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Genesis 14:18

And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; now he was a priest of God Most High.

The ‘Most High’ translates the Hebrew adjective ‘Elyon’. What is the term which ‘Elyon’ is derived from and what is its significance?

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The operative word in Gen 14:18 (its first occurrence in the OT) is עֶלְיוֹן (elyown). Its fundamental meaning is:

high, upper (BDB); Most high, uppermost (Strong's)

According to Strong's concordance, the word derives from עָלָה (alah) a verb meaning:

to go up, ascend, climb (Strong's)

The word עֶלְיוֹן (elyown) is used in two senses in the OT:

  1. of earthly things and people such as
  • "upper Beth-Horon", Josh 16:5, 1 Chron 7:24, 2 Chron 8:5
  • "upper basket", Gen 40:17
  • "upper pool", 2 Kings 18:17, Isa 26:2
  • "upper chamber", Eze 41:7, 42:5
  • Israel to be a superior nation, Deut 26:19, 28:1
  • "upper gate", 2 Kings 15:35, 2 Chron 23:20, 27:3
  • "upper outlet" (of water), 2 Chron 32:20
  1. title of God as supreme = "Most High"
  • eg, Gen 14:18, 19, 20, 22, Num 24;16, Deut 32:8, 2 Sam 22:14, Ps 7:17, etc.

Note that in the latter case, the word is used as a title of God as supreme, either:

  • alone as simply, "The Most High", eg, Num 24:15, Deut 32:8, 2 Sam 22;14, Ps 9:2, 18:13, 21:17, 46:4, Isa 14:14, etc
  • in conjunction with the word "el" or "elohim" and thus, "God Most High", eg, Gen 14:18, 19, 20, 22, Ps 57:2, 78:35, etc
  • in conjunction with LORD (YHWH) and thus, "The LORD Most High", Ps 7:17, 47:2, 97:9, etc.
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    Incidentally, Jews who move from their native countries to Israel are said to 'make Aliyah' meaning to "go up." Throughout the OT one would "go up" to Jerusalem and "go down" from there to other places. The term carries a spiritual connotation as well as a physical one. Oct 9, 2023 at 13:49
  • @DanFefferman - quite right, although "alah" is the verb (eg, Isa 38:22) and this question is discussing the adjective whose cognate root is the verb.
    – Dottard
    Oct 9, 2023 at 19:07
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Although English texts usually say "God Most High" some give the more literal rendering of El Elyon. The name el means "god/God" but it was also the name of a specific Canaanite deity, the father of the gods. In Canaanite texts, "most high" (elyon/aliyan etc.) was an honorific epithet for both El and Baal. For example in the following Ugaritic text the title of Most High is given to Baal:

Baal sets the season, and gives forth His voice from the clouds. He flashes lightning to the earth. As a house of cedars let Him complete it, Or a house of bricks let Him erect it! Let it be told to Aliyan Baal: 'The mountains will bring Thee much silver. The hills, the choicest of gold; The mines will bring Thee precious stones, And build a house of silver and gold. A house of lapis gems!'

In the case of Melchizedek, the deity was El, to whom the honorific epithet "most high" (עֶלְי֔וֹן) was affixed. Whether Melchizedek worshiped him as the only God (as Abraham did) or as the highest of many gods is a matter of debate. However the Semitic term "most high" was used for other deities in Canaanite culture, prior to its application to the LORD in Israelite religion.

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