Over the past few weeks, the Sunday Gospels have included some hard-hitting, at times difficult, teaching about sin, a focus which has also led to think more about sin in my new midweek series. Talking about sin is difficult, but even if we normalize talking about it and recognize that it’s all around us, including in our own lives, a question remains about what is to be done about it. In Christianity, the solution has always revolved around the person and ministry of Jesus, though Christians have used many different images to understand exactly how and why this might be. Today’s reading from the book of Hebrews (5.1-10) introduces one of these images, but while it’s one that would likely have resonated with the book’s original audience, it’s not one that makes a lot of sense to us today: Jesus as the new Melchizedek. And so, I thought it would be interesting to unpack this a bit today. Who was this Melchizedek, and what might the book of Hebrews’ use of him as an image for Jesus’ ministry tell us about Jesus, sin, and salvation?
Melchizedek first appears in Genesis 14. He is the King of the Canaanite city of Salem, which was later associated with the site of Jerusalem, and a priest of the god El-Elyon, ‘God-Most-High’. Melchizedek offers Abram hospitality in the form of bread and wine, and blesses him in the name of El-Elyon. Abram responds by offering Melchizedek a tithe of his property. It’s a very simple story, but as we will see, it didn’t stay that way.
Expansion of Melchizedek’s place in the religious life of Israel and Judah started in the Scriptures themselves. Psalm 110, a royal enthronement psalm, offers this odd blessing to the new king:
The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind:
‘You are a priest for ever according to the order of Melchizedek.’
What might this mean? We saw above that Melchizedek was both king of Salem and priest of El-Elyon. This dual role of king and priest was the norm for kings in the Ancient Near East: the Egyptian pharaohs and Canaanite and Mesopotamian kings all had important priestly functions in addition to their day-to-day governance. What’s interesting is that there is evidence in the Scriptures that David and Solomon also had priestly functions while they were kings (see 2 Samuel 6.14-18 and 1 Kings 8) — this despite the fact that there is no provision under the Law for kings to have priestly responsibilities, which were reserved for the descendants of Levi and Aaron. In light of this, it has been widely hypothesized that this reference to “the order of Melchizedek” in Psalm 110 was an attempt by the royal court to legitimize the king taking on priestly responsibilities by appealing to a practice and authority older than the Law.
If this weren’t enough, Melchizedek took on still further significations in Second Temple Judaism, the period roughly encompassing the the late Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman Empires. This was a fascinating and diverse period of Jewish history, and it saw a proliferation of new religious texts, many of which were based loosely on Biblical characters. We might think of these as a sort of pious fan-fiction, in which writers would use the gaps in the biographies of these figures, along with etymology (word origins) and wordplay, as a springboard for promoting apocalyptic and messianic ideas. This is where many of the extra-Biblical traditions surrounding people like Enoch, Moses, Noah, and Elijah come from, and it was also the source of a lot of speculation around Melchizedek. We can see this a couple of chapters after today’s text, when Hebrews describes Melchizedek as follows:
His name, in the first place, means ‘king of righteousness’; next he is also king of Salem, that is, ‘king of peace’. Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, … he remains a priest for ever (7.2f).
Here we see this Second Temple tradition in full force; it raises Melchizedek’s profile by playing on the meanings of his name and city, and then takes Genesis’s silence on his origins as a suggestion that he had no origins at all! In the hands of this tradition, Melchizedek becomes an eternal king-priest of righteousness and peace, and a prototype for the mysterious one who will come to set Israel’s life to rights and free her from her enemies.
If we bring all these elements together, for the original audience of Hebrews, Melchizedek would have carried the following conceptual baggage: The King of Righteousness and Peace, without beginning or end, in whom the priestly and royal functions in Jerusalem are united and legitimized, offering gifts of bread and wine to the patriarch of the people of God. It’s no wonder he would have been such a tantalizing figure for the first Christians trying to understand how to fit Jesus into their existing conceptual framework!
But what does this mean for us today? This is a trickier question, so let’s go back and unpack the symbols to see what we might discern from them.
First, Jesus is understood to be a king. This is a difficult image for us to get behind in our culture — and with good reason — but if we try to understand this ancient symbol, it’s an archetype of good governance, proper ordering, and leadership. In this case, as though to allay our fears, Jesus’ kingship is explicitly said to represent such values as peace and righteousness. This is to say that if we follow Jesus’ lead, our lives will be well-ordered, right with God, and full of God’s true peace of healthy and whole relationships.
Second, Jesus is understood to be the true High Priest. He is the one who offers sacrifice on behalf of the people for their sins. Under the Law, this meant in particular the sacrifice of a goat — the ‘scapegoat’ — on the Day of Atonement. But, as Hebrews understands it, Jesus’ sacrifice goes beyond that of the high priests because he is holy and pure in and of himself, and because he offered himself for the life of the world and not ‘just’ a goat:
Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself.
Christian theology has never really agreed on the hows and whys of this, and I’ll return to the idea of sacrifice in later posts, but for now let it suffice to say that for the first Christians, and by extension for us, it means that the sacrifice for sin has already been made. It is not for us or for anyone to repeat or perform. It’s over and done with. He has, to turn a phrase from Game of Thrones, broken the wheel of the sacrificial system. And if we accept his act of self-sacrifice, sin is no longer the barrier between us and God we thought it was. We can accept forgiveness and offer it in turn to others.
Third, Jesus as our King-Priest, offers us gifts of bread and wine. For Christians, this image can’t help but be Eucharistic. And this means that when we come to Jesus, he offers us spiritual food for life’s journey.
And so, the symbol of Melchizedek as an antetype, or prefiguring, of Jesus was a powerful one for early Christians, and, even if it’s weird to our ears and foreign to our sensibilities, it can be for us too. It speaks of Jesus as the one we follow, who has revealed what peace and righteousness look like, who has turned the religious sphere on its head, and who offers us sustenance for our our lives.