January 2, 2011

Enigmatic Melchizedek

Some of my Bible studies are rather easy and flow smoothly. The Bible easily reveals its truths and original meanings. I see its significance for me and try to show how it may be significant for others by applying it to modern day scenarios and contemporary issues. At other times the are not easy. They are painful for reasons stemming from the fact that as I uncover information or the Holy Spirit reveals things through the Word I struggle with it. Struggle because it is a new concept or worse, struggle because it rubs against the way I am, sinful. The Bible reveals things about the reader as a reader reads. It distinguishes itself as holy and the reader is not. What they never are is boring. Difficult yes, boring, never. Fortunately, this one was easy. The air of mystery added to its appeal and made it more akin to a detective's case. So I broke out my magnifying glass and Sherlock Holmes hat and got down to brass tacks (for non-English speakers: I got down to business). My first study of 2011.

"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, the name Melchizedek means “king of righteousness”; then also, “king of Salem” means “king of peace.” Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever." ~Hebrews 7:1-3

This is the peculiar introduction to Hebrews 7 and the strangely shadowy character of the Melchizedek (righteousness is my king) the priest of the Most High God who is first mentioned in Genesis 14 in the narrative of Abraham. When we first read of him in the Pentateuch we see an indistinct image of a man that is of God and appears nearly as a drifter wandering the desert akin to A Man With No Name or a High Plains Drifter of the Old Testament if you will. We know nothing of his origins and hear nothing of his demise. He appears almost like an apparition and just as quick exits Scripture. Hebrews 7 brings attention to this fact and boldly makes claims that he is (1), "priest of God Most High" that oddly, he is (2) "without father or mother, without genealogy" and surprisingly (3) without beginning of days or end of life, resembling the Son of God...a priest forever.

Although the narrative in Genesis does not explicitly state that he has no mother or father the writer of Hebrews extracts this from the text. We also see Melchizedek is a form of priest that is totally unlike the chosen Aaronic or Levitical line. It use to be that if you could trace your lineage you  had a right to be a priest. Jewish priesthood had been founded on genealogies. Yet here we see the first of at least two hapax legomenon or a unique single usage words. The first of which alludes to Melchizedek's family tree or lack of one. Being such a unique usage of wordage it should be looked at more closely. A word that is used nowhere else in Scripture except here. We know then that the usage of this word is deliberate and specific to get a point across. It is not a very common word. Word study time! So what are the words and what do they mean?

The first of which is [ ἀγενεαλόγητος/agenealogetos ] meaning without descent. He is a priest, or of a priesthood that is totally "other" yet he is the priest of the Most High God. In the case of Melchizedek other means "different" from the Levitical Priesthood, in the case of Christ other will end up meaning "superior" to the Levitical Priesthood. We read all throughout the early portions of Scripture about family trees and ages at time of death. We get none of this about Melchizedek. No age, no indication of parents and no children. Again we see manifestations of : other. He is separated and distinct from a proper earthly family tree. The word agenealogetos is further embellished by statements of Melchizedek having no father or [ἀπάτωρ /apator] meaning: "whose father is not recorded in the genealogies" or "father unknown/illegitimate" a term used in legal papyri / birth certificates. It is also stated that he has no mother in the same manner or [ ἀπετωρ /ametor ] meaning: "born of a base or unknown mother". The Hebrews author used these words specifically to stress meanings. What is interesting here and draws a deliberate parallel with Jesus is "Father unknown/illegitimate" at the time of birth. That fact being that no one knew Melchizedek's father and although Jesus' father was known (no earthly father), most found it hard to believe. So they chose instead to believe that Jesus, born of Mary was...illegitimate. Even today people deny Jesus' deity and still believe He was illegitimate. By claiming illegitimate birth and saying Jesus was born of an illicit relationship between Mary and a human father allows people to imply a lack of divinity. Conversely, clever usage by the author of Hebrews to make a point does just the opposite. Everything the author says of Melchizedek can be said of Jesus. We see the author of Hebrews is an eloquent master of the Greek language.

So we then see the comparisons of Melchizedek to Jesus Christ in the "resembling the Son of God" statement. So do we take the story or Melchizedek by the author of Hebrews as literal which would make him a spiritual being or are we to view him as flesh and blood which is what the Genesis account would have us believe? We then see a paradoxical statement that does nothing to clear the waters..."he remains a priest forever".

Our clue dwells in a single word in Hebrews 7:3 and the word translated "resembling" ἀφωμοιωμένος /aphomoiomenos. This is a perfect passive participle which tells me that it is a word that emphasizes endurance/duration. As best as I can tell from the theological dictionaries of the New Testament it means: "to be made similar to" or "made of similar stuff". The word is a compound of apo/ἀπό meaning "from; derivation of" and (h)omoios/ὅμοιος meaning "like". Understood properly we we begin to see a clever use of wordage to show a unique similarity/relationship between Jesus Christ and Melchizedek. Today I believe the word would be a "facsimile" or "photocopy". A copy of something that is identical in nearly all outward and inward appearances...but not the same. Identical how? In terms of duration: Eternal. In terms of character: Holy. In terms of who's service: God's. Even some of the irregularities or divergences from what man would consider normal are "copied" or foreshadowed as in the case of their genealogies and both being separated from the Levitical line and still being holy.

Interestingly, like Christ, Melchizedek's priesthood do not appear to me limited solely in time as is alluded to in the references to no genealogy and no mother or father. The rabbinical exegesis drawn out of the text of the Old Testament is that Melchizedek possessed special "being" and "office". So we will continue to see Melchizedek was an enigmatic character of the Old Testament and used by comparison in the New Testament to show the uniqueness of Jesus Christ's priesthood.

We can't know for sure because the importance of the Hebrews 7 passage is to establish Jesus' priesthood. The eternal priesthood. We do not know how Melchizedek's priesthood was forever but we know for certain how Christ's is and will be. The Bible speaks to that abundantly. What makes it forever lies in the nature of Jesus Himself...eternal. The culmination or realization of the Old Testament type is infinitely more glorious and holy than the type or shadow itself.

So who was Melchizedek? ...or should I say Who was Melchizedek? The only other mention of Melchizedek is in Psalms 110 which ironically is a  "Messianic Psalm" or “Prophetic Psalm” or it can also be known to a lesser extent as a "Royal Psalm". This is to say it has prophetic or eschatological implications as believers look forward in the future to some tremendous victory over God’s enemies and evil. He had enough authority from God and was great enough that none other than the patriarch Abraham would offer tithe to him in verse 2. He also has the authority from God to bless Abraham...without genealogies. Authority that can only come from God. Why was he compared and so closely associated to Jesus? It is obvious that he was a shadow or a typology of the coming priesthood of Jesus but was he actually a theophany? It makes one wonder...he was quite enigmatic drifting in from the desert and leaving Scripture the same way.

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