+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
One of the pieces of advice lectors often receive is to look at the lessons they’ll be reading ahead of time to see if there are any strange names and look up how to pronounce them. Failing that, at least read with enough confidence that nobody will realize that you have mispronounced it. I was reminded of this at my last parish when today’s Epistle was read there once (it must have been six or nine years ago, I can’t remember which, since our lectionary is a three-year-cycle). The fellow reading that morning, who normally came very prepared must have either forgotten to review the readings or got nervous in the moment. Anyway, that day our Epistle ended thusly: “being designated by God a high priest after the order of… Melcheeziak?” and a fairly mumbled “the Word of the Lord.”
Melchizedek is undoubtedly a weird name, but that’s appropriate because he was a weird dude. Or at least his story is very strange. He shows up in the fourteenth chapter of Genesis. Shortly after Abraham’s initial call where God told him to leave the land of his birth (Ur of the Chaldeans in what is today Iraq) and a brief sojourn in Egypt, he and his nephew, Lot, part ways, and Lot is taken captive by Chederlaomer, the King of Elam. Abraham mounts an army which defeats the king and rescues Lot. It is then that this strange figure, Melchizedek appears, seemingly out of nowhere.
And here is all we have of that incident, just four verses:
After his return from the defeat of Ched-or-lao′mer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley). And Melchiz′edek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. And he blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.
After this, Melchizedek simply disappears. He is mentioned only once more in the Old Testament, namely in the fourth verse of Psalm 110 to which our lesson from Hebrews refers: “The Lord has sworn and he will not recant: ‘you are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.”
So, what do we learn from such scant evidence? More than you might think. Melchizedek is both a king and a priest. He is the King of Salem, and this is significant for two reasons. First, Sa-lem means “peace” (you might have guessed that, because you are familiar with the modern Hebrew “shalom” and the Arabic “salaam.” Second, it is traditionally understood to refer to the holy city itself, Jesuralem (Jeru-salem).
Melchizeck is also a priest, and specifically a priest of “the Most High God”- El-Elyon. This raises the question as to whether this is meant to refer to the God of Israel, who goes by many names throughout the Old Testament including this one, or if it is, rather, some Canaanite God worshiped in Salem in the Second-Millennium B.C. I don’t usually get my theology from gifs (you know, the little seconds-long videos you sometimes see online with a caption), but I immediately thought of the popular one with the little girl shrugging her shoulders with the caption “porque no los todos?” Why not both? It seems to me entirely possible that the ancient, pre-Hebrew people of Salem could easily have been given some spiritual insight, even unconsciously, which led them to worship the one, true God under some other name to prepare them for the nation of Israel which was to come. That is just speculation of course, and speculation about what might have happened four thousand years ago, so take it with a grain of salt, but if my suspicions which we’ll get to soon are correct, it could make a lot of sense of what’s going on here.
We also see this peculiar offering Melchizedek brings. Bread and wine. Now this may strike us as quite ordinary, since we sacrifice bread and wine on our altar every week. I don’t think it would have been usual in the period in question, though. I am no expert on pre-Israelite ritual culture in the Ancient Near East, but I think I’m right in saying that ancient gods were generally thought to require a bit more than bread and wine. They were carnivores, you might say. Even as the children of Israel became established in their sacrificial system after the Exodus, one might be required to offer grain and wine at the same time, but it was always in addition and secondary to the sacrifice of some animal (see, for example, the fifteenth chapter of Numbers, which I won’t bore you by reading).
Finally, Melchizedek blesses Abraham and Abraham, in return, gives him a tenth of his possessions. This is really tangential to the point I’m winding up to. I only mention it because stewardship season is coming up in November, you’ll be getting your annual pledge cards soon, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention that tithing is a biblical principle. So that’s all I have to say about that.
Anyway, we now have a lot of data points- the king of the city of peace, the priest of the most high God, a bloodless sacrifice of bread and wine, the blessing of one who simply followed in faith where God had called him. Even without the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews making it explicit, I would imagine that reading these four verses about this strange figure in a Christian context would make one suspect what this is about.
I mentioned typology last week, almost in passing. It is understanding something in the Old Testament as being a substantive though sometimes imperfect pre-figuring (more than a simple foreshadowing) of something in the New Testament. So, to use some of the classical examples, Moses holding up the bronze serpent to heal the poisoned Israelites in the desert is the type and the Cross of Christ is the antitype. Jonah’s three days in the belly of the fish is the type, and Christ’s three days in the tomb is the antitype. Here, it should now be obvious, we have Melchizedek the type and Jesus himself the antitype.
But is there even more here? Perhaps. As I started writing this sermon, the very question I intended to pose in here was beginning to be debated (in, of course, a friendly, collegial manner) by some of my fellow-priests on the social media. Is Melchizedek more than a type. Is he, in fact, an example of what theologians call a “Christophany”, that is an appearance of the second-person of the Trinity, God the Son who became Incarnate in Christ Jesus, before his Incarnation. This is the realm of suspicion and speculation, but I assure you it is not wacky or heretical.
As early as the Second Century, Christian thinkers like Justin Martyr have been asking if the Angel of the Lord who appears so often in the Old Testament–instructing Hagar, speaking to Moses in flame, blocking Balaam and everyone’s favorite talking donkey on their way to Moab (if you’re unfamiliar with that story, it’s in the twenty-second chapter of Numbers, and you need to read it), taking away the sins of the high priest in Zechariah 3, and so many other times–was indeed the Christ come before his Incarnation. So too might not Melchizedek be an appearance of the one who was to come and who now reigns as King of Peace and Eternal High Priest.
So, this is all a bit more abstract and rarefied than my ordinary sermon, and one may well ask, “what’s the point?” Well, it’s interesting, but that may not be a very compelling answer to some. I guess it’s this. I get into a rut of trying to find the practical call to action or word of comfort or whatever to conclude a sermon, and I don’t have that this time. But somebody reminded me that meditating on the mystery of the Trinity is a good in itself, and that at least in our Western Christian tradition intellectual exercise about divine reality is itself a devotional act. And it’s fun, too!
Don’t worry, I’ll probably be back to my ordinary, hortatory crank ways next week. For now, let us give thanks that God has given us minds to ponder the sometimes seemingly ineffable, and that, as one of our hymns puts it “there’s still more light and truth to break forth from his holy word.”
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.