For church last Sunday, I watched John MacArthur’s service on the Internet, then I watched the service of the church that I normally attend. It was supposed to rain last Sunday morning, so I stayed home. But it turned out that it didn’t rain, and I could have walked to church after all! Oh well. Maybe I’ll go to church next Sunday!
In this Church Write-Up, I want to focus on something that the speaker at MacArthur’s church said. The speaker last Sunday was not MacArthur himself, but rather the person who is usually the master-of-ceremonies at the morning service at MacArthur’s church: the person who delivers the welcome, tells visitors where they can go after the service for snacks and conversation, and introduces the tithe and offering part of the service. Since he was giving the sermon, someone else was the master-of-ceremonies.
The speaker briefly commented on Hebrews 7:3. In this post, I will quote that passage, discuss some of my past interaction with the passage, say how the speaker interpreted it, then comment on whether the speaker’s interpretation makes sense to me.
Hebrews 7:3 states regarding the priest Melchizedek of Genesis 14 that he was “Without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest continually” (KJV).
Melchizedek was without father or mother, lacked beginning of days and end of life, and was a priest continually.
When I was growing up in Armstrongism, the interpretation that I heard was that Melchizedek was God the Son, the being who would become Jesus Christ. After all, Hebrews 7:3 presents Melchizedek as eternal, it seems, and Jesus Christ was eternal. Who else could Melchizedek be?
Someone I know, who also has an Armstrongite background, was questioning this interpretation. His conclusion was that Melchizedek was Shem, the son of Noah. That interpretation was not new to me, for I went through Martin Luther’s lectures on Genesis back when I was in college, and Luther, too, believed that Melchizedek was Shem. But how would that interpretation accord with Hebrews 7:3? Shem was not eternal, right? Shem had a father, Noah. How could Shem be Melchizedek?
A relative of mine, appealing to E.W. Bullinger’s Companion Bible (which is popular in Armstrongite circles), said that Bullinger’s note said that Hebrews 7:3 is not suggesting that Melchizedek was immortal or eternal, but rather that Melchizedek lacked a recorded genealogy. Melchizedek’s parents are not explicitly named in the Bible, in short. Okay, but that raises questions in my mind: Why does the author of Hebrews make the point that Melchizedek lacked a recorded genealogy? How does that fit into Hebrews’ larger argument?
To my shame, I admit that I never studied these questions, so they just lingered in the back of my mind. That sermon that I watched last Sunday, however, engaged this topic.
The speaker was saying that the point of Hebrews 7:3 is that Melchizedek lacked a priestly genealogy. Ordinarily in ancient Israel, priests were priests because they were part of a priestly line. The priests in ancient Israel, according to P in the Torah, were descended from Aaron the Levite; in Deuteronomy, they were descended from Levi. Melchizedek, by contrast, lacked this priestly pedigree, yet he was still a priest of God.
That made sense to me when I first heard it, for it seemed to be consistent with themes in the Epistle to the Hebrews. The author of Hebrews argues in Hebrews 7 that Jesus was a high priest, even though Jesus descended from the non-priestly tribe of Judah rather than the priestly tribe of Levi. How could Jesus be a high priest, when Jesus did not descend from Aaron or Levi? According to the Epistle to the Hebrews, Jesus was a priest after the order of Melchizedek, who himself lacked an Aaronide or Levitical pedigree.
This speaker’s interpretation of Hebrews 7:3 is commonplace, as is the view that Hebrews 7:3 presents Melchizedek as an eternal being, maybe even Jesus Christ himself. As I look at Hebrews 7:3 again, the speaker’s interpretation makes less sense to me. The passage seems to suggest that Melchizedek lacked a beginning and an end, which arguably implies eternity. Moreover, it says that Melchizedek continues to be a priest. An eternal being would continue to be a priest, whereas that would not be the case for a temporal being who merely lacks a recorded genealogy.
Looking at Bullinger’s actual note on Hebrews 7:3 in the Companion Bible, I see that Bullinger goes with the “pedigree” interpretation, yet he also embraces a typological interpretation that seeks to account for Melchizedek lacking a beginning or an end and continuing to abide as a priest:
“Melchisedec is presented to us without reference to any human qualifications for office. His genealogy is not recorded, so essential in the case of Aaron’s sons (Neh 7 64). Ordinary priests began their service at thirty, and ended at fifty, years of age (Num 4 47). The high priest succeeded on the day of his predecessor’s decease. Melchisedec has no such dates recorded; he had neither beginning of days nor end of life. We only know that he lived, and thus he is a fitting type of One Who lives continually.”
I have mentioned the pedigree interpretation of Hebrews 7:3 and the “Melchizedek is Jesus” interpretation, but Bullinger offers a third interpretation, which is also prominent: that Melchizedek was not actually Jesus but was a type of Jesus, a foreshadowing of Jesus. According to this interpretation, Melchizedek had parents and lived a human life-span, but they are not recorded, and the fact that they are not recorded allows Melchizedek to foreshadow Jesus, a priest who actually was eternal.
There were different views of Melchizedek in Second Temple Judaism, which could have been part of the historical repertoire of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Josephus in Antiquities 1.180 depicted Melchizedek as a human king. 11QMelch in the Dead Sea Scrolls, by contrast, appears to have a cosmic, heavenly conceptualization of Melchizedek, perhaps presenting him as an angel. If one were to look at Hebrews’ historical context to determine whether Hebrews sees Melchizedek as merely a human or as a heavenly being, one would see that both options may have been available to the author, as part of the author’s cultural repertoire.
I have questions and doubts about all three interpretations of Hebrews 7:3. In response to the view that Melchizedek was merely a human priest in Hebrews 7:3, I, again, note features of the verse that appear to suggest that Melchizedek was more than that: that Melchizedek lacked beginning and ending and continues to be a priest.
In response to the view that Melchizedek was the pre-incarnate Jesus Christ, I have questions. Why does Hebrews 7:3 state that Melchizedek was like the Son of God, rather than saying that Melchizedek was the Son of God? Moreover, I believe that, in Genesis 14 itself, Melchizedek was merely a man. Melchizedek was the king of Salem, which sounds like Jerusalem. A later king of Jerusalem was Adonizedek (Joshua 10:1-3). Kings of Jerusalem, prior to King David, appear to have had the suffix “zedek” in their names. That seems to undermine the notion that Melchizedek in Genesis 14 was some anomalous figure, or a celestial being who temporarily came to earth to visit Abraham. Rather, he was a king of Jerusalem with “zedek” at the end of his name, like later kings of Jerusalem with “zedek” in their names. This does not necessarily have any bearing on whether the author of Hebrews saw Melchizedek as a human king or as Christ, for the author of Hebrews may have had a different ideology from that of the author of Genesis; interpretations of biblical texts are not always consistent with the biblical texts’ original meaning. For those who see the Bible as a consistent, divinely-inspired document, however, Genesis 14 would probably be relevant to how one should interpret Hebrews 7:3.
In response to the view that Melchizedek in Hebrews 7:3 was seen as a type of Christ, but not as Christ himself, I note that Hebrews 7:3 states that Melchizedek abides as a priest. If Melchizedek abides as a priest but is not Christ, are there two eternal priesthoods: that of Melchizedek and that of Christ? Perhaps I am taking Hebrews 7:3 too literally, though.
Of the three views, the third one makes the most sense to me, yet it is not entirely satisfactory.