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The historical Melchizedek and his deeds occupy three verses of the Old Testament, Genesis 14:18-20. The comparison of Jesus with this figure occupies a whole chapter of Hebrews, beginning with Hebrews 7:1. What is more, the author of Hebrews has some strange things to say about King Melchizedek: "First, his name means `king of righteousness'; then also, `king of Salem' means `king of peace.' Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, like the Son of God he remains a priest forever" (Heb 7:2-3). Who was the historical character Melchizedek? How is Hebrews using the Old Testament? Is this use legitimate? Was it legitimate only for the author of Hebrews, or is it still legitimate today?
Palestine in the Middle Bronze Age (the period before 1500 B.C. ) was divided into numerous city-states. Melchizedek is identified as the priest-king of Salem, which many scholars identify with Jerusalem. There they worshiped El Elyon, or God Most High. While this term is frequently used in the Psalms for Yahweh, it is not recorded as a name by which the patriarchs knew God. Still, Abraham must have recognized an identity between this One and the God he worshiped, for he later takes an oath by God Most High (Gen 14:22). Perhaps he had previous contact with Melchizedek or he and his allies had paused to pray and worship in Salem on their way north. But Melchizedek remains one of the shadowy non-Israelite figures of the Old Testament, including Balaam, which show that God apparently was known to people other than to Israel.
Melchizedek fades from view after this incident, presumably returning to Salem and living out his days. Some scholars point to the sudden appearance of the Zadokite line of priests after David captures Jerusalem, suggesting that they descended from Melchizedek (the ZDK in Zadok and Melchizedek are forms of the same root) and merged with the Aaronic line. Whatever the case, later Judaism did speculate on Melchizedek. There is some evidence that the Hasmonean priest-kings of Judah (164 B.C. --63 B.C. ), from which the Sadducees probably came, looked to Melchizedek for a precedent of a person who was both a priest and a king. In response, rabbinic Judaism (and presumably Pharisaic Judaism earlier) named Melchizedek as one who would "not inherit the age to come" because he blessed Abraham first before he blessed God! A third Jewish view is found in the Dead Sea Scroll 11Q Melchizedek, in which he appears as an archangel warrior. None of this speculation is taken up by the author of Hebrews, although his caution in speaking about Melchizedek may be related to the low view taken of him in Pharisaic circles.
What the author does is look at what the text does and does not say and draw historical correspondences to Christ. He first looks at his name. Melek is the standard Hebrew for "king," and zedek comes from the same root as "righteous" or "righteousness." Originally the name probably meant "my king [ god] is righteous" or "my king is Zedek," but the author reads it as one might normally read what is called a Hebrew construct state, "king of righteousness." He then looks at his being king of Salem and notes that Salem comes from the same root as salom, the Hebrew for "peace" or "well-being." Thus he derives the meaning "king of peace." It is clear that he wants the readers to draw a parallel between Melchizedek and Jesus, whom he has argued is without sin and therefore righteous (Heb 4:15), in contrast to the Aaronic priests. He also has called Jesus the bringer of God's true rest (Heb 4:1-11), which might be comparable to peace. But the author never makes either of the comparisons explicit. Nor do we discover if calling Melchizedek "king of righteousness" has any implications for the low view we presume was taken by Pharisaic Judaism. Presumably the author knows the background of his readers and expects them to draw the proper conclusions.
Then the author notes that Melchizedek is not called "son of" anyone. That several other individuals in the Abraham stories are also named without their parents (such as Abimelek) is immaterial, for he is only interested in the parallel with Melchizedek. He is not talking about history. He then points out that Melchizedek also has no descendants named in the text, nor is there any mention of his birth or death. Historically we expect none of this for a figure who makes only a cameo appearance in the narrative. But for the author they are a parallel with Jesus. He has already indicated that Jesus existed before his birth (Heb 1:2-3), but his real interest is that Jesus exercises his priesthood in heaven as a resurrected being. Thus it literally has no end, just as no end is reported of Melchizedek's life. This contrasts with the repeated changes of ministry, even under ideal circumstances, in the Aaronic priesthood due to the deaths of the high priests.
The author of Hebrews, then, demonstrates a way of interpreting the text that is foreign to modern methods of exegesis. That is, he sees Melchizedek and each detail of the Genesis text as a "type" or historical precedent for Jesus, the "antitype." This form of exegesis is frowned upon today, but such a typological interpretation was quite moderate according to the standards of the author's age. We argue that neither etymology (explaining the meaning of the names) nor typology (noting the correspondences in history in what the text does and does not say) bring out the meaning that the original author (the author of Genesis) had in mind when he wrote the text, and therefore that they are not appropriate means of interpretation if we are interested in biblical authority being behind our interpretation. This was not the point of view of the New Testament writers, who believed that there were deeper meanings than the historical to be discovered in texts, a view that they shared with their contemporaries. Furthermore, they believed that they were under the inspiration of the Spirit and had in Jesus the key to the deeper meaning of the Old Testament. The surprising thing is not how they interpreted Scripture, but how conservative they were in doing it.
How can the modern reader evaluate this? Orthodox Christians believe that the writers of Scripture did have the inspiration of the Spirit. Therefore it would be the prerogative of the Spirit to give whatever message he wanted through his Scripture, even if it might not be the historical message. But can the same be done today? Certainly the New Testament expects that the Spirit will remain in the church, but any speaking under the inspiration of the Spirit, according to Paul, cannot be a claim to absolute truth but must be "weighed carefully" (1 Cor 14:29). Scripture, of course, has already been weighed carefully by the church as a whole and found fully of the Spirit. No present speaker can claim such credentials. Thus, exegesis such as we find in Hebrews could be appropriate and helpful for the church so long as the speaker (1) did not claim the authority of the scriptural text for it and (2) did not expect his words to be accepted without careful sifting and weighing (and perhaps correcting and revising). The only exegesis that can claim a higher level of authority is that in which the speaker points his or her finger to the text and is aligned with its message clearly enough for all to see.
For a fuller study of the interpretation of this passage, see Bruce Demarest, A History of Interpretation of Hebrews 7:1-10 from the Reformation to the Present (Tubingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1976).
The circumstances in the first century were not ideal, for since 170 B.C., when the Seleucid king had deposed the last Zadokite high priest, Onias III, rulers of Palestine had frequently stepped in and changed high priests, except during the relative independence of 164-63 B.C. Under the Romans the high priest was often changed every year or two as a deliberate policy to limit their power. The author of Hebrews quietly ignores these facts, for he wants to look at ideal Judaism, not the actual situation.
See, for example, Walter Kaiser, Toward an Exegetical Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1981).
For further information, see Richard N. Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1975).