Malki-tsedek Who Forfeited the Priesthood

Posted by on Nov 7, 2023

After the victorious war against the four kings, Avram returned with his men and the booty of war. Malki-tsedek king of Shalem and the priest of the Most High Elohim met Avram with bread and wine and blessed him. Avram’s soldiers took for themselves their portion of the booty, and the rest Avram returned to the king of Sodom except for the captives, whom Avram freed. Traditional Christian commentators offer the interpretation that Avram gave Malki-tsedek, the priest of the Most High a tenth of all booty of war. However, a question presents itself: What is the “all” that was given and who gave it to whom? Because by forfeiting his portion of the booty of war and returning what was left of it to the Sodomite, Avram had nothing left to tithe to Malki-tsedek. Can we rethink this?

This article is a continuation of the article “It is a time for war against the four kingdoms”, whose goals were to present to the intelligent reader a new reading of the war the patriarch waged against the world powers of his time and its implication in the war Hamas started against Israel on 7 October 2023. In the following, we would like to posit another way to look at this encounter of Malki-tsedek and Avram, specifically in reference to the blessing the priest of the Most High bestowed upon him.

The identity of Malki-tsedek

Avraham the patriarch of Israel waged the war against the four kings of what one day would become the Assyrian Empire: one of the worst enemies of Avraham’s descendants. These four kingdoms of the North, which represent the evil of mankind, made war against the five kingdoms of the South, which represent the wickedness of mankind. Later, they would be known collectively as “Sodom and Gomorrah”: the epitome of moral corruption. Avram, who had no cause to be involved in the war between two evils, entered the war for the solely reason to rescue his nephew Lot, as well as the women and the people taken as hostages by the enemies (Gen 14:14-16).

After rescuing Lot, from captivity, Avram returned with the booty of war, which he had taken from the four kings, and the king of Sodom came to meet him with the intention of asking for the prisoners who had been rescued. But the narrative also tells us that Avram was met by a person called Malki-tsedek, king of Shalem, who was the priest of the Most High El[ohim], as we read,

And Malki-tsedek king of Shalem brought out bread and wine. Now he was the priest of the Most High El. And he blessed him and said, “Blessed be Avram of the Most High El, Maker of the heavens and earth. And blessed be the Most High El who has delivered your enemies into your hand”. And he gave him a tenth of all. (Gen 14:18-20)

Taken alone this short episode (which lasted only three verses) of the encounter of the patriarch with Malki-tsedek seems strange and as if out of place. It seems strange because the encounter of Avram with the priest of Elohim has interrupted the story of the meeting between Avram and the wicked king of Sodom. We are first told that the king of Sodom came out to meet Avram (verse 17), Malki-tsedek king of Shalem brought out bread and wine to bless Avram (verses 18-20), and then the story turned back to the king of Sodom who tried to negotiate the best deal of the war booties (verse 21-24). Why?

The Hebrew Scripture (Tanach) tells nothing about Malki-tsedek prior to this encounter and afterward, and how he relates to Avram. Who was Malki-tsedek, the king of Shalem and the priest of the Most High?

The person of Malki-tsedek, king of Shalem and the priest of the Most High, appears suddenly and briefly in Gen 14:18-20 and disappears from the Torah to appear again only in Psa 110:4. In these two occurrences, Malki-tsedek מַלְכִּי־צֶדֶק appears in Hebrew as two words: מֶלֶךְ melech, “king”, and צֶדֶק tsedek, “righteousness”. Since in Hebrew it is two words, Malki-tsedek is not a personal name but a title with the meaning of “king of righteousness”.

Since the title “Malki-tsedek” appears only in our episode and in the psalm, it is difficult to determine the etymology of this word, because when a word has been used in only one or two places, it is difficult to derive its meaning, as opposed to when a word is used in many different contexts. But derived from the immediate context, it seems that it was customary in those days to give the title Malki-tsedek to the kings of Shalem, just as the kings of Egypt were called “Pharaoh”, and in the days of Yehoshua (see Jos 10:1), the king of Jerusalem was called Adoni-tsedek, “lord of righteousness” with the same meaning of Malki-tsedek, “king of righteousness”. While in Tanach, Malki-tsedek is mentioned only here and in Psa 110:4, in the Apostolic Writings it appears no less than nine times: all in the letter to the Hebrews, from Heb 5:6 to Heb 7:21.

City of Shalem, city of peace

The word Yerushalayim (Jerusalem in Hebrew), is not mentioned in the Torah, and it first appears in the Book of Joshua (see Jos 10:1) in order to have afterward 643 appearances in the Hebrew script. Even though Yerushalayim is not mentioned explicitly, it is suggested with its two parts which do appear in Torah, and they are: Yireh and Shalem. According to Psa 76:2, Shalem is Yerushalayim, as it is said, “His Tabernacle is in Shalem”. Yerushalayim and more specifically, Mount Moriyah, was the very spot where Avraham tried to sacrifice his son Yitschak in a mistaken belief. (Read more about this controversial issue in the article Did YHVH Tell Abraham to Sacrifice Isaac? – Time of Reckoning Ministry)

After the incident of bringing Yitschak as a human sacrifice, Avraham named that place Yehovah-Yireh, which means “YHVH will see” or “YHVH will appear” (see also Book of Jubilee 18:13), as it is said, “On the mountain, YHVH will see” (the Hebrew word for “will see” is yireh). But until Genesis 22 that place was known as Shalem, as it is written, “Malki-Tsedek, king of Shalem (king of peace)”. Thus, Yireh Shalem, the city whose priest was Malki-tsedek later became Yerushalayim. The name Yerushalayim can also be translated as “city of peace” (שָׁלֵם shalem, “peaceful”), from Yir Shalem, or “Complete awe”, from Yireh Shalem. Hence, the tradition tells us that the place where Avraham tried to offer his son Yitschak was renamed by Avram from Shalem to Yehovah-Yireh, which later in the time of Yehoshua was already known as Yerushalayim.

Son of Noach, the priest of the Most High Elohim

So, who was the historical Malki-tsedek, king of Yerushalayim and the priest of the Most High Elohim? In the Rabbinic literature (Nedarim 32b), Malki-tsedek, king of Shalem and the priest of YHVH, is identified with Shem, son of Noach. How is that possible?

Except for the first man, Adam, there had never been a man that saw so much grief in his life as Shem, son of Noach. Not only did he see the apostacy of mankind before the Flood, but he lived long enough to bury eight generations of his descendants: Arpachshad, Shelah, Peleg, Re’u, Serug, Nahor, Terach, and Avraham (Ever son of Shelah outlived Shem).

This anomaly of the lifespan of human life should not come as a surprise to us, since the lives of men were rapidly shortened after the Flood. Shem was born in year 1558 since Creation and died in year 2158. He lived 502 years after the Flood, to see eight generations of his lineal descendants died before him except for Ever. It is also remarkable that we do not find the words “death”, or “he died”, in connection with any of the descendants of Shem except for Terach, Avraham’s father, perhaps because he was an idol worshiper.

The Book of Yashar, Chapter 9:5-8 records that Avram lived in Noach’s house thirty-nine years, and Avram knew the Lord and went in His ways, as Noach and his son Shem had taught him, until the day of his death. Therefore, a simple reckoning of time of the generations from Adam until Avraham shows that the righteous Shem was still alive when he met Avraham in our episode of Genesis 14. This makes it plausible that Shem could have been Malki-tsedek the priest of YHVH, who met Avram to greet him. (For more information on the chronology of events from Creation, see Jubilees Table from the present author’s book The Reckoning of Time).

The change of the priesthood. What it takes to misread Psalm 110.

Shem became the priest of the Most High since of the three sons of Noach, he was the righteous one and because through him the righteousness was transmitted from Adam to Avraham. Now, since according to the Rabbis, Malki-tsedek is none other than Shem, the Kana’anites who were then in possession of the land recognized in him their father Cham son of Noach and appointed him “priest of Elohim the Most High”. Yet, in Psalm 110, we find that the priesthood originally given to Shem was transferred to a Messianic figure from Avraham’s descendants. So why did the priesthood pass from Shem Malki-tsedek to Avraham? This is why.

After Avraham’s victorious return from battle against the four kings of the North, we read that Shem Malki-tsedek king of Shalem blessed Avram saying the following,

Blessed be Avram of the Most High El, Maker of the heavens and earth. And blessed be the Most High El who has delivered your enemies into your hand. (Gen 14:19-20)

Notice the order of the bestowed blessings. Malki-tsedek first blessed Avram, the man, and afterward he blessed the Most High, the Maker of the universe. After the blessings bestowed on him, the prevalent interpretation is that Avram gave a tenth of the booty of war to Malki-tsedek, because the perception is that after Shem blessed Avram, Avram tithed to Shem, who was the priest. Now, we should also note here that Shem Malki-tsedek, the priest of the Most High, did not mention the Eternal YHVH by name, as Avram did when he swore before the king of Sodom not to take even a thread from the king except for the war booty lawfully due to his men. Avram said,

I have lifted my hand to Yehovah, the Most High El, Maker of the heavens and earth, … (Gen 14:22)

In King James’ version of the Bible, we read about Malki-tsedek the following,

The LORD hath sworn, and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek. (Psa 110:4 KJV)

This translation is not grounded well in the Hebrew text. We find an issue with such a translation of the phrase “after the order” which we need to address here immediately, because Hebrew language demand a different translation, which will make more sense to the critical reader, as we will see below.

The first word in question is the word “after” which translates the Hebrew word עַל al. This word literally means “above, over, upon”. But depending on the context, by extension it can also mean “according to, because of, concerning”, as something comes after something else, or something depends upon something else.

The second word is “order” which translates the Hebrew word דִּבְרָה divrah. The Hebrew word divrah does not mean “order” as implied in the translations and interpreted in the commentaries that the Messianic figure in Psalm 110 is ordained after the manner or after the lineage (order) of Malki-tsedek. Divrah is a feminine noun derived from the word דָּבָר davar, “word”, which in turn is derived from the primitive verb דָּבַר davar, “to speak”. Thus, divrah means “speech”, as a speech consists of words. The literal translation of divrah can be seen in the following two occurrences in the Tanach:

I [say], “Guard the mouth of the king according to (or concerning) the words of oath of Elohim. (Ecc 8:2)

Here we find the same words al divrah, “according to the words”, as in the psalm. The plain sense of the verse is: “Guard the king’s command according to the words (divrah) of Elohim, because the king’s words are according to Elohim’s words”.

The second occurrence of the word divrah is in the Book of Job, wherein some translations have “cause” or “case” instead of “speech”. We read,

But as for me, I would seek El, and I would put my speech (divrah) to Elohim, (Job 5:8)

From these two occurrences of the word divrah we understand that the Messianic figure in Psalm 110 is ordained because of (concerning) the words of Shem which he spoke to Avram. What did Shem say that deserved the change of the priesthood, namely, the transfer of the priesthood from him to Avraham?

Rabbi Chizkiah ben Manoach lived in the thirteenth century. He was the author of “Chizkuni”, a popular commentary on the Torah. In his commentary on Genesis 22, he gives the answer to our question, saying that Avraham was supposed to have asked God as to how he could offer a burnt offering in the absence of a priest (see Genesis 22 wherein Avraham tried to sacrifice his son). God answered that Avraham had already been appointed as a priest by Him (Bereshit Rabbah 55:7). Where was Avraham appointed as a priest? In Psalm 110. Why? Because Malki-tsedek first blessed a mortal man, and afterward he blessed the Most High, the Maker of the universe.

And this is how the sages explain Psalms 110:4: “The Lord has sworn and will not retract that you are a priest forever as per My word to Malki-tsedek”. The sages are in agreement that Malki-tsedek was deprived of the priesthood as he had blessed the mortal Avram before blessing the immortal Lord. Malki-tsedek accepted the reproof and treated Avram as a priest by tithing to Avram all that belonged to him. And indeed, a careful reading of the Hebrew text of Gen 14:20 shows that it is not explicitly said who gave whom. The Hebrew text is ambiguous telling us: “And he gave him a tenth of all”. Who is the “he” and who is the “him”? And it is not clear what is “all” of which a tenth was given. According to the interpretation of the sages, however, Malki-tsedek gave Avram a tenth of all he, Malki-tsedek, had. Why? Because now, Avraham became the priest of the Most High. Hence the sages concluded that from Avram would emerge the priesthood and the kingship which his children would inherit from Shem, the king of righteousness, because of his speech (al divrah) in which he first blessed Avram, and then the Most High.

The sages found that at first glance it seems problematic to say that the priesthood was taken from the progeny of Shem and given to the seed of Avraham, as Avraham himself was a seed of Shem. But it was only because of the speech of Shem that the priesthood was taken from him and given to Abraham specifically. And this explains the issue with giving a tenth, namely, that Shem gave Avraham, the new priest of the Most High, a tenth of all his possession. It was not up to Shem to give a tenth of the booty of war, for it was not his to give.

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