Melchizedek has always fascinated readers and fuelled the imagination of heretics and secret societies. As long ago as the second century, Theodotus of Byzantium venerated him above Christ. Even before Jesus’ time, some of the Qumran texts treated him as an angelic figure. So who was Melchizedek?
Based on Hebrews 7:3, some have wondered if he was Christ: “Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever.” But speculating that Abraham had a christophany misses the point Hebrews is making. In Judaism, priests descended from Levi and kings descended from Judah. You couldn’t be both, so no one could be both a priest and a king. Jesus was from Judah, so in Jewish thinking he could be a king but not a priest. Hebrews says that’s wrong: God can appoint anyone he chooses as his priest. Melchizedek was a king and a priest. He wasn’t from the tribe of Levi; in fact we have no idea who his parents were, but that didn’t stop him being a priest.
That’s precisely what Psalm 110 said. It’s a Davidic psalm, about a descendant of David who is therefore from Judah. Nevertheless, YHWH declares that this king can also be a priest: “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (Psalm 110:4). This promise doesn’t fit the mould of the Levitical priesthood, but there is a precedent for a king/priest: Melchizedek. Hebrews is not saying that Melchizedek was Jesus; it’s saying that Jesus was a king/priest, just as Melchizedek was, just as Psalm 110 promised.
Now we can go back to Genesis and read the story as presented there.
Genesis 14:17–20 (NIV)
17 After Abram returned from defeating Kedorlaomer and the kings allied with him, the king of Sodom came out to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley).
18 Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, 19 and he blessed Abram, saying,
“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
Creator of heaven and earth.
20 And praise be to God Most High,
who delivered your enemies into your hand”
Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.
Two kings met Abram. What do we know about Melchizedek?
- His name meant right-ruling king (literally king of righteousness).
- He reigned in Salem, related to the word or peace (shalom).
- He was a priest of God Most High (El Elyon).
These facts paint a positive picture of King Melchizedek. The kings we met earlier in this chapter used violence to increase their power, but this one has a name for ruling correctly.
Salem could possibly be Jerusalem, but the link is tenuous. Jerusalem is called Peace in Psalm 76:2, but a poetic expression is a poor basis for a geographic identification. In the second millennium BC, Jerusalem had its full name, appearing in other sources as Rushalimum or Urusalim. Honestly, we have no idea where the Canaanite town of Salem was. What is significant is that this city had a name for peace in the context where the Bible has just used the word war (mil·ḥā·māh) for the first time (14:2, 8). The right-ruling king has a city of peace.
But what are we to make of Melchizedek’s role as a priest of El Elyon? Taking seriously that the Canaanites were in the land (12:6; 13:7), what do we know of Canaanite religion? At Ras Shamra in Syria, archaeologists unearthed temples and documents that help us understand the beliefs and practices of ancient Ugarit. They had many gods, such as Baal, Mot, El, Athiart, Yam, Dagan, Anat, and Athtart. Baal was a warrior god, depicted as riding the storm. Mot was the god of death. In an agrarian society, they wanted to keep Mot at bay (since he brought famine), so they focused on Baal (who could bring the storms). El was the head of the pantheon of gods, the father of many gods, and sometimes described as the creator of people or of the world. In practice, the Canaanites didn’t worry about too much about El.
According to Genesis 14:18, Melchizedek is a priest of El Elyon. Since Elyon means “most high”, and El was the most high of the Canaanite pantheon, it is likely that Melchizedek was a priest of El, the highest god.
You may find the notion of Abram connecting with the priest of a Canaanite god disconcerting. The alternative is worse. If there were already kings among the nations who acknowledged YHWH as the one true sovereign and represented him to the other nations of the earth, then what was the point of the Abram project? YHWH could have saved a great deal of time and bother by using his existing kingdom representative, Melchizedek, instead of giving promises to Abram that would take centuries to fulfil. This interpretation would undermine the entire plot of the narrative.
The reality is that priests of other nations played important roles in the narrative of Scripture before the Levitical priesthood was established. Joseph married the daughter of an Egyptian priest (Genesis 41:45, 50). Even Moses worked for a Midianite priest, married his daughter, and followed his advice (Exodus 3:1; 18:1-27). It should not seem improbable that Abram and Melchizedek found what common ground they could, jointly acknowledging the Most High God, the maker of heaven and earth.
When it is Abram’s turn to speak, the narrator clarifies that this most high God has a name. He is “YHWH, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth” (14:22).
Take the text of Genesis 14 seriously. Melchizedek is the king of a Canaanite city, and he gives honour to El, the Most High. He generously sets out a victory banquet to celebrate Abram and feed the multitude who returned with him (14:18). He publicly honours Abram as the agent of God, recognizing that Abram’s God gave him this amazing victory (14:19-20). God had promised to bless those who bless his servant Abram (12:3), so Abram blesses Melchizedek with a portion of the spoils God gave him.
Now we have clarified who Melchizedek was, we can consider his significance and the significance of the other king who met Abram as he returned. What is this saying about the kingdom of God? We’ll address that question in our next post.
What others are saying
Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998), 317:
With R. Lack (CBQ 24  44–64) and F. M. Cross (Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, 50–52), it seems most likely that Elyon (“most high”) is an ancient epithet of El. It certainly suits his character and situation in the pantheon. (For further discussion, see M. H. Pope, El in the Ugaritic Texts, VTSup 2 [Leiden: Brill, 1955].)
A. H. W. Curtis, “Canaanite Gods and Religion,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books edited by Bill T. Arnold and H. G. M. Williamson, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 134–135:
El. The head of the pantheon was El. His principal epithets in the mythological texts were “king” (mlk), probably reflecting his position as the chief deity and the one who presided over the assembly of the gods (although he is not the only god given this title); “bull” (ṯr), a title thought to have some connection with fertility but that may be an indication of power and strength; “compassionate/gentle one, god of mercy” (lṭpn il dpid). Other titles are “creator of creatures” (bny bnwt) and “father of humankind” (ab adm), perhaps suggesting that El was a creator-god (although no creation myth as such has yet been found at Ugarit). … Iconography, insofar as it is possible to be sure who is being depicted in a statue or on a stela, shows El as a bearded and seated figure, and this again has been taken to point to an aged or otiose figure. However, it is more appropriate to describe El as a figure of seniority. The mythological texts describe him as presiding over the divine assembly, so it is not inappropriate that he should have been depicted as enthroned.
Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991–1998), 10:
Since early days the divine origin of the earthly world seems to have been ascribed to the Canaanite God of heaven El, who is called “the Creator of the earth” in the Karatepe inscription in Cilicia and who links Israel’s early days to Ugarit. Abraham is said to have identified the God whom he worshiped with El. We see this especially in the story of his meeting with Melchizedek, the priest of El Elyon of Jerusalem, whom Abraham blessed in the name of El Elyon who made heaven and earth (Gen. 14:19). Since Abraham’s God was later equated with Yahweh, the God of Sinai and the exodus (Exod. 3:6), Yahweh also came to be understood as one with the creator-god El.
Read Genesis 14:17-20.