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16.10.2018 12:17    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parasha  lech lecha  

The Story of Melchizedek of Salem

The narrative of the highly significant meeting of Abraham with the king of Sodom (Gen. 14:17, 21-24), after Abraham’s victory over the four kings, is interrupted by the account of another meeting—between Abraham and Melchizedek king of Salem (Gen. 14:18-20).  The significance of interweaving these two narratives has been a challenge to all commentators.

What is a Canaanite king-priest doing in the story, and why is he brought up in a way that interrupts the natural flow of the story of the curious meeting between Abraham and the king of Sodom?

Comparing the two encounters of Abraham with these kings reveals several linguistic connections between the two.  In both cases the actions of the king are described by the root y-tz-‘ (came out, brought out; Gen. 14:17-18), and in both we have the expression “God Most High” (Gen. 14:18,22).[1] Some describe these linguistic connections as intending to create a contrast between the reception that King Melchizedek of Salem gave Abraham, as opposed to that given him by the king of Sodom.

The niggardly behavior of the King of Sodom stands in sharp contrast to the warm generosity of Melchizedek.  The King of Sodom brought nothing with him, whereas Melchizedek brought out bread and wine.  Melchizedek blessed Abraham, whereas the King of Sodom came to him with an uncouth request.  Of the King of Sodom it says, “the king of Sodom came out (yatza) to meet him” (Gen. 14:17), without mentioning any expression of thanks to Abraham, whereas of Melchizedek it says immediately that he “brought out (hotzi) bread and wine” and that he blessed Abraham (Gen. 14:18-20).

I accept the contention that the text is inclined to contrast Melchizedek with the king of Sodom, but I do not believe this to be the main thrust of these verses.  Neither Melchizedek nor the king of Sodom is at the center of the story, rather Abraham.  In my opinion, the central thrust of the story is not to contrast the behavior of Melchizedek and the king of Sodom, rather to contrast Abraham’s attitude towards Melchizedek with his attitude towards the king of Sodom.

Abraham’s refusal to take any of Sodom’s possessions stems, in my opinion, from his loathing for the king of Sodom and his desire to assure total severance between himself and Sodom and all that Sodom represents.[2] In contrast, Abraham’s relations with Melchizedek are characterized by closeness.  Melchizedek receives Abraham with bread, wine and blessings.  Some have suggested that taking out bread and wine for Abraham be seen as making a pact with him.  Most hold taking out bread and wine to be an act of appreciation, intended to feed the forces of the conqueror.[3] In return for the reception and blessings given him by Melchizedek, Abraham gives Melchizedek a tenth of the booty.[4]

Some have seen giving this tithe to Melchizedek as reflecting the laws of distribution of booty or as a tax that was owed by traders under the king’s protection.  In my opinion, presenting Melchizedek as the king of Salem and priest of God Most High puts a religious-cultic coloring on giving the tithe.  This is no usual handing out of booty, nor is it any regular payment of taxes.  Rather it is an act of giving that contains a religious proclamation, acknowledging the religious connection that unites the two men, namely their faith in G‑d who created heaven and earth.[5]

This claim is supported by Melchizedek’s blessing to Abraham in the name of G‑d Most High, and the linguistic parallel between what Melchizedek says and what Abraham says further on.  The expression, G‑d Most High, appears thrice in the scene with Melchizedek (Gen. 14:18-20), once with the addition of the words, “Creator of heaven and earth” (Gen. 14:19).

In Abraham’s meeting with the king of Sodom, Abraham swears by “the Lord, G‑d Most High, Creator of heaven and earth” (Gen. 14:22).  Abraham was swearing by the name of the same “G‑d Most High, Creator of heaven and earth” mentioned by Melchizedek, but with the addition of the name, “the Lord.”[6] This surprising parallel between the Canaanite priest-king’s appellation for the deity and the words of Abraham creates a surprising connection between them in the realm of faith.

This way of viewing the text reveals an interesting contrast between the choices made by Abraham in the story of rescuing Lot from captivity (Genesis 14) and the choices made by Lot in the previous story of his parting ways with Abraham (Genesis 13).  The focal point of the story is Lot consenting to part from Abraham and his choosing to dwell in the plain of Jordan, in Sodom.  The story focuses on Lot’s choice.

By contrast, in the story of Lot’s rescue from captivity, Lot is a secondary character and Abraham is at the focal point of the story.  The focus is on Abraham’s choice in response to the proposal made by the king of Sodom:  “Give me the persons, and take the possessions for yourself” (Gen. 14:21).  Here Melchizedek serves as a character paralleling Abraham, as an alternative to the king of Sodom.

Abraham and Melchizedek both combine sovereignty and priesthood.  Melchizedek is called “king of Salem” and “priest of G‑d Most High.”  Abraham intervenes in the war of the kings and leads his allies to victory over the four kings.  Alongside his activities on the “royal” playing field he is first and foremost a religious figure who stands fast by the Lord and upholds His precepts.[7]

Thus we have a parallel between the choices faced by Lot (chapter 13) and by Abraham (chapter 14), and a contrast in the ways they chose:[8]

 
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