One of the more tantalizing problems in Hebrews is the identification of Jesus as a priest in the order of Melchizedek. Since the author of Hebrews is making the argument that Jesus is the ideal High Priest, someone might object that Jesus cannot be the High Priest since he is not from the tribe of Levi. No one from Judah could be selected as a priest, let alone a high priest. In order to solve this problem, Hebrews will identify Jesus as a priest in a different line, one that is superior to the tribe of Levi or the lines of Aaron and Zadok.
In the Hebrew Bible, Melchizedek is identified as both a priest and king of the city of Salem (Gen 14). After Abram rescues Lot from Mesopotamian invaders he is met by Melchizedek. He is simply identified as a “priest of God Most High” (כֹהֵ֖ן לְאֵ֥ל עֶלְיֽוֹן). He brings both bread and wine and blesses Abram, who gives the priest a tithe from the plunder.
He is mentioned a second time in Psalm 110, perhaps the most cited messianic Psalm in the New Testament. What is important for our reading of Heb 7 is that the Psalm connects the Davidic ruler to “the priesthood of Melchizedek.” Melchizedek was the priest-king of Jerusalem years before David captured the city and established it as his capitol. It is possible that David took over the title of “priest-king” of Jerusalem when he captured the Jebusite city. The kings of Judah could therefore be considered priests “in the order of Melchizedek.”
There were a number of interpretations of Melchizedek current in the first century, perhaps explaining why the author of Hebrews used this rather obscure character as an analogy for Jesus. The Dead Sea scrolls make Melchizedek into a paradigm for the righteous remnant, awaiting the return of the Messiah. He functions very much like Michael in Dan 12. He is a defender of Israel who will return to punish those who opposed the righteous remnant. The Targum Jonathan argued that Melchizedek was Shem, the son of Noah. In the genealogies of Genesis, Shem would outlived Abraham by 35 years. The Jews sought to find a way to explain the great Abraham giving honor to Melchizedek, they did this by making him one of Abraham’s great ancestors. The philosopher Philo described Melchizedek as the “divine logos,” not God but God’s representative in this world
The reason for all this speculation is that there is not much said in Gen 14 about who Melchizedek. That he worships the God Most High and was the king of Salem, presumably Jerusalem is remarkable. But how can the “line of Melchizedek” superior to Levitical priesthood?
The tithe that Abram gave to Melchizedek is used as a “proof” that Melchizedek is greater than the Levitical priesthood. In the Genesis 14 story it is unusual that Abram would tithe any of the plunder, although it was common for a portion of plunder to be given to the priesthood in ancient near eastern cultures. The writer of Hebrews draws out a further point from of the story: since the Levitical priests are present in Abram, their ancestor, the Levitical Priests paid the tithe to Melchizedek themselves.
This is a fascinating albeit odd interpretation drawn from the Hebrew Bible. Reading only Genesis 14, one would never imagine that there was an “order of Melchizedek,” nor that the Messiah would be a priest like Melchizedek. But this is not Western, modern exegesis, but a style of reading the Hebrew Bible that would have “worked” in synagogues in the first century. How “literally” should we take this “line of Melchizedek”? Or is the writer using exegetical techniques that modern readers have (rightly) left behind?