1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Melchizedek

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MELCHIZEDEK (Heb. for “king of righteousness”; or, since Şedeķ is probably the name of a god, “Şedeķ is my king”),[1] king of Salem and priest of “supreme El” (El 'el yon), in the Bible. He brought forth bread and wine to Abraham on his return from the expedition against Chedorlaomer, and blessed him in the name of the supreme God, possessor (or maker) of heaven and earth; and Abraham gave him tithes of all his booty (Gen. xiv. 18-20). Biblical tradition tells us nothing more about Melchizedek (cf. Heb. vii. 3); but the majestic figure of the king-priest, prior to the priesthood of the law, to whom even the father of all Israel paid tithes (cf. Jacob at Bethel, Gen. xxviii. 22), suggested a figurative or typical application, first in Psalm cx. to the vicegerent of Yahweh, seated on the throne of Zion, the king of Israel who is also priest after the order of Melchizedek, and then, after the Gospel had ensured the Messianic interpretation of the Psalm (Matt. xxii. 42 seq.), to the kingly priesthood of Jesus, as that idea is worked out at length in the Epistle to the Hebrews.

The theological interest which attaches to the idea of the pre-Aaronic king-priest in these typical applications is practically independent of the historical questions suggested by the narrative of Gen. xiv. The episode of Melchizedek, though connected with the main narrative by the epithets given to Yahweh in Gen. xiv. 22, breaks the natural connexion of verses 17 and 21, and may perhaps have come originally from a separate source. As the narrative now stands Salem must be sought in the vicinity of “the king's dale,” which from 2 Sam. xviii. 18, probably, but not necessarily, lay near Jerusalem. That Salem is Jerusalem, as in Psalm lxxvi. 2, is the ancient and common view; but even in the 15th century B.C. Jerusalem was known as Uru-salim. Jerome and others have identified Salim with one or other of the various places which bear that name, e.g. the Σαλείμ of John iii. 23, 8 m. south of Bethshean. In a genuine record of extreme antiquity the union of king and priest in one person, the worship of El as the supreme deity by a Canaanite,[2] and the widespread practice of the consecration of a tithe of booty can present no difficulty; but, if the historical character of the narrative is denied, the date of the conception must be placed as late as the rise of the temporal authority of the high priests after the exile. So far no evidence has been found in the cuneiform inscriptions or elsewhere in support either of the genuineness of the episode in its present form, or of the antiquity which is attributed to it (see further, J. Skinner, Genesis, pp. 269 sqq.). An ancient legend identifies Melchizedek with Shem (Palestinian Targum, Jerome on Isa. xli., Ephraem Syrus in loco).

See further the literature on Gen. xiv., and the articles Abraham, Genesis.  (W. R. S.; S. A. C.) 

  1. It is to be noted also that the name is of the same form as Adoni-zedek, king of Jerusalem (Josh. x. i), and that the un-Hebraic Araunah of 2 Sam. xxiv. 16 is probably a corruption of the similar compound Adonijah (so Cheyne, Ency. Bib. col. 290).
  2. The god Ἑλιοῦν was also Phoenician; see Driver, Genesis. p. 165; Lagrange, Religions Sémitiques, Index, s.v.