Genesis 12 – 17
That Time the First Jew and the First Priest Went Out for a Drink
Have you ever wondered who this Melchizedek character is? Why is he mentioned in the Torah, and what lesson does this personality have for us? In this week’s parsha we have this character just seem to drop into the story out of nowhere, and disappear just as quickly as he came. But there is a unique interaction going on here that is very curious and has kept the scholars speculating around it for ages.
Let us begin with the key verses of the section that we are going to explore this week:
“And Malchi Tzedek
king of Shalem
brought bread and wine.
He was the priest of the Most High G-d.
And he blessed and said:
‘Blessed be Avram to the Most High G-d,
Maker of the heavens and the earth.
And blessed be the Most High G-d,
who has delivered
your enemies into your hand.’
A tenth of everything was given to him.”
| U‘Malchi Tzedek
| melech Shalem
| hotzi lechem vayayin
| vehu kohen le-El Elyon
| baruch Avram le-El Elyon
| Koneh shamayim va’aretz
| tzareicha beyadecha
| vayiten-lo ma’aser mikol
In this story we see Avram (the person later to be known as Abraham) meeting with a priest. We are told that he is the priest of El Elyon – literally the G-d Most High. We don’t know a lot about this person other than that he is a king and priest, and that Abraham feels obliged to show charity to this priest. Likewise this priest pronounces one of the first blessings ever recorded in the scriptures, recognizing Avram and pronouncing a blessing declaring him holy on to G-d.
There is much known about Abraham, he is the father of the Jewish people. He is the patriarch of monotheistic tradition. We have plenty to explain his background in the scriptures, and in the midrashim and folklore that has grown up around his story. He is revered by all three of the major world religions as their root.
But of this Melchi-Tzedek there is such little to read about him, he is only ever mentioned in three verses of the Chumash, four verses in the entire bible. Everything else we think we know about him comes from interpretation and oral tradition. But there are a few things we for sure know about him, he is the king of a city named Shalem. Not only is he a king, but he is also a priest. He seems to be a dual spiritual and civil leader, along the lines of a Julius Caesar and the early Roman kings who served not just as emperor but also as Flamen Dialis, the high priest to Jupiter with official ritual duties. He is the first priest mentioned in the scriptures.
The scriptures don’t offer us much information about this king, nor his city. Other than his city is named Shalem. We do find another reference to this city of Shalem in the scriptures, “In Shalem is also set His tabernacle, and his dwelling-place is in Zion.” (Psalm 76:2) Shalem is thus equated with Jerusalem. Melchi-Tzedek is understood to be one of the Canaanite kings. The first king of Jerusalem.
His name also provides us a few ideas. It is not a simple name, it is actually two distinct words malchi and tzedek. It appears more of a title. In the Hebrew language there are two seemingly easy to recognize words, one is “malchi / my king” and other is “tzedek / justice.” However, Hebrew scholars note that ordinarily putting them together in this way is not with the normal rules of Hebrew. It appears more close to Aramaic, and therefore hints of possibly being derived from the closely related Phonetician and Canaanite languages.
This understanding leads modern scholars to believe that this king might have indeed been the first king of Jerusalem (though just merely known as Salem in those days). This city would have most likely been dedicated to the chief god of their pantheon, Tzedek, which we know as the planet Jupiter. In the Talmud we also see that the planet Jupiter is indeed called Tzedek in Hebrew as well. (Talmud Balvi, Shabbat 156a) Jupiter as a planet of huge mass and gravity would by Roman times be characterized as Zeus, the head the pantheon and the supreme authority among lesser gods.
This is a position that is very different from that of the most famous of midrashim. Our Jewish tradition most often equates Melchi-Tzedek with Shem, the son of Noah that is the patriarch of the Semetic peoples, the peoples of the temperate middle-east. Shem is believed to have eventually lived such a long life of success that he set-up the city of Shalem while the newly arrived Avram dwelt in the rough lands. In order to explain why our saintly father Avraham shows honor to Melchi-Tzedek the rabbis explain that Shem was also a great man with a saintly mission, even going as far as to suggest that Avraham learned at yeshivot he established. He was Abraham’s ancestor. With this in mind people would like to believe that like Abraham, Melchi-Tzedek was the last of a dying breed of monotheists. (see Parshat Lech Lecha 2011)
The truth probably lays somewhere in between the scholarship and the folklore. It is fair to assume to that Melchi-Tzedek was a Semite. It is also very likely that he was king of the infantile city of Jerusalem. Avram as a Semitic stranger would do well to show deference to this man. But what we do need to take notice of is that he only ever refers to G-d as “El-Elyon.” He does not refer to Him by Havayah – the distinct Four-letter Name of G-d. He instead seem to understand El, the well known god of the region as being his god; not just divine, but the most supreme (elyon) god (el).
I believe that we have enough proof to agree with the scholarly understanding, that Melchi-Tzedek is not a pure monotheist. Yet his status and faith is respected by Avram, and likewise in our tradition that it should make its way into the Torah.
Because of the mysteriousness of this character, Melchi-Tzedek has been commented and embellished upon. It was so in the times of Josephus and even in the Christian writings. By the time of the Talmud there had been a multitude of stories that attribute something almost supernatural about his character. In absence of information ridiculous claims are made, for example the Christian bible states that because we don’t hear of his mother of father mentioned this Melchi-Tzedek must have been divine; he just wasn’t born of humans. People write a lot in between the lines.
For a moment we need to step away from all the dogma and look at the facts as presented in the Torah. The reason we don’t see a lot mentioned about Melchi-Tzedek is because the story isn’t about him at all. It is clearly evident that in this story he not the star, he is just an extra on the set to help carry the story along.
To understand the story we need to go all the way back to the beginning and read it in context. It begins at the top of the fourth aliyah. Most readers only look at the verses that mention this guy’s name, but they are the last three verses of our actual reading!
The fourth aliya begins at the top of the 14th chapter of Genesis. To save us the pain of all the mental work and identifying each party, all we need to understand is that the first half of the chapter is about how the kings of Mesopotamia and the kings of the Jordan valley come to war against each other. It appears that tribute states are rebelling against their regent and their allies. (v.1-9)
The second half of the chapter is about a literal quagmire of war, the rebels being hunted down and slaughtered in marshes as they tried to escape. Among the escapees were the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah who ran for their lives. (v.10) The rest of the chapter is about the aftermath of their defeat after the capture of these towns. We are told that the Persian king and the vassal kings sack the towns and take away pretty much anything they could carry. (v.11)
Now ordinarily this would have nothing to do with Avram, as he doesn’t live in either area. He dwells in the plains of Mamre among the Amorites and their allies. (v.13) However his most beloved nephew Lot dwelt in the city of Sodom, and his family and his possessions were captured as part of the plunder. They are likely to be killed or sold off into slavery. (v.12) One of the refugees from this war comes and reports all this to Avram.
Now here we see him described as Avram haIvri – Avram the Hebrew (עברי), the descendant of Ever (עבר), son of Shem. Ivri also means “to cross over,” here we see that Avram is different and separate from the rest of these Semites that are waring here. He is understood to be a distinct clan already. His own had already become a separate people, even though Avram has no children of his own.
And this is the key issue, Lot is an orphaned nephew that he was very close to. Not only are they endeared to another as family, but Lot stood to be the full inheritor of all Avram’s estate. (see the Parashiot of Lech Lecha and Vayeira 2012) Lot is Avram’s only heir as he had no son. What Avram did have was 318 trained disciples that had been born into his clan, men that he mobilized in rescue of his heir. (v.14)
The young men follow Avram to war, they follow them up through the valley of the river Dan in the north, until he surrounds and defeats the Mesopotamians just west of Damascus. (v.15) All that was sacked is brought back by Avram, all the people and possessions. Men and women both are delivered from their captivity. Among them are also Lot and his possessions. (v.16)
Now here is the one point that most people miss, on Avram’s return we have the runaway king of Sodom coming out to meet Avram. It is the king of Sodom that first goes out to meet Avram and his returning army.
And then in the middle of this the most striking thing takes place. Someone else walks into the situation and steals the spotlight just for a brief moment. Melchi-Tzedek just walks in out of nowhere, without any introduction. He offers Avram bread and wine, and extends his blessing. We hear nothing more about Melchi-Tzedek, other than that he receives a tithe from Avram from the captured booty.
Now notice no explanation is given for the tithe, and we have to assume it is Avram giving the tithe because the language itself doesn’t explicitly say so, just that a tithe “viyaten-lo / was given to him.” We assume Melchizedek is the “he.” The question comes in because we aren’t even sure why he is here at all, he is not king of one of these town nor was he even present in the battle. None of this concerns him. Is he coming out with symbols of hospitality and benevolence out of fear of Avram, or does he want something?
I think the latter point is the greater motivation. Avram is now returning with his small army and his captured spoils, and the local kings want their cut. This is such a major point that we begin a whole new aliya just to make this point. And at the head of the fifth aliya the first thing we read of is the king saying to Avram, “Ten-li hanefesh veharechush kach-lach / Give me the souls, and you can keep the goods.” (v.21) This point seems simple and maybe understated with few words, but in the reading of the Torah it stands out as one the driving points of the parsha.
The coward king of Sodom now comes out to meet Avram and he immediately and brazenly bark out his demands. He wants all the living souls, the people. But Abraham can keep of the other material spoils, for his trouble. He wants back all his people just as much as Avram wanted back Lot. There is no celebrating and praises as with Melchi-Tzedek, nor is there even a simple “thank you” given. He just wants what was taken from him.
According the orthodox female scholars Nehama Lebowitz, of blessed memory, Mechli-Tzedek is merely a character used as a device to contrast the unbefitting demands of the king of Sodom. To show the arrogance of his demands, and to display the lack of honor given to someone he should feel indebted to.
So what we see here is that Melchi-Tzedek is a person that who isn’t involved at all, but he shows respect to Avram and gets a portion of the spoils. We would expect the king of Sodom to show the same respect, in order to get back what he wants. But instead he just alarmingly barks a demand, before Avram starts giving away more of what he sees as his.
In the face of this demand Avram gives back everything that is taken, he didn’t really want it anyway. All he went out for was to retrieve Lot and his possessions from the mess he had gotten himself caught up in. All he claims for himself and his hired men was the food they had eaten. He doesn’t need his money, and startlingly gives everyone and everything back lest anyone say Avram was made rich off of this man’s misfortune.
For a second I would like us to step back and take a look at this parsha, and it’s use of a narrative to get across so much information. Yes we read about a long since forgotten ancient skirmish, one that would be of little relevance itself if it hadn’t been for Lot’s foolish attachment to this wild and lawless region. Here we are only in our third parsha of the Torah, and we are already being forced to have to pick out truths about the character of the persons involved. To learn from their example, both good and bad. Here in this we learn to find truth in even the most seemingly irrelevant of stories by keenly trying to identify with the people.
And the lesson is this, that even the smallest amount of gratitude goes a long way. We are taught the importance of respect and honor, and the uncouthness that there is outside of this code of ethics and morals.
Avram of course gives everything back, because he is a saint. Instead of being reactionary, he shames the king of Sodom with kindness. He shows he’s above this pettiness and hands it all over. Avram not only shows good character, he shows exceptional character. I hope that more of us would follow by his example.
A Battle for the Souls
One of the things that is brought up in this parsha is a contrasting of moral values. The lawlessness of the Jordan valley and their idolatry is contrasted against Avram and his monotheistic moral crusade. That is why Avram is spoken about as the Ivri – the Hebrew at this point, the one who “crossed over” to not be part of this mess and their way of life. What Avram had done instead is found a monotheistic community, a sizable one that is able to exert itself. Their ability to accomplish this campaign attests to their strength and influence.
Our rabbis and teachers often note on this point that here when Avram and his people first clash with the Canaanite kings of the region his issue is a battle for souls. I can’t help but be reminded of this by the language our rabbis use in the Ladino (Hebreo-Spanish language, the Sephardi tongue) translation of the Chumash, “Da a mi la alma, y la ganaçia toma para ti / Take for yourself the souls, and you keep the earnings.” (Constantinople Chumash, 1547)
Normally when we hear the word nefesh and souls used in the Torah we think of the word simply meaning living souls, meaning people. Souls mean people.
When it comes to Avram, the founder of this monotheistic community, the word souls takes on another meaning. Soul can also mean the deeper spiritual person within. We think of him primarily being interested in accumulating souls, in winning converts and growing his force of free men. If we wanted anything to claim as his reward from this battle, it would most likely be the people. He had interest in little else.
From this point of view the face off with the king of Sodom is one of the dethroned leader also telling Avram that they don’t want his religion, he wants his people back so they can live according to their own style as a pleasure kingdom. This eventually happens and it leads to their ultimate destruction later on.
But in the midst of this story comes forward one person of exceptional merit. He is not a Hebrew, he is part of the Canaanite establishment. He has all the makings of a good religious person, but his theology has degraded to being a near-monotheism; a composite form of monotheism. Melchi-Tzedek considered himself a monotheist in the same manner Christians or Hindus would consider themselves monotheistic, while still having a multiplicity of divine forms. Thus his god is designated “the Most High G-d.”
People often read too much into this story, and see the interaction as more than just the giving of gifts between the cheerful and celebratory Avram and Melchi-Tzedek. Though it is essential to recognized that there is a meeting of two great men of different faiths, that both show respect to each other.
Our father Abraham shows us a good example here early on in the history of the development of his faith, he shows how people of different ideas can be respectful to one another. But even more than that, Avram seems to recognize Melchi-Tzedek as a fellow traveler. Even though Avram has decided to take a different path away from the degraded theology that had come to dominate the other Semites of his day. Avram honors and recognized this man merely on the character of his words and deeds, he takes a chance on an unlikely candidate. Melchi-Tzedek is an outsider that is respected by Abraham himself.
For a lot of reasons people of just about every tradition have become fascinated with the story of king Melchi-Tzedek. He serves as an archetypal example for the outsiders. For this reason gentiles and the other religions who honor the bible often feel an affinity with him. He is not just a good gentile, but he is also a respectable non-Hebrew priest.
It should not surprise us that people want to lay claim to Melchi-Tzedek and his legacy, to be inheritors to knowledge about G-d that predates and supersedes the normal Abrahamic and Mosaic system.
The bible actually gives us our first example of a person pining to be honored as such an exception. Even King David wanted to be honored this way, as not just a king but also as a priestly figure in building the temple. He wrote a psalm where he declares that G-d has called him to be priest after the order of Melchi-Tzedek forever. He wants himself, or his messianic descendants be an exception to the rule. To be treated as a diamond in the rough, not just now but forever. (see Psalm 110)
In every moral religious community and stratus of religious commitment we can find these diamonds in the rough. These exceptional characters that by their deeds and words stand out. Their ethical behavior and good form is worthy of being recognized and emulated.
- Parshat Lech Lecha (2011)
- Parshatiyot Lech Lecha and Vayeira (2012)
- Parshat Noach (2013)
- Parshat Noach (2012)
- Parshat Vayeira (2011)