The story of Melchizedek (Gen. 14:17-24) is both curious and unexpected. It is a story of immense significance in the development of the story of redemption. Abram is faced with a stark choice the consequences of which will reverberate down the corridors of the Old Testament and right into our own time.
Returning from his great military victory in the rescuing of Lot and the cities near the Dead Sea (Gen. 14), gratitude to Abram was certainly in order. Two kings greet the conquering hero. But how different the encounters are! One (Melchizedek) is appreciative and gracious; the other (an unnamed king — probably the Bela of 14:2 — of the soon-to-be infamous city of Sodom) is decidedly off-hand and suspicious!
As a war hero, custom dictated that Abram was entitled to keep everything he had acquired: people, animals, property — the lot! The king of Sodom fears he might do just that and potentially become a threat to him. Dispensing with the usual friendly customs, he proposes a deal: Abram can keep all of the booty except for the people (14:21). To have succumbed to this offer would have made Abram a very rich and powerful man indeed. It must have been a tempting offer. But Abram had already learned that the acquisition of wealth from pagan rulers was a cause for regret and trouble (12:3), and, apart from an amount for his men, recounting a vow he had made to the Lord (14:24), he gives all of his acquisitions to the king of Sodom. He chose the way of faith rather than the “get rich quick” road that would surely have led to his (and our) doom.
Abram’s response to Melchizedek’s kind gesture is altogether different. As a priest, Melchizedek comes to Abram and offers him bread and wine and pronounces a blessing upon him, giving thanks to the Lord for the victory. Instead of seizing what he had been promised, Abram chose to wait upon God, acknowledging that it had been the Lord who had delivered his nephew from trouble. The land would be occupied in God’s time, in God’s way. From Melchizedek, Abram received a blessing and in response paid Melchizedek a tithe. Abram, who normally acted as his own priest to his family, building his own altars and offering his own sacrifices, recognized the superiority of Melchizedek’s priesthood. More mysterious still, the New Testament will make the point that even Levi, from whom all future priests will descend, was in Abram’s “loins” and in effect offered sacrifices to Melchizedek, thereby signaling the latter’s superiority (Heb. 7:9–10).
All very mysterious! Even more so when much later, King David writes a messianic psalm in which a royal figure, whom David refers to as “my Lord,” is in conversation with the Lord Himself and is told, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool” (Ps. 110:1). This divine-messianic figure is then described as “a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (v. 4). Were this all we had to go on, it would probably remain an insoluble mystery. But the book of Hebrews takes up this theme (Heb. 7:11–14) suggesting that Christ, who is descended from the line of the non-priestly family of Judah, takes His priesthood from Melchizedek.
A clue is given in Joshua 10:1 with the appearance of another Jerusalem king called Adoni-zedek (the name means the same as Melchizedek, “my king is righteous”). This seems to indicate that there existed in Jerusalem (Salem) a line of priest-kings so that when David conquered the city he “became” the effective priest-king or “melchizedek.” It helps explain why David’s sons were “priests” (2 Sam. 8:18). As David writes this important psalm, he sees himself as but a pale shadow of the true priest-king from the line of Melchizedek — Jesus.
Jesus is a priest after the order of Melchizedek (Heb. 6:20). He did not come from the priestly tribe of Levi. In this way, his priesthood is not sullied by the inadequacy of the levitical system. His priesthood is eternal. Since Melchizedek seems to appear from nowhere, with no mention of his origins, he makes a perfect contrast to the typical levitical priest who had the unfortunate problem of dying! Jesus had no need of any successor to perpetuate the sacrifice since He offered Himself “once for all” (Heb. 7:27; 9:12, 26; 10:10; see also Rom. 6:10).
In these pages of Genesis a light signals the inadequacy of the old covenant to take away sin. The blood spilt on Jewish altars, day after day, could never propitiate the wrath of a holy God against sin. Thus Micah would write: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” (Mic. 6:6–7).
The answer to these questions is a resounding “No!” Only the blood of Jesus Christ can atone for sin and constitute us right with God:
Not all the blood of beasts…
Could give the guilty conscience peace
Or wash away the stain
But Christ, the heav’nly Lamb,
Takes all our sins away;
A sacrifice of nobler name
And richer blood than they.
— Isaac Watts (1674–1748)