Meditations in Hebrews 6/7: 33. Melchizedek?
Heb 6:20, 7:1-2 He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.” This Melchizedek was king of Salem and priest of God Most High. He met Abraham returning from the defeat of the kings and blessed him, and Abraham gave him a tenth of everything. First, his name means “king of righteousness”; then also, “king of Salem” means “king of peace.”
We finished the previous study with those words, “He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.” and so now arrive at the writer’s explanation of this reference to a high priest who he has already referred to twice (5:6, 5:10) before these present verses.
The Rabbinic style: Because the approach we find here is probably alien to that which most of us are used to, we again need to refer to the rabbinic style of teaching found among Jewish teachers of that day. They used four approaches to handling Scripture. The first was to work on the basis that the text has a literal, plain meaning that the author wants to convey. (that is always our starting point). But second, they would use an approach best described as considering a word, phrase or other element in the text hinting at a truth not conveyed by the plain meaning. The third approach searches for an allegorical sense within a verse or verses. There was also a fourth approach that involved numerical values of Hebrew letters but that need not concern us here. Bear this in mind in what follows.
Abraham & Melchizedek: We find the story of Abraham encountering Melchizedek in Gen 14:18-20 and the writer makes the point that he was both a king AND a priest: “This Melchizedek was king of Salem and priest of God Most High. He met Abraham returning from the defeat of the kings and blessed him, and Abraham gave him a tenth of everything.” (v.1,2) He goes on to explain, “First, his name means “king of righteousness”; then also, “king of Salem” means “king of peace.” (v.2b) But then the writer uses the hinting-allegorical approaches because that is all we know about Melchizedek and so he interprets that to imply something else, something quite significant: “Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, like the Son of God he remains a priest forever.” (v.3) In the account we are told nothing of this king-priest’s background, or indeed his end and so in the account at least he appears as a priest without beginning or end, just like Jesus.
But then he picks up on the fact that Abraham gave him a tenth of his goods which is what the Law required for the Levites: “Just think how great he was: Even the patriarch Abraham gave him a tenth of the plunder! Now the law requires the descendants of Levi who become priests to collect a tenth from the people–that is, their brothers–even though their brothers are descended from Abraham.” (v.4,5) Note the emphasis – the ‘patriarch Abraham’. Abraham was considered a major character in Israel’s history as a ‘friend of God ‘ (2 Chron 20:7, Isa 41:8, Jas 2:23) and clearly the father of the nation (Isa 51:2) so he is pointing out his greatness, yet he gave a tithe to Melchizedek: “This man, however, did not trace his descent from Levi, yet he collected a tenth from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises.” (v.6)
Strange elements: So, he concludes, there is something strange in all that. First, Abraham was Levi’s great grandfather and so perhaps could be considered an earlier member of the priestly caste, yet he gave the tithe to the other (which he will expand on in a few verses time). Second, Abraham had received all the blessings of God (Gen 12) which would, you might suppose, make him greater but he treats Melchizedek as greater. Third, Melchizedek had blessed Abraham, which seems the wrong way round because, “without doubt the lesser person is blessed by the greater.” (v.7). Yet, he adds, there is a fourth strange thing: “In the one case, the tenth is collected by men who die; but in the other case, by him who is declared to be living.” (v.8) and he stretches this rabbinic approach even further: “One might even say that Levi, who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham, because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor.” (v.9,10) i.e. because Abraham is Levi’s great grandfather it is almost like saying the Levitical priesthood paid a tithe to this other priesthood.
(The Message version puts it in an interesting way: “Ultimately you could even say that since Levi descended from Abraham, who paid tithes to Melchizedek, when we pay tithes to the priestly tribe of Levi they end up with Melchizedek.”)+
Recap: Now the argument carries on with even more complexity so I think we’ll stop there and simply recap what is already an unusual line of arguing for us:
- Melchizedek was both a king and a priest.
- When Abraham met him, Melchizedek blessed him and Abraham gave Melchizedek a tenth of all of his plunder.
- If you think of Abraham, as Levi’s great grandfather, it is like he is an early representative of the Levitical priesthood.
- The fact that the ‘representative’ of the Levitical priesthood was blessed by the other priest and then gave that other priest a tithe, suggests that the other priest is superior to the representative of the Levitical priesthood.
- We know already that the writer has referred to Jesus as a priest after the order of Melchizedek and so we conclude that the writer is making the fairly complex point that Jesus is superior to Abraham.
- The question will shortly be asked, why was there a need for another priesthood, and the answer will be that that the Levitical priesthood couldn’t get people into a good place with God, but we’ll wait to the next study to open that up.
Remember, it is all about showing Jesus to be the most superior person in the Jewish culture and history. That is what this is all about.