Hebrews 7 – Melchizedek and Typology

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.

San Vitale basilica, Ravenna, MelchizedekWhat 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?

10 thoughts on “Hebrews 7 – Melchizedek and Typology

  1. I’m not sure how the style of interpretation in Hebrew 7 fits into our world today, particularly at a GGF college where literal interpretation is very strongly emphasized. So, reading this whole section in Jobes’ book is mildly difficult through that lense. However it is important to understand that to the Jews reading this in the first century, these analogies are completely accurate, and barely a stretch at all. It’s important to understand that part of this interpretation, and understand that if you have to really dig into something to form an analogy; the analogy probably wasn’t there to begin with. Jobes gives two rather important reasons why this analogy is completely valid. First, Melchizedek’s priesthood came before the Levitical priesthood, and because of that the Levitical priesthood was “relativized” (Jobes 106). My understanding of what that means is that the Levitical covenant is made less valid, and less relevant, because of the predation of Melchizedek’s. Since Jesus is associated with this priesthood, he is part of a priesthood that “outside the ritual structures of Judaism” (Jobes 104), and therefore opens the door for God to be worshiped outside that Jewish structure. The second reason the analogy is legitimate because it, again relativized the Levitical priesthood, in that there is an implication of “eternal priesthood” (Jobes 106). This eternal priesthood is important to understanding this because it implies that the Levitical priesthood will end, while Melchizedek’s will not, because it had no end or beginning according to Hebrews.

  2. I think the important thing to consider, and Zac touched on this a bit, is the context. The Jews living back then were so much more rooted in the Torah – especially those whose duty it was to keep the Scriptures. The writer of Hebrews uses the midrash style of interpretation in arguing Jesus’ superiority to Moses and “context is critical in midrashic readings.” (Long, 34) As a 21st century Western-born Christian, I sometimes scratch my head at all the connections made by the New Testament writers between fulfilled prophecy in Christ and passages in the Psalms the seem to have to with something completely different. But especially in the case of the Melchizedek passage, sometimes the things that seem out of place or obscure carry more significance than we first realize. We need to trust that those prophets “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:21b)

  3. The writer of Hebrews makes a necessary argument in chapter 7, that is still necessary to modern audiences. Without chapter 7 explaining the connections between Melchizedek and Jesus, an educated reader of the Scriptures could completely disregard his claims of Jesus being a priest. Jesus was not of the tribe of Levi and, by all apparent standards, unqualified to be a priest. “For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests.” (Heb 7:14). A modern skeptic could tear apart any Christological ideas based on Christ being our high priest by simply pointing to what the writer of Hebrews acknowledges. The writer makes an absolutely necessary argument about Jesus’ connection to Melchizedek. Jesus is qualified to be a priest “…not on the basis of a legal requirement concerning bodily descent, but by the power of an indestructible life” (Heb 7:16). Jesus is qualified to be a priest because he shares the same qualifications that Melchizedek had. And because of their qualifications, both are superior to the Levitical priesthood established by Moses.

    In consideration of Hebrews 7 as a guide for interpreting scripture in a modern context, making connections between Jesus and stories from the Hebrew bible is evidently not an incorrect method of interpretation. However, the modern audience is not nearly as educated in the Hebrew Scriptures as the original audience of Hebrews was.

  4. I would find it ironic if someone based their theology on the allegorical or literal interpretation on this one chapter and thoughts from our reader in Hebrews. Why shouldn’t we use the scriptures as an allegory for our lives? Well, i would argue that if we begin to do this, we will start to read way to far into the text. The author of these different books had a purpose and thought behind every word that they wrote, and yet they still wanted to be understood by their readers. i have a hard time believing that ancient biblical writers would assume that people would be studying their texts thousands of years later. And even if they had this thought, there would be no way to have a true allegory to our modern day as the world is a completely different place than it was then. Our author of Hebrews upheld the integrity of the biblical text in these statements from the Old Testament but said that it could still apply to our messiah as a great illustration that the people would understand. Even in the pulpit today, we use the scriptures to relate to our lives and what we are going through, but these are simply illustrations. I believe that we need to be very very careful when it comes to falling into a complete allegorical method in which the original text is distorted in order to fit a mold. In 2nd peter 1:20-21, we find an explanation to our the idea of our interpretation of the scriptures. It tells us that prophecy (or scripture) did not come from man, but from God. The verse does talk about the origin of scriptures, so technically it does not say that we should avoid allegoricalizing a passage, but i fear that we can twist the scriptures much to easily, instead of teaching what it says. So no, i do not see a problem with this allegorical use of the story of Melchizedek that we find in the old testament in Hebrews, ant yet this use was to enlighten a group who could already connect some dots, but i do not feel as if we should do the same today for the whole of our biblical account.

  5. I very much enjoy your wordpress articles but I’m afraid we would differ on typology! It’s worth noting that in the Aramaic P’shitta Letter to the Hebrews, references to the priesthood of Melchisedec and Yeshue don’t use the word cohen/kahna but the word kumrea. What is extremely significant is that in the NT, kumrea is only found in the letter to the Hebrews! Further, kumrea is used in the OT/Tanakh as the designation of non-Levitical priests such as Jethro! I would think that these points are especially interesting for those who believe in typology.

    I have several translations of the western and eastern NT. It is evident that Aramaic texts vary far less than most Greek texts! ….But we won’t mention the little matter of the omission of 5 books fron the eastern khabouris text!

    The sheer delight for me is making sense of what I read in Scripture, the Book of Life. A case in point is Romans 5:7, which in Greek and in all translations from the Greek just does not make any sense; however, in Aramaic is very clear. There are a number of instances where there is confusion in the Greek texts. For example in the writings of the Apostle Paul there are instances when he writes the name Jesus Christ, and other times he writes Christ Jesus. But all Aramaic texts only have …Yeshue Meshikha … Jesus Christ!

    What a privilege we have to study the most beautiful book!

    Every blessing to you my brother!
    Ralph, from across the pond, near Chester GB

    • Thanks for your comments, Ralph. It is great that we differ on typology, that gives us something to talk about! I realize that my resistance to typology is somewhat different, and I am not really sure why that is since I did a great deal with typology in my book. I dressed it up by calling it “intertextuality.” but sometimes that works out to about the same thing. My concern is the pastor who runs so far with an elaborate typology that it becomes an allegory with little drawn from the actual text. I think that by attending to the text of scripture itself, we will have plenty to keep us busy without the elaborate typology / allegorical methods.

  6. As far as using Hebrews 7 as a guide for interpreting Scripture in a modern context, I would say probably not. I agree that we should be careful when allegories as interpretations of Scripture, because they can cloud our vision of what is actually meant to be taken literally. I think that scripture is meant to be taken literally, with exemption to the obvious allegories and illustrations. Hebrews 7 shows the similarities between Melchizedek and Jesus, but also sets them apart, Jesus of course being the one who never dies. This distinction is good, because it draws a clear line between the two. I think it is important that we draw this line between any literal and allegorical passage. In that respect, I think Hebrews is a good guide to interpreting Scripture in a modern context.

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