“And Malchizedek King of Shalem brought forth bread and wine; and he was priest of God the Most High. And he blessed him, and said: ‘Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God the Most High, who has delivered your enemies into thy hand.’ And he gave him a tenth of all.” Gen 14:18-20).
I have always liked Malchizedek, whose name translates to ‘My King is Righteousness” and who is the king of Shalem. We just have this fragmentary glimpse of him here in the text, and one reference to him in the book of Psalms where he is referred to as a priest – and that is all. Yet he introduces the use of bread and wine with which to thank God, and he also introduces the idea of giving a tenth (tithing).
Who was he? He is a priest long before the Aaronide priesthood is established. He is a King of a city whose name is close in sound to Jerusalem. He knows God and that God is the Most High who made heaven and earth. He offers blessings.
The Midrash tries to resolve his presence and strains credulity by stating that he is Shem, the son of Noah and a man who officiated as a priest, who taught Torah to Avram within his own academy. (As a rabbinic student I was delighted to be able to take a photograph of Shem’s Torah academy which is, apparently, in a cave in Haifa and had its own benches and books). The Talmud (Nedarim 32b)tells us that “Rabbi Zechariah said in the name of Rabbi Ishmael that God intended to bring forth the priesthood through Melchizedek’s descendants, but because the text says that Melchizedek blessed Abram before he blessed God, God brought the priesthood forth from Abram’s descendants” (i.e. Aaron).
I prefer not to twist logic in order to give Malchizedek such yichus, and instead see him as one of those individuals who wander through the Hebrew bible who know God but who are not within our tradition. Along with Yitro (Jethro) the father in law of Moses who was also a priest of the Most High God and who taught Moses about worship and about organising justice in the community, Malchizedek is a figure who knows God and who teaches us something about God and about worship. We don’t have to make him Jewish, we don’t have to own him at all, he is a human being whose tradition relationship to God is completely valid and is outside our own understanding with God. One of the first lessons Torah teaches is that all humanity is related, and all are created by God. That is why it begins with the creation of the world and of all humanity. Torah is very clear that God is the God of all peoples, that different peoples have their own relationships with God, that ours is only one particular relationship with God. Judaism isn’t the only way to God for people, but it is generally felt to be the best one for Jews.
Malchizedek teaches us that God is bigger than the relationship God has with us. He teaches us that we can learn from other people’s relationships with God, and that we don’t have to diminish them or take them over – we can celebrate that people relate to the Divine in a variety of ways and with a multiplicity of traditions and expressions. That is surely something worth celebrating. And something we should respect and build on.