Malankara World

General Articles and Essays

Melchizedek

by H G Yuhanon Meletius

Melchizedek and Abram
Abram with his trained men and Melchizedek ready to feed them.
(Picture courtesy: Biblical Art on WWW)

Q: Can you help me by throwing some light on Melchizedek? The mention in Holy Bible is too brief for me to understand much.

A: We read about Melchizedek mostly in the book of Hebrews, about 8 references. The book of Hebrews is from an anonymous author who wanted to write about priesthood.

The meaning of the name is "My King is Righteous" or ‘king of Salem’ (peace, Hebrews 7:2 – because he was king of Jerusalem which was the ‘city of peace’. This was only a claim. No time in history, this city was a city of peace, not even today). This is a name used by many kings of the time making claim on their character.

The Melchizedek, mentioned in Gen. 14:18-20, was the king of Jerusalem. He is said to be also the priest of god "El Elyon" or most high god. But having kingship and priesthood combined in one person was never a situation either in the Canaanite religion or in Israelite religion. This again was a creation of Davidic tradition.

As you may know, El was the god of Canaanites and El Elyon may have claim that it is even superior to El. The text that refers to the event of Abraham with the king is considered to be a later addition that it disturbs the flow of the story of Abraham with the king of Sodom.

Melchizedek ruled in Jerusalem and Jerusalem, later became the city of David, and that is where the temple was built. David appointed Zadokite priests in Jerusalem (2 Sam. 8:17. Abimelech was the priest who helped David when he was fighting against king Saul, 1Sam. 21). As a matter of fact, Zadokite priests were not from Israelite tribe. But David wanted to legitimize Zadokite priests’ appointment and probably created the story.

It is interesting to note that the only place other than this where Melchizedek is mentioned in Old Testament is in Psalm 110 (v. 4) which is a royal psalm which legitimizes the rule of the new king in the family of David. It was from this psalm, probably the author of the book of Hebrews got the theme (Hebrews quotes Psalm 110:4. Also see Hebrews 5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:1, 10, 11, 15, 17). David or Davidic tradition wanted to say that the appointment of Zadokite priests is quite legitimate as their ancestor Melchizedek was the king as well as a priest and he worshiped El Elyon, a name later Israel accepted for their God over against the Canaanite god El.

To David, therefore, it is quite legitimate to appoint the descendants of that priest-king on Jerusalem as God chose Jerusalem as his abode. As a matter of fact, selection of Jerusalem as the city of sanctuary was a political move on the part of David to make all the warring 12 tribes come under him. Jerusalem was not part of any one of the 12 tribes' territory, rather was the private property of David (2 Sam. 5:1 ff.). He knew that religion is the only element that can truly unite the people. This was in fact against the nature of Yahweh who always wanted to be with the people and this was voiced in several places in the OT (2 Sam. 7:6; 1 Kings 6:13; ).

The reference to bread and wine that the king offered to Abraham was not part of the religious offering; rather it was only food for Abraham. But, of course, the reference just following that which says he ‘was the priest of most high’ give such an impression.

There is no place in OT where it is suggested that bread and wine are the materials for offering in a sanctuary. It was Clement of Alexandria and Cyprian who made this interpretation first and then was adopted in the Church. Even the book of Hebrews does not give this impression.

In simple terms, we may say that when David wanted to create an unchallenged capital, he initiated the building of a central sanctuary in Jerusalem that was his private property and was not part of the territory of any of the tribes. Though he was not able to build the temple, he brought the ark in to the tent he made there. Then he appointed the Zadokite priests as clerics there. To legitimize this act he introduced the story of Abraham paying tithe to the king-priest of Jerusalem.

The reference to ‘Melchizedek not in the genealogical list of Israel’ (Hebrews 7:1-3) is quite natural because he was not an Israelite. Because he was not in the list, no body knows who his father and mother were.

This is the story of Melchizedek.



Q: From what Your Grace had explained to me on Melchizedek, does it mean that he is not a real character? Or even if he is real, does it mean that he is not that important a character?

As far as I understand, during the Thooyoba shusroosha, there are 2 orders Aronya kramam and Melchizedek kramam. With Christ initiating the HQ at Sehion Malika, the old system of BALIYARPANAM has become irrelevant and the new one commenced. Also, the Levi claim to priesthood too came to an end. Here, people say that we now follow the Melchizedek order. Am I right or wrong in having understood things like this? If wrong, please correct me.

Answer:

Of course Melchizedek is a real character, one among several kings of the region. But every thing attributed on him may not suit him.

Christian denominations and communities within denominations, even individuals have different approach to and way of interpreting Bible, events recorded in it and people referred in. What happened between Abraham and Melchizedek was a normal thing of that time. Abram was not a king. He was a tribe/clan leader (a wandering Aramean in Biblical terminology Ref. Deut. 26: 5). Those days, kings would attack each other for control of territory and to get valuable things from palaces, temples and from rich people of the region. When we say kings, we do not have to compare them with the idea of kings of recent past. They can also be tribal leaders and desert raiders.

It so happened that Lot, Abram’s nephew got in to trouble and was taken captive by those raiders. This was intimated to Abram and he went with his men and rescued Lot.

The king of Sodom and his allies who were defeated by the invading army came and met Abram and thanked him and offered all that Abram got from the raiders. King of Salem brought some food for him, probably to thank and entertain him. Of course king of Salem was not a party in the war. But wanted to thank him as Sodom was in the neighborhood of Salem and any attack from outside would also be a threat to Salem too. Remember that Salem was in the hill top and Sodom was in the valley. It was easier to first take the valley and then go up to the mountain.

Though Salem was not under immediate threat, there was the possibility of raiders coming back for the hill country. With what Abram did, king of Salem had a sigh of relief at least for the time being. So he came with food to entertain Abram and his warriors.

The king of Sodom and allies offered everything Abram captured from the raiders which belonged to the defeated kings and their subjects. They asked Abram to return only those people who were saved from the hands of the raiders. But Abram gave away every thing because he did not want them say later that Abram became rich because of the plunder he recovered from the raiders that originally belonged to the king of Sodom and allies. More over, he was not a party to the war between two rival allied forces. He just wanted to rescue his nephew.

This is the story in plain language. It so happened that king of Salem was also the priest of the community and he worshiped El Eliyon (the most high god or god of mountain. It was an archaic poetic title). When it was linked with god of Israel many a time the title was ‘Yahweh Elion” (Ps. 7:17/18). It should be noted that the name of the God of Abram was not most high god, rather was God of Abram. But after the conquest of Jerusalem by king David, God of Abraham also was named “Most High God”. Abram had nothing to do with this god.

In the pre-Moses period, God of Israel was commonly known as El Shaddai (almighty). Those days, gods were usually named after the tribe/clan leaders or important place.

But it was Psalm 110 (which is a royal Psalm and it makes all the difference) who took the idea of comparing the king of Israel with Melchizedek and his priestly function. Israel’s kings were never priests. Some of the prophets were as a matter of fact priests (eg. Isaiah).

This lone reference in the Psalm was taken up by the author of the epistle of Hebrews. This got transferred to Christian circles and people made a case out of this. I would not call these statements irrational or untrue. They are rather meditations of pious people who interpret Bible and its content for the sake of their spiritual nourishment. It, however, does not mean that every one has to follow that interpretation and should make it a universally accepted fact. Some of these pious explanations may also get in to liturgical text too.

To Orthodox Church the H. Qurbono is not a copy or continuation of the upper room dinner alone. Of curse it is part of it. To us the real Passover happened on the cross which was the climax of a life dedicated for the salvation of creation. So H. Qurbono is the sum total of birth, life, last supper, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of our Lord (this is expressly stated in the H. Qurbono).

Jesus had bread and wine at the last supper not because Melchizedek gave them to Abram. In the case of both Abram and Jesus, they were part of common meal. Jesus did not have meat on his table because he was not celebrating Jewish Passover, rather he was doing it on the previous day of Passover which was the day of "Anticipatory Passover" (cheru pesaha in Malayalam liturgical hynm. John 13:1. “Now before the feast of Passover. Compare it with Matthew 26:17; Mk. 14:12. “Now the first day…”). That is why he had leavened bread.

Some times too many traditions get entangled in one single expression of faith and it gets so confusing. A careful study of the Bible and development of the liturgical practices would get us to the crust of the matter and then we have to translate it to the present day situation. This is what is the need of the time and that is our challenge.

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