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Melchizedek was an ancient priest-king who inspired messianic expectations.

Sir Peter Paul Rubens, The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek (detail), ca. 1626, oil on panel, 65.5 x 82.4 cm. Courtesy of The National Gallery of Art.

Melchizedek is a tantalizing figure. We catch only a glimpse of him in Gen 14, just enough to inspire a psalmist, the author of Hebrews, and other Jewish writers to reflect on what precedent he might have set. Indeed, the afterlife of this tiny story takes on messianic proportions.

Who was Melchizedek?

In Gen 14:18–20, the narrator introduces Melchizedek as “king of Salem” and “priest of El Elyon,” a double divine title meaning “God Most High.” It is unclear whether Melchizedek—which literally means “king of righteousness”—is a name, title, or description. However, most interpreters have understood Salem to be the city later known as Jerusalem (e.g., Ps 76:2). Melchizedek met the patriarch Abram after a military victory. He carried food, wine, and a blessing that attributed Abram’s success to El Elyon. Abram in turn equated Yahweh with El Elyon (v. 22) and recognized the legitimacy and superiority of Melchizedek by offering him a tenth of the spoils of war.  

Melchizedek’s dual role as king and priest was not unusual in the ancient Near East, but it differed from Israel’s later practice of choosing kings from the line of Judah (David; see 2 Sam 7) and priests from the tribe of Levi (Exod 28–29).

How does Melchizedek shape messianic expectations?

Nothing else is said of this mysterious figure in the book of Genesis. Centuries later, however, a psalm attributed to David made a striking claim: the military leader whom Yahweh appointed as king would also serve as “a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek” (Ps 110:4). What this phrase means in its context is left unstated. However, during the first century BCE, the Hasmoneans appealed to Melchizedek as a precedent for priests ruling with authority (Josephus, Ant. 16.163). Authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls expanded this idea by depicting Melchizedek as an angelic member of the divine council. In their view, Melchizedek’s role in the messianic age would include judging, redeeming, making atonement, freeing captives, and reigning (11Q13 6–10; 4QAmram).

Early Christian interpretation responded to this tradition. Jesus identified Ps 110 as a messianic text (Matt 22:41–46; Mark 12:35–37; Luke 20:41–45), while the apostle Peter identified Jesus as the Messiah to whom the psalm pointed (Acts 2:33–36). The gospels locate Jesus’s ancestry in the tribe of Judah in order to justify his kingship, but the book of Hebrews demonstrates Jesus’s legitimacy as king-priest by appealing to Melchizedek. Hebrews takes its cues from Ps 110, which it understood as an announcement of a future Davidic priest-king. Thus, Jesus was not the first person without Levitical ancestry to function as priest. Yet, the author of Hebrews seems eager to establish Jesus’s superiority to the angels. This may be meant to show that Jesus surpassed the textual traditions outside the Bible about Melchizedek’s role in the divine council.  

On the one hand, it is a playful move. The author of Hebrews exploits the silence of Genesis regarding Melchizedek’s family line (“without father or mother, without genealogy”) to suggest that Levitical ancestry is unnecessary for the priesthood (Heb 7:3). On the other hand, the reflection is deeply thoughtful. Jesus’s death and resurrection took place in Jerusalem, the very location from which Melchizedek ruled as priest-king. The author of Hebrews reaches back through history for a paradigmatic figure from the same geographic location. Most creatively, by mentioning Abram’s tithe to Melchizedek, the author of Hebrews demonstrates the priority of Melchizedek’s priesthood over that of Levi, who was later born to Abram’s descendant (Heb 7:4–10). Jesus, the messianic king in the line of Judah, could also serve as priest because Melchizedek set the precedent for a priest-king not from the line of Levi.

  • Carmen Joy Imes is associate professor of Old Testament at Talbot School of Theology. She is the author of Bearing God’s Name: Why Sinai Still Matters and Being God’s Image: Why Creation Still Matters. She writes and speaks broadly on topics in the Hebrew Bible and releases weekly Torah Tuesday videos on her YouTube channel.