Let’s walk through the argument about Melchizedek, both king and priest from Salem, one of the ‘cities on the plain’ including Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot chose this lush easy valley, and let Abraham tough it out in the highlands – but soon discovers the risks of affluence and choosing the wrong gang. Abraham comes to save his nephew’s bacon. Genesis 14 is the ‘welcome home’ party.
Who is Melchizedek to bless Abraham? Isn’t that condescending, like John the Baptist presuming to baptize Jesus? Why does Abe offer him a tithe off the top from his spoils of war, while denying his own booty (except for a fair share for the lads who did the fighting to win Lot back.) Where does he come from, and where does he go (except Psalm 110)?
Melchizedek stands deeper and more universally in relation to the human and divine than Abraham – and a fortiori (even more so) in relation to Aaronic and Levitic priesthoods established at Sinai. If you can recognize the place of a Melchizedek, then you can construe Christ in terms of that ‘order’. In any event, Christ is a bigger deal than the moral priests appointed for temple service (back when there was a temple, which is now just a memory).
What was the point of a ‘priest’ – let alone a ‘king’ in the first place? Thomas Carlyle speculated about it elegantly before modern social sciences developed, in his pamphlet ‘Heroes and Hero Worship’. His pecking order included warrior and poet, but culminated in Christ.
Of course, if you’ve never grappled with mortality, with human finitude, or alienation, these frameworks for sense-making are boring. Similarly, if you have never been struck by human inhumanity to one another or creation, individually and collectively, this talk is useless. You’ve probably never been hurt by anybody, or realized any complicity in harm to people or nature. Oh yeah?
So if ‘priesthood’ and ‘sacrifice’ offer clues to human religious responses to predictable concerns about meaning and purpose, love and justice, mercy and grace – it might be worth 5 or 10 minutes of your time some day – even today.
What does it mean to ‘purge’? Is it something Stalinists or spa managers sell? What does it mean to ‘intercede’? Do you need a lawyer or a cop to step in? These are the kinds of root words we lose in old bible translations about ‘atonement’ or ‘propitiation’. The problem is not just unfamiliar diction, choice of words – we haven’t really thought about these ideas much. They might prove useful, if we ever took ecological issues seriously – or genocidal ones.
This ‘King Melchizedek of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham as he was returning from defeating the kings and blessed him’;
2and to him Abraham apportioned ‘one-tenth of everything’. His name, in the first place, means ‘king of righteousness’; next he is also king of Salem, that is, ‘king of peace’.
3Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest for ever.
4 See how great he is! Even Abraham the patriarch gave him a tenth of the spoils.
5And those descendants of Levi who receive the priestly office have a commandment in the law to collect tithes from the people, that is, from their kindred, though these also are descended from Abraham.
6But this man, who does not belong to their ancestry, collected tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had received the promises.
7It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior.
8In the one case, tithes are received by those who are mortal; in the other, by one of whom it is testified that he lives.
9One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham,
10for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him.
11 Now if perfection had been attainable through the levitical priesthood— for the people received the law under this priesthood— what further need would there have been to speak of another priest arising according to the order of Melchizedek, rather than one according to the order of Aaron?
12For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.
13Now the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar.
14For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests.
15 It is even more obvious when another priest arises, resembling Melchizedek,
16one who has become a priest, not through a legal requirement concerning physical descent, but through the power of an indestructible life.
17For it is attested of him, ‘You are a priest for ever, according to the order of Melchizedek.’
18There is, on the one hand, the abrogation of an earlier commandment because it was weak and ineffectual
19(for the law made nothing perfect); there is, on the other hand, the introduction of a better hope, through which we approach God.
20 This was confirmed with an oath; for others who became priests took their office without an oath,
21but this one became a priest with an oath, because of the one who said to him, ‘The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest for ever” ’—
22accordingly Jesus has also become the guarantee of a better covenant.
23 Furthermore, the former priests were many in number because they were prevented by death from continuing in office;
24but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues for ever.
25Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.
26 For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens.
27Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself.
28For the law appoints as high priests those who are subject to weakness, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect for ever.