For this Melchizedek—
King of Salem, priest of the Most High God,
who met Abraham and blessed him
as he returned from defeating the kings,
and Abraham gave him a tenth of everything;
first, his name means king of righteousness,
then also, king of Salem,
meaning king of peace;
without father, mother, or genealogy,
having neither beginning of days nor end of life,
but resembling the Son of God —
remains a priest forever.
Now consider how great this man was—even Abraham the patriarch gave a tenth of the plunder to him! The sons of Levi who receive the priestly office have a command according to the law to collect a tenth from the people —that is, from their brothers—though they have also descended from Abraham. But one without this lineage collected tenths from Abraham and blessed the one who had the promises. Without a doubt, the inferior is blessed by the superior. In the one case, men who will die receive tenths, but in the other case, Scripture testifies that he lives. And in a sense Levi himself, who receives tenths, has paid tenths through Abraham, for he was still within his ancestor when Melchizedek met him. – Hebrews 7:1–10 (HCSB)
This section is one of no small controversy. Having introduced the comparison to Melchizedek earlier, our author took a break to inform his audience that he was moving on from the foundational principles, and has no moved on to the more advanced. There are two main views on the identity of Melchizedek.
The first, and a small minority view, is that Melchizedek is a Christophany. That is to say that Melchizedek appearing to Abram after the battle of the plains was actually the second person of the Trinity appearing in the form of a man, something that Abram had experienced before. This view holds that the author of Hebrews is saying that Melchizedek actually had no mother and father, and actually had no beginning of days or end of life, and takes the phrase “resembling the Son of God” to make the statement “is the Son of God.”
The second, and a much greater majority, is the view that Melchizedek was an ordinary man who the author utilizes typologically. Melchizedek had a mother and father, and a genealogy, and beginning and end of days, so says the proponent of this view. However, since they are not recorded for us in Scripture, the Scripture is providing us with this typological comparison. This view takes the phrase “resembling the Son of God” to mean “is a type of the Son of God.”
While I hold the former, I don’t think that it actually makes a huge difference in our interpretation of this passage.
Our author here begins by laying out the comparison. First he identifies that both the name and station of this enigmatic figure give us grounds for comparison. The Hebrew root “Melchi” (or Mem-Lamed-Kaf to be more precise) is a consonant cluster that has to do with royal rulership. Zedek (Zayin-Dalet-Qof) has to do with righteousness. So the name “Melchizedek” means something along the lines of “My King is Righteousness” or as the author here translates “King of Righteousness.” Being the King of the city of Salem (Shin-Lamed-Mem), he is also the King of Peace. Both of these are appropriate titles for Christ himself. He then proceeds to establish that like Christ, this person has an unusual genealogy. This will be used later to establish that the Melchizedekian priesthood is not a biological succession as the Levitical priesthood was.
After this brief interlude, which appears to be an appeal to some kind of standing Jewish tradition regarding Melchizedek, the author proceeds to unpack the implications of this comparison.
He begins by establishing the superiority of the Melchizedekian Priesthood to the Levitical. While it is unclear exactly what the author means, the principle is basic. Abram paid tithes to Melchizedek, and it is always the case that tithes are paid to the superior in a relationship. Thus Melchizedek is superior to Abram. Since Levi was “within his ancestor” at this point, Levi also paid a tithe to Abram. Thus, Melchizedek is also superior to Levi. Therefore, the priesthood that follows Melchizedek is superior to the priesthood that follows Levi.
These two establishing points are all that we are given in today’s reading, however they will flow into the coming arguments, so it is vital for us to understand them.
- This genealogical comparison here is actually what causes me to take the minority view. Christ had a mother, and Christ had a genealogy. So if we are comparing a human Melchizedek to Christ according to his human nature, then we have a problem. If we are comparing a human Melchizedek to Christ according to his divine nature, then I’m not sure what kind of comparison that can be in the first place.
- The majority view is that this represents some sort of federal position. That since Levi was under the federal headship of his ancestor Abram, the superiority of Melchizedek is transferred to all those under Abram’s headship. The minority view is that this represents an ancient view that each sperm was actually a person, and that person was transferred into a woman’s womb upon conception. This second view poses questions regarding the doctrine of inerrancy, so I believe this view is suspect and to be rejected.
- This is the second thing that causes me to hold the minority view. Since Christ had a genealogy, and that genealogy traces back to Abraham, the same kind of argument that makes Levi subordinate or inferior to Melchizedek also makes Christ subordinate or inferior to Melchizedek (unless you hold the minority sperm-person view). A basic principle in typology is that the antitype (fulfillment) is always greater than the type (foreshadow). That means that Christ must be greater than Melchizedek, not the other way around. However, if Melchizedek is actually a Christophany, then this problem in the text disappears. We are no longer comparing the human Melchizedek to Christ according to his human nature. Instead, we are comparing a divine Christophany Melchizedek to Christ according to his divine nature. This makes much more sense since the appointment of the Son to the priesthood of Melchizedek happened in eternity past, not within time.