Ktismatics

8 April 2012

The Order of Melchizedek

Filed under: Christianity — ktismatics @ 7:38 am

Thou art a priest forever
According to the order of Melchizedek
– Psalm 110:4, quoted in the Epistle to the Hebrews 5:6

Just for Easter/Passover, imagine that the Biblical texts are historically accurate. The Messiah was prophesied to be king of Israel; Jesus, being of the house of David and thus the tribe of Judah, could fulfill the criteria for being messianic king. But Psalm 110 presents a priestly Messiah, and according to the Law the priests must come from the tribe of Levi, not Judah. But the Psalmist clarifies: the Messiah is to be both king and priest, like Melchizedek, and Melchizedek’s priestly order is not predicated on being a Levite.

An enigmatic figure, Melchizedek makes his brief onstage appearance in the Book of Genesis, before the formation of Israel and long before the Jews’ Exodus from Egypt when Moses brought the Tablets down from Mount Sinai and his older brother Aaron established the Levitical priesthood. In Genesis 14 the kings of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim, and Bela are arraying themselves for battle against the kings of Elam, Goiim, Shinar, and Ellasar. After the four kings defeated the five in the tar pits of Siddim, the remnant of the conquered armies fled into the hills, taking with them their spoils and captives from the sack of Sodom and Gomorrah, including Lot, Abram’s nephew, who had been living in Sodom at the time. When word reached Abram he marshaled his trained men, three hundred eighteen in number, and defeated the straggling captors, pushing them back to the north beyond Damascus.

And he brought back all the goods, and also brought back his relative Lot with his possessions, and also the women, and the people. Then after his return from the smiting of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him in the valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s valley). And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; now he was a priest of God Most High. And he blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand.” And he gave him a tenth of all. And the king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give the people to me and take the goods for yourself.” And Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have sworn to Yahweh God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth, that I will not take a thread or a sandal thong or anything that is yours, lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’ I will take nothing except what the young men have eaten, and the share of the men who went with me, Aner, Eshol, and Mamre; let them take their share.” (Genesis 14:17-24)

Melchizedek was king of Salem, which I had always presumed was one of “the nations” later positioned in contrast and opposition to Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures. After doing a bit of investigation I discovered that in all likelihood Salem = Jerusalem (Psalm 76:2), a city that was ancient even back in Abram’s time. Melchizedek was both king of Salem and priest of “the God Most High” whom Abram also served.The land that Yahweh promised to Abram and his seed was situated in the shadow of a capital city that already honored Yahweh. A footloose Babylonian, Abram had by this time settled in Canaan for the second time, so he would have been familiar with Salem, by reputation if not by direct experience.

So here’s something I’d never considered before. After Abram became “exalted father” Abraham, after his great-grandson Joseph moved the family to Egypt, after the family had over many generations been fruitful and multiplied, after Moses led them out of Egypt into the desert, after they became a wandering nation founded on the Law and the Levitical priesthood, when at last Joshua led them across the Jordan, the people of Israel would have experienced their arrival in Canaan as the return to an ancient, nearly mythic realm that in ages past had been presided over by the legendary Melchizedek, a king and priest who had served the God of Israel before there even was an Israel. Finally, many generations later, when King David conquered (Jeru)Salem, the restoration was complete, with David and his heirs becoming the titular successors to Melchizidek, storied priest-king of the God Most High.

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11 Comments »

  1. The long story arcs of the Bible, where the plot unfolds over not just years but centuries, where your life is always imbued with meaning and purpose, where intentionality is both immanent and transcendent, pushing you from the Beginning and pulling you toward the End — I’m struck by the compare-and-contrast with the Neuropath’s Argument and Robbe-Grillet’s aesthetic from the prior posts.

    And I’m thinking also about noir setups. The private eye is always charged with finding something or delivering something. He is beset by dead ends, temptations, double-crosses, violence. He’s getting paid good money, but not enough to justify the risks. He’s a pro, a man of the code, and though he’s reluctant to admit it, deep down he loves the work. If he is Jesus or Frodo or John Wayne he eventually fulfills the mission. But if he is Robert Mitchum the mission itself goes south, across the border, until he finds himself throwing down shots of bourbon in an Acapulco cantina coming to the realization that even if he gets the job done he’s going to regret it. So maybe he abandons the mission, goes even farther south, hops a freighter for Chile with the dame and the dough. Or maybe he gets out of the game altogether, opens up a little a gas station out in the sticks. But the boss has agents everywhere: eventually somebody finds you, drags you back into the game.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 9 April 2012 @ 9:49 am

  2. Interesting. I guess you’ve already looked at the Wikipedia entry on Melchizedek,which covers most of the possibilities. I looked up this passage in Robert Crumb’s illustrated book of Genesis, and the Melchizedek scene gets a rare explanatory note caption re El-Elyon: ” El-Elyon: Hebrew for ‘ God Most High’, but also the proper name of the sky God in the Canaanite pantheon. ” That suggests some questions, but it also suggests the simplest explanation, which accords with what I take to be the sense of the story: that Abraham refuses ‘the stuff’ because he doesn’t want whichever – the king of Sodom (if Melchizedek is a mis-translation) or the God of the Canaanites – to be able to claim to be the source of Abraham’s fortune, rather than Yahweh. And the other one in the psalm is someone else, or one of the variety of possible mis-translations discussed in the wiki article.

    ” The long story arcs of the Bible, where the plot unfolds over not just years but centuries, where your life is always imbued with meaning and purpose, where intentionality is both immanent and transcendent…”

    The bread and butter of the fantasy/ sci-fi genre. Catch up on Game of Thrones – season 1 HBO already available online ( don’t PIRATE it!!! – no, no , no! you can get 200 years in Guantanamo for that now).

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    Comment by lafayettesennacherib — 9 April 2012 @ 1:37 pm

  3. My Hebrew Torah commentary contends that Abram converted Melchizedek to the God Most High, thus putting Abram back on top of the exchange. There were all sorts of gods claiming to be the most high hanging around in the Middle East, and it’s possible that the conversion went the other direction, even though the Torah has Yahweh calling Abram all the way back in Ur. I’m sure that the keepers of the Jewish oral tradition had plenty to say about this anomalous and ambiguous figure Melchizedek.The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, after making the Melchizedek-Jesus analogy, writes this gnostic-sounding slap in the readers’ faces about Melchizedek:

    Concerning him we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for some one to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. (Hebrews 5:11-12)

    You may have seen in your Wikian investigations that one of the Dead Sea scrolls refers to Melchizedek as an eternal being, maybe an angel or even a material manifestation of Yahweh himself, rather like the claims made on Jesus’ behalf by his PR men. The writer of Hebrews may have been alluding to this mystic tradition when, after reiterating the bits about Melchizedek being king of Salem and accepting a tenth of the spoils from Abraham as tithe in his role as priest of the Most High God, he wrote:

    Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God, he abides a priest perpetually. (Hebrews 7:3)

    The Mormons inverted the hierarchical order: instead of Jesus the Son being of the order of Melchizedek, Melchizedek was of the order of the Son, who was the original and eternal high priest. Here’s what Joseph Smith had to say:

    Now this Melchizedek was a king over the land of Salem; and his people had waxed strong in iniquity and abomination; yea, they had all gone astray; they were full of all manner of wickedness; But Melchizedek having exercised mighty faith, and received the office of the high priesthood according to the holy order of God, did preach repentance unto his people. And behold, they did repent; and Melchizedek did establish peace in the land in his days; therefore he was called the prince of peace, for he was the king of Salem; and he did reign under his father. Now, there were many before him, and also there were many afterwards, but none were greater; therefore, of him they have more particularly made mention. (Book of Mormon, Alma 13:17-19)

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    Comment by ktismatics — 9 April 2012 @ 4:49 pm

  4. That really makes me interested in how the pre-Christian Jewish tradition treated Melchizedek. Unfortunately, all of my biblical study resources are in boxes in Huron, South Dakota….so interesting that the author of Hebrews condescends regarding Melchizedek: this is knowledge only for the spiritually enlightened, the advanced; you folks are still being bottle-fed. Really intriguing that the author says that.

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    Comment by erdman31 — 9 April 2012 @ 9:55 pm

  5. Bump to get email updates.

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    Comment by erdman31 — 9 April 2012 @ 9:55 pm

  6. “Bump to get emails”? This instruction is beyond my present level of enlightenment.

    The author does relent at least a little bit a couple of chapters later — Hebrews 7 is all about Melchizedek and the parallels with Jesus.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 9 April 2012 @ 10:11 pm

  7. Well I guess your Bible study resources outrank my Bob Crumb comic, so I’ll have to leave the ball with you, as they say ( or do they?). Ol’ Melchizedek, eh? Wot a cunt!

    And right enough, as Waynbro notes, that bit about the Melchizedek story being only for the grown ups is intriguing. Are there even more hidden layers of stone-age imbecilities hidden under the obvious ones?

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    Comment by lafayettesennacherib — 10 April 2012 @ 12:07 pm

  8. I like these Bible stories better now that I regard them as early forays into fantasy fiction. Similarly with object-oriented ontology and the like, which I now catalog as speculative fiction. I suspect you’d agree, though, that it’s possible to live one’s whole lifetime embedded inside a fictional narrative.

    “Waynbro”? Maybe you’re confusing the redoubtable Erdman, one of the very first commenters on Ktismatics, with someone else of your blogging acquaintance.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 10 April 2012 @ 12:15 pm

  9. Oh, I thought Erdman was one of Mr Kasper’s akas ( I still amn’t on top of this ‘warszawa’ thing the lads go on about). I call him Waynbro after a character in Michael Mann’s film ‘Heat’ ( which is notable for having both Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in it, and is otherwise a well-made boys’ adventure story). Erdman’s avatar actually looks Waynbro in the movie. The character is a psycho.

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    Comment by lafayettesennacherib — 10 April 2012 @ 3:16 pm

  10. Actually – I just checked – the Heat character is called ‘Waingro’. Weird name. I thought it was Waynbro as in ‘Wayne, brother’, like ‘Waineyboy’. I think Wainbro works better.

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    Comment by lafayettesennacherib — 10 April 2012 @ 3:25 pm

  11. Being “God Most High” implies that there are other, lower gods. The Torah certainly unfolds inside a polytheistic world. Commandment number one: I am Yahweh your god; you shall have no other gods before me.” Debate continues about whether the Trinitarian formula accurately captures Jesus’ status in the New Testament narrative. Here’s an alternative formulation:

    My father is a man
    I am son of my father
    Therefore…

    Yahweh is a god
    Jesus is son of Yahweh
    Therefore…

    Jesus is the firstborn among many brethren
    Jesus refers to people as his brothers
    Therefore…

    God told man to be fruitful and multiply
    God made man in his image and likeness
    Therefore…

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    Comment by ktismatics — 11 April 2012 @ 12:59 pm


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