The Identity of Melchizedek
So many have sought the identity of Melchizedek, yet nothing of a definitive nature has ever been forthcoming from their deliberations. The reason for their failure - their stumbling block may be a more apt way of putting it - has always been that single verse to be found in the seventh chapter of the Book of Hebrews, namely, verse 3, which says of him that he was: “Without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abiding a priest continually.”
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Before we consider the reason why the author of Hebrews made this seemingly sweeping statement about Melchizedek, I want you to take particular note that, in the three verses where he is spoken of in Genesis 14, verses 18 to 20, nothing whatever is said that would intimate that he was anything more than a normal human being. Yes, he was a king; but so was David. He was also the priest of the Most High God; yet, in Psalm 82:6, God refers to His people as children of the Most High, and adds in verse 7: “but ye shall die like men.”
Where, then, did the author of Hebrews get the idea that Melchizedek was anything more than a mortal man - if, indeed, that is what he was seeking to convey? The only other place in the Old Testament where Melchizedek is mentioned is in Psalm 110:4; but, again, there is nothing in that verse that would depict him as being an immortal being, although some might argue otherwise, in view of the reference God made to the age-abiding nature of Christ’s affirmed priesthood: “Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.”
God was there simply expressing the unique nature of Melchizedek’s priesthood - that it did not pass to another as did that of Aaron. In like manner, therefore, the priesthood He was conferring on Christ, being in resurrection life and glory, would never be taken from him, that it would remain his unique status in the Father’s eyes. There can be no doubt that the author of Hebrews understood this to be the meaning and intent of the Father’s words by what he says in Hebrews 7:20-25. Here is what we are told in that passage of scripture, as recorded in The Jerusalem Bible.
“What is more, this was not done without the taking of an oath. The others, indeed, were made priests without an oath; but he with an oath sworn by the one who declared to him: The Lord has sworn an oath which he will never retract: you are a priest, and for ever. And it follows that it is a greater covenant for which Jesus has become our guarantee. Then there used to be a great number of those other priests, because death put an end to each one of them; but this one, because he remains for ever, can never lose his priesthood. It follows, then, that his power to save is utterly certain, since he is living for ever to intercede for all who come to God through him.”
In no way was God confirming some type of immortal status upon Melchizedek in Psalm 110:4; and certainly not with the meaning that we have so erroneously and so foolishly assigned to the words of the author of Hebrews 7:3. Had that been the case, then God would have been placing Melchizedek on a par with Himself, proclaiming him as an ever existent being, having neither a beginning nor an end of life. Why, even Christ was born from a mother’s womb.
How, then, are we to understand Hebrews 7:3? Before I ventured on writing this paper, I browsed through a number of Bible Commentaries and Bible Dictionaries to find out which, if any, actually backed up what I believed to be the answer to the problem, and gave a simple and perfectly rational approach by which the solution could best be explained and most easily understood. The one I found which best met these criteria was the Dictionary of the Bible, edited by James Hastings, under the article, Epistle to the Hebrews in the second volume of the set. The following, therefore, is basically a brief summary of that part of the article having particular relevance to our subject.
The article shows that the answer we are seeking actually becomes abundantly clear when we simply consider the intention that the author had in mind when he wrote those first three verses of chapter 7. Notice that he was giving a summary of the facts about Melchizedek as they were stated in Genesis 14:18-20, adding a brief commentary to point out their religious significance, and extracting from those facts exactly what were the determining marks of the Melchizedek order. To make the facts serve his purpose, the writer found it necessary to attach importance, not merely to what is said of Melchizedek, but to what is not said - to the silences as well as the utterances of history. He was also giving ideal meaning to the names occurring in the story.
By this means, he attains what he set out to do. He defines and clarifies the typology of the Melchizedek priesthood. Look at those first three verses and read them with this in mind. You will see that he brings five distinct types to our attention. Taking them in the order of presentation, we are shown that the Melchizedek priesthood is, first, a royal priesthood, Melchizedek having kingly status. Secondly it is a righteous priesthood; he is said to have been king of righteousness in verse 2. Thirdly, and again emphasized in verse 2, his priesthood promoted and exercised peace; he was “also king of Salem, which is king of peace.” Fourthly, and I want you to notice this carefully, his priesthood was a personal, not an inherited dignity, because, as far as the record was concerned, he was without father and without mother; and only in that sense. Fifth, and lastly, it is an eternal priesthood; without beginning of days or end of life - again, so far as the record is concerned.
By making this ingenious commentary on the narrative in Genesis, the author is trying to fix the characters of an ideal priesthood. He is portraying to the minds of his readers the highest conceivable type of priesthood: that the priest must be really, not ritually, holy; one whose priestly ministry is a course of gracious condescension - a royal priest. He must also be one who, by his personal worth and official acts, can establish a reign of righteousness, peace, and perfect fellowship between man and God. Finally, he must be one who ever lives, whose priesthood does not pass from him to another, thereby giving an absolute guarantee for the preservation and maintenance of peace.
Order of Melchizedek
This was the perfect type of priesthood - after the order of Melchizedek - that the Most High God was conferring on Christ. As the author seeks to assure his readers in the last two verses of the sixth chapter of his epistle: “Here we have an anchor for our soul, as sure as it is firm, and reaching right through beyond the veil where Jesus has entered before us and on our behalf, to become a high priest of the order of Melchizedek, and for ever” (Jerusalem Bible).
With these facts in mind, therefore, allowing us to accept Melchizedek as a mortal human being, his identity need no longer remain an enigma. There really was only one renowned and august personage in that period of Old Testament history who could have held that divinely appointed office of authority. That person was Shem, one of Noah’s three sons who were born prior to the great Noachian Deluge and came through the Flood with their wives and their parents - the only eight souls saved from that old world.
Shem was 98 years of age when God brought the great flood upon the earth. He was not the eldest of Noah’s sons, as one would assume from the order in which they are each presented in Genesis 5:32; and the boys were certainly not triplets, all born together when Noah was five hundred years old. That was obviously the age of Noah when the first child was born, that son being Japheth. This is clear from Genesis 10:21, which specifically says that Japheth was the elder - and he was the elder by at least two years where Shem was concerned, as can easily be understood from what we are told in Genesis 10:1.
I don’t want to spend an unnecessary amount of time on the boys’ ages; but they do reveal an interesting trait that we find time and again in the scriptural record, that the one on whom the greatest blessings fell was often the youngest. I have no way of proving directly from the scriptures that Ham was Noah’s second son, thereby making Shem the third and last in the birth process, but Jewish tradition certainly holds this to be true. In volume 5 of The Anchor Bible Dictionary, page 1195, under the sub-heading Jewish Tradition, we are told this:
“The Tannaitic and Amoraitic teachers considered Shem, Shem the Great, as he is called by some, Noah’s youngest son. They say that in the Bible he is mentioned first among the members of his family because he was the most righteous, wisest, and most important son, not because he was the oldest”
In that most important genealogical table, entitled The Generations of Shem, which begins with verse 10 in the eleventh chapter of Genesis, we are given the name and age of each of the patriarchs in the righteous line of descent from Shem. You will find those same patriarchs listed in Luke’s genealogical record of Christ’s ancestry from Adam. In Genesis 11, you will notice a break at the end of verse 26. It is interesting that, at that point in the patriarchal line of descent from Shem, we now find The Generations of Terah taking precedence. It is as though God is here saying: “I now want you to take particular note of the lineal relation of Shem to Abraham.”
There is an interesting note on this which is given in The New Bible Commentary Revised, page 92. The short account opens by saying that “Man’s kingship under God had found expression in Noah’s kingdom in the ark. Now the kingdom of God is given to Abram to be possessed in God’s promises, by faith.” In other words, from the time of Noah, God had given His kingdom inheritance into the charge of Shem and his patriarchal line, because it was through Shem that the righteousness of Noah, in God’s eyes, found its full expression.
Each of those ancient patriarchs, then, under the overall leadership and divinely directed and inspired guidance of their forefather, Shem, were responsible, before God, for governing that area of the world that God was later to give as an inheritance to Abraham and his seed. One might wonder, then, why the break in Shem’s genealogical record was made with Terah, and not with Terah’s son Abram. Isn’t it interesting, by the way, to see that Terah, like Noah, had three sons, named as Abram, Nahor, and Haran in verse 27, and that, like Shem, it was the youngest of the three, Abram, in whom the righteous line was destined to continue.
But to get back to the theme of our discussion; why do we find the break in Shem’s genealogical record made with Terah and not with Abram, or Abraham as he was later to be called. Again, we find the answer in The New Bible Commentary Revised that I quoted from above. “The appearance of Terah’s (not Abram’s) name in the 11:27a heading accords with the Genesis framework’s concern with the genealogical origins of the twelve tribes of Israel, for they stemmed from Terah not only through Abram but through Sarai (20:12) and through Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel of the lineage of Nahor, son of Terah.”
The answer to so many questions is so clearly answered in those genealogical records given us in Genesis if we only have the eyes to see what God is trying to show us there; and, most important from our present perspective is the answer to Melchizedek’s identity. From what we have already considered, who was better qualified to have held that most majestic office than Shem, the first patriarchal descendant of Noah in the righteous line of descent.
We have now seen that Shem was the lineal ancestor of the Jewish people. He lived for the first 98 years of his life in the pre-Flood world. Not only did he witness the build up of the evil that led to the total corruption of that ancient society before God, filling it with such violence that God had no alternative but to completely destroy it, but, having that same righteous mind that God saw in his father Noah, he would have had an abhorrence of all manner of ungodliness. He had seen and experienced the terrible end-result of unmitigated sin and evil, and there can be little doubt that he was determined to do all he could, led and directed by the power of God in that new world, to preach and teach the righteousness of God to his descendants.
He had been blessed by God, together with his father and brothers, and heard God’s blessed pronouncement, to be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth (Gen.9:1). He had also heard God establishing His covenant, not only with Noah, himself and his brothers, but with their seed after them. Furthermore, that covenant he knew to be all-inclusive, to the extent that it was made with every living creature that would come to exist on that new earth (9:10).
Shem had no illusions as to his God-given responsibilities, for Noah had conferred them on him with the words: “Blessed be the Lord God of Shem” as recorded in Genesis 9:26. The blessing was Shem’s identification with God’s covenant name, Yahweh, as was to be seen later in the Abrahamic covenant.
From the opening two verses of Shem’s genealogical record in Genesis 11, you will see that Shem lived to be 600 years old, which means he outlived all in his patriarchal line, with but one exception, down to and including Terah, the father of Abraham. The one exception was Eber, whose death followed 29 years after that of Shem. But then, Eber was the third generation patriarchal descendant of Shem, Shem being already 165 years of age when Eber was born.
The important point I want to make here, however, is that Shem lived on into the lifetimes of both Abraham and Isaac. He was 450 years of age when Abraham was born, and 550 years old at the birth of Isaac. In fact, he died just 10 years before Jacob was born. As far as Abraham was concerned, he outlived Shem by only 25 years. That means that Shem would have known Abraham – and, indeed, would undoubtedly have had a long and paternal-like relationship with him, probably from the time that Abraham first came into the land of Canaan at age 75.
Of course, being the most renowned and, probably, the most revered figure on earth at that time, I am sure that Abraham would also have known Shem quite early in his life, throughout those first 75 years he had lived, first in Ur of the Chaldees, and then, of course, in Haran up until the death of his father Terah. At least, if he had not known him personally, which I doubt, he would certainly have known him by repute.
How natural, then, it would have been for Abraham to have given to this ancient and most esteemed personage, now revealed to us as Melchizedek, king of Salem and priest of the Most High God, the tithes of all when he returned from Hobah, having brought Lot and all those who had been taken captive with him, back to the safety of their own land once again (Gen.14:14-20).
It is so clear from that important passage of scripture contained in verses 18 to 20, that Melchizedek was very well acquainted with Abraham, and was thoroughly informed as to the unique role that God had called and chosen him to perform in His great plan of salvation for mankind. Just give a moment’s thought to the manner of his address to Abraham in the last two verses of that passage in particular: “And he blessed him, and said, ‘Blessed be Abram of the Most High God, possessor of heaven and earth: and blessed be the Most High God, who hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand…’”
As God’s highest representative on the earth at that time, I, personally, feel sure that Shem would have been fully informed of all that God intended to do through Abraham; and, what is more, all that He intended for that very same city that was later to be known as Jerusalem. We have only to look at Isaiah 22:11, and realise that it was undoubtedly Shem, king of Salem, and priest of the Most High God, who is there spoken of as the maker of the ancient pool at the Gihon spring. But that is a continuation of the story that must be reserved for another time.
Copyright 2002 - Bill Lavers
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