Who is Melchizedek?
“The ancient Epistle to the Hebrews contains a hitherto unnoticed enigma. It refers to a man without beginning or end – one who lives forever. So, who is he, and where is he?”
These words of enticement draw the reader into my novel on Melchizedek, entitled, The Search for Melchizedek. The text of Hebrews really does describe him as a man who never died, meaning that for all we know, he is still out there somewhere today. For a novelist, that’s a terrific plot opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. You are welcome to explore that story and its sequel, Osiris Rising:
But fiction aside, Melchizedek is a fascinating figure in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. He seemingly comes out of nowhere in the story of Abraham. Abraham was called by God out of Sumer toward Palestine. After suffering a serious attack on his family, Abraham turns the tables on his attackers and rescues the hostages and belongings that he had lost. On his way back to his base, he passes near Salem (which later becomes Jerusalem). Out comes the king of Salem, Melchizedek. The name comes from melek (king) and tsedek (righteousness), which combined mean either “My King is Righteous” or “King of Righteousness” or both. Genesis describes Melchizedek as the High Priest of God Most High, the first time that title is used of God in the Bible. Furthermore, we find that a priesthood devoted to God exists prior to Abraham’s arrival! How that came to be remains a mystery. But what the names here imply is that the God who called Abraham out of Sumer was no ordinary pagan deity, but the “most high” God and one whose monarchial name was Righteousness, i.e., Justice. Even if the “king” referenced in Melchizedek’s name was Melchizedek himself, his devotion to righteousness implies that his God was righteous. Thus, until Moses hears the name of God from God himself, the “righteous” and “most high God” is the most significant information we know about the God of Israel.
What happens next is even more significant, for Melchizedek blesses Abraham and breaks bread and pours wine for him, the first Eucharistic imagery in the Bible, all the way back in Genesis! Melchizedek’s priesthood is thus enacted, both through blessing and through something like a pre-eucharistic mass. At that point Melchizedek drops out of the picture and we don’t hear about him again until hundreds of years later in the book of Psalms.
Psalm 110 is one of the most famous Messianic Psalms, even cited by Jesus in reference to himself as being of the line of David but nevertheless greater than David (“The Lord says to my Lord . . .” cf. Matthew 22). If you follow along the rich Messianic imagery and prophesy in that Psalm, you’ll suddenly come to line 4 with the phrase describing Messiah, “You are a priest forever after the Order of Melchizedek.” This is the first hint that Melchizedek was no normal human mortal, since the immortal Son of God was to be a priest like him, rather than a priest like Aaron and Aaron’s Levite descendants.
That is the conclusion drawn by the writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews, too, who links Melchizedek as archetype to Jesus. Jesus is both king and priest, king from the tribe of Judah, and priest (not from Aaron and the Levite tribe) from the order of Melchizedek. Why and how is Jesus a member of the Melchizedek priesthood? Hebrews 7:17 makes it very clear: Jesus earned his status as a Melchizedek priest by order of his possession of “a life that could not be destroyed.” In other words, Jesus defeated death in his resurrection, just as Melchizedek, too, never died (Hebrews 7:3).
Now, just who Melchizedek actually was and whether he literally never died are matters of textual interpretation and history. History offers us no clues here, but the texts leave open the possibility that Melchizedek is a pre-incarnate manifestation of the Son of God (i.e., an epiphany), something that especially fits given the pre-Eucharistic enactment to Abraham. It feels very similar to Jesus at the Last Supper as well as at the house in Emmaus after his resurrection. On the other hand, one’s being a priest after an order of oneself is a little strange, leaving open the possibility that Melchizedek is someone other than the pre-incarnate Son of God. Given that the Hebrews 7:3 text offers no lineage for him (“no father, no mother”), as well as no origin story (“without beginning of days”), as well as no mortality (“without . . . end of life”), it’s also possible that Melchizedek is an angel. But both the epiphanic and angelic interpretations appear to run afoul of the fact that Melchizedek is apparently the temporal king of Salem! Angelic appearances and divine epiphanies just come and go, leaving us to wonder if Melchizedek isn’t a human being after all, a contemporary of Abraham whose offices included the king of Salem as well as High Priest of the Most High God.
If he was human, then we have to be intrigued both by his being a high priest of an unknown priesthood as well as his apparent immortality. Let’s start with that enigmatic priesthood: the fact that information about God was known to people prior to Jesus, prior to Moses, and even prior to Abraham should come as no surprise. For first, natural reason is well able to discover God’s nature and eternal goodness. But second, since a priesthood suggests a divine intervention and establishment, we have to remember that God may well have had contacts with human beings for which we have no continuing record. The pagan messianic prophecies suggested by Justin Martyr are a case in point, (though they were recorded, of course). Still, we should never just assume that everything that God has ever had to reveal to the world should be known to us. We know what we need. They received what they needed.
So, that leaves us with the origin and immortality problem for Melchizedek if he is a human being. How can a human being have no parents? Taken literally, that is troublesome. Taken metaphorically, less so, for perhaps, since Melchizedek’s parents aren’t recorded, they are considered as irrelevant to his identity and office. The same might be said about his death, that perhaps the fact that no death is recorded is meant to mythically symbolize immortality. However, the fact that Jesus is said to be a priest after his line, a line that literally never dies, might push us more toward the interpretation that Melchizedek didn’t die after all. And that brings us full circle to where we began. If he is out there, who is he and what is he doing? Why was he given immortality? You can have a look at my own speculation on the matter by reading The Search for Melchizedek for yourself.