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B'resheet/Genesis 14:18 And Melchizedek, the king of Salem, brought out bread and wine; and he was a priest of God Most High.
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A reading of the chapter from which our text comes - B'resheet 14 - introduces a character, Melchizedek, who is styled as the king of Salem. He appears in just three verses (vv. 18 - 20) and a number of textual scholars suggest that these verses are a late insert by scribes in the Davidic age who want to provide legitimacy for David bringing the focus of Israelite worship and ritual to Jerusalem, using 'Salem' as a previous name for the city. Robert Alter reports that, "the name means 'righteous king' which has suggested to many commentators a Davidic agenda in this tale of the founder of the people of Israel in ceremonial encounter with a priest-king of Jerusalem."1 We could also note that David's high priest was called Zadok, another form of the same root and that his descendants remained largely in control of the Temple, down to Yeshua's time. The gospels as later Jewish writings will call them the Sadducees.
Nahum Sarna is critical of the text's integrity, saying that "nothing is known of this priest-king who suddenly emerges from the shadows and as suddenly retreats into oblivion, as far as the biblical tradition is concerned"; then adding that "there is no evidence that Salem was the earlier name of Jerusalem. The city is already mention in Egyptian execration texts of the 19th-18th century BCE as Urushalimu and in the El-Amarna texts of the 15th-14th century as Urushalim - 'the foundation of (the god) Shalim.'" The Qumran community saw Melchizedek as an end-times hero and judge who would "proclaim freedom to the captives" and "avenge the vengeance of the judgements of G-d" (11Q13),2 on the Day of Atonement in the tenth Jubilee cycle.
As far as the text of the Tanakh is concerned, Melchizedek makes just one more explicit appearance. Psalm 110, an eschatological psalm, contains the verse, "The L-RD has sworn and will not change His mind, 'You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek'" (v, 4, NASB), following theSeptuagint text. The NJPS version reads the Hebrew text of the last phrase to say, "You are a priest forever, a rightful king by My decree", an equally plausible translation. Attributed to David and probably originating in Jerusalem during the time of the Davidic monarchy, Walter Brueggemann and William Bellinger say simply that this reference "associates the king with righteousness."FootNoteReg(3) Nevertheless, Psalm 110 is widely taken in the Christian world as a messianic psalm, picked up in the letter to the Hebrews as proof that Yeshua is of a superior order of priesthood pre-dating the Aharonic priesthood established at Sinai.
Taking the canonical view of the text, however, we assume that the words we have are the wordsHaShem intended us to have and have been preserved in that form so that we might learn from them. That leaves us with the question: who is Melchizedek, the king of Salem, and what can we learn from him for today?
Notwithstanding Sarna above, theRamban begins by asserting that "Salem is Jerusalem, as is clear from 'Salem become His abode; Zion, His den' (Psalm 76:3)." He points out that "all the nations had long known that this was a special place, in the centre of the inhabited world, or they knew by tradition that is was in the spot corresponding to the Sanctuary on high, where the Shekhinah of the Holy One dwells." The early sages had commented that "this place makes its inhabitants righteous" (B'resheet Rabbah 43:6), leading Ibn Ezra to say that Melchizedek is "so named because he was king over a place of righteousness." David Kimchi adds, "for Jerusalem is a place of righteousness and peace and cannot bear iniquity, violence or abomination for very long."
Apart from the obvious "king of Salem", what was Melchizedek's position or status? OvadiahSforno affirms that "he was a priest ... and thus it was proper (fitting) for him to give a blessing", which he did in the two verses following our text. Targum Onkelos changes , 'priest' to , 'ministering' because the Israelite title cohen may not be used for a non-Israelite. But Gunther Plaut comes back to the Hebrew text: "The text seems to say that the king acknowledged Avram's G-d, and being a priest would mean that he engaged in a ritual of service. The Torah considered the knowledge of G-d a universally accessible, and an earlier verse (4:26) noted that already in antediluvian days people 'began to invoke the name of the Eternal.'" The name used for HaShem here is El Elyon, possibly the name of the highest god in the Caananite pantheon, so it is not entirely clear that Melchizedek was a monotheist in the same way as Avraham, but Richard Elliot Friedman points out that "this is how G-d is known at the end of the Torah also (D'varim 32:8). There (and in Psalm 82:6) this is the epithet that is used for G-d in connection with the formation of the nations of the earth. This makes it notable that here the priest who is associated with El the Highest is not from Avraham's family but from another group. Avraham is not pictured as the only worshiper of this G-d on earth."
Now let's think about why these verses are present in the text at this point and what they tell us. If they were not here - skipping straight on from 17 to 21 - what would we miss? TheOr HaHayyim tells us that, "the interpolation regarding Melchizedek is introduced to reflect credit on the righteous and show the difference between them and the wicked. The king of Sodom went forth to welcome Avraham empty-handed, though he was under obligation to repay him generously. The wicked went empty-handed, whereas Melchizedek the righteous, with no obligation behaved generously and welcomed him with bread and wine." We can compare the verbs describing the king of Sodom (in v. 17) - , the Qal 3ms prefix form of the root , "to go out", so "he came out" - with that describing Melchizedek: , the Hif'il 3ms prefix form of the same root, "he brought out". The king of Sodom simply came out - essentially, by himself and with no preparation; Melchizedek not only came out but brought out with him bread and wine, showing deliberate thought and preparation.
The word , 'bread' here probably means food, so trying to see this as a prototype for communion is probably over-stretching. Bruce Waltke suggests that bread and wine, however, "is a merism for a full dinner, a royal banquet."4 Gordon Wenham comments on the generosity of Melchizedek: "bread and water would have been the staple diet; bread and wine is royal fare and regularly accompanied animal sacrifice. Melchizedek ... is portrayed as laying on a royal banquet for Avram the returning conqueror."5 RabbiHirsch explains the different attitudes being displayed here: "To ask for favours, to 'demand', is what a king of Sodom understands, but to refresh the worn-out famished victors with a piece of bread, with a drink of wine, does not enter the head, forms no part of the code of manners of His Majesty of Sodom! On the other hand, Melchizedek, King of Salem, who really had nothing at all to do with the the affair, had bread and wine brought out, but then he was a priest to the Highest G-d."
Hospitality is important in the Torah, so we find its absence being part of the reason for nations being excluded from fellowship in the kingdom of God: "No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of the L-RD; none of their descendants, even in the tenth generation, shall ever be admitted into the congregation of the L-RD, because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey after you left Egypt, and because they hired Balaam son of Beor, from Pethor of Aram-naharaim, to curse you" (D'varim 23:4-5, NJPS). It is also important to Yeshua in the gospels as He speaks of separating the sheep and the goats: the sheep are blessed because "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink" (Matthew 25:35, ESV), while the goats are accursed because "I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink" (v. 42, ESV). This is only one of the ways in which the sons of the kingdom are separated from the sons of the world as Keith Green famously sung: "The only difference, my friends, between the sheep and the goats is what they did and did not do!"
Yeshua made it clear that His way - the way of the kingdom - was one of service: loving God and loving neighbour. He told the disciples, "whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many" (20:26-28, ESV) and then put it into practice by washing their feet on the night of the Last Supper, by giving a place of honour and the cup to Judas - His betrayer - at that Pesach meal, and by silently absorbing the insults of the crowd and the thieves crucified alongside Him. Yeshua, the king not just of Jerusalem and certainly not of Sodom, but king of Israel, brought out bread and wine for us - the signs and symbols of the New Covenant in His blood - and sits and eats a royal meal with us. A feast fit for a king!
1. - Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, (New York, Norton & Company, 2004), page 71.
2. - Geza Vermes, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English, (New York, Allen Lane, 1997), page 501.
3. - Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger Jr., Psalms, New Cambridge Bible Commentary, (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2014), page 480.
4. - Bruce K. Waltke with Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), page 233.
5. - Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15 Word Biblical Commentary, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson), page 316.
Further Study: Romans 12:10-13; Hebrews 13:1-3
Application: Do you behave like Melchizedek or the king of Sodom? Do you come out only to ask favours or demand your rights, or do you prepare and bring out food and drink, the symbols of hospitality, for those whom the L-rd sends your way to celebrate His victory? Attitude Adjustment 101: Check with the Divine Tutor today to make sure you have this one right!
Comment - 03:59 25Oct20 Judith Chesney: Thank you for making deep truths simple. Profound and beautiful.
Comment - 19:05 25Oct20 Kate: Thank you for this thorough teaching. It is so helpful to hear the blessing of Melchizedek explained in light of the priestly service of hospitality. It also shines bright light on all the other places in scripture where hospitality is extended or taught. And what a thought that the King of Glory would need to stand knocking on our door to be invited in to have our hospitality! I pray the door would daily be open for Him and the meal prepared and so may He find us faithful and expectant when He returns.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2020
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