What is the Bible? Part 67: The Whole Melchizedek Thing And Why You Love it and Know That it’s True
A question from a reader:
Could you touch on hebrews 7 and the whole Melchizedek thing? I mean, it’s just weird, and I’ve never heard any good explanation. (though I’ve heard plenty bad ones)
Yes, kellbell, I’d love to.
Melchizedek first appears in the Bible in the book of Genesis chapter 14. In other words, early in the story. Really early. Two chapters after we meet Abraham early.
To start, a bit of background: In chapter twelve we meet Abraham, who is going to be the father of a new tribe, a different tribe, a tribe who are called to bless all the other tribes. This was, of course, a revolutionary idea. A heightening of consciousness. Tribes were about themselves, about preserving and protecting and defeating other tribes. (This is why you’ll often see mentioned in the Old Testament how big a tribe is, how much stuff they’ve accumulated, how many fighting men they have.)
But this tribe, this tribe has a mission to bless the other tribes. A mission to live beyond simply the needs of their tribe. And it all starts with Abraham.
Let me pause here and point out that a number of you have sent me questions that reflect your problem with how particular the Bible is. Why this one tribe? Why this one particular group of people? What about all of the other people and tribes and religions and perspectives? Isn’t the Bible too narrow in it’s insistence that God works through this one story of this one tribe that comes from this one man Abraham?
Great questions. You should be asking those questions. If you read the Bible and you don’t have those questions, you’re probably not reading the Bible.
Which is why the Melchizedek story is so compelling.
After a battle against King Chedorlaomer, Abraham is traveling through the King’s valley when he meets King Melchizedek of Salem, who brings bread and wine and blesses Abraham.
Why is this interesting? Because Melchizedek is described as priest of God Most High.
The story starts with Abraham, right? That’s where it begins, correct? Everything is falling apart, the violence between two sons has escalated into a whole world at odds with itself, people are trying to build a tower to the heavens to become like gods (That’s a summary of Genesis 4 through 11). It’s gotten so out of control that Genesis 12 begins with something new starting, a new tribe, through this particular fella Abraham. God wants to create a new kind of people to take creation in a new direction.
That’s the story the Bible tells, right?
But then Abraham runs into a dude on his way back from battle who is a priest of God Most High. And this dude blesses Abraham.
Wasn’t Abraham supposed to do the blessing?
And then Abraham GIVES HIM ONE-TENTH OF EVERYTHING.
Why does Abraham tithe to Melchizedek?
If this is a story about the new thing God is doing, how come a character shows up who is already in on the new thing God is doing, so much so that he actually blesses Abraham? And then why does Abraham give him a tenth of the spoils?
That’s how you treat a god. You give them tithes and offerings.
And to further the mystery, we don’t get any background on Melchizedek, other than that he’s the King of Righteousness. (That’s what his name means.) Generally, kings are kings of something. An area, a land mass, a group of people, a nation, etc. But this king is the king of Righteousness and Justice.
Huh? And then he’s gone. Abraham moves on, Melchizedek goes who knows where, and we don’t hear about him again. The narrator doesn’t seem to have any interest in giving us more info. He shows up, he blesses and serves bread and wine, and then the action moves elsewhere.
Until the Psalms. And the book of Hebrews.
Which we’ll get to in a minute.
But first, let’s circle back to that question about particularity, because it’s one a lot of people have.
It’s a question about how narrow the Bible appears to be. Which is why I tell you about Melchizedek.
Within the Bible itself, and especially here in the opening pages, is a clear example of someone knowing God, walking with God, blessing people in the name of God, without having any connection with the particular Abraham story that is unfolding.
You with me?
You see why this story is a big deal, right?
The criticism of the Bible is often from those who see it as limiting the divine presence, prohibiting the possibility that people outside of this one particular story can have a genuine connection with the divine.
But if you read the Bible you quickly discover that this is not the story that it tells.
Melchizedek is a deeply mysterious, open and welcoming character who appears on the scene, blessing Abraham (who was actually still called Abram at this point) in the name of God.
And how does he bless, besides the prayer he says over Abraham?
Oh yes, he brings bread and wine.
Which provides an excellent segue to Jesus.
Melchizedek is mentioned in the Psalms once, and then the only other time he appears in the Bible is in the book of Hebrews, where the writer is trying to explain how Jesus can be understood as a priest, but not the kind of priest that people had any categories for…and how does the writer do this?
By comparing Jesus to Melchizedek.
Jesus is said to be a priest
according to the order of Melchizedek,
of the most high God
who is a priest
not through legal requirement requiring physical descent but through the power of an indestructible life.
Interesting, isn’t it? That when the writer tries to search for a way to explain how God works in new and fresh ways through already existing structures, the image that writer uses is…Melchizedek.
So what does all this about Melchizedek have to do with us here and now in 2014?
Don’t surprised when you meet people who have none of your religious background (and baggage) and yet clearly have a genuine connection with the divine. This is normal, healthy, and…I’m going to say it…biblical.
Don’t be caught off guard when people show up from outside of whatever system or institution or religion or perspective or doctrine or worldview or culture you’ve created and they have something profound and good to give to you. This is often how the story goes, doesn’t it?
Don’t let lame critiques of the Bible sidetrack you from actually reading the stories. These are radical, progressive, open, expansive, extraordinary stories about the God who bigger and broader and beyond any one tribe. Yes, these stories are told from the perspective of actual people living in space and time, and they often do reflect the earlier consciousness of those times and places. But so do the stories we’re telling right now. It’s all on a continuum, a trajectory, and if you keep this in mind, reminding yourself that these are human stories before they’re anything else, it will free you to not only see our common humanity, but you may even find the divine lurking there in all that bone and dust and spirit and blood.
Jesus said that his father is always at work. This makes an excellent assumption for us to live with as we go about our lives. The divine is always at work. So when someone you don’t recognize shows up with bread and wine or maybe a blessing, it may be the most High God, giving you what you need, blessing you, reminding you who you are and why you’re here.