The Bible contains many mysteries and the true identity of the king and priest, Melchizedek, has perplexed scholars for ages. Melchizedek enters the scene in Genesis chapter 14, right after Abram rescues Lot from 4 kings who took him hostage when they looted the city of Sodom. When Abram defeats the 4 kings and returns home with Lot, the king of Sodom and Melchizedek (the king of Jerusalem) meet Abram in the Valley of Shaveh.
The Bible goes on to explain that Melchizedek was a priest to the God Most High, and he blessed Abram saying, “Abram is blessed by God, the Creator of heaven and earth. Give praise to God who handed your enemies over to you.” Abram then gave Melchizedek 1/10th of everything. Some sources say this act represented a tithe and was an acknowledgment by Abram that Melchizedek was a priest who ranked higher than he did.
So, who in the world is Melchizedek and how did he come to be a priest of the true God?
The Bible tells us nothing about where Melchizedek came from or how he came to be a king and a priest. But here is what we do know:
– Melchizedek was a worshiper and priest of the true God.
– He was king of the original Jerusalem.
– The name Melchizedek means “King of Righteousness”.
– Hebrews 7:3 adds even more mystery. Here Melchizedek is described as being “without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God, remains a priest continually.”
What a description! No wonder so much speculation swirls regarding Melchizedek’s identity!
David Guzik points out in his commentary for Enduring Word, “One thing making Melchizedek unique was he was both a king and a priest. History shows how dangerous it is to combine religious and civic authority. God forbade the kings of Israel to be priests and the priests to be kings. In 2 Chronicles 26:16-26, King Uzziah tried to do the work of priest, and God struck him with leprosy. Melchizedek was an exception.”
At this point you’re probably wondering why it even matters who this seemingly obscure character is?Well, Psalm 110:4 says that the priesthood of the Messiah is a priesthood according to the order of Mechizedek. All other Israelite priests were from the tribe of Levi, from the order of Aaron. Yet interestingly, Jesus is a priest not descended from the Israelite tribe of priests- the Levites- and of the order of Aaron, but a priest of the order of this mysterious figure Melchizedek. The writer of Hebrews cites Melchizedek’s unique priesthood as a type superior to the old levitical order and the priesthood of Aaron.
So, what are the theories concerning Melchizedek’s identity?
The first we’ll talk about is based directly off of the Hebrews 7:3 description. Some people believe that Melchizedek was actually a pre-incarnate (pre-Bethlehem) appearance of Jesus. This is called a “Christophany”.
Those who ascribe to this theory would point out that there is other Biblical precedent for such an appearance since Abraham also received a visit from the Lord in the form of a man in Genesis 17. Another corroboration of this theory comes in Hebrews 6:20 which states that “[Jesus] has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.” The article Who Was Melchizedek from gotquestions.org offers this logic, “This term order would ordinarily indicate a succession of priests holding the office. None are ever mentioned, however, in the long interval from Melchizedek to Christ, an anomaly that can be solved by assuming that Melchizedek and Christ are really the same person. Thus the ‘order’ is eternally vested in Him and Him alone.”
Ascribers to this view also point to a literal interpretation of the Hebrews 7:3. The same article listed above describes it this way, “If Genesis 14 describes a theophany, then God the Son came to give Abraham His blessing (Genesis 14:17–19), appearing as the King of Righteousness (Revelation 19:11,16), the King of Peace (Isaiah 9:6), and the Mediator between God and Man (1 Timothy 2:5).”
This view is not without it’s weaknesses however. Most notably this view is problematic due to the fact that Hebrews 7:3 doesn’t actually say that Melchizedek was Christ, but rather that he was “like unto” (or like) Christ. A big issue considering this view is primarily based on a literal reading. Saying someone is like Christ is not the same as saying that an individual is Christ.
Another theory offered up with archaeological corroboration is that Melchizedek was a king and priest who rather than inheriting his priesthood (through genealogy), had been appointed priest by God.
In his article for Apologetics Press, Wayne Jackson cites A.H. Sayce, “Several of the Tell el-Amarna tablets are letters written to the Pharaoh by Ebed-tob…the kin of Uru-Salim [Jerusalem], who begs for help against his enemies. He tells the Pharaoh that he was not like the other Egyptian governors in Palestine, nor had he received a crown by inheritance from his father or mother; it had been conferred on him by ‘the Mighty King…’” From this Jackson continues, “…observing the similarity of language, we conclude that Melchizedek’s kingship/priesthood had not been derived genealogically; He had received his commission directly from God Himself…Accordingly, by way of analogy, we are forced to affirm that the current reign/priesthood of our Lord is a direct and divinely authored administration.”
This theory seems to be very logical in my opinion. However, detractors would point out that this theory offers nothing by way of explanation for the Hebrews 7:3 assertion that Melchizedek was never born and never died.
Still others hypothesize that Melchizedek was actually Seth (Adam’s son), Noah’s son Shem, or even Job. These theories really have no Biblical corroboration. They rely on ancient, extra-biblical sources.
These people base their claim primarily from the Book of Jashar (although they also cite various Jewish sources such as the Talmud and other oral Jewish tradition), which actually states that Shem was Melchizedek. The problem is, even though the Bible mentions the Book of Jashar in Joshua 10: 12-13 and II Samuel 1:18-27, the Book of Jashar that exists today- although ancient- is not the Book of Jashar that was mentioned in the Old Testament. It is actually an eighteenth-century forgery written by Alcuin (an eighteenth century scholar) that claims to be a translation of the lost Book of Jashar. A second book claiming to be the Book of Jashar is often called the “Pseudo-Jashar”. This is a book of Jewish legends that scholars confirm did not even exist prior to AD 1625.
Even though The Book of Jashar has been proven to not be the Book of Jashar referred to in the Old Testament and is often in other parts of the text in direct opposition to the Bible, you will still find countless YouTube evangelists preaching “the identity of Melchizedek as Shem” using the Book of Jashar as their primary source.
(For more info on the Book of Jashar, you can check out this link What is the Book of Jashar and Should it be in the Bible.)
I mentioned above that the Talmud and Jewish oral traditions state that Melchizedek and Shem are one and the same. What I didn’t explain is that this view is held and promoted by Jews for a reason that is central to their faith- to prove that Jesus was NOT the Messiah!
You see, according to the Old Testament law, all priests must come from the line of Levi. Now, Jews obviously do not accept the New Testament, and the identity of Melchizedek is one of many ways in which the Jews attempt to “debunk” the New Testament and deny that Jesus was the Messiah. In Hebrews, the Messiah is described as the “high priest”, but Jews point out that Jesus is descended from the tribe of Judah. So, according to Old Testament law Jesus couldn’t fulfill the Hebrews description that the Messiah is the new “high priest”. But then, Hebrews 5:10 explains that the Messiah is a priest according to a different order- the order of Melchizedek. Hebrews 7:11-20 goes even further saying that perfection could not be attained from the levitical priesthood (which was a part of the law), so a new priesthood was required. It says that the levitical priesthood was temporary, but the Messiah’s priesthood in the order of Melchizedek is permanent. Obviously, this information is a smack in the face to Old Testament law and is nothing short of heretical to a pharisaical (that of a Pharisee) mindset.
We all know that the Jews did NOT accept Jesus as the Messiah. So, Jewish Rabbis decided they could prove that Jesus wasn’t the Messiah by first claiming that Shem is Melchizedek, then using the genealogies to disqualify Jesus from the priesthood by definition of Old Testament law. Let me explain…
We know that Shem’s father and mother are Noah and his wife and his genealogy is recorded in Genesis. So, if Shem is Melchizedek, this would prove that he did NOT come from a different priesthood like Hebrews proclaims, but instead he would be the ancestral founder of the levitical priesthood. Rabbis claim that Shem handed the priesthood down to Abraham, who passed it to Isaac, who passed it to Jacob, who eventually passed it down to Levi. Rabbis point out for Jesus to inherit the priesthood from Melchizedek, He would have to be a descendant of Levi. But He isn’t- Jesus is descended from Judah. By combining Melchizedek and Shem, the Jews are able to claim that the priesthood is still technically by the order of Levi (not different as Hebrews states), thereby disqualifying Jesus from the priesthood since He is descended from Judah.
Regardless of the source, this view has obvious problems. First of all, Shem died 500 years before Abram was even born so he couldn’t have been the Melchizedek that met Abram in the Valley of Shaveh. Also Shem’s birth and death are recorded in Genesis, though Melchizedek is said to have neither beginning of life nor end of days. (My readers already know that I believe there are issues with the timelines based off of early genealogies. The genealogies in our translations are in fact at odds (missing years) with the Samaritan Pentateuch and the Septuagint, which are both translated from older copies of the Hebrew than our translations. For an awesome explanation of that point you can check out Nathan Hoffman’s video which is nothing short of life changing if you’re an archaeology nerd like I am. It also references our topic of Shem as Melchizedek at the end of the video.
This information alone rules out this theory unless you disregard the Hebrews 7:3 description of Melchizedek. In my opinion, any theory that can be tied to such a clear ulterior motive has to be weighted with that consideration in mind.
Of course, I would be remiss if I left out the theory that Melchizedek is actually an outer space visitor (or “unfallen Adam”) from another planet, who came to observe the progress of God’s work of redemption for our fallen race. Since there is literally no Biblical corroboration for this theory, I’m just going to let this one alone…
So! While I cannot tell you assuredly who Melchizedek is. I can tell you who he isn’t! He isn’t Seth, Shem, Job, or an alien. I guess we’ll all just have to wait until Jesus returns for this mystery to be solved!