Hebrews 7:1-3 – Who Was Melchizedek?

In Hebrews 5:1-10 the writer of Hebrews discussed the high priesthood of Christ. Jesus is the superior High Priest because he was a human, like us, yet he was also God.  Because of this unique combination, Jesus is able to be the perfect high priest forever, a priest that is not like the line of earthly priests descended from Aaron and the tribe of Levi, but a priest in the order of Melchizedek, the mysterious priest from Genesis 14. But because this was a difficult concept, the writer digresses into a warning to his readers not to be lazy in their spiritual development.  They ought to be interested in the difficult “meat” of the Word of God.

11Q Melchizedek

In chapter 7, the writer of Hebrews argues Jesus is the Perfect High Priest, in the order of Melchizedek, who serves as a “type” of Jesus Christ. Because Jesus is the Perfect High Priest, he is able to meet our needs in a way that no human priest ever could.

Melchizedek is identified by the writer of Hebrews as both a priest and a king. While he is mentioned in Genesis 14 and Psalm 110, there is a great deal of interest in him in the Second Temple period.  Genesis 14 describes Abram’s rescue of Lot from the hands of invaders from the east. Lot was living in Sodom when it was captured by five kings from the east. Abram rallies a small army and pursues the invaders, and routs their army.  While returning from the battle, Abram is met by Melchizedek, who greets him and blesses him.  Genesis 14:18-20 describes Abram worshiping the most High God with Melchizedek and offering a tithe to God through this mysterious priest.

Psalm 110 also refers to  Melchizedek.  This psalm is perhaps the most cited messianic Psalm in the New Testament.  The author of Hebrews used it in chapter 1 and it appears in Acts and Paul as well.  What is important for our reading of Heb 7 is that the Psalm connects the davidic ruler to “the priesthood 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 Daniel 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 indeed.  Perhaps the motivation is that Melchizedek was the king of Jerusalem in the age prior to the Davidic Kingdom.  Since David captured Jerusalem as his capitol, he became a king in the line of Melchizedek.  As the son of David, Jesus is both a king (in the line of David) and a priest (in the line of Melchizedek).

Hebrews 5:1-10 – The Great High Priesthood

In my last post on Hebrews I looked at Hebrews 4 as a part of the author’s argument that Jesus is superior to Moses and the priesthood of the Hebrew Bible.  This is the theme which will continue through chapter 10.  In fact the book of Hebrews is interested in Jesus as a priest more than any other book in the New Testament.  Jesus is called a priest and high priest only in this letter.  Since the argument of the next few chapters is based on the idea that Jesus is a priest in the order of Melchizedek, it is critically important to understand what these offices meant in the first century.

Two words of caution here.  First, the high priesthood of Jesus is based on the ideal forms found in the Bible, not in the high priesthood as it actually functioned in the first century.  By way of analogy, we could study the office of president of the United States as it is described in the constitution, or by the way various presidents have functioned as president over the more than two centuries.  James Buchanan, for example, usually is ranked at the bottom of the list of presidents by historians, mostly for his handling of the issues which erupted into the Civil War.

We would not, therefore, want to describe the office of president using Buchanan as our example!  In the same way, the high priests who held office in the first century were politically motivated and not particularly good examples of the way a priest ought to behave in his office. What is remarkable is that the book of Hebrews does not condemn the current High Priest as corrupt, nor does he say anything negative about the worship of the Temple other than it has been completed in Jesus.

Secondly, the word “priest” has connotations in English which are not present in the function of a Jewish priest.  We are not describing a Catholic or Orthodox priest, but rather the Jewish priest.  This modern sense of the word is not particularly helpful in understanding the priesthood in the Hebrew Bible.  The priest in the Jewish Temple was the mediator between God and man. As such, the office of priest foreshadowed the ministry of Jesus who was provides access to the throne of God for those who have entered into new life through him.

The original intention of a priest in the Hebrew Bible was to be an intermediary between God and Man.  The High Priest chosen to enter the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement.  He represented the nation and did his duty on that Day on behalf of the nation.  If the High Priest performed his function right, then the sin of the nation was covered.  Since he was a fallible human, there was always the possibility that the atonement was imperfect.

Not so with Jesus as the ultimate High Priest.  He is the perfect intermediary between God and man because (Hebrews argues) he was true human – untainted by sin.  Therefore he preformed his duties in the real sanctuary properly, providing real atonement to the whole world, once and for all!