look for incidents in Jesus’ life where the Father implied such an oath, my view is that the oath was given back in Psalm 110:4. It did not need to be repeated. Still, other possibilities exist, as when the Father expressed His pleasure with the Son (Matthew 3:17), or at His resurrection or Ascension.
IV. Since Jesus’ Priesthood is Superior to that of the Torah, the Law has to be upgraded.
Hebrews 7:12 (ESV) reads, “For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.”
Some later Jews expected the Messiah to adjust the Torah, reflecting this same idea. In Vayikra Rabba, sect. 9, fol. 153, and Rabbi Tanchum, fol. 55:
Rabbi Phineas, Rabbi Levi, and Rabbi Jochanan, from the authority of Rabbi Menachem of Galilee, said, In the time of the Messiah all sacrifice shall cease, except the sacrifice of praise.
In many instances, Jewish traditions were embraced for centuries before they were codified in writing. Either way, the Hebrews text makes it clear that, with the Messiah-King-Priest comes a change in Torah!
Some of God’s Law is based upon the character of God and thus changeless; some commands are based upon the unique purposes He has for Israel or the church.
When our kids were young, we drew up a self-made will, saying our minor children would be raised by my sister, but there came a time when that clause was no longer irrelevant, and we drew up another will.
The King of the Universe knows what He is doing. God never ad-libs, nor does He have to cover up. When Moses compiled Genesis 14, Moses included precious little about Melchizedek, a man of whom we would expect to read chapter after chapter. This was intentional. It was a loud silence that the writer to the Hebrews expounds.