Who was Melchizedek?


Any regular and attentive attender of Mass will notice that the name of Melchizedek arises often, in biblical readings and the Canon of the Mass. A parishioner recently asked, therefore, an obvious but rare question. Who is Melchizedek? The answer is steeped in mystery….so let us explore it a little.

Melchizedek is first mentioned in Genesis 14. During a war between Cana and Mesopotamia Abraham’s nephew Lot is captured. He and his family are then taken hostage but one escapes and brings the news to Abraham, who bravely pursues the invaders and rescues his family. On Abraham’s return we are introduced to the mysterious priestly figure of Melchizedek. Who, scripture informs us, was ‘the prophet of God.’ Whatever that may mean at this time?

Melchizedek then ministers to Abraham and, fascinatingly, not only blesses him but feeds him with bread and wine. The symbolism of this act cannot be lost on any Christian audience. What on earth is going on here?

“Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. And he blessed him [Abraham] and said, ‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!’ And Abram gave Melchizedek a tenth of everything” 

Melchizedek is next mentioned in Psalm 110:4; where David is speaking prophetically about the Christ who is to come. The psalmist states: “The Eternal hath sworn, and will not repent, Thou art a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.”

And finally he is presented to us with great significance in the New Testament. Where, in the letter to the Hebrews, Jesus  is named our eternal High Priest… “after the order of Melchizedek.” A third time then a very clear link is being drawn between Melchizedek and Christ. Curious and curiouser…

Alas we do not have enough historic fact to ever really know who Melchizedek was. Why, even if there was a bloke called Melchizedek who performed some sort of priestly function for Abraham, a problem arises. Because, within  the scriptural narrative, he is being presented to us as so much more than that. Unlike any other Old Testament figure, Melchizedek seems to be a sort of archetype of perfect priesthood. We have before us then a very mysterious figure whose role in scripture makes a lot more sense spiritually than it does historically.

We might go so far as to suggest Melchizedek is a supernatural figure. Because he does not seem to have existed in the sense that you and I exist. The few facts we have about him being extraordinary. First Genesis says he was  king of Salem (Jerusalem). Yet this seems unlikely, after all Abraham was a nomadic man living in a nomadic time and the Jewish religion was not yet established in any solid sense.

But don’t discard the mention of “Salem” because, in Hebrew, that word means “peace.” So Melchizedek is shown to us as “King of Peace” not just some earthly city. Furthermore his very name -Melchizedek- translates “King of Righteousness”. So we have before us- the King of peace and righteousness. A link is again being forged, we might conclude, between Melchizedek and Christ himself.

“This Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the most high God, who met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings, and blessed him; to whom also Abraham gave a tenth part of all; first being by interpretation King of righteousness, and after that also King of Salem, which is, King of peace” (Hebrews 7:1-2).

The mystery of Melchizedek then takes a stranger turn. For the bible also says that he was “without mother, without father, without descent.” Eh? Again we face a reference imbued with supernatural emphasis. What is this telling us of the King of peace and righteousness? The one who fed Abraham with bread and wine…..Was he mortal or not? What is this link with Christ? Why is he presented to us as “having neither beginning of days, nor end of life?”

In conclusion two things seem unarguable. Firstly that Melchizedek of old is a figure intentionally shrouded in mystery. Secondly his is intentionally linked, within sacred scripture, to the figure of Christ himself. Why is this? Who was he really? What would we have witnessed if we were present when Abraham was blessed? Who can say?  Your guess is as good as mine….

But whatever the historic facts might be- Melchizedek performs a very sacred role. His appearing in scripture being some sort of manifestation of God to man; a vision glorious in which we see a foretaste of Christ. Melchizedek stands then- as all priest- in persona Christi. And is thus able to give to Abraham, founder of the Jewish faith, the blessing of God Almighty. Christ present at the start of the story of salvation.

It is mind blowing. That Christ himself was being revealed in and through this ancient priest.  Evidence, I believe, that the Word really was always with God and of God and that nothing came to be without him.

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