Of all the people in the Hebrew Bible, why is Melchizedek so crucial for understanding Jesus? In this episode, join Tim, Jon, and special guest Dr. Josh Mathews as they take a deep dive into the Hebrew Bible, the book of Hebrews, and the life of the mysterious priest-king Melchizedek in relationship to the ultimate priest-king, Jesus.
I don’t know who Melchizedek was––some Canaanite king. But from the standpoint of the way that he’s portrayed in the text, he is an important supporting character. He doesn’t start this trajectory of priest and king being joined together––Adam was the first prototypical priest-king. So it’s not totally foreign to us as readers when we get to Genesis 14 that there could be a joining of those two offices. But Melchizedek puts a pretty fine point on that expectation, and that, somehow, plays an important part in Abraham’s story.
In part one (0:00-15:30), Tim and Jon introduce us to Dr. Josh Mathews, a scholar they first met when they were all pursuing their undergraduate education at Multnomah University. Josh has since completed and published a tremendous study on Melchizedek (Melchizedek’s Alternative Priestly Order: A Compositional Analysis of Genesis 14:18-20 and its Echoes Throughout the Tanak).
In pursuit of deeper understanding of the relationship between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, Josh turned his attention to Melchizedek because of the emphasis the author of Hebrews places on him for understanding who Jesus is.
Tim voices the question many of us have wondered, “Why Melchizedek? Of all the ‘random’ people in the Hebrew Bible, why is Melchizedek chosen as critical for understanding Jesus?”
While people commonly chalk this up to creative license on the part of the author of Hebrews, Josh feels this solution misses the intricate intentionality of the Old Testament.
In part two (15:30-24:00), Tim, Jon, and Josh discuss the events right before Melchizedek enters the Pentateuch (Genesis 13-14:16), which Josh believes are crucial for understanding the interaction between Abraham and Melchizedek that follows (Genesis 14:17-24).
The Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, “Now raise your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward, and eastward and westward. For all the land which you see I will give to you and to your descendants forever. … Arise, walk about in the land through its length and width, for I will give it to you.” Then Abram moved his tent and came and lived by the oaks of Mamre, which are in Hebron. And there he built an altar to the Lord.
It’s subtle, but the narrator is implying that Abraham did not fully obey God’s command to explore the land. He just set up camp a short distance from where he had been. (This is an important pattern in the life of Abraham: he’s never overtly “bad,” but his story is full of small compromises.)
In Genesis 14, Abraham ends up traveling through the land anyway to rescue Lot from Canaanite kings. Throughout chapters 13-14 the narrator emphasizes Abraham’s possessions: the unmanageable quantity of possessions that cause him to part ways with Lot and the possessions he acquires by conquering the Canaanite kings.
In part three (24:00-31:30), Tim, Jon, and Josh explore how the details of Genesis 13-14 set the stage for Abraham’s meeting with Melchizedek, priest-king of Jerusalem.
By abducting Lot and his family, the Canaanite kings fall prey to God’s promise to curse those who curse Abraham’s family (Genesis 12:1-3). Abraham has an army of only 318 men, yet he wins in battle because of God’s blessing. Melchizedek recognizes this and gives credit to Yahweh for the victory.
Blessed be Abram of God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, who has handed over your enemies to you.
Melchizedek also depicts God himself as the ultimate possessor, who has blessed Abraham with many possessions and the land.
Melchizedek’s blessing ties together the events of Abraham’s life so far with God’s upcoming reiteration of his own blessing to Abraham in Genesis 15.
Although the text doesn’t really tell us who Melchizedek is or where he came from, he creates an expectation for us: the human roles of priest and king are meant to be joined, and someone from Abraham’s line should step into the priest-king office too.
In part four (31:30-41:00), the team discusses the exchange of gifts between Abraham and Melchizedek.
In the Hebrew text, the subject of the sentence in Genesis 14:20 (“He gave to him a tenth of everything”) is unclear, but Josh believes it is Abraham giving to Melchizedek. The original readers would have found it reasonable for Abraham to tithe to this great priest.
The authors of the Hebrew Bible paint Melchizedek and his generosity as a contrast to the evolving corruption of the priesthood of Aaron, which was birthed from Moses’ resistance to God in Exodus 4––not the best start.
In part five (41:00-51:00), Tim, Jon, and Josh explore the story of Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, who is another contrast to Aaron, nearer in time and space than Melchizedek (Exodus 3-4, 18).
Like Melchizedek, Jethro is a non-Israelite priest who worships Yahweh and seems to understand God’s power and love with more clarity than the Israelites themselves (Exodus 18:10-11). Jethro also assists Moses in wisely governing the people. In other words, he acts like a priest-king.
Melchizedek and Jethro exemplify what it looks like to be leaders who bless God and people, and who see and participate in God’s work in the world. The author of Hebrews probably latches onto Melchizedek’s example rather than Jethro’s because Melchizedek is the priest-king of Jerusalem and featured in Psalm 110. Josh argues that the psalmist of Psalm 110 was carefully reading Genesis and later the author of Hebrews was carefully reading them both.
In part six (51:00-end), Tim, Jon, and Josh zoom out and look at where Melchizedek fits into the overarching story of the priesthood in the Bible.
While God created humans to live and rule as priest-kings over the earth, the Levitical priesthood never fulfilled that ideal. In the midst of Levitical compromise and corruption, the Hebrew Bible gives us two shining examples of humans who are priest-kings in many of the ways God intended: Melchizedek and Jethro.
The story of Melchizedek and Psalm 110 remind readers that there is still hope. A priest-king who will fulfill all of God’s intended design is coming. That’s what the author of Hebrews was getting at when he said that Melchizedek was like Jesus, rather than Jesus being like Melchizedek (Hebrews 7:1-3).
Show produced by Dan Gummel and Cooper Peltz. Show notes by Lindsey Ponder.
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