In the last post, I discussed how the flocks of Abraham and Lot grew so large that they had to separate. Abraham gave Lot first choice on where he wanted to settle. He chose to be close to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Eventually we find him living in the city of Sodom.
Abraham Goes to War
One day, a messenger came running into Abraham’s camp with some very bad news.
A massive war had broken out in the Dead Sea region, probably one of the biggest wars ever. There were three kings against two, but the two were more powerful and they captured the city of Sodom where Abraham’s nephew Lot was living.
Abraham quickly mustered 318 of his best fighting men. These were former servants that he obtained in Haran and Egypt and trained to be expert soldiers with the military knowledge he acquired in Ur.
The battle was over quickly – Abraham was victorious and recovered Lot, the people of his household, and all of his belongings. Not only that, but he also recovered all of the captured possessions and people of the city of Sodom.
On the way back from battle, he rendezvoused with King Bera of Sodom in the Valley of Shaveh. It was typical for the victors in battle to meet afterward to divide the spoils. The king of Sodom was amazed that this desert nomad could defeat two of the most powerful kings who had oppressed the local people for 12 years.
The Valley of Shaveh is also called the King’s Valley, which was at the south end of the ridge of the city where the Kidron and Hinnom valleys meet.1 Below is a photo I took in 2016 while standing on the Mount of Olives facing Jerusalem. In between is the upper Kidron Valley. In the foreground is the oldest Jewish cemetery in the world; some tombs are 3000 years old, dating back to the time of King David.
Abraham and King Bera along with their retinues met in the Valley of Shaveh adjacent to the city of Salem. (Salem was the city of Jerusalem before it was called Jerusalem).2 By custom, the king of Sodom owed Abraham a portion of the recovered possessions because Abraham had saved his behind and his city. If captured, the king most likely would have been put to death and the citizens of Sodom would have been made slaves.
As they negotiated, the king of Sodom said to Abraham:
“Give me the persons, but take the goods for yourself.”
King Bera did not offer Abraham a portion of the captured goods, which would have been appropriate; he offered him all of the captured goods. And I am sure this was no small amount. Abraham was already very wealthy and this could have put him over the top, not only as far as wealth, but of prestige also. This victory could have made Abraham the wealthiest and most powerful man in Canaan.
Melchizedek Blesses Abraham
As they were talking, a very old stately-looking man with white hair came walking out from one of the gates in the city wall. He was very majestic looking, having all of the accoutrements of a king. His robes and crown along with his age gave him an aura of importance and dignity. He slowly made his way down into the Valley of Shaveh. The only thing he had with him was some bread and wine. His robes also revealed his identity as a priest as well as a king. As I mentioned in a previous post, it was very common for the two functions to be combined in this part of the world at this time. He introduced himself as Melchizedek, King of Salem and Priest of God Most High.
After some brief formalities, Melchizedek gave Abraham a priestly blessing:
“Blessed by Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand.”
As a priest who offers sacrifices, Melchizedek offered to God – and to share with Abraham – the bread and wine he brought with him. Abraham responded by giving a tithe, literally a “tenth,” of his possessions to Melchizedek. But, there is more to the story than meets the eye.
This was Abraham’s valley of decision. His faith was being tested.
Under normal conditions, it would have been appropriate to receive legitimate spoils of war. But this situation was different. It was fine for Abraham to receive riches from Haran and Egypt, but God had made it clear that he was not to receive anything from the Canaanites in the land of promise. Since this was the land that God was giving to him, everything that he received in Canaan was to be given to him only from God directly lest the Canaanites take credit. This was so important that God made Abraham swear an oath to this effect.
This brought Abraham to a crisis point in the Valley of Shaveh. Was Abraham going to take a shortcut to possessing the land of Canaan or was he going to do it God’s way?
The name Shaveh is very important etymologically for this story. The name Shaveh means “level.” There is a modern Hebrew expression “to reach the Valley of Shaveh,” which means to reach a compromise, to level with. In Hebrew the meaning is clear. Abraham was tempted to compromise his faith and violate his oath. Would he receive the spoils of war from the king of Sodom or a blessing of God from Melchizedek?3
The answer is what we would expect from Abraham, as we read in Genesis 14:
“And Abram gave Melchizedek one-tenth of everything. Then the king of Sodom said to Abram, ‘Give me the persons, but take the goods for yourself.’ But Abram said to the king of Sodom, ‘I have sworn to the LORD, God Most High, maker of heaven and earth, that I would not take a thread for a sandal-thong or anything that is yours, so that you might not say, ‘I have made Abram rich.'”
Abraham Gives a Tithe to Melchizedek
So, Abraham chose to give a tenth of his possessions to God to inherit the blessing rather than to receive worldly wealth. Tithing was nothing new. In Abraham’s time, it was a well established practice, having been preformed by biblical characters and pagans alike for centuries.4 Ugaritic and Phoenician sources indicate that the tithe was generally paid as standard unit of taxation to the throne.5 It was an exact amount, 10%, and not an approximation like the way that we tend to use the term today. (I am glad that we don’t live under oppressive monarchies any more that require 10% of our produce, rather than modern “free” democratic republics, where we are compelled to give at least 28% of our hard earned wages, and that is just to the federal government. If we add up all our taxes, most of us are looking at 50%. Hmm…the idea of a king or queen is starting to look rather attractive. Oh well, I digress.)
It is unlikely that Abraham was tithing to Melchizedek as just a local king, for really, as king of Salem, Melchizedek had no jurisdiction over Abraham.6 If this was not the case, what was the relationship between Abraham and Melchizedek and what compelled Abraham to give a tithe to him? According to rabbinic tradition and many church fathers, Melchizedek was Shem, the son of Noah and the patriarch of Abrahams’s family line.7 Noah’s blessing in Genesis 9 states that the descendants of Shem would rule over the Canaanites. If Abraham’s descendants were to inherit the land of the Canaanites, then Abraham would need to receive Noah’s blessing through Shem.
Hebrews 7:9 states that Abraham gave a tithe to “one greater than himself.” The fact that Melchizedek was the oldest living patriarch of the family, was not enough, necessarily, to warrant a tithe. The reason Abraham tithed to Melchizedek, as one greater than himself, was the fact that Melchizedek was also a priest, and not just any priest, but the priest of the Most High God. In fact, it is in this story that we encounter the word “priest” for the first time in the Old Testament.8
The name Melchizedek is an old Canaanite name that means ” my king of righteousness” or “my king is god.”9 This was his throne name, not his personal name.10 Whenever a person in those times became king, they would adopt a throne name. As stated above, according to rabbinic scholars, the person who held this position as God’s priest-king was Noah’s son Shem, the oldest living patriarch of the family in the time of Abraham.
How did Shem (Melchizedek) become the priest of God? Well, it was not uncommon in the Ancient Near East for an elder of a clan or tribe, to serve as the priest for that clan or tribe.11 Shem’s position as the oldest living patriarch of the family, certainly qualified him for that position. But most likely, in addition to that, God, at some point ordained him for the special priesthood that he held at the time of Abraham.
Since Melchizedek was the High Priest of God, when Abraham gave a tithe to Melchizedek, he was, in essence, giving a tithe to God, one certainly greater than he. And from the greater one, he would receive a priestly blessing, and not just any priestly blessing, but Noah’s original blessing that came to rest on Abraham via Melchizedek. And most likely, this blessing was transmitted through the laying on of hands, a common practice in the Ancient Near East.12
Why Melchizedek is Essential in the Story of Abraham
This is why Melchizedek is essential to the story. Without God’s covenant blessing, the promised made to him would have been for naught. And since God’s promises are never in vain, they are always accompanied by a blessing. Several years ago, my wife and I renewed our vows in the Catholic Church. After we made our vows, the priest then blessed our marriage.
Without his blessing, the sevenfold promise given to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3 could not have been realized. From this point on, we will see the covenantal promises unfold because of the blessing from Melchizedek. We could say that Melchizedek gave Abraham the inaugural blessing of the covenant so that now the covenantal blessings could begin to unfold. Not only that, but Melchizedek prefigured that one day, there would arise from Abraham’s line, the promised seed, Jesus Christ, who, unlike the Levitical priests, would be both a king and a priest.14
Blessings Contingent on Abraham’s Obedience
God’s blessing to Abraham was contingent upon his faithful obedience. God tested Abraham again and again as he refined his faith. Abraham was put through a series of tests throughout his life to see if he would remain faithful. These tests involved trusting God’s promises over and above worldly wealth and advancement. The irony of this was that by refusing to seek a name for himself, God made his name great so that the entire world up through even the present day knows about Abraham. God made his name great so that he would be a blessing to all nations. We are most blessed when we live by faith in God’s promises rather than for the ephemeral pleasures of this life. In this way too, we become a blessing to those around us.
Melchizedek Foreshadowed the Eucharist
The parallels are obvious between Melchizedek and Christ. To read more about this, see Hebrews 6-7. The story of Melchizedek is the first time that we have the mention of bread and wine as an offering by a priest, and this foreshadows the Eucharist of the New Testament instituted and offered by Jesus, the High Priest.
The 3rd century A.D. church father, Clement of Alexander, was one of the first to make a connection in writing, comparing Melchizedek’s offering of the bread and wine with the elements of the Eucharist, stating that they were Old Testament types of New Testament fulfillment.14 He writes in the Stromata, “Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, who gave bread and wine, furnishing consecrated food for a type of the Eucharist. And Melchizedek is interpreted righteous king; and the name is a synonym for righteousness and peace.”
In the same vein, Thomas Aquinas states, “…in relation to our fellowship in the sacrifice and its fruits, where the pre-eminence of Christ’s priesthood over that of the Old Law principally lies, the priesthood of Melchizedek was a more explicit symbol. For he offered bread and wine, these symbolizing, as Augustine remarks, the unity of the Church, which is the fruit of our fellowship in Christ’s sacrifice. This symbolism is, accordingly, still preserved in the New Law where the true sacrifice of Christ is communicated to the faithful under the appearance of bread and wine.”15
Another interesting point is that the Council of Trent, Session XXII, chapter 2 states, “The fruits indeed of which oblation, of that bloody one, to wit, are most plentifully received through this bloodless one; so far is this latter from derogating in any way from that former oblation.”16 So we once again return to a “bloodless” sacrifice of bread and wine that was foreshadowed by Melchizedek’s bloodless sacrifice of bread and wine. This was unlike the inferior Levitical priesthood that required bloody animal sacrifices.
Thus, the bread and wine that inaugurated the Abrahamic Covenant finds its fulfillment in the New Covenant as carried out through Christ.
“For it is attested to Jesus, ‘You are a priest forever by the order of Melchizedek.”
And now I close with a question:
Do you see a parallel between the bread and wine of Melchizedek and the Lord’s Supper of the Christian Church? Why or why not? Please leave your comment below. Thank you!
- “Salem, Jebus, or Jerusalem,” from the website Jerusalem 101, http://www.generationword.com/jerusalem101/16-salem-jebus.html
- “Abram’s Unexpected Test,” Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, https://lp.israelbiblicalstudies.com/lp_iibs_dhb_valley_of_shaveh_fb-en.html?cid=69404&adgroupid=-1&utm_source=Community&utm_medium=FB_insights&utm_campaign=DHB_EN_COM_FB_Valley_of_Shaveh_2019-04-30_69404&commChannel=1
- Snoeberger, Mark A., “The Pre-Mosaic Tithe: Issues and Implications,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal, p. 71, Detroit Baptist Seminary, 2000, https://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/ted_hildebrandt/otesources/01-genesis/text/articles-books/snoeberger-title-dbsj.pdf
- Snoeberger, Mark A., “The Pre-Mosaic Tithe: Issues and Implications,” pp. 77-8
- Snoeberger, Mark A., “The Pre-Mosaic Tithe: Issues and Implications,” pp. 80
- Posner, Menachem, “Who was Melchizedek?” Chabad.org, https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1326593/jewish/Who-Was-Melchizedek.htm
- Word search through Bible Gateway, https://www.biblegateway.com
- Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopedia. “Melchizedek”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 17 Dec. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Melchizedek.
- Carnazzo Ph.D., Sebastian, “Lecture 2 Genesis 3-27, from the course Old Testament in Words and Images, Master of Sacred Arts Program, Pontifex University, 2020, https://www.pontifex.university
- James, Edwin Oliver. “Priesthood”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 18 May. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/topic/priesthood.
- Johnston, Albert Edward. “The Laying on of Hands: Its Origin and Meaning.” The Irish Church Quarterly, vol. 4, no. 16, 1911, pp. 312–323. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30067109.
- Carnazzo Ph.D., Sebastian, “Lecture 2 Genesis 3-27
- “Shameless Popery.” Early Church Fathers on the Eucharist (c. 200 – c. 300 A.D.) – Shameless Popery. Accessed June 19, 2017. shamelesspopery.com/early-church-fathers-on-the-eucharist-c-200-c-300-a-d/ as cited in Peter, Marcus Benedict, “Christ, Melchizedek, and the Eucharistic Sacrifice,” from the Homiletic and Pastoral Review online magazine, September 2, 2018, https://www.hprweb.com/2018/09/christ-melchizedek-and-the-eucharistic-sacrifice
- O’Neill, Colman E. Summa Theologiae: Volume 50, The One Mediator: 3a. 16-26. Vol. 50. Cambridge University Press, 2006., 157, as cited in Peter, Marcus Benedict, “Christ, Melchizedek, and the Eucharistic Sacrifice
- Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent/Session XXII/Sacrifice of the Mass, https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Canons_and_Decrees_of_the_Council_of_Trent/Session_XXII/Sacrifice_of_the_Mass
Bibliography and Sources:
Balentine, Samuel E., editor, The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Theology: Two-Volume Set, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, 2015
De Mieroop, Van, A History of the Ancient Near East, ca. 3000-323 BC, 3rd Edition (Blackwell History of the Ancient World), Wiley-Blackwell, Hoboken, N.J., 2015
Hahn, Ph.D., Scott, A Father Who Keeps His Promises, Franciscan Media, Cincinnati, 1998
Hahn, Ph.D., Scott, Kinship by Covenant: A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God’s Saving Promises, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT., 2009
Peter, Marcus Benedict, “Christ, Melchizedek, and the Eucharistic Sacrifice,” from the Homiletic and Pastoral Review online magazine, September 2, 2018, https://www.hprweb.com/2018/09/christ-melchizedek-and-the-eucharistic-sacrifice
Voegelin, Eric, Order and History, Vol. 1: Israel and Revelation, classic reprint hardcover, Forgotten Books Publishers, London, 2018