In Hebrews 7, a character from the Hebrew Bible is used by the writer as a way to talk about Jesus in the present age. This method of interpretation is sometimes called “typology.” As Karen Jobes states in Letters to the Church, this method attempts to understand earlier persons, events, and institutions drawn from the Hebrew Bible as anticipations of later persons, events, and institutions (48). Some events in the Old Testament are described in the New Testament as having anticipated the events of the New Testament. For example, the Passover Lamb is clearly an anticipation of the sacrifice of Christ, the lamb of the Passover can be called a “type” of Christ. In the case of Melchizedek in Hebrews 7, the priest-king of Salem is described as a “type” of Christ.
What is “typological” in Melchizedek’s story, and what is not? Two elements are highlighted by the writer of Hebrews – his name and his lack of genealogy. Not everything in Gen 14 is significant for the writer of Hebrews. Noticeably absent from this “typology” is Melchizedek bringing food and wine to Abram. Some in the early church took this as Communion and taught that Abram celebrated the communion with Melchizedek. The food and wine were simply part of the sacrifice and the blessing that followed and not a foreshadowing of the Eucharist.
The first point drawn from the Genesis story is the name Melchizedek, “King of Righteousness” and his title, “King of Salem,” meaning “King of Peace.” The name can mean “King of righteousness,” or “my king is righteous.” Either way the emphasis is on righteousness. The city of Salem may be the city of Jerusalem, which probably means “foundation of peace.” The combination of righteousness and peace is the element of the story that is significant to our writer, Jesus is the combination of righteousness and peace, and is able to bring both to the world in his death.
It was expected that the Messiah would be both a righteous ruler and a bringer of peace (Isa 9:6, Isa 32:17, Jer 23:5-6, 33:15) Thus Melchizedek is a fit analogy for Jesus because Melchizedek combines both the king and priest into one person, and is called both the Righteous King and the Peaceful King, as is Jesus as the Messiah.
The second element drawn from Gen 14 is the fact that Melchizedek has no genealogy. The Genesis story introduces Melchizedek without any hint as to who he is, as it we are supposed to know who he is. That there is no genealogy may be simply because there is no reason in the flow of Gen 14 to give the genealogy of Melchizedek. There are quite a few characters who are introduced without genealogy, but since Melchizedek is a priest it is more significant. The Law is quite clear that a priest must be from the tribe of Levi, later Ezra was quite careful to ensure that all of the priests who were serving could prove their genealogy.
The significance for the writer of Hebrews is not that his genealogy is not mentioned at all. Reading this from the perspective of first century Hellenism, this would be understood as a claim of divinity. The gods are sometimes described as “without mother or father.” The idea that the Messiah would be “without descendants” or ancestors may have been suggested by Isaiah 53:8a “By oppression and judgment he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants?” Because of this fact he is a worthy analogy of Christ, a priest from an order other than Aaron’s Levitical priesthood. Jesus was a priest, but not in the line of Aaron, he was from this independent line of priests, like Melchizedek.
The danger of a “type” is in taking the analogy too far and creating an allegory out of the original text. Types are analogies, and as such they have some parallels, but the analogy breaks down if you press it too far. The early church loved typological interpretation, pressing details for hard that they were allegorizing every minor element of an Old Testament story into a spiritual meaning for the New Testament era. In an effort to get behind the text and find the hidden meaning, the obvious meaning of the text was lost. There is no basis for most of the interpretations, for example, any four colors represent the four gospels, etc.
I find it troublesome to interpret stories from the Hebrew Bible as “types” today because I am not a prophet (nor the son of a prophet). Part of the problem is my Western “fear of allegory” as an interpretive method. Frankly, the writer of Hebrews would not score very high on a paper for my class using this sort of typological method. And that raises a question – what do we make of his argument about Jesus based on Melchizedek? His method was sound in the first century, but it is not really going to convince a modern skeptic.
Is there any way to use Hebrews 7 as a “guide” for interpreting scripture in a modern context?