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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
Who is Melchizedek? He is described as “without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life” (Heb. 7:3, [NIV]). Does that make him a divine being?
Your question has received a variety of answers in the history of biblical interpretation. The Old Testament mentions Melchizedek in only two passages (Gen. 14:18-20; Ps 110:4), and that has lent to much speculation about his person and role. Among the scrolls found in Qumran there is one about Melchizedek (c. first century B.C. or A.D.) in which he is described as a heavenly figure, a warrior who in the last battle defeats Belial.
Among Christians there was also some speculation concerning Melchizedek. In fact, there were two early Christian sects named “Melchizedekians” who believed that Christ was inferior to Melchizedek, considered a priest for angels and other heavenly beings. In Jewish writings he was identified with Shem, one of Noah’s sons. Speculations of that nature are absent from the book of Hebrews.
1. Function of Melchizedek in Hebrews 7: The apostle’s purpose is to demonstrate that Christ’s priesthood is superior to that of Aaron. The priesthood of Melchizedek becomes important in the argument because Christ was not from the tribe of Levi, and therefore He could not have functioned as priest according to the law. The Bible already pointed to a priesthood that was not based on genealogical records. Psalm 110:4 predicts that the Aaronic priesthood was to be superseded by the eternal priesthood of Melchizedek in the person of the Messiah.
2. Melchizedek as a Historical Figure: The apostle clearly sees in Melchizedek a person who lived during the time of Abram. In Hebrews 7:1 he was king of Salem, the ancient name of the city of Jerusalem (Ps. 76:2), and he was also a priest. He met Abram after Abram’s victorious battle, blessed him, and Abram gave him tithe (Heb. 7:2). The apostle proceeds to argue that Melchizedek’s priesthood is superior to Aaron’s because Melchizedek blessed Abram (the “blesser” being greater than the “blessee”).
3. A Divine Being? The phrase “without father or mother” was also employed to describe orphans, illegitimate children, or persons whose origin was unknown. So the phrase by itself does not prove that Melchizedek was divine.
Second it is most probable that by adding the remark “without genealogy” the apostle is clarifying what he meant by “without father or mother,” namely, that we do not have Melchizedek’s genealogical records. A conclusion is drawn from that absence of data, and it is that conclusion that complicates the issue: Melchizedek is “without beginning of days or end of life.” He does not seem to be a normal human being.
Third, the dilemma could be solved by looking at the last part of Hebrews 7:3: “Like the Son of God he remains a priest forever” (N IV). A more literal translation would be “But having been made like/similar to the Son of God, he remains priest for all time/perpetually.” This sentence is added to qualify the assertion “without beginning of days or end of life.” He is not eternal in his own right, but in the narrative Melchizedek is made to resemble the Son of God, the only one who truly remains priest forever. Melchizedek is like Christ in the sense that Scripture does not provide any record of his birth, his genealogy, or his death. That absence of this information in the biblical account is used by the apostle to liken Melchizedek to Christ, who is indeed eternal.
Therefore, the priest and king of Salem becomes a symbol of the true priest, the Son of God, who is the originator of an eternal priesthood that is not determined by genealogical records. The apostle interpreted the priesthood of Melchizedek in terms of the announcement of the eternal priesthood of the Messiah in Psalm 110:4 and by the fact that the Messianic prophecy was fulfilled in Christ. Melchizedek was an anticipatory historical figure, a reflection of the true heavenly high priest, the Son of God.