Melchizedek: Three Views

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Jim Stinehart
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Melchizedek: Three Views

Postby Jim Stinehart » Fri May 20, 2016 8:44 am

Melchizedek: Three Views

In this first post on this thread, we will review the two conventional views of Melchizedek, and ask if they raise insurmountable problems. Then later we can consider a different approach to determining the identity of Melchizedek (namely my view, which calls into question virtually all of the conventional assumptions about Melchizedek).

The one and only difference between the two conventional views of Melchizedek (at Genesis 14: 16-24) is their different interpretations (which will be analyzed below) of the following three Hebrew letters (which may or may not be a city-name): שלם. Both conventional views see שלם as denoting the city-name “Salem”. The two views differ as to whether “Salem” means “Jerusalem” (the most traditional view), or rather, per Genesis 33: 18, whether “Salem” is denoting a small town (otherwise unattested) near Shechem.

Both of the two conventional views of Melchizedek share the following key characteristics. Sodom is located at or near the Dead Sea. The king of Sodom is probably the Bera referred to at Genesis 14: 2 (though perhaps this point may be negotiable). Melchizedek is both a king and a priest. Because of their differing interpretations of שלם, the two conventional views differ as to the city where Melchizedek lived, and they may differ (though this is not necessarily considered of critical importance) as to where the meeting between the king of Sodom, Melchizedek, Lot and Abram takes place.

I. Most Traditional View: Melchizedek Is a Priest-King of Jerusalem

Traditionally, שלם at Genesis 14: 18 is translated as “Salem”, and is viewed as being a shorthand reference to “Jerusalem”. There are many problems with this traditional view (most of which, but not all of which, also bedevil the other conventional view of Melchizedek):

1. Why would Jerusalem be referred to here as “Salem”? Although Genesis scholar Gordon Wenham is generally sympathetic to traditional views of the text, he has a hard time accepting that “Salem” here might mean “Jerusalem”: “[I]t is not made clear where Salem is. If Jerusalem is meant, it is strange that an otherwise unattested abbreviation of the name is used here.” “Genesis 1-15”, p. 316.

2. Why would Melchizedek be both a priest and a king? At Genesis 14: 16-24, Melchizedek seems to function exclusively as a priest only, not a king.

3. If Melchizedek is from Jerusalem, why is he involved with this meeting at all? Though many analysts do not specifically state where they see this meeting as taking place, it is generally viewed as taking place in or near Jerusalem. But why? If Sodom is located at or near the Dead Sea, that’s not close to Jerusalem.

4. If the king of Sodom is the Bera referenced at Genesis 14: 2 (which would seem to be the usual assumption, although many analysts say nothing about this), Bera seems to have already died at Genesis 14: 10: “And the vale of Siddim was full of slimepits; and the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, and fell there….” Or if Genesis 14: 10 is interpreted as Bera merely being injured, rather than having died, then how could a recently injured Bera come all the way north from the Dead Sea to meet Lot and Abram at Jerusalem? On the other hand, if the king of Sodom at Genesis 14: 16-24 is not Bera (who has already died), then if Bera’s Sodom at Genesis 14: 2 is one and the same place as Lot’s Sodom at Genesis 14: 12, 16-24 (an assumption made by all analysts, though it’s not my view), then why not set forth the name of the new king of Sodom who is interacting at Jerusalem with Melchizedek, Lot and Abram?

In my humble opinion, the traditional interpretation of שלם at Genesis 14: 18 results in a story that does not make good sense. This in turn calls into question whether שלם at Genesis 14: 18 should be translated as “Salem” and viewed as being a shorthand reference to Jerusalem.

II. The Other Conventional View: Melchizedek Is a Priest-King of Salem, a Small Town Near Shechem

Wenham discusses this view at p. 316 as follows: “[I]t has been suggested that Salem near Shechem (cf. Gen 33: 18) could be meant, and that a tradition associated with this town has been transferred to Jerusalem (so Smith, Gammie, Kirkland). Though this is possible, it seems clear that Genesis views Melchizedek as a southern figure, in that he appears on the scene with the king of Sodom.”

This second conventional view has even more problems that the most traditional view.

1. There is no town near Shechem that is attested by the name “Salem”.

2. Why would Melchizedek be both a priest and a king? As noted above, at Genesis 14: 16-24 Melchizedek seems to function exclusively as a priest only, not a king.

3. Why would a priest-king from a small town near Shechem be involved with this meeting at all? It is highly unlikely that a king of Sodom from the Dead Sea would come all the way up north to Shechem in northern Canaan to meet with Melchizedek and Lot and Abram. Wenham seems to imply that the meeting may still take place at Jerusalem, but in addition to that not making geographical sense in any event, there’s no reference to Jerusalem here at all if “Salem” means a small town near Shechem. Moreover, why on earth would a priest-king from a small town near Shechem go to a meeting at Jerusalem with the king of Sodom, Lot and Abram?

4. As discussed above, king Bera of Sodom seems already to have died, which raises the same set of troublesome questions set forth above.

* * *

It is my view that both of the conventional views of Melchizedek are untenable. Indeed, I see virtually all of the above conventional assertions about Melchizedek as being incorrect. The key to making sense of this famous Biblical figure is to reconsider the meaning of שלם. In my opinion the text is perfect as is, and is telling us a completely sensible story, but if and only if we can figure out the proper interpretation of שלם.

Jim Stinehart
Evanston, Illinois

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