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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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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
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    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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In Genesis chapter 14, Melchizedek appears and then disappears so suddenly that Hebrews chapter 7, describes him as "Without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life" and as a type for Jesus. The tradition that Melchizedek was immortal is even reflected in Psalm 110:4:

Psalm 110:4: The LORD hath sworn, and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.

Daniel Sarlo, in an essay titled 'The Peculiarities of Genesis 14' says that most scholars now agree that Genesis 14 does not belong to any of the traditional sources (J,E,P) and that the chapter is not thought to be the work of any one author, but rather as the result of an integration of several narratives. If, as Sarlo proposes, several people from different time periods and backgrounds have contributed to the chapter, this begins to raise serious questions as to whether it is at all possible to regard Melchizedek as historical in the normal sense of the word. In fact, we probably should regard the King of Sodom as also of doubtful historicity.

The fragmented nature of chapter 14 is evident in that the passage that includes Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18-20) interrupts the account of the meeting of the king of Sodom with Abram, good evidence that at one stage chapter 14 existed without the story of Melchizedek. This is unlikely to be the way that real history is remembered and recorded.

If we do regard Melchizedek as an allegory or metaphor, we would be such illustrious company as Philo of Alexandria, who treats him as an allegory in Allegorical Interpretation, III.xxv.

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All scriptural references are in other answers but here is a thought:

Jesus said that no man has at any time seen Yhwh. Unless Jesus was a liar, this means that all references to Elohiym which are a plural reference to both Yhwh and Yeshua simultaneously according to John 1. Hermaneutically sound teaching combining both Old and New testaments to speak with the same breath says that this is a most likely understanding. Where the Son of Man had not been revealed in the old testament, he kown just as God's son (referenced in Psalms and Job if I recall). Jesus himself declared that he pre-existed Abraham and knew him. With these latter predicates, it may well be possible that Jesus was indeed the King of Peace.

When Abram saw three men approach him from a distance, he ran out to greet them. This indicates that Abram not only saw the men but recognised them. This could have only occured if Abram had previous;y met at least one of the men but the one whom Abram acknowledged was neither servant but their master whom he recognised on sight because he had met him in person previously. This was before he had been blessed by God and before the covenant was made between God and Abram.

It had not been much earlier that Abram had paid a tithe to the King of peace and it would not be unreasonable to consider that the person Abram recognised as the King of Salem with two of his servants were the same person we know as Jesus today. Archaeologists have not found any evidence of this place called Salem and the idea that it grew and became Jeru'Salem is not implausible either since the time covers great swathes of undocumented historical change in reference to the accounts. Abram probably paid a tithe because he had brought spoils of war through the land of peace, under the dominion of Melchisidek, and it would have been dishonourable to not do so. There is no plausible reason in modern understanding for a victorious nation to share the spoils of war with anyone else because it is not in westrn tradition or culture to do so.

In summary, it appears to me that Lord Melchisidek was very possibly Jesus himself. Being sent as the great ambassador of the Most High God, Melchisidek went with two angels to see Abram. Abraham recognised Melchisidek by sight and fell down at his feet to worship him. That is a very significant event because Abraham would not bow down to any man or idol pointing further to the evidence that this was indeed the son of God himself. Melchisidek left Abram as Abraham and sent the two angels ahead to Sodom & Gomorrah in order to destroy them but Lot was found in Sodom to be righteous. The two angels evacuate Lot then destroy the cities. What we do not know is what happened to the third person, tacitly well known by Abraham personally, after meeting with Abraham because the angels went onwards without him with specific instructions from this third person. This is the clue: the angels were the third person's witnesses and junior in rank to him. If it could not possibly have been the Yhwh himself, then it would have been his most trusted amabssador, Jesus, because there are no greater angels than Michael and Gabriel who are the two witnesses constantly before Most High God. This is a case of written evidence that is specifically not specified and answers many hermaneutics of New Testament ideologies and solves some tough issues of prophecy understanding in both testaments that Jesus has always been the king of Jerusalem and that the prophetic life of Hosea represented closely the life of Christ from the beginning of man to the Last Days. With that understanding we are able to better comprehend the meanings of several other prophecies that clarify darker and difficult texts in Revelation and the Prophets. Was he metaphorical? No, certainly not. He presaged what was to come and even hralded the plan of God from the beginning. Think of the two testaments as being one for Judaeans and the other for the Lost Tribes of Israel. Only those whose names are written in the book of life will be saved and understand these secret things of God. To all others it will likely remain mysterious and conjectural in nature to their thinking.

////an even older testimony is that Adam and Eve knew what God looked like physically and recognised his voice when they heard him in the Garden east of Eden. This too may have been Jesus because no man has ever seen God at any time.////

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