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Parashat Lekh Lekha – 5779

October 18, 2018


The Encounter of Abraham and Melchizedek
A D’var Torah for Parashat Lekh Lekha
by Rabbi Lenny Levin

“And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was a priest of God Most High (El Elyon). He blessed him, saying, “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth…” (Gen. 14:18–19)

“Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I swear to the Lord (YH-VH), God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth…” (Gen. 14:22) 

Whenever Jews pray the Amidah, the Prayer par excellence, they invoke the name El Elyon, “God Most High” (and the Friday night liturgy adds: “Creator of heaven and earth”). But it is one of the rarer names for God in the Hebrew Bible. The more common names for God in the Bible are the Tetragrammaton (the four-letter personal name of God, represented in Hebrew by yod, hei, vav, hei, usually pronounced Adonai or Hashem and rendered in English by “the Lord”); Elohim (“God”); El Shaddai (“God Almighty”); and Adonai Tzeva’ot (“the Lord of Hosts”). The name El Elyon occurs only in this passage of the Abrahamic narrative and in a few psalms.

Who was Melchizedek? He appears in this chapter out of nowhere and is not mentioned again until an enigmatic verse in the Psalms, which is quoted in the New Testament (see below).

What is Salem? Traditional and modern commentators agree in identifying it with Jerusalem, but again, this is a rare name that occurs only here and possibly in a few other places. Significantly, Jerusalem is proverbially called “the city of justice” (ir ha-tzedek—see Isaiah 1:26), a link to Melchizedek’s name (in Hebrew, “Malki-tzedek); thus, the name Melchizedek may be a condensed way of saying, “King of the City of Justice.”

The traditional Jewish commentators identify Melchizedek as one of the few early monotheists; Rashi, following the early midrash, identifies him with Shem, son of Noah and progenitor of the Abrahamic clan and other Semitic peoples.

Modern biblical scholars, based on archeological research, identify El as the chief god of the Canaanite deities (see Psalm 82), and Elyon as an epithet for El. Melchizedek (of whom there is no independent evidence) is depicted in this narrative as a Canaanite who worshipped El Elyon. (See J. A. Emerton, “The Riddle of Genesis XIV,” in Vetus Testamentum, 21:4 [October, 1971].) In that case, Abraham, who worships YH-VH, is confronted with a choice: Should he regard Melchizedek’s god as a different god from his own, or as the same god by a different name?

If we follow the view of the modern scholars, then this is one of the first evidences we have in the biblical narrative of the problem of religious pluralism. Faced with a priest of a different religious tradition from his own, Abraham not only pays tithes to him but he adopts Melchizedek’s name for God and yokes it to his own received name for God in the oath that he subsequently swears to the king of Sodom. In so doing, Abraham bequeathed this divine name to the later Jewish tradition, which has used it ever since.

Emerton suggests that our current version of the narrative may reflect the historical circumstances of King David’s adopting Jerusalem as the capital of the Israelite monarchy. At that time, the Jebusites, who had previously controlled the city and continued to live there, presumably practiced a cult of their traditional god El Elyon. Instead of outlawing their religious practice, David subsumed it under the Israelite worship of YH-WH. The narrative of Abraham and Melchizedek in its present form may thus have helped to legitimize the worship of El Elyon as the worship of the Israelites’ God under another name, and thus to unify the peoples of the monarchy politically and religiously.

Another piece of the puzzle is presented in Psalm 110:4: “The Lord has sworn and will not relent, ‘You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.’” Emerton notes that this psalm is written as an acrostic on the name Shim’on (discounting the introductory words), and he cites the theory that it was written in the Hasmonean period (second century BCE, after the Maccabean wars). One of the innovations of the Hasmoneans was that they combined the office of king and priest in the same person, unlike the practice of the previous Israelite monarchy. As Melchizedek is presented in the Genesis narrative as both king and priest, it would have been logical to invoke him later as precedent in support of the Hasmonean practice. However, this detail, along with other Jewish traditions about the Davidic king, was later adopted with modifications by Christianity in developing the Christian views of the attributes of the Messiah. (See Hebrews, Chapter 7, in the New Testament.)

This advances the question of religious pluralism to the next level: How do different religious traditions, with their different interpretations of the same canonical narratives, encounter each other with respect while preserving their own integrity? To the solution of this problem, the example of Abraham and Melchizedek may serve as an inspiration.
Rabbi Lenny Levin teaches philosophy at AJR and is the editor of Studies in Judaism and Pluralism: Honoring the 60th Anniversary of AJR.