Who Was Melchizedek? (1)

The Mysterious Figure

People often wonder who Melchizedek was. Some believe he was Noah’s son Shem reincarnated; others that he was an angel; early church fathers taught that he was the pre-incarnation of Jesus, and many Christians today still think so. Let us try to sort these things out. As always, I am not claiming to possess a final answer, I am just trying to enrich your understanding and enable you to make an informed decision.

First, we must assert the “episodic” or “mysterious” nature of the appearance of Melchizedek in the Hebrew Bible. Indeed, this name occurs only twice in the whole corpus of the Hebrew Scriptures (see Gen 14:18-20 and Ps 110:4). Both refer to the same figure, but without revealing much about his identity. Melchizedek of the Hebrew Bible is a priest-king of pre-Israelite Jerusalem, but his origin is not clear: Was he a purely mythical figure, or was he a historical person from patriarchal times to whom mythical features were later attributed?

Melchizedek is described as meeting Abraham after he came back from his victory over Chedorlaomer in Genesis 14:17-24. Melchizedek brings out bread and wine to Abraham, blesses him and praises El Elyon, the creator of heaven and earth, who is responsible for the victory of Abraham. His priesthood was considered as having a definite importance because, in Psalm 110, we find the solemn oath of God: You are the priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek..[1]

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: Melchizedek became a pre-existent and immortal being. Flusser writes: “There were those who expected him to be the judge of the Latter Days, when he, together with the celestial powers, will indicate the judgments of God so that the righteous would become his lot and his heritage.”[2]

Who were these “certain Jewish circles” that Flusser refers to? Who did expect Melchizedek to be the judge of the Latter Days? 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.[3] The main quality of Melchizedek in Hebrews is his anonymity:  nobody had known him before he revealed himself to Abraham.

However, the New Testament writers were not the only ones (nor the first) who turned to biblical Melchizedek. Another eschatological reinterpretation (and a much earlier one) is found in the writings of Qumran.

 

Melchizedek as a Messiah  

One of the oldest, as well as one of the most astonishing and controversial documents discovered at Qumran, is the fragment called 11QMelchizedek. The manuscript was found in 1956 in Qumran Cave 11. It contains several occurrences of the name Melchizedek, and therefore was named 11QMelchizedek. The manuscript consists of fourteen fragments from three successive columns; the best-preserved portion of the document, column ii, weaves around Melchizedek several themes of biblical eschatology. These themes include: the liberation of Israel from captivity, Israel’s return to the Land, a final atonement for Israel’s sins, the judgment of their captors, a proclamation of peace to Israel, and the inauguration of God’s reign.

11QMelchizedek belongs to the genre of eschatological midrashim typical of Qumran, as the word pesher (2.12,17) and the phrase “for the last days” (2.14) indicate. Some scholars consider 11QMelch to be the oldest purely exegetical text from Qumran. Composed within the Qumran Community, it is a thematic pesher on four principal biblical texts that have thematic connections with one another: Lev 25:8-13; Isa 52:7; Isa 61:1-2; and Dan 9:24-25. Through these biblical passages, the author wanted to illuminate his eschatological teaching and demonstrate “that the events of the future days, as he presented them, were the fulfillment of the hidden realities presaged by God in the Scriptures.”[4]

Let us read the first lines of the best-preserved portion of the document, column ii:

2 […] And as for what he said: Lev 25:13 “In this year of jubilee, [you shall return, each one, to his respective property,” as is written: Dt 15:2 “This is]

3 the manner (of effecting) the [release: every creditor shall release what he lent [to his neighbor. He shall not coerce his neighbour or his brother when] the release for God [has been proclaimed].”

4 [Its inter]pretation for the last days refers to the captives, about whom he said: Isa 61:1 “To proclaim liberty to the captives.” And he will make

5 their rebels prisoners […] and of the inheritance of Melchizedek, for […] and they are the inheri[tance of Melchi]zedek, who

6 will make them return. He will proclaim liberty for them, to free them from [the debt] of all their iniquities. And this will [happen]

7 in the first week of the jubilee which follows the ni[ne] jubilees. And the day [of atonem]ent is the end of the tenth jubilee

8 in which atonement will be made for all the sons of [God] and for the men of the lot of Melchizedek…

…..

15 This is the day of [peace about which God] spoke [of old through the words of Isa]iah the prophet, who said: Isa 52:7 “How beautiful

16 upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, of the mess[enger of good who announces salvation], saying to Zion: ‘your God [reigns’].”

17 Its interpetation: The mountains are the pro[phets …]

18 And the messenger is [the ano]inted of the spirit [mashiach haruach] about whom Dan[iel] spoke [“…until the time of (the/an) Anointed Prince [mashiach nagid] there will be seven weeks . . . after sixty-two weeks, (the/an) Anointed shall be cut off” Dan 9:25, 26 ]. [… and the messenger of]

What are the things that 11Q13 explicitly says about Melchizedek? In the last days Melchizedek will return dispersed Israel to the Holy Land (lines 5-6); Melchizedek will “proclaim liberty to the captives” (line 6); Melchizedek will “relieve them from … all of their iniquities” (line 6). Also attributed to Melchizedek is the atonement (לכפר) of all belonging to him, on the eschatological Day of Atonement: atonement will be made for all the sons of li[ght and ] for the men [of] the lot of Mel[chi]zedekגורל מל[כי]צדק   (line 8).

Pay close attention to the biblical texts quoted: Lev 25:8-13; Isa 52:7; Isa 61:1-2; and Dan 9:24-25. I believe every Bible student would recognize these texts as messianic.

Moreover, in the early Jewish exegesis beyond Qumran, three of four principal texts in 11QMelchizedek are seen as referring to the Messiah. Thus, the author of Luke-Acts applies Isaiah 52:7 to Jesus Christ in Acts 10:36. Lev.Rab. 9:9 quotes the same verse in regard to “the messianic king”. Second, Isaiah 61:1-2 becomes a messianic claim on the lips of Jesus in Luke 4:18-19 – and the same passage is mentioned in Lam. Rab. 3:9 “in connection with redemption”. Finally, Daniel 9:25-26, as the only passage in the Tanach (OT) that uses the titleמשיח  in an eschatological context, was widely understood as a reference to the Messiah. Therefore, we can conclude that the very selection of the biblical texts in 11QMelchizedek inclines us toward a messianic reading. Melchizedek of 11QMelch can certainly be seen as an eschatological savior and even Messiah.

 

[1] Ps 110:4

[2]Flusser, David, Judaism and the origins of Christianity, Jerusalem, 1988. p. 192.

[3] Heb 7:3

[4] Xeravits, Geza G. King, Priest, Prophet: Positive Eschatological Protagonists of the Qumran Library, Brill Leiden Boston, 2003, p.69 .

 

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. CMitchell

    Thanks for your sacrifice of study to enlighten those interested in this subject. I have recently learned in studying for “Herman the Ezrahite”, that Ezra is a derivative of Zadok, in some cases Zedek; and is ascribed to meaning “supporter” or “helper “, whereas without the help of this particular assistance a cause of any sort would be lost. Melchizedek then could have been seen as a “phenonmenal” help meet to Abraham’s war victory. This indicating that the ” hidden nature of a typical Christ” to rescue or aid Abraham in spiritual & physical battling or warfare for victory’s sake. Thus, the necessity of a well fitted tithe being paid to a savior or conquering king figure in Melchizedek.

  2. CMitchell

    Believing that Melchizedek was a type or the Christ in disguised form; after reading the passage about Melchizedek for myself; hence the meaning of Melchizedek’s name as “The King of Salem” or ” King of Peace ” aka another modified version of Jesus Christ Himself… I later asked a Seminarian professor “who would he say Melchizedek was”. He replied; that he was a general high priest in Jerusalem, seemingly alluding to the fact that Melchizedek was merely a human of high order in Jerusalem who may have simply proceeded Moses as a patriarch. However; that never truly seemed to fully answer the impactful descriptors the scriptures use to characterize Melchizedek. Certainly, the fact that he had no beginning or end typifies that of the Christ as God in the flesh. Even more so, that Moses; of all ppl, paid a tithe tribute to Melchizedek is symbolic to the law given Moses of First Fruits by God the Father. I now feel better that maybe I was not reading to much into the text. Understanding that the goal of reading the text in the first place is to gain the capacity to properly exegete scripture. Thanks for your confirming theological & philosophical interpretation.

    1. CMitchell

      Meant Abraham verses Moses

  3. Lisa T

    Julia,

    Shalom ve toda raba. I once read that Noah’s stated years of life on earth made it possible for him to be alive at the time of Abraham and, because of his legendary age and prominence, he had acquired a type of tribal patriarch title, “Melchizedek.” If that were the case, the meeting between Melchizedek and Abraham involved the extraordinary passing on of the covenant baton so to speak.

    (Note: Others here mention Shem. I may be remembering the calculation of Shem’s age instead of Noah’s. Either way, the idea of the Noahic and Abrahamic covenant figures intersecting in history is a fascinating consideration.)

  4. Nkosinathi Daniel Motsoane

    Shalum to all,
    Julia, you presented an interesting perspective on this topic. However, my take on this topic is as follows:
    First, the name “Melchizedek” does not appear to be a personal name per se but a title name. In other words, the title Melchizedek referred to a ruling priestly Zadok, which included several of the predecessors of Yahshua, like John the baptist. In this case, Melchizedek was the first High Priest in Jerusalem. So, we can’t trace it to a single person, unless we track actual personal names of high priests that occupied that office. In the case of Yahshua, He too acquired the title because He was next in line after John in the history of high priest-kings in Jerusalem.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you for sharing, Nkosinathi. It’s fine with me that you have a different opinion. I don’t expect you to accept my view as the only correct one. My goal here is to bring into this discussion some Hebrew insights and academic knowledge,and it’s for you to decide what you are doing with it. Judaism believes that every word of the Torah comes from God – but not that every word of it has a singular meaning. My articles attempt to reflect this open-ended quality of the Torah.

  5. Michael McGrath

    The Melchizedek references have always been a bit confusing to me.
    Thank you, Julia, you have shed a significant amount of light on this sibject for me.
    I certainly appreciate all of your writings.
    Shalom

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you Michael, I hope you will find my next posts on Melchizedek interesting and helpful as well.

  6. Paul Kristofferson

    Shalom Julia, I have found this blog interesting, especially the links between Isaiah 61 & the year of Jubilee in Lev. 25 & Dan 9. Melchizedek is a very interesting figure and the author of “Hebrews” uses the figure of the enduring priesthood of Melchizedek to illustrate The superiority of Yeshuas’ priesthood. Thank you for this blog. It has given me something to meditate on the whole day. Will all these blogs be compiled into a book in the future ?
    Kind Regards. Paul

    1. Julia Blum

      Dear Paul, it’s so good to hear from you. Thank you for your kind words, and thank you for asking about my books. As a matter of fact, this post (and two more posts on Melchizedek) , as well as all my posts on the Hidden Messiah, are in my new book about the Hidden Messiah. the title is : As though Hiding His face, the book is completed and it will be published and available within few weeks. You can check it through my page:

  7. Ann Bowyer

    Excellent Julia. I have gained a lot for your commentaries, even though I studied theology (including Hebrew) for three years. I like your interpretation of Melchizedek (Heb: King of Righteousness), and certainly this meaning is consistent with the nature and purpose of Christ. For some reason this mysterious Melchizedek reminds me of the passage Philippians 2:5-11, which describes the nature and status of Jesus, firstly as God in the flesh – the suffering servant – and then as the Name above all names, Lord of all creation, and worthy of our worship. Thank you once again for your commitment to sharing these insights with us.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you Ann, for your generous words. Melchizedek is a very interesting and mysterious figure indeed, and I am so happy to hear that you “gained a lot ” from this article.

  8. Brian Lantz

    This confuses Melchizedek the historic ‘fleshly’ high priest with the returning Meshiach in Daniel. Don’t get me wrong, I like where you are going but eschatologically it’s not defensible. Review each of the Melchizedek contexts of the Scripture. They don’t regard the 2nd Advent (yes I’m dispensational – and that’s why I’m able to address it). First and foremost, this known priesthood, probably to every ancient civilization of ancient world before it disappeared completely, regards….. wait for it…a priesthood! That is to say representation between God and mankind—- must be equal to both parties, especially if they happen to be at enmity with each other. The priesthood can’t just be a divine theophany. THat’s not the way mediation works – ever.
    But now the name reemerges on David’s lips some 800 years later out of the clear blue. Like I say, this was a priesthood known to everyone in the ancient world. It couldn’t have been just forgotten. It’s purpose was clearly evangelical with regard to ‘the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world’, the gospel in the Ancient world (break it down and then get back with me if you have questions. Think of it in the context common religious human sacrifice in the ancient world and the myriad of megalithic pyramids found all over the world and God’s complaint over mankind’s psychotic fascination with violence). David clearly regards ‘His LORD’ as ascended and taking session ‘at the right’ of God. (not the first time anyone ever aspired to do so). And yes, we are getting a little closer to the Messianic return to deliver Israel eschatologically, but no, that’s the wrong royalty. Very simply, there are 3 royalties and you’ve picked the wrong one!
    As you know in the ancient world, royalty was established by conquest. Someone would run out conquer a city state or a series of city states and establish their royal line of succession establishing their FAMILY as heirs to the throne! We who are ‘en christo’ are that NEW ROYALTY on the basis of the conquest of the Cross and thus the ascension and SESSION that David talks about and Jesus recognizes in an utter ‘check and mate’ response to the Pharisees in Matthew. But in addition we have 2 other royalties: the royalty of Christ as ‘King of Kings and Lord of Lords’ on the BASIS of which
    Jesus overcomes the Beast as the BEAST MADE WAR with the Lamb. And then we have the Davidic Royalty illustrating Jesus’ true Jewish heritage, LINEAGE and HEIR-SHIP to the Davidic Throne in that LINE of succession on the basis of David’s conquest of Jerusalem.

    Like I say, only a dispensational approach allows the student to rightly divide, not that you aren’t dispensational. I just have read enough of your works.

    1. David Payne

      Thanks for the discussion. I appreciate the information from Qumran. The writer to the Hebrews in the N.T. is merely demonstrating the type of Priesthood Christ has, and this Priesthood is now, not something that will come about in the future. The Messiah is to be Prophet, Priest and King, and He is. We are living in an Eschatological time when we can personally experience the benefits of salvation that God has provided for us through His grace.

    2. Julia Blum

      Hi Brian, the point of this article is to make my readers familiar with some other approaches to the figure of Melchizedek, written even earlier than Hebrews and still seeing in Melchizedek Savior and Messiah. We don’t have all of Qumran texts of course, but even from what we have, the theme of Melchizedek seems to be more developed there than in the New Testament.

  9. william schlueter sr

    This was the most I have ever found written about Melchizedek and I enjoy it immensely. I will also do further study on some of your references as I never connected them to Melchizedek.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you William, glad you found it helpful. Stay tuned, please, I will continue writing about Melchizedek for two more posts (at least).

      1. Eddie L. Vaughn

        I did a time line once and found that Abraham lived his life within the lifetime of Shem. Therefore, Shem could not be reincarnated as Melchizadek.

        1. Renee Gelman

          You are correct about Shem. In fact I think he even saw Jacob born for sure Isaac.