The Story of Melchizedek: The Biblical Bromance We Could Learn a Lot From
Few in human history could be called priest in addition to king. Melchizedek — pronounced "mel-keys-uh-deck" — may be the earliest recorded instance of that king. The Jewish people, Christians and those who practice Islam all acknowledge the story of Melchizedek in some way other another, but like many other figures in the Bible, the interpretations can vary and get a little extreme.
The story of Melchizedek in the Bible itself is a rather brief one. Yet, like other instances in the Bible, the variants in the ways this story is interpreted stretch across the board. With very limited information about Melchizedek — not even a birthday in the Jewish calendar — interpretations of the story of Melchizedek range from an explanation of why we do certain rituals within Mass/the church to a The Davinci Code level of cult-like behaviors that might surprise you. One part explanatory history and other parts conspiracy, the story of Melchizedek is a lesser-worn gem.
The Story of Melchizedek: Background and Basics
Who? Looking at his name, Melchizedek is kind of a mouthful, isn’t it? This name is a compound of a few Semitic words. The start of the name comes from "melek(h)," which translates to "king." The second half, "ṣedeq," can mean either "righteousness" or serve as a proper name — Zedek. More on "Zedek" later, but for now, the mouthful of a name is much easier to say when you think you’re addressing the King of Righteousness, the priest that’s a king.
When? Melchizedek was friends with the Abraham. There are 14 generations in between the lives of Abraham and Adam. When we say "Adam," we mean THE Adam. Eve’s Adam. So, when it comes to this interpretation of history, this represents a very, very early biblical history of man. This is before the Israelites, before Moses and Passover, before the Maccabees and the story of Hanukkah, but after Noah and Noah’s Ark. Part of what makes this tale so mysterious is its placement in the Book of Genesis, which tells stories from the Bible’s an earliest times. Most characters in Genesis are connected familially — it’s always, "son of _____," like in The Lord of the Rings. But Melchizedek has no relatives. At least, he doesn’t have any that are listed in any of the holy texts.
Where? The story of Melchizedek takes place in the desert surrounding the Dead Sea. Melchizedek is the king of Salam, which eventually becomes known as Jerusalem. The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah also make a brief appearance. They’re believed to be a part of what we know today as Israel, near the Dead Sea. Speaking of which, the Dead Sea Scrolls have added to the mythos of Melchizedek, making his tale even more alluring.
To understand the story of Melchizedek, it helps to know the story of Abraham, at least somewhat. Abraham is a patriarch across holy texts. Famous biblical figures like King David (the one who slayed Goliath) and Jesus himself are descendants of Abraham. In Islam, Abraham is regarded as a prophet, putting him at a status similar to Muhammad’s.
Many of Abraham’s adventures entail the patriarch accomplishing goals and helping people with hopes of earning his birthright from God. This finally happens when Abraham is very old, so he had time for quite a few adventures. It’s kind of the How I Met Your Mother of the Bible. If a biopic for Abraham was to be released, the story of Mechizedek would happen towards the beginning or appear entirely in the prequel. That’s how long it took for Abraham to earn his birthright.
Churchly Traditions From the Story of Melchizedek
Ever wonder why a Christian Mass has seemingly curious rituals like kneeling, eating bread and joining hands, among others? A few of those arose from Melchizedek’s story in the Old Testament. To hone in on what the Bible actually says: The story of Melchizedek starts out with Abraham and his nephew, Lot.
Both Abraham and Lot were shepherds, and Lot kept his sheep near the kingdom of Sodom. In a manner that seemed a bit sudden, four kings pillaged and captured Lot and others in that area. When Abraham heard this, he sent his 300+ servants, who happened to be trained for battle, on a surprise attack to retrieve Lot and restore order.
Abraham proved victorious and returned home to Salam (Jerusalem). Face to face with Melchizedek, Abraham, with treasure in tow, was congratulated by Melchizedek, who gave Abraham and his companions wine and bread. Abraham then paid Melchizedek a tithe. "Tithe" translates to "a tenth," or a small sharing/tax of sorts. This is when the two leading men start to "bro out" a bit.
Melchizedek and Abraham went back and forth in explaining that they couldn’t accept anything from each other. You can almost picture them punching each other’s shoulders, saying "You keep it" and "No, you keep it!" Eventually, Abraham only took the food that he and his servants ate while off on their journey.
This is very much an Old Testament take on Beowulf or The Odyssey. There are soldiers, kings and quests, but Melchizedek’s story helps justify two important parts of Mass and the churchgoing experience as a whole.
When Melchizedek gives Abraham bread and wine, this is the first time that Bible-readers are shown a ritual similar to that of the Eucharist. For those who didn’t have Catechism or Sunday school, the Eucharist is the ritual in which the priest holds up bread and wine and it becomes the (in many cases "literal") body and blood of Jesus Christ. It’s then shared with all of those at Mass who have already received their First Communion.
The Eucharist is a Sacrament — the one where the priest blesses a wafer, says "the body of Christ," and churchgoers eat it — but Melchizedek’s offering was more of a precursor to that. The bread and wine weren’t standing in for anything, but his action did normalize the reception of bread and wine from a high priest.
Another Melchizedek-adjacent ritual seen in a traditional Mass is the tithe, which paves the way for people to give back some of their earnings to the church. The relationship is almost transactional: Melchizedek gave bread and wine, and Abraham paid a tithe. With weekly collections usually preceding the celebration of the Eucharist, this tradition may be one of the longest-running of them all. The story of Melchizedek is like a well-built building from Greece or Rome that’s still in use today.
The Order of Melchizedek and Other Conspiracies
The only other place where Melchizedek is really mentioned in the Bible is in Psalm 110. The psalms are a section of poems and songs that are also prayers that teach key principles. Psalm 110 is one of the most quoted sections of the New Testament. Composers such as Mozart, Handel, Vivaldi and others set the psalm to music, so it’s noteworthy in the music community in addition to theology.
Melchizedek is referred to in one line in the psalm. In the King James version, it goes as follows: "The LORD hath sworn, and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek."
By order of Melchizedek, it is believed that God is referring to the priesthood, but that’s open to interpretation. This mention of Melchizedek among the psalm’s other references that make proclamations about the Messiah causes some folks to associate Melchizedek with Jesus, or whoever the Messiah is, depending on which text you’re using. In terms of symbols, this could be fitting because Jesus comes from a royal lineage (King David) and is also a priest. Jesus held the last supper, which also involved a priest-king giving bread and wine to his friends.
The similarities are there — so much so that there are people who see Melchizedek as a second Messiah figure or perhaps another heavenly presence of importance who lived on Earth. This is where the Dead Sea Scrolls, one of the most beloved and regarded mysteries of our time, comes into play.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are a series of 2,000-year-old Hebrew and Aramaic texts that were discovered in caves near (fittingly) the Dead Sea. Writing was relatively new during the time when these manuscripts were drafted, so anything written that historians and theologists could get their hands on would have the potential to reveal groundbreaking information.
One of the Dead Sea Scrolls references Melchizedek in particular. Scroll 11Q13, nicknamed the Melchizedek scroll, depicts Melchizedek at war, leading God’s angels in battle. Historically, only Michael the Archangel has been known to command an army of angels; he famously did so against Lucifer, the fallen angel who became the devil. This can mean that there’s an interpretation of the Bible in which Melchizedek leads the charge against Lucifer, or maybe it means that Melchizedek will be in a position of command during an apocalyptic future.
Melchizedek may have lived a long time ago, but he’s a historical figure about whom we stand to learn more as archaeologists continue to dig. As we discover additional details about Melchizedek, it’s important to also think about what we can learn from Melchizedek. In the story of Melchizedek, a king shows kindness and hospitality to Abraham and his people. No matter what time you’re in, a little kindness can go a long way. In Melchizedek’s case, he was rewarded with a tithe — but the fact that he was willing to go without it goes to show that kindness itself is often the best reward.