The Amazing Melchizedek
When Abraham (technically, still “Abram”) learned that his nephew Lot had been taken prisoner by an army invading Canaan, he did not hesitate to act. “He led forth his trained men, 318 of them, born in his house, and went as far as Dan in pursuit” (Gen 14:14). Interpreters were naturally puzzled by this verse: since when did Abraham have his own personal army—and not a dozen or so body-guards, but 318 armed men? The only servant of Abraham’s mentioned by name was Eliezer (Gen 15:2). Where did these others come from?
As is well known, before the introduction of numerals, numbers were often represented in various languages by letters of the alphabet: for example, in Greek the numeral 1 was represented by alpha, 2 by beta, and so forth. It was the same in Hebrew: aleph stood for one, beith for two, and so on until kaph, which stood for twenty and then lamedh for thirty, so that kaph beith, for example, could represent 22 and lamedh gimel 33.
By an interesting coincidence (or no coincidence at all), the numerical equivalent of the name Eliezer in Hebrew was 318: aleph was 1, lamedh was 30, yodh was 10, ‘ayin was 70, zayin was 7, and resh 200, make for a grand total of 318! Our rabbis therefore maintained that all it took for Abraham to free Lot from captivity was his trusty servant Eliezer.
On his way back home, Abraham encountered a certain Melchizedek (the English spelling of Hebrew Malki-tzedek), king of Salem. Actually, Melchizedek was not only a king, but is also described in the Torah as “a priest (kohen) of God Most High” (Gen 14:18). As such, Melchizedek “brought out bread and wine” for the victorious Abraham and blessed him with these words: “Blessed be Abram to God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, who has handed your enemies over to you!” Apparently in response, Abraham gave him a tenth of everything he had acquired.
This seemed even stranger than Abraham’s 318 men. Normally, people in biblical times were identified by their patronymic, “X, the son of Y.” But this Mechizedek is never identified as the son of anyone; he is just Melchizedek. (In fact, that name sounded more like a person’s description, “righteous king,” than his real name.) Moreover, Melchizedek is not mentioned among the descendants of Noah after the flood; in fact, we are never told when he was born—or even that he was born—nor when he died. He seems like some sort of ghost, flitting through the Torah’s account of ancient history.
The fact that Melchizedek blessed Abraham seemed to fit with his being a priest, since in later times priests did bless the people in the Jerusalem Temple; they also were given tithes, which would fit with Abraham donating a tenth of his acquisitions (that is, a tithe) to him. But there wasn’t any Temple yet! So how could this mysterious stranger function as a priest?
An ancient tradition maintained that Melchizedek was none other than Shem, the son of Noah. After all, long before the Temple was built a kind of priesthood seems to have existed, one that passed from firstborn to firstborn. Thus, the very first priest was Adam, whose special clothes (Gen 3:21) were the priestly garments necessary for the kohanim to perform their duties. From Adam the priesthood (along with those garments) was passed on to Noah, who indeed offered a sacrifice to God—just as later priests did—on an improvised altar after the flood (Gen 8:20). After that, the priesthood passed from Noah to his son Shem, whose other name was Mechizedek, “righteous king,” which would well suit his office of king of Salem (identified with Jerusalem).
But Shem, it appears, made a terrible mistake, precisely in the blessing that he gave to Abraham in this week’s reading. The idea of blessing Abraham was fine, but the wording was all wrong: “Blessed be Abram to God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, who has handed your enemies over to you.” How could a priest put the blessing of human being before the blessing of God?
As a result, Shem/Melchizedek was demoted. God took the priesthood away from him and gave it to Abraham, who did indeed function as a priest, offering sacrifices on various occasions on an open-air altar just as Noah had. The priesthood then passed to Abraham’s son Isaac, and from Isaac to…but that’s another story.