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Genesis 14:17-20 (NJPS):

When he returned from defeating Chedorlaomer and the kings with him, the king of Sodom came out to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh, which is the Valley of the King. And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was a priest of God Most High. He blessed him, saying,

“Blessed be Abram of God Most High,
   Creator of heaven and earth.

 And blessed be God Most High,
   Who has delivered your foes into your hand.”

And [Abram] gave him a tenth of everything.

Several things about this story make me suspicious that it might be intended as metaphorical:

  1. Melchizedek doesn't show up at anywhere else in the Torah and only once again in Psalm 110 (maybe).

  2. His name (Malkiy-Tsedeq <04442>) is composed of two words: melek <04428> meaning "king" and tsedeq <06664> meaning "righteousness" or "justice". (The NJPS of the word in Psalm 110 is "a rightful king", which is why that reference is only a "maybe".)

  3. Abram pays this man a high honor by giving him "a tenth of everything," but there's no explicit reason given.

  4. He is king of Shalem <08004>, which is the same as shalem <08003> meaning "complete, safe, peaceful, perfect, whole, full, at peace" and derived from shalam <07999> meaning "to be in a covenant of peace, be at peace".

  5. Salem is said to be the same place as Jerusalem, which otherwise does not appear in the Torah.

Given that this enigmatic character with associations to justice and peace appears right after a conflict between Abram and the four kings, does the text encourage us to interpret Melchizedek as metaphor?

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This is a question based on this week's challenge. – Jon Ericson Nov 4 '11 at 19:38
up vote 5 down vote accepted

If he was a metaphor, to whom did Abram give the tithe?

It is possible—even likely, under certain frameworks—that an individual could be both a literal person and a metaphor or "type" of some higher concept or person.

I'm also not sure that a silence in the remainder of the Torah is necessarily an indicator of whether he was a literal person, or whether Salem was a literal location. This is particularly true given two parallel thoughts:

  • The Torah focused mainly upon the family lines of Jacob, which makes sense. Notice how quickly individuals such as Ishmael or Esau are introduced and then dropped from the picture.
  • As families grew and moved away from one another, they would have no longer had contact to maintain histories and family trees. Beyond the first couple of generations (chapter 10), Genesis gives very little detail of the lines of Japheth or Ham. Israel would meet many of these same nation-groups on the battlefield later, but all we really know about their beginning is the particular line of Noah from which they came. Even under Shem's line there were a number of lines that are mentioned in passing and then dropped entirely.

Finally, where does one could draw the line in terms of metaphor vs. narrative? In other words, if this encounter with Melchizedek is metaphoric, what about the events before and after it, with the kings of the region? What about the events before and after them? Did Lot even get kidnapped? Did Lot even exist, other than a narrative plot device to introduce readers to events that they would otherwise not have an inside look into? But if not, then how do we know the basis of those events?

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+1. To play devil's advocate for a moment: most of these questions could be answered easily if the Melchizedek incident is a later insertion. The narrative with the kings is one of the few times that Abraham is portrayed as having a political claim in the region. In the narrative arc of the Torah, it's important that Israel have only God's promise to trust in until they reach the promised land at the end of the Exodus. Giving a tithe and refusing to take a portion of the plunder is important to the theme of the broad story. – Jon Ericson Nov 5 '11 at 18:43
Sure. However, weren't Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in direct "possession" (or, at least residence) of the land? So I'm not sure that their reliance on God's promise was as entirely ethereal as you suggest, at least until the stay in Egypt. – GalacticCowboy Nov 5 '11 at 21:38
Though, on the other hand, it wasn't permanent. – GalacticCowboy Nov 6 '11 at 1:17
Abraham is famous for being a "stranger and sojourner". I think if he had gotten involved in political loyalty it would have resulted skipping the time in Egypt and the Exodus. So it's helpful to have this story explain exactly why he didn't settle down at that point. (But the case for insertion is circumstantial as far as I can see.) – Jon Ericson Nov 7 '11 at 5:40
That's an interesting point that I never really thought about. On the flip side, you could also point to Lot's increasing entanglement with Sodom as a more immediate warning against getting too settled. – GalacticCowboy Nov 7 '11 at 11:38

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