36. Genesis 14:17-24

III. A.  1. continued

f)  Melchizedek (Genesis 14:17-24)

We now come to the most intriguing person in the whole Genesis narrative, possibly the most intriguing person in the Hebrew Scriptures: Melchizedek. There is no other single character about which we know so little but who went on to play such a significant theological role as Melchizedek. Enoch was intriguing for the brief reference to his closeness to God, but then he played virtually no role in what came later. Melchizedek, on the other hand, became an important type or symbol for the Messiah, mentioned by David and then by the author of Hebrews in the New Testament.

The story begins with the kings who seized the people and treasures of Sodom, including Lot. Sodom was a rich city, and Abram had recovered all its wealth. Bera, the king of Sodom, had escaped the Elamite army and came out of hiding when Abram returned from the battle, and his encounter with Abram is important. Bera asked him to return the people of Sodom; why? Because Abram was now entitled to them. Abram had rescued them all, and had rescued the people from the other cities as well, and had a claim to everything both as rescuer and as victor. If he wanted it all, it was his. Bera had no legitimate claim on his people or any of his property or even his throne; he made the request as a way of opening negotiations. He had reason to believe that Abram might not be interested in taking the city. They had been neighbors for a decade or so and had lived at peace with Abram giving no sign that he was interested in military conquest. But Bera assumed that everyone naturally would want more property, goods, wealth, and Sodom had a lot of it. Perhaps Bera was hoping to not lose absolutely everything.

Abram’s response was extremely harsh: he had sworn to God Most High that he would not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap from the king of Sodom. It was an oath he must have taken as he set out to rescue Lot, a prayer that God would return his nephew to him, renouncing all benefit to himself. His concern had been entirely focused on Lot and Lot’s family. But there was something more to his answer than his love for Lot. There was also a personal rejection of Bera himself. Abram was blunt about the reason, too: lest Bera should say, “I have made Abram rich”. This was a remarkable thing for Abram to say and illuminates meaning of the whole event.

Why would Abram care if Bera claimed to have made Abram rich? What would it matter? None at all, unless Abram’s real concern was with God Most High. As far as Abram’s own personal reputation went, Bera’s boast of making Abram rich would be simply a boast that Abram had won a battle that Bera had lost, that Abram was in fact entitled to his riches. Everyone in the land would have known it. The only motivation that seems reasonable to ascribe to Abram is that he didn’t want Bera to take credit for something that God had to do.

It was the issue of trusting God in a more vivid form than it had been with Noah opening the door of the ark. Abram was like Noah in refusing to try to fulfill God’s promises for Him, but he went one step further: he wanted to be sure, when God did fulfill His promises, that there was no doubt it was God who fullilled them. It was important to Abram that no one should have any doubt that it was God who had blessed him. Though he had a legal right to claim the spoils, to claim the whole city of Sodom and Gomorrah and the others, as his domain, though there was no one in the land powerful enough to contradict him or oppose him, he did not want any ambiguity about how he had become blessed. He did not want to be remembered as a great military strategist whose genius had given him the land. Only God could fulfill the promise and only God could get the credit. It must not even appear that anything or anyone else had contributed to God’s promise being fulfilled. In interpreting Abram’s response to Bera this way, I am certainly reading between the lines, but I think this is the most natural way to read the text.

That Abram was concerned with God’s reputation like this was something new in history. There had never been a man, at least in the records we have, who cared what people thought about God. But when God spoke to Abram, it  had changed Abram utterly in invisible ways until the right circumstances arose to reveal them. It could be maintained – reasonably maintained – that the invasion of the Elamites, the choice of Lot to go and live in Sodom, and the war that Abram was forced to fight to rescue him, were all intended to bring about this one event in which Abram refused to accept even a shoelace from Bera. His statement here is just that important.

It is the Divine Choreographer at work, and this interpretation makes complete sense if it were that events ever had only one purpose. But God is too big to tie down to only one plan. Nonetheless, one of the purposes  for Sodom and Chedorlaomer and Lot and the battle was that Abram and his allies could rescue them and give us another picture of faith. If simultaneously Abram’s victory permitted Shulgi to establish his kingdom more securely, as I think it did, and go on to continue Ur’s spectacular civilization, then we remember that God has more purposes than we can ever keep track of. The important thing to the Scripture is that we see how faith looks so that we can practice imitating it. We not only learn to let God be God, to let Him accomplish His own promises in His own time in His own way by Himself, but we  see to it that everyone around us can see that there is no way to explain it away: God did something. This is evangelism. This is being a witness.

How Abram came to such a deep conviction is not clear. The Scripture calls faith a gift of grace. When God called Abram to leave his home, He gave him the kernal of faith that he needed to do what he was called to do. The whole decade, which seemed to have accomplished very little, in which Abram wandered in the land, made friends with a few Amorite chiefs, lied to Pharaoh about his wife, and separated from Lot to keep peaceful relations between them, all of that had been a process of nurturing that little seed of faith that God had planted until, at the right time, Abram knew what to not do. It was a revelation to Abram just as it is to us who stand and watch through the words in the passage.

But there is more. Abram was choosy about whom he befriended. Mamre, the Amorite, was an ally but Bera was not. He had kept his distance from Bera all along. This is the second indication that the evil conditions in Sodom were a matter of some notoriety in that area, verse 13:13 being the first. So it is also true that Abram wouldn’t take Bera’s stuff because he didn’t want the “cooties”. There may be moral ambiguity in many of the choices we have to make, it may be so difficult to tell the difference between right and wrong that we begin to doubt whether the distinction even exists; but then we see evil in its undisguised form and there is no longer room for doubt. “If you think there’s no difference between right and wrong, just go down where the death squad lives” is the way Bruce Cockburn put it.

Abram’s response to Bera is in direct contrast to his response to Melchizedek. Bera he would not take a shoe lace from, but to Melchizedek he gave a tithe of everything he had just taken. The spoils all belonged to Abram and his friends after the battle, and Bera had to stand there and watch as Abram gave a tenth of all his former kingdom (and of the other cities) to this king of Salem. Whatever Bera thought of it, he had no say. Abram also let Mamre and the others take their fair share of the spoils, while he and his men took nothing but what they had already eaten. But why did Melchizedek deserve a share? Why did he come out to meet them, other than the coincidence that Bera and Abram met right outside his city? Who was this guy, anyway?

The account of Melchizedek fits in with a mythical style of literature and yet squarely in the middle of a straightforward historical narrative. This story is yet another illustration of how myth and history are not incompatible with each other; sometimes they are inseparably intertwined. In the Bible myth is always breaking in on the facts of daily life; and ordinary life intrudes into myth. They cannot be kept apart, like lovers who ignore the gossip of the neighborhood for the chance to keep company with each other.

The first thing to note about Melchizedek is that he was an actual person. He was the king of an actual city that had some history in that region. Neither Mamre the Amorite nor Bera the king of Sodom were surprised that there was a city there with a king named Melchizedek. It was not a vision nor an angel. Salem continued to exist after this time and Melchizedek had successors who would turn up in the Amarna letters about six hundred years later. The kings of Salem could claim to be heirs of Melchizedek as successor kings in his city, and in this sense David became an heir to Melchizedek when he took the city and made it his capital. What then does the letter to the Hebrews mean it when it says that he had neither father nor mother, neither beginning nor ending of days? In the days of Abram, a king might say he had neither mother nor father meaning that he did not owe his kingdom to his parents, that he had become king in his own right without inheriting his throne. But the passage in Hebrews seems more likely to be interpreting the life of Melchizedek as symbolic of a truth, rather than embodying the truth.

In the Genesis narrative, Melchizedek comes from nowhere; we are told nothing of his ancestry or credentials. Nor are we told of his descendants or his fate; he simply ceases to be a part of the narrative. Melchizedek is mythical as well as historical, and since he was chosen to play a mythical role in the revelation, it is his role in the narrative that is symbolic, not whether or not he had ordinary parents and ordinary children. Melchizedek had no genealogy, no father, no official place in the world, just as later the Messiah would have no father and be marginalized within Israel. Melchizedek’s priesthood seemingly came out of nowhere, just as the Messiah’s priesthood would seem to come out of nowhere. “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear its sound but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” So said the Messiah to Nicodemus. And so Melchizedek is a product of the Spirit, who raised him up from we know not where and who took him away to we know not where. It is in our not knowing where that is the key to his revelatory role, that makes him symbolic of the Messiah who came from a place that is unknowable and went to an unknowable place. Melchizedek makes an arrow pointing through David at the Messiah.

Melchizedek was a type of Christ. To be a “type” is to be a sign or a preview of what is to come. This means that there was some aspect of his life and work that represented or illustrated the life and work of the Messiah. Melchizedek was a type of Christ because later when the Christ had come his followers would look at Him and say, “Oh, I see, this is like Melchizedek”. It was particularly significant that Melchizedek combined the role of king and priest. While the offices of king and priest were combined in many cultures, the Canaanite and Amorite cultures seem not to have made that identification. Only in Salem in the land of Canaan was the king simultaneously the priest.

We can also see symbolism in the fact that Melchizedek brought out bread and wine to Abram. Bread and wine is not the food of the gods – it is the food of God Most High. The gods always ate meat, but God Most High distinguished Himself in His diet as well as His character. Blood sacrifices He would require, but the food of choice between Him and His people was bread and wine, apparently from the earliest times of the oral tradition. He always had His own purposes in what He chose. Abram was participating in a sort of “proto-Eucharist”, though he could not have understood the elements of the meal the way Christians do. Apparently Bera was included in this meal, or at least invited to participate. The exclusion of idols was not yet a part of the revelation, but the inclusion of the nations had been made explicit. In some unfathomable way, Bera represented those nations who would be blessed through Abram, even beyond his rescue from defeat and the coming destruction by fire from heaven.

Both Melchizedek’s name and his position as king of Salem designate him as a type of Christ to whom both titles naturally apply. “Salem” means “peace” and so his name is allegorical: Melchizedek is the King of Peace. Further the word “Melchizedek” means “king of righteousness”, strengthening the allegorical cast to his identity. Finally he was a priest, a priest of God Most High, which is one name used in the oral tradition for the God of the Bible. Clearly Melchizedek had some spiritual status in that neighborhood but he was emphatically not a representative of any of the local gods. We must understand Melchizedek as being a recipient of the oral tradition, to whom God had bequeathed the earlier account in Genesis, and to whom God Most High now spoke, showing him that the man who stood before him was a man chosen and blessed by God.

That Abram gave him a tithe is remarkable. It is the first mention of a tithe in the Bible and indicates that there was some long standing cultural tradition behind the practice. Abram would have understood Melchizedek as acting on behalf of God Most High, the same God that had appeared to him. There is no record of any previous interaction between Abram and Melchizedek, and no record of any further interaction after this scene, but the same sensitivity to God’s presence, which would later enable Abram to recognize angels when they were walking by, helped him recognize Melchizedek as a true priest of his God. Something in Abram recognized authority in this man, recognized a spiritual kinship, and recognized some kind of obligation toward him.

The New Testament emphasizes that all Israel submitted to the authority of Melchizedek through Abram. The unborn Levites who existed in potential in Abram gave tithes to Melchizedek through Abram, and so all Israel gave tithes to him, including the priests in Israel who received the tithes of Israel. In part this is just the ordinary course of things, that the later covenants and history of Israel would fulfill covenants and works of God that had pre-dated them. When God established a new covenant it did not supersede what came before, but extended it and perfected it. God is not a man that he should change his mind or jump from one method to another as the situation alters. Melchizedek had inherited the oral tradition and covenant originating with Noah and was a priest of God Most High, a priest of the true God who had created heaven and earth and preserved the record contained in the first few chapters of Genesis. Whatever new God Most High was about to do with Abram, it did not invalidate Melchizedek’s priesthood or God’s work through him. When Abram gave a tithe to Melchizedek it was to show us that He would continue the work He was doing with the Gentiles. And the work He was doing with the Gentiles – while not in the mainstream of His revelation or purposes for Abram and his descendants – was to prepare the Gentiles to recognize the purposes of God in Israel when they were accomplished. Melchizedek could well have been thinking the same words that would later be spoken by a man named John, “I must decrease and he must increase.”

Melchizedek is another clear indication that God Most High had not abandoned the world to total ignorance. The fact that the tradition of Melchizedek was not directly part of the biblical tradition does not make it less valid. On the contrary, it merely reminds us of what we should have known anyway: that the Bible is a very specific revelation and not a comprehensive one. It was not God’s intent that the Bible be an encyclopedic account of everything He did; in fact, the New Testament clearly indicates that even the Messiah did many things that were left out of the accounts. The purpose of the Bible is to give an intimate account of the nature of God as He revealed it in a particular series of covenants. The revelation contained in the Bible is the central act of revelation of God to the world, but it is not the only revelation to mankind. Besides the Bible, besides the Judeo-Christian tradition of historical revelation from God, there have been other revelations to those who were not in that tradition but to whom God extended mercy in showing something of Himself, even to such people as the Canaanites whom He had cursed, and the Amorites. And if God revealed Himself to Canaanites, then who can guess what He may have done to reveal Himself to others.

What do we mean when we say that Christianity is the true religion? This is a complex question, but we can say a few things as a result of meditating on Melchizedek. First, we do not, or should not, mean that all other religions have no truth about God whatsoever, or that all other people who are not Christians have no connection to God or understanding about God whatsoever. God is merciful, more so than we are, and He willingly, enthusiastically, reveals Himself all around the world with or without the help of missionaries and even apart from the Bible. That God has revealed Himself apart from the Bible does not challenge the centrality of the revelation contained in the Bible. That God has been revealing Himself all around the world all the time in no way lessens the importance of the gospel, nor its necessity, nor the importance of spreading the good news to the ends of the earth.  It just means that God has done and is doing far more than we had thought. If we believe that God is love, it is what we should have expected all along.


2 Comments on “36. Genesis 14:17-24”

  1. It is a challenging thought that perhaps God has revealed Himself all around the world in different ways. Nonetheless, Rom.1:20 “His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made.” Excellent narrative.

    • Thank you. And Romans 1:20 is a good reference. God has revealed Himself all around the world in different ways and all around the world in this particular way, through the things that have been made. Thanks for you comment.

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