Hebrews 7:1-3 – The Priesthood of Melchizedek

One of the more tantalizing problems in Hebrews is the identification of Jesus as a priest in the order of Melchizedek. Since the author of Hebrews is making the argument that Jesus is the ideal High Priest, someone might object that Jesus cannot be the High Priest since he is not from the tribe of Levi. No one from Judah could be selected as a priest, let alone a high priest. In order to solve this problem, Hebrews will identify Jesus as a priest in a different line, one that is superior to the tribe of Levi or the lines of Aaron and Zadok.

melchizedek2In the Hebrew Bible, Melchizedek is identified as both a priest and king of the city of Salem (Gen 14). After Abram rescues Lot from Mesopotamian invaders he is met by Melchizedek. He is simply identified as a “priest of God Most High” (כֹהֵ֖ן לְאֵ֥ל עֶלְיֽוֹן). He brings both bread and wine and blesses Abram, who gives the priest a tithe from the plunder.

He is mentioned a second time in Psalm 110, perhaps the most cited messianic Psalm in the New Testament. What is important for our reading of Heb 7 is that the Psalm connects the Davidic ruler to “the priesthood of Melchizedek.” Melchizedek was the priest-king of Jerusalem years before David captured the city and established it as his capitol. It is possible that David took over the title of “priest-king” of Jerusalem when he captured the Jebusite city. The kings of Judah could therefore be considered priests “in the order of Melchizedek.”

There were a number of interpretations of Melchizedek current in the first century, perhaps explaining why the author of Hebrews used this rather obscure character as an analogy for Jesus.  The Dead Sea scrolls make Melchizedek into a paradigm for the righteous remnant, awaiting the return of the Messiah.  He functions very much like Michael in Dan 12.  He is a defender of Israel who will return to punish those who opposed the righteous remnant. The Targum Jonathan argued that Melchizedek was Shem, the son of Noah.  In the genealogies of Genesis, Shem would outlived Abraham by 35 years.  The Jews sought to find a way to explain the great Abraham giving honor to Melchizedek, they did this by making him one of Abraham’s great ancestors. The philosopher Philo described Melchizedek as the “divine logos,” not God but God’s representative in this world

The reason for all this speculation is that there is not much said in Gen 14 about who Melchizedek.  That he worships the God Most High and was the king of Salem, presumably Jerusalem is remarkable. But how can the “line of Melchizedek” superior to Levitical priesthood?

The tithe that Abram gave to Melchizedek is used as a “proof” that Melchizedek is greater than the Levitical priesthood. In the Genesis 14 story it is unusual that Abram would tithe any of the plunder, although it was common for a portion of plunder to be given to the priesthood in ancient near eastern cultures. The writer of Hebrews draws out a further point from of the story:  since the Levitical priests are present in Abram, their ancestor, the Levitical Priests paid the tithe to Melchizedek themselves.

This is a fascinating albeit odd interpretation drawn from the Hebrew Bible. Reading only Genesis 14, one would never imagine that there was an “order of Melchizedek,” nor that the Messiah would be a priest like Melchizedek. But this is not Western, modern exegesis, but a style of reading the Hebrew Bible that would have “worked” in synagogues in the first century.  How “literally” should we take this “line of Melchizedek”?  Or is the writer using exegetical techniques that modern readers have (rightly) left behind?

5 thoughts on “Hebrews 7:1-3 – The Priesthood of Melchizedek

  1. I think that we should take Jesus being in the line of Melchizedek literal. Partly because in Psalm 110:4 it says as a prophesy “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: ‘You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek'” and in Hebrews 6:20 that prophecy was fulfilled. And secondly, because I don’t think that when God inspired the author of Psalm, or any of the rest of the Bible, I don’t think that He would inspire something Jesus, to not be taken literally.

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  2. The line of Melchizedek is very hard to figure out as the Bible has very little to say on him. He seems to be a man who appeared in history at one point, and was never mentioned again. It is odd that Melchizedek, a person who ministered to Abram and was king of Salem, would be so mysterious. One would think that a man of his importance would be recorded much better. Did historians accidentally skip over him? Certainly, Melchizedek was a real man as he is included in Genesis, but what of his line connecting to Jesus? I think the way the author of Hebrews uses that analogy is effective still. His analogy is this: “Therefore, it is the eternality of Jesus’ priesthood by virtue of his pre-existent sonship and his resurrection into eternal life that is the major point of analogy with Melchizedek” (Jobes 106).
    As Melchizedek isn’t recorded to die, he is portrayed to be eternal in his line descending to Jesus. As God inspired Scripture, He may have left the line of Melchizedek as a mysterious topic, or maybe they fell under the radar, only for God to pull his name out to once again show us his omniscience and sovereign work. I seem to think that the line of Melchizedek is meant to be literal as it is entirely within the power of God to pull that off. But I honestly would not be able to defend that position, and would resort to simply sticking to the analogy and how the author of Hebrews is making the point that Jesus, although not a Levite, is eternal and is our great High Priest.

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  3. We should take the line of Melchizedek literally. However, as Josh said, “I honestly would not be able to defend that position…” There is no definitive proof Biblically for a literal line of Melchizedek. There is case however for a connection between Melchizedek and Jesus, as Hebrews 7 discusses. The connection between the two is not portrayed as being from descent but from their unique qualifications. I do find it interesting that the Davidic line could be considered in the line of Melchizedek, but I do not think that is what the writer of Hebrews is aiming for. Whoever Melchizedek was, whether Shem or just a random guy, he had some unique qualifications that the writer of Hebrews found to be a compelling connection for Christ to be considered a priest as well. Perhaps the 1st century beliefs and legends around Melchizedek made him a prime example, or perhaps he was who Hebrews says he is. Either way, as Josh said “…the author of Hebrews is making the point that Jesus, although not a Levite, is eternal and is our great High Priest.” However we come to terms with the exact details of Melchizedek is not particularly the authors intent, but that Christ is qualified to be our High Priest in the way Melchizedek was.

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