And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. He blessed him and said, ‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!’ And Abram gave him one tenth of everything.”

Genesis 14:18-20

 
An image of Melchizedek painted onto the altar side near the Royal Doors at Libotin wooden church, Maramureş County, Romania
 
Every now and then we come across passages in the Bible that confound us. Even if we can figure out the basic sense of the text, still we are filled with questions, most of which will remain unanswered.

Genesis 14:18-20 is such a passage. I would contend that it is one of the strangest texts in the Bible . . . and also one filled with mysterious grace. This passage comes in the midst of an account of military conflict between the nations and cities in the area where Abram lived, including Sodom. Abram got involved because his nephew, Lot, who lived in Sodom, had been captured by an enemy army. So Abram led his trained men into battle, defeating the enemy, rescuing Lot, and recovering Lot’s ample possessions, which had been taken by the enemy.

When Abram returned to Canaan, the king of Sodom went out to meet Abram in order to work out a deal for the booty Abram had brought back. Then, surprisingly, the narrative is interrupted by the presence of another king, one who had not been mentioned before and who does not appear again in Genesis. (He appears later in the Bible, in Psalm 110:4 and Hebrews 5-7.) Here’s what we read about this mysterious king: “And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. He blessed him and said, ‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!’ And Abram gave him one tenth of everything” (14:18-20).

Among the questions over which biblical scholars puzzle are: Who is Melchizedek? Where is Salem? In what sense is he a priest of God? How did he get to be a priest? Why did he bless Abram as he did? Why did Abram give Melchizedek a tithe? I won’t be wrestling with these questions here. (If you want to learn more about this mysterious figure, the Wiki article is pretty helpful.) In the narrative of Genesis 14, Melchizedek appears to be a local king from a place called Salem (traditionally identified as Jerusalem). Somehow, he is also a priest of God. In this priestly role, he offered blessings both to Abram and to God.

What strikes me in this story is Melchizedek’s understanding that Abram’s recent victory is not ultimately attributable to Abram himself but, rather, to God. Abram has been blessed by “God Most High,” who delivered Abram’s enemies into his hand. Melchizedek, therefore, helps Abram not to take undue credit for his victory. He reminds Abram that God has blessed him and that accounts for his success.

I need reminders like this in my life. I don’t get them through visits from a mysterious priest. Rather, I am reminded of God’s blessings when I pause each day for prayer. Moreover, through symbolism that is strikingly similar to Genesis 14, I remember God’s blessings most of all when I receive the bread and wine at the table of the ultimate High Priest, Jesus Christ. In his supper, I am renewed in God’s grace and the assurance of manifold blessings to me.

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:

When something in the Bible confounds you, what do you do?

What or who in your life serves in a role like that of Melchizedek?

How can we feel rightly proud of our accomplishments and, at the same time, recognize that they depend on God’s blessing?

PRAYER:

Gracious God, as I read this story of Melchizedek, I have so many questions. I wonder if, when I am finally in your presence, I’ll get to ask them.

In the meanwhile, I thank you for how Melchizedek served Abram, blessing him and, in so doing, reminding him that you are the source of all good things. Even in this day, Lord, may I see my life as a reflection of your blessing. And, may I be like Melchizedek, blessing others by your grace. Amen.

 

Photo Credit: Biserica de lemn Sf.Arhangheli din Libotin (13)” by Țetcu Mircea Rareș. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Commons.