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Hebrews: The Priesthood of Melchizedek (7:1-10)

The author of Hebrews discussed the priesthood of Jesus earlier in this letter. But now he begins a more detailed discourse on Jesus as a new high priest and the sacrifice that he offered. He begins this discussion with Melchizedek, a mysterious character from Genesis. His intent in these first ten verses is to demonstrate the superiority of Melchizedek’s priesthood to that of the priesthood that came from Levi, the great-grandson of Abraham. In the next passage, he will connect Jesus to Melchizedek.

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Melchizedek

This Melchizedek was king of Salem and priest of God Most High.

Hebrews 7:1a NIV

Melchizedek is a mysterious character who makes one brief appearance in Genesis 14:17-20 and merits a mention in Psalm 110:4. But he is clearly an important figure to the author of Hebrews. So just who is Melchizedek?

He is described as the king of Salem. This is likely the city that would come to be known as Jerusalem, although that is by no means certain. And he is also described as being a priest of God Most High. Is this the same God that Abraham was following? It would seem like it. And, if that is the case, it would seem likely that Melchizedek and Abraham had other dealings besides this brief moment.

But whatever the relationship was between the two, Abraham clearly respected him. But beyond that, we know nothing about this man.

A Blessing and a Tithe

He met Abraham returning from the defeat of the kings and blessed him, and Abraham gave him a tenth of everything.

Hebrews 7:1b-2a NIV

Prior to the introduction of Melchizedek in Genesis 14, there is an account of a coalition of kings aligned with Kedorlaomer, the king of Elam, defeating a coalition of kings who ruled over cities of the Jordan plain. This included Sodom, the city Lot had moved into. Lot and his family were captured and were on their way back to Elam when Abraham was notified and set out in pursuit. Abraham and his men attacked and defeated Kedorlaomer and recovered Lot, his family, and all of the other plunder from Sodom and the surrounding cities.

On Abraham’s return to Sodom, he returned the plunder to the appropriate kings, except for what the men allied with him claimed. He also gave a tithe of the plunder to Melchizedek after his blessing of Abraham. This is the first mention of a tithe in the Scripture. Why Abraham gave this tithe to Melchizedek is unknown. But the titles given to Melchizedek may offer some clues.

Abraham gave a tithe to the king of Salem. It may be that Abraham was somehow allied with Salem and was giving his overlord the expected share of the plunder. And he was also giving that tithe to the priest of God Most High. And in so doing giving it to God himself. In the end, we have no way of knowing with any certainty why Abraham acted as he did. But clearly, the author of Hebrews saw great significance in this action.

An Eternal Priesthood

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 7:2b-3 NIV

Did Melchizedek actually have no beginning or end? While there are some who would hold that to be the case. I think it is much more likely that the author of Hebrews is just playing on the unknown nature of where he came from and what happened to him. In the account, there is no mention of Melchizedek’s parentage or origin. And there is no mention of the end of his life. So, in the account from Genesis, Melchizadek has no beginning or end. And no father or mother.

The author plays on Melchizedek’s name and title, as well as his ancestry to relate him to the Son of God. He was the king of righteousness and peace as well as being without recorded beginning or end. And so he becomes a type of the Messiah who was to come. The Son of God who was without beginning or end. And who ruled over the kingdom of God. A kingdom of peace and righteousness.

The Order of Melchizedek

The Lord has sworn
    and will not change his mind:
“You are a priest forever,
    in the order of Melchizedek.”

Psalm 110:4 NIV

The idea of Melchizedek being a priest forever finds support in Psalm 110, a messanic psalm by David. In this psalm, David says that the Messaiah is a priest forever. And that he is of the order of Melchizedek. The order of Melchizedek is only mentioned in this verse and in Hebrews. There are many views on what this is. But it seems like many of them go way beyond what our author intended.

The order of Melchizedek has to do with the pattern he set. Priests after this order are eternal, without beginning or end, resembling the Son of God, a priest forever. This is unlike priests who are after the order of Aaron. Priests who live but a few years and who themselves are subject to sin and failure. The only priest, after Melchizedek, of this order was Jesus himself.

Collecting a Tithe

Just think how great he was: Even the patriarch Abraham gave him a tenth of the plunder! Now the law requires the descendants of Levi who become priests to collect a tenth from the people—that is, from their fellow Israelites—even though they also are descended from Abraham.

Hebrews 7:4-5 NIV

When Israel later occupied Canaan the tribe of Levi was not given a region of land to call their own. This tribe was instead set apart to serve in the religious life of the nation. The priests were one family within this tribe. The rest of the members served at the tabernacle/temple in various capacities. In order to support the Levities, a tithe of the flocks and fields of the other people was to be given to them. In turn, a tithe of what was received by the Levites was given to the priests for their support and work. By giving a tithe of what they produced the other tribes were supporting the Lord’s work.

While it might seem strange to us today, this tithe was a type of tax. And conceptually, a taxing authority is greater than those being taxed. And this is an important distinction for the author’s argument going forward. The priests, even though they had the same ancestry as the other tribes, received a tithe from them. This may not seem significant yet, but as the author builds on this foundation it will make more sense.

The Lesser Is Blessed By the Greater

This man, however, did not trace his descent from Levi, yet he collected a tenth from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. And without doubt the lesser is blessed by the greater. In the one case, the tenth is collected by people who die; but in the other case, by him who is declared to be living.

Hebrews 7:6-8 NIV

The author of Hebrews now turns his attention back to Melchizedek. Unlike the later Jewish priests, Melchizedek did not trace his ancestry through Levi. Or through Abraham for that matter. But he received a tithe from Abraham. This will be developed further in the following verses. However he does contrast here a distinction between the two who receive tithes. The Levitical priests grow old and die. But we have no record of Melchizedek dying. And he is identified in Psalm 110:4 as a priest forever.

Another interesting feature of the account about Melchizedek is that he blessed Abraham. In our culture today that does not seem like a big deal. We offer a blessing to someone who sneezes. And nothing is really meant by it. But in ancient cultures, a father, or maybe a ruler, would offer a blessing to a son, or subject. An example of this blessing can be found in Genesis 48:11-22 where Jacob blessed Joseph and his two sons. The blessing dealt with their future and what would happen to them. The following chapter in Genesis, while not explicitly identified as a blessing, is essentially that. Jacob gathered the rest of his sons and spoke to each of them concerning their future.

Levi and Melchizedek

One might even say that Levi, who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham, because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor.

Hebrews 7:9-10 NIV

These two verses cement the author’s argument about the superiority of Melchizedek’s priesthood to that of Aaron. Levi, Aaron’s ancestor was, in a sense, still in Abraham when he met Melchizedek. And so, as Abraham offered a tithe to Melchizedek and received his blessing, Levi did as well. So there are two priesthoods represented here. One offers a tithe to the other. And receives a blessing in return. So, which priesthood is greater? Naturally, the one who receives the tithe and offers the blessing.

The author of Hebrews will go on from here to identify Jesus as a priest after the order of Melchizedek. And so, superior to the priesthood that is after the order of Aaron.

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The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.

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