Friday, 17 June 2016

Hebrews in its context/3 - Melchizedek, priest and king

As foreshadowed yesterday, the second bit of context for the next section of Hebrews is the significance of the allusion to Christ being a priest in the order of Melchizedek.

Hebrews contains several references to the mysterious figure of Melchizedek, so I think it is worth having a look at the few sparse references to him elsewhere in Scripture and in the non-canonical Old Testament literature, and understand why Hebrews gives them so much weight.

Christ's superiority to David

Outside Hebrews, Melchizedek in mentioned just twice: in Psalm 109, a psalm Jesus explicitly quotes in Mark 12:
35 Then Jesus said openly, still teaching in the temple, What do the scribes mean by saying that Christ is to be the son of David? David himself was moved by the Holy Spirit to say, The Lord said to my Master, Sit on my right hand while I make thy enemies a footstool under thy feet. Thus David himself calls Christ his Master; how can he be also his son? 
And is quoted by St Peter in his sermon at Pentecost, in Acts 2:
33 And now, exalted at God’s right hand, he has claimed from his Father his promise to bestow the Holy Spirit; and he has poured out that Spirit, as you can see and hear for yourselves. David never went up to heaven, and yet David has told us, The Lord said to my Master, Sit on my right hand, while I make thy enemies a footstool under thy feet. 36 Let it be known, then, beyond doubt, to all the house of Israel, that God has made him Master and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.
 Here is the whole psalm:

Vulgate
Douay-Rheims
Psalmus David
A psalm for David.
1 Dixit Dóminus Dómino meo: * Sede a dextris meis:
The Lord said to my Lord: Sit at my right hand,
2  Donec ponam inimícos tuos, * scabéllum pedum tuórum.
until I make your enemies your footstool.
3  Virgam virtútis tuæ emíttet Dóminus ex Sion: * domináre in médio inimicórum tuórum.
2 The Lord will send forth the sceptre of your power out of Sion: rule in the midst of your enemies.
4  Tecum princípium in die virtútis tuæ in splendóribus sanctórum: * ex útero ante lucíferum génui te.
3 With you is the principality in the day of your strength: in the brightness of the saints: from the womb before the day star I begot you.
5 Jurávit Dóminus, et non pœnitébit eum: * Tu es sacérdos in ætérnum secúndum órdinem Melchísedech.
4 The Lord has sworn, and he will not repent: You are a priest for ever according to the order of Melchisedech.
6 Dóminus a dextris tuis, * confrégit in die iræ suæ reges.
5 The Lord at your right hand has broken kings in the day of his wrath.
7  Judicábit in natiónibus, implébit ruínas: * conquassábit cápita in terra multórum.
6 He shall judge among nations, he shall fill ruins: he shall crush the heads in the land of many.
8  De torrénte in via bibet: * proptérea exaltábit caput.
7 He shall drink of the torrent in the way: therefore shall he lift up the head.

The priesthood of Melchizedek

By implication, then, the comment about being a priest in the order of Melchizedek also applies to Christ.  But what exactly is the reason for the link to Melchizedek's priesthood?

A few key points to note before looking at the description if his appearance in Genesis 14.  

First, Melchizedek is the first person explicitly referred to in Scripture as being a priest.  Before him a number of people (including Abraham) offer sacrifices to God, and can be seen as acting as high priests (including Adam), but the reference is implicit, not explicit. 

Secondly, beyond the description of him as king of Salem (Jerusalem?) there is no indication that he is somehow related to Aaron or the Levites.  

Thirdly, Abraham acknowledges the superiority of his priesthood by offering him a tithe.   

Genesis 14 (Brenton's Septuagint):
And it came to pass in the reign of Amarphal king of Sennaar, and Arioch king of Ellasar, that Chodollogomor king of Elam, and Thargal king of nations, made war with Balla king of Sodom, and with Barsa king of Gomorrha, and with Sennaar, king of Adama, and with Symobor king of Seboim and the king of Balac, this is Segor. All these met with one consent at the salt valley; this is now the sea of salt. Twelve years they served Chodollogomor, and the thirteenth year they revolted.  And in the fourteenth year came Chodollogomor, and the kings with him, and cut to pieces the giants in Astaroth, and Carnain, and strong nations with them, and the Ommaeans in the city Save. And the Chorrhaeans in the mountains of Seir, to the turpentine tree of Pharan, which is in the desert. And having turned back they came to the well of judgment; this is Cades, and they cut in pieces all the princes of Amalec, and the Amorites dwelling in Asasonthamar. 
And the king of Sodom went out, and the king of Gomorrha, and king of Adama, and king of Seboim, and king of Balac, this is Segor, and they set themselves in array against them for war in the salt valley, against Chodollogomor king of Elam, and Thargal king of nations, and Amarphal king of Sennaar, and Arioch king of Ellasar, the four kings against the five.  Now the salt valley consists of slime-pits. And the king of Sodom fled and the king of Gomorrha, and they fell in there: and they that were left fled to the mountain country.  And they took all the cavalry of Sodom and Gomorrha, and all their provisions, and departed. And they took also Lot the son of Abram’s brother, and his baggage, and departed, for he dwelt in Sodom.
 And one of them that had been rescued came and told Abram the Hebrew; and he dwelt by the oak of Mamre the Amorite the brother of Eschol, and the brother of Aunan, who were confederates with Abram. And Abram having heard that Lot his nephew had been taken captive, numbered his own home-born servants three hundred and eighteen, and pursued after them to Dan. And he came upon them by night, he and his servants, and he smote them and pursued them as far as Choba, which is on the left of Damascus. And he recovered all the cavalry of Sodom, and he recovered Lot his nephew, and all his possessions, and the women and the people. And the king of Sodom went out to meet him, after he returned from the slaughter of Chodollogomor, and the kings with him, to the valley of Saby; this was the plain of the kings.
And Melchisedec king of Salem brought forth loaves and wine, and he was the priest of the most high God. And he blessed Abram, and said, Blessed be Abram of the most high God, who made heaven and earth, and blessed be the most high God who delivered thine enemies into thy power. And Abram gave him the tithe of all...
 Pre-Christian traditions on Melchizedek

This acknowledgement of a non-Levite priest tradition posed obvious problems for Jewish tradition, and there are a range of different solutions that have come down to us (some only recently recovered).

One solution to be found in the Jewish midrash tradition makes him Shem, son of Noah, and hence inheritor of the priestly mantle implicitly handed down through his father (who offers a sacrifice after existing the ark) and from Adam, maintaining the patrilineal priestly tradition.  There is however no Scriptural warrant for this.

Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls preserve a pre-Christian tradition identifying Melchizedek as the Messiah, so one theory is that he is in fact the pre-incarnate Christ, and that is a reading that can arguably be found to be consistent with tradition Hebrews draws on (though St Thomas rejects as we shall see).  You can read what survives of the relevant Scroll here.

A third tradition appears in the non-canonical 2 Enoch.  The date of it is disputed - it may be pre-Christian or first century - but it essentially describes a miraculous virgin birth for Melchizedek, and his preservation in the Garden of Eden in order to escape the Flood.  It might sound fanciful, but keep in mind the line of Hebrews we are yet to come to about Melchizedek being"Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life".. 

Tomorrow back to Hebrews! 

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