Lech-lecha: The Journey Begins!

Go Towards God

I think we would all agree that when we enter Genesis 12, where our next Torah Portion, Lech-Lecha, opens with God’s famous words to Abraham: “Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you” – an entirely new period begins. Why is that?  Yes, so far we have seen mostly the history of human rebellions and God’s judgments – but it’s not that after Genesis 12 we don’t see rebellion and judgment; however,  something very different definitely starts from Genesis 12, even the very fabric of the biblical narrative changes. Why?

Personally, I think this is the very first time in history that God stepped into this world through somebody who was willing to open his heart to Him, and He changes everything through this one man—from within his heart. That’s why, instead of just saying:  Lech, Go, God says: Lech lecha: “go to yourself” – and this is what God says to everyone: Lech Lecha, go to yourself, go inside yourself – and I will meet you there! Even those who are not called to leave their home or their land, God sends on this inward journey of faith: go to yourself – towards your soul’s essence, towards your ultimate purpose, to this inner land that I will show you!

God enters Abraham’s heart – and when Abraham enters the story, God becomes part of his story –  history –  as well. Not from without—as He was in the story of Noah, for example—but from within, from the heart of this one man. Everything around begins to be changed and transformed by God’s power acting through him! That’s why Abraham occupies such a special position in the New Testament. Abraham believed God’s promises, and his faith determined his obedience; hence Abraham’s response to God’s call, and his readiness to separate himself “from his country, from his family and from his father’s house” and follow God’s command, in spite of all the uncertainty that this command contained: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.”

The Mysterious Figure

This is an incredible portion, and almost every verse here can be discussed and commented on endlessly. Therefore, I have to restrain myself and to choose what to write about. I have previously written on these pages about Abraham’s call and his father Terah’s call; about Abraham’s descent to Egypt; about Abraham’s complicated relations with his nephew Lot.  Today, I am going to write about the famous episode that happens at the end of Genesis 14, after Abraham rescued Lot (a Christian reader knows this episode as “Abram and Melchizedek”).

Melchizedek is described as meeting Abraham after he came back from his victory.  Melchizedek brings out bread and wine to Abraham, blesses him and praises the Most High God, El Elyon, the creator of heaven and earth, who is responsible for the victory of Abraham. After that, his name occurs only once in the Hebrew Bible: in Psalm 110, we find the solemn oath of God: You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek..

Melchizedek is undoubtedly one of the most enigmatic characters in the Bible. It is precisely because of this anonymous, without genealogy or descent, mysterious figure, writes a great Jewish Bible scholar David Flusser, that in certain Jewish circles of the Second Temple period, the biblical story of Melchizedek expanded into a sort of mythical biography. One obvious eschatological reinterpretation of the biblical Melchizedek, undoubtedly familiar to most of my readers, comes from the New Testament. The Epistle to the Hebrews, still referring to the same Melchizedek from the Hebrew Bible, emphasizes this ‘incognito’ nature of Melchizedek: Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God, remains a priest continually. The main quality of Melchizedek in Hebrews is his anonymity:  nobody had known him before he revealed himself to Abraham.

People often wonder who Melchizedek was. Was he a purely mythical figure, or was he a historical person from patriarchal times to whom mythical features were later attributed? Let’s try to solve this mystery.

When Joshua leads Israel into the Promised Land, we hear about another king in Jerusalem: “when Adoni-Zedek king of Jerusalem heard how Joshua had taken Ai and had utterly destroyed it…”.  His name is clearly reminiscent of the name of Melchizedek: Melchizedek means “My King is Righteousness”, Adoni-Zedek means “My Lord is Righteousness”. Why? What is the meaning behind this similarity?

For a long time, Canaan had been an Egyptian province. In 1928, a large number of   inscribed tablets written from Canaan to Egypt around the time of the Exodus, was discovered on the seacoast of Syria. Thanks to these Ras Shamra discoveries, we have learned a lot about the culture of Canaan; and we now know that, along with the idolatry that Moses tirelessly warned the Israelites against, the worship of the Most High God also existed there. Judging by their names, it seems that both Melchizedek and Adoni-Zedek were representatives of a long line of priestly kings in Jerusalem belonging to this worship. Thus, Melchizedek was a real historical person, a priestly king who reigned in Jerusalem in the time of Abraham, and worshipped the Most High God.

Two Kings

As I mentioned already, a Christian reader knows the episode at the end of Genesis 14, as “Abram and Melchizedek” (many English Bibles even insert this title before verses 18-20 of Genesis 14).  However, here, in the Valley of Shaveh, not one, but two kings approach Abram: Bera, king of Sodom, greets him in verse 17, then Melchizedek, King of Salem, brings out bread and wine and blesses him in verses 18-20.

17 And the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley), after his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him.

18 Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was the priest of God Most High
Not one, but two kings are here – but for some reason, this fact, along with the whole dramatic tension of the entire situation, is usually overlooked. Why do these two kings, representing completely different values, appear together?

This story gains so much more clarity when read in Hebrew, where the very meanings of the Hebrew words illuminate us as to what is actually going on here. The meeting takes place at the Valley of Shaveh, and the Hebrew root שוה (shaveh) has two main meanings: equal or worth. Moreover, in Hebrew we have an expression: to reach the Valley of Shaveh להגיע לעמק שווה, which means “to reach a compromise”. The two kings approach Abram simultaneously because this is a test that Abram has to pass. Their offers might seem almost equal, but Abram had to choose the worthy one. The name “Melchizedek” is a transliteration of the Hebrew מַלְכִּי־צֶדֶֿק (malki-tzedek), “my king is righteousness”. The name Bera: בֶּ-רַע means “with evil” or “in evil. Thus, the Hebrew makes it apparent that it is here, in this Valley, that Abram had to choose between righteousness and evil; it is here, in this valley, that Abraham was tested and tempted to compromise his principles, his integrity – his faith. While Melchizedek blesses Abram and God Most High, ensuring that Abram knows that it was God who “delivered your foes into your hands”, the king of Sodom offers him a subtle temptation. Thankfully, Abram recognizes the truth and the authority of Melchizedek, and refuses Bera’s temptation – and thus passes yet another test of faith.

I  would like to remind you, dear friends that eTeacher offers a wonderful course, where you can learn from Parashot Shavua commentaries along with their New Testament interpretation. As always, you are welcome to contact me for more information! 

Excerpts from my books are included in this article  (and many other posts here), so if you like the  articles on this blog, you might enjoy also my books,  you  can get  them   here

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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  1. Dorothy Healy

    Thank you Julia, for these valuable insights.. I love that you bring out that Lech lecha means: “go to yourself” – go inside yourself – towards your soul’s essence, and this is where God meets us! In many ways Abraham’s journey mirrors everyone’s faith journey, and this is where it starts. Our faith journey must bring us inside ourselves to uncover the hidden parts of our soul, to bring healing and transformation. As in this story, testing is also intrinsic to our journey.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you, Dot, for your kind words! I love your comments, they always give me food for thought.

  2. Nick

    Thanks Julia for this teaching to get us thinking! There is such a purity in the Lech-lecha narrative/calling. No religion as such, just choosing to acknowledge the aspect of G-d within – we all know there is G-d.
    Thanks, Nick

    1. Julia Blum

      Well said, Nick! There is indeed such a purity in Lech Lecha calling! I suppose this is what this calling is all about – “go to yourself”, go inside yourself, go and find Me in the purity of your soul!

  3. Mark Stevens

    Again, Professor Blum, awesome teaching! I do have a question regarding your statement that Adoni- Zedek is of the God fearing, God worshipping line of Priestly Kings of Jerusalem. I also understand that there is a fair amount of speculation about this because the scriptures are not clear enough, but how would you reconcile the actions of Adoni-Zedek in aligning himself with the heathen kings against Joshua and God’s chosen people? You would think that as a God worshipping king, he would have had the ‘spiritual’ insight to stay out of the whole battle rather than forming the allied armies and leading the whole battle effort…
    Thank you and God bless.

    1. Julia Blum

      Hi Mark, I am really sorry for my late response, we had some technical problems with the site, and I couldn’t reply. Thankfully, it has been fixed. Thank you so much for your kind words! I think, the answer to your question, as it happens so often, comes from the difference between what we know in hindsight, and what they knew in real-time. When in Tel-el-Amarna in 1877 they found many letters sent from Canaan to Egypt around the time when Joshua and Israel were conquering Canaan (it was another discovery, not the one that I mentioned in the post), among all these tablets were many written by some Abdi Khiba, King of Jerusalem (some scholars even suggest that this was another name of Adoni-Zedek), where he complains constantly that the “Khabiri” were threatening his city and his country and that unless help soon came, the city would fall. It is more or less generally agreed now that these “Khabiris” were the invading Israelites under Joshua. For us today, it sounds strange that instead of welcoming God’s people, God-worshipping king Adoni-Zedek preferred to align himself with heathen kings; but remember that for him, at that point, Israel was just a very serious threat, they were invaders – and it was only natural to seek an alliance with the neighboring kings against these invaders.