Melchizedek and Christ in Hebrews 7: Part 3

One must understand Melchizedek in the Old Testament before one can understand him in the New Testament. This week’s brief post looks at Melchizedek’s two OT appearances, then treats the context surrounding the Melchizedek/Christ comparison in Hebrews 7.

For part 1, looking at the history of interpretation regarding Melchizedek, especially in Gen. 14, click HERE.

For part 2, surveying a variety of contemporary scholars’ opinions on how to understand the Melchizedek/Christ comparison in Hebrews 7, click HERE.

MELCHIZEDEK IN THE OLD TESTAMENT

 There are two passages in the OT where Melchizedek’s name arises. As a result, it is natural to employ the rabbis’ midrashic instrument of gezera shawa (or verbal analogy), to understanding each passage in light of the other.

In Genesis 14:18-20, Melchizedek makes his first appearance in the biblical text and only appearance in a narrative. Abraham meets Melchizedek, the king of Salem who is otherwise not introduced by genealogy or any other device. Melchizedek, as a priest of the Most High God (אֵ֣ל עֶלְי֔וֹן), blesses Abraham, who gives a tithe of his recently-won spoils to the king of Salem. This encounter is contrasted in Genesis with surrounding encounters between Abraham and the king of Sodom, from whom Abraham refuses to receive any kind of gift or tribute.

Ps. 110:4 is the second passage where Melchizedek is named in the OT. Ps. 110’s importance to the author of Hebrews’ epistle cannot be understated.[1] In this Davidic Psalm, YHWH is speaking to “my Lord” when he declares in verse 4, “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, you are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” David M. Hay affirms, “It is reasonable to assume that prior Jewish messianic interpretation of the psalm was a factor behind its popularity among Christians.”[2] Ps. 110:4 is the key that links the enigmatic OT figure to the coming Messiah. This link stands already in the OT, so the author of Hebrews picks up this text and the Gen. 14 passage and interprets them as any Jewish rabbi converted to Christianity would, via gezera shawa.

This discussion lies in the background of the author of Hebrews’ thinking. One must now turn to the primary work at hand, the epistle to the Hebrews. An overview of the relevant elements of Hebrews’ structure is presented before a treatment of the context surrounding Heb. 7.

 

CONTEXT OF HEBREWS 7

 It is helpful to know the lay of the land before hiking across any distance, whether it is across a town filled with street signs or a natural landscape populated by forests, streams, and hills. This section of the paper provides a general overview of the structure of Hebrews, based on the work of George Guthrie, highlighting the most relevant elements of that structure to the subject of this paper. Following that overview, a brief discussion of the immediate, surrounding context of Heb. 7 provides more illumination.

The Structure of Hebrews

The epistle to the Hebrews has essentially two major parts, 1) a discussion on the position of the Son in relation to the angels (1:5-2:18), and 2) a discussion on the position of the Son in relation to the earthly sacrificial system (4:14-10:25). The epistle has a short introduction (1:1-4), as well as an ethical section near the end (10:19-13:19), prior to the benediction (13:20-21) and conclusion (13:22-25). The primary text of this study is Heb. 7:1-3. It is an admittedly small unit within the discussion on the “order of Melchizedek” quote from Ps. 110:4 conducted in 7:1-10, which is, itself, a subsection on the larger discussion on the appointment of the Son as a superior high priest in 5:1-7:28.[3]

Surrounding Context

The preceding context of Heb. 7:1-3 begins at 5:1, when the author reminds the audience that the high priest is selected “to act on behalf of men in relation to God…” In his discussion of the Christ’s position as high priest, he quotes from Ps. 2:7 (“You are my Son…”) and Ps. 110:4. This is the author of Hebrews’ first use of the name “Melchizedek” in the epistle, and, by citing Ps. 2:7, it is where the author ties the Son with the offices of king and high priest all together[4]. Heb. 5:7-9 go on to describe Jesus’ submission and obedience and suffering before verse 10 declares, “[Jesus was] designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.” This section of the epistle, 5:1-7:28, defines the appointment of the Son as a superior high priest. The author of Hebrews does so, in part, by introducing the Messiah by way of this “Melchizedek.”

Heb. 5:11-6:12 is a digression from the main thrust of the overall section. The author addresses the issue of his audience’s immaturity and, thus, their ability to receive this advanced teaching. At 6:13, the author begins to transition back to the main teaching of this section when he brings up the promise to Abraham. It is at 6:20 that the author reminds the audience that Jesus s a high priest forever in the order of Melchizedek. This is what leads up to the text at hand.

The subject of the midrash of Heb. 7:1-10 is debated, as mentioned above.[5] In 7:11-28, however, Ps. 110:4 becomes the clear subject of at least that midrash. This section contrasts the Levitical line and Melchizedekian order even further, extrapolating from 7:1-10. Chapter seven of Hebrews is the beginning of the longest uninterrupted doctrinal section of the epistle.[6] The nature of the Melchizedek/Christ typology taught in chapter seven is vitally important to the overall teaching on the priesthood of Christ found in the epistle to the Hebrews.

***

To complete our journey, click HERE for part 4.

 

[1] See esp. David M. Hay, Glory at the Right Hand: Psalm 110 in Early Christianity, vol. 18, Society of Biblical Literature Monograph Series, eds. Robert A. Kraft and Leander Keck, Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1989.

[2] Hay, 159. For a full discussion of Psalm 110’s treatment in Judaism leading up to Christianity, see David M. Hay’s book, referenced above.

[3] Discussion on the structure of Hebrews is largely drawn from George H. Guthrie, The Structure of Hebrews: A Text-Linguistic Analysis, Biblical Studies Library, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998, and the course handout, “The Structure of the Book of Hebrews.”

[4] Simon Kistemaker, The Psalm Citations in the Epistle to the Hebrews (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010), 116f.

[5] See the post on Contemporary Scholarship, also Guthrie, Structure of Hebrews, 125; Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “‘Now This Melchizedek’ (Heb 7:1),” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 25 (1963): 306.

[6] David L. Allen, 407.

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