Who Was Melchizedek?

Abraham Meets Melchizedek – Basilica di San Marco

Wednesday’s first reading spoke of the mysterious Melchizedek:

This Melchizedek, king of Salem and priest of God Most High, met Abraham as he returned from his defeat of the kings and blessed him. And Abraham apportioned to him a tenth of everything.

His name first means righteous king, and he was also “king of Salem,” that is, king of peace. Without father, mother, or ancestry, without beginning of days or end of life, thus made to resemble the Son of God, he remains a priest forever. See how great he is to whom the patriarch Abraham gave a tenth of his spoils (Heb 7:1-4).

Who was Melchizedek? Abraham paid tithes to him—something that rightly belongs to God—so he must have been pretty important!

From a worldly point of view, Melchizedek was the king of Salem (later called Jerusalem). Not only was he a king, but he was a priest who worshiped “The Most High God” (EL-ELYON). Although some claim that this likely was a Canaanite God, at this point early in revelation the later textual distinctions and names for God were not yet as clear.

From a secular point of view, we see that Melchizedek, even if he was a Canaanite Priest-King, honored Abraham for his conquests. (Because Abram had just defeated ten kings, many other local kings would seek to ingratiate themselves to him.)

The Scriptures say this of the mysterious priest-king:

  • Psalm 110 indicates that when the Messiah comes, he will have a priesthood derived from Melchizedek’s (not from the Levitical priesthood): You are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek (Psalm 110:4b).
  • Hebrews 7, as quoted above, sees Melchizedek as a foreshadowing of Jesus. Note that Melchizedek is described as without ancestry, without beginning of days or end of life.

Was Melchizedek in fact a vision of Christ pre-incarnate? He was said to be without earthly father, mother, or ancestry, without beginning of days or end of life. This could only be the Lord! (That would help to explain Abraham’s unusual behavior of paying a tithe to him.) Yet this is probably not the proper conclusion because the text says that he was made to resemble Christ. So, Melchizedek is more of a type or prefigurement of Christ.

The main point is that Hebrews clearly states the basis for the priesthood of Jesus Christ as rooted in the priesthood of Melchizedek. It is also declared in Psalm 110.

The author of Hebrews declares this priesthood to be far superior to the Levitical priesthood. Why? First, Melchizedek was superior to any Levite because he received tithes from Abraham and because he lives forever. To the Jewish world, no one was greater than Abraham, their father in faith, yet Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek, indicating that Melchizedek was even greater.

Second, the Levitical priesthood was inaugurated due to sin. As such, it was a poor replacement for priesthood in the Order of Melchizedek. We read in Scripture of the origin of the Levitical priesthood in the aftermath of the golden calf incident:

And when Moses saw that the people had broken loose (for Aaron had let them break loose, to their shame among their enemies), then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, “Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me.” And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together to him. And he said to them, “Thus says the LORD God of Israel, ‘Put every man his sword on his side, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.’” And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses; and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men. And Moses said, “Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the LORD, each one at the cost of his son and of his brother, that he may bestow a blessing upon you this day” (Ex 32:25-31).

Hence, the superior and more ancient priesthood of Melchizedek led to the lesser, limited priesthood of the Levites. Hebrews continues,

The descendants of Levi who receive the office of priesthood have a commandment according to the law to exact tithes from the people, that is, from their brothers, although they also have come from the loins of Abraham. But he who was not of their ancestry received tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had received the promises. Unquestionably, a lesser person is blessed by a greater. In the one case, mortal men receive tithes; in the other, a man of whom it is testified that he lives on. One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, was tithed through Abraham, for he was still in his father’s loins when Melchizedek met him. If, then, perfection came through the Levitical priesthood, on the basis of which the people received the law, what need would there still have been for another priest to arise according to the order of Melchizedek, and not reckoned according to the order of Aaron? (Heb 7:5-11)

So, the Letter to the Hebrews states that Melchizedek and his priesthood are superior to the Levitical priesthood using this logic:

  • Because a lesser person is blessed by a greater—and Melchizedek blessed Abraham—Melchizedek must be greater than Abraham.
  • The Levites are lesser than Abraham, and Abraham is lesser than Melchizedek. Therefore, the Levites and their priesthood are beneath the priesthood of Melchizedek.
  • Because Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek, even the Levites owe tithes to Melchizedek.
  • The Levitical priesthood could not bring perfection; if it could, why would the order of priesthood in Melchizedek have needed to be re-established when the Messiah came?

To anyone who would deny that Jesus could be a priest because He was not of the tribe of Levi, point to the Letter to the Hebrews, which says that Jesus is a priest. He is not a lesser Levitical priest; He is a priest in the higher and original order of Melchizedek. Indeed, Psalm 110 (a Messianic psalm) calls Him Lord and priest:

The LORD said to my Lord:
“Sit at My right hand
until I make Your enemies
a footstool for Your feet.”

The LORD has sworn
and will not change His mind:
“You are a priest forever
in the order of Melchizedek”
(Psalm 110:1, 4).

This also explains Jesus’ use of bread and wine in the Eucharist, for as Genesis 14:17-19 recounts, this was the offering of Melchizedek:

After Abram returned from defeating Chedorlaomer and the kings allied with him…. Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine—since he was priest of God Most High—and he blessed Abram … (Genesis 14:17-19).

So, who was this Melchizedek? He was an historical figure, but also one who prefigured Jesus Christ, our High Priest and Lord. Although not of the tribe of Levi, Jesus has a superior and more ancient priesthood than theirs—a priesthood in the order of Melchizedek.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Who Was Melchizedek?