Many religious people of all faiths accept the Five Books of Moses, the Torah, as a divine document. They see that the Torah has many stories and are convinced that they understand the stories which teach them lessons. The truth is different. While the Torah relates many events, it rarely explains them. Virtually all the biblical tales are obscure. In most instances we do not even know what is happening and why it is happening. In many, we do not know who is involved. For example:
One of the first stories is creation. We are told it occurred in six days and that God rested, ceased from work, on the seventh day. Why did creation occur this way? Doesn’t God have the power to create in a single day? Why are we told this version of how God created the world?
God creates a man and sees that the man is lonely. Why didn’t God know this before man was created? Doesn’t God have a superb intellect?
Cain and Abel are born. Cain works with animals while Abel works with vegetation. Why are we told this?
Cain kills Abel. We are not told why he did so. Nor are we told why this story is important to know.
One of the most significant obscurities is the widely known verse in Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear Israel, y-h-v-h is our God: y-h-v-h is one.” What does “one” mean? We have no certain idea. We can only guess. Many, but not all, think it may mean unique, that God is better than every other thing, better than the gods of other nations, or that God is very powerful, or that God is indivisible. The word or name y-h-v-h is also obscure. Many, but not all think it is not a name like Joseph, but a description of God, that y-h-v-h is based on a Hebrew word meaning “being,” that it is stating that God is eternal, God was, is, and will be.
These are just a few of more than a hundred tales told without any explanation.
The following story makes our point.
The story of Melchizedek
The strange tale of Melchizedek is told in three sentences in Genesis 14:18-20. It is an anecdote about Abraham and Melchizedek. We will see that we have no idea who Melchizedek is, what he and Abraham are doing, and why they are doing whatever they are doing.
The three sentences are in the middle of a report about a war engaged in by the patriarch Abraham. We are told that “five kings,” apparently meaning the armies of five nations, including Sodom and Gomorrah, went to war against four kings (nations), and were defeated. The four took booty, including men and women, among whom was Lot, Abraham’s nephew. When Abraham heard that his nephew was captured, he gathered an army of 318 men and went to rescue him, beat the five kings, and returned home with his nephew and the booty.
Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought bread and wine (to Abraham). He was the priest (Hebrew kohen the name/function given to Moses’ brother Aaron and his descendants) of God Most High (Hebrew: El Elyon).
He blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram (Abraham’s name before God changed it a latter time) of God Most High, maker of heaven and earth.
And blessed be God Most High who delivered your enemies into your hand. And he gave him a tenth of all (the booty).
The story ends with the king of Sodom asking Abraham, despite being defeated in the battle, to give him every captured human, but agreed that Abraham can keep the rest of the booty. Abraham replied that he swore to “the Lord (Hebrew: Y-H-V-H), God Most High, maker of heaven and earth” that he would take no booty for himself from what is acquired as a result of the battle.
Obscurities in this short tale
The most significant obscurities in this three-sentence story reveal that it is impossible to understand what transpired.
- Who was Melchizedek?
- Is Melchizedek a name, or a title like Pharaoh, is it a description such a “king of Zedek,” “righteous king,” or something else?
- Where is Salem?
- Why was he both the king and priest?
- What was Melchizedek’s function as priest (kohen)?
- What was his involvement in the war?
- Was his act of bringing bread and wine an unusual act?
- What is the significance of the gift?
- What is the meaning of El Elyon? Is this simply another name for Y-H-V-H? Note that Melchizedek describe El Elyon as the “maker of heaven and earth,” an act that the Torah states God performed. Note also that Abraham equates Y-H-V-H with El Elyon maker of heaven and earth in his discussion with the king of Sodom.
- What was the content of Melchizedek’s blessing of Abraham; in other words, what did Melchizedek want God to give Abraham?
- It is unclear who gave the gift of a tenth. Did Abraham hand Melchizedek a tenth of the booty despite saying to the king of Sodom that he gave up all rights to the booty? And, if despite this he gave Melchizedek a tenth, why did he give him a gift and why a tenth and not another percentage? Or did Melchizedek give Abraham a gift of a tenth and, if so, a tenth of what and why did he do so?
- Melchizedek called the deity El Elyon three times, once in each of the three verses. When Abraham replied to the king of Sodom when the king requested that he be given the humans that were taken as booty, Abraham said he swore to “the Lord (Hebrew: Y-H-V-H), God Most High, maker of heaven and earth” Why did Abraham add Y-H-V-H? Why didn’t Melchizedek add it? Should we understand that the addition has no significance, that both men were speaking about the same deity? Or, is Abraham correcting Melchizedek and saying that Melchizedek was referring to a pagan deity, but only Y-H-V-H is the God most high?
- The Melchizedek story seems to be misplaced. Just before the three verses, we are told in verse 17, that the king of Sodom went to meet Abraham. After the three verses about Melchizedek, verse 21 continues verse 17 by stating what the king said to Abraham when he met him. Why was the Melchizedek tale placed in the middle of another account? This practice of inserting a story in the middle of another story and interrupting it is not unique. Genesis 38, for example, interrupts the story of Joseph and seems to have no connection to the story it is interrupting. Does the Melchizedek story have any connection to the battle of the four and five kings? If yes, how?
- Melchizedek is also mentioned in Psalm 110:4 where the psalmist is apparently referring to King David or his descendants and says: “The Lord swore and will not relent: ‘You are a priest forever like Melchizedek.’” What does this mean? Does it help clarify the three verses? Is it a prediction regarding the future as claimed by the New Testament?
- Why was this story included in the Torah? Does it teach us anything? Or, does the obscurities make us think? If the latter, think about what?
Every one of these obscurities cannot be answered with any certainty. Any suggested solution is pure speculation.
Some speculations which are obviously not based on facts
While evaluating the following we need to recall that Maimonides taught in his long essay called Chelek that people who think Midrashim are true are fools and those who dismiss them because they aren’t true are also fools, because Midrashim were composed to teach lessons, proper behavior.
- Rashi (1040-1105) relying as usual on a Midrash, here Genesis Rabba), states that Lot was captured because he foolishly settled in Sodom, which teaches people to be careful where they settle.
- Melchizedek according the Rashi and Babylonian Talmud Nedarim 32b was Shem, the son of Noah. This identification gives Melchizedek status because Shem was saved with his father and family from the destruction of the flood and must have been worthy of being saved. Also, Shem is the ancestor of Abraham and the name “Semite” is based on his name. But if Melchizedek was Shem, why didn’t the Bible call him Shem?
- Psalm 76:3. Aramaic Targums (translations of the Hebrew to Aramaic, and the Genesis Apocryphon identify Salem with Jerusalem. Psalms reads “in Salem also is set His tabernacle.” This identification gives Jerusalem some status. Although captured by King David many years later from pagans, it was once a holy site, the home of Melchizedek.
- Both El and Elyon are used as names of specific pagan deities, but while Melchizedek uses them, this does not necessarily indicate he was referring to a pagan deity. If we understand that El Elyon refers to Y-H-V-H, perhaps the tale is telling us that Y-H-V-H is the only true God Most High, despite some pagans referring the title to their idol (Nachmanides).
- God is described as El Elyon in four psalms – 7:18, 47:3, 57:3, and 78:56 – but there is no indication in the psalms that the name refers back to the Melchizedek story. Does the title in Psalms mean something different that in Genesis?
- The bread and wine were brought to symbolize the sacrifices that would be brought there (in the temple in Jerusalem) by the descendants of Shem and Abraham (Rashi and Genesis Rabba). Actually, the main ingredient of the sacrifices was the meat.
- Rashi suggests that Abraham was the one who gave the tenth to Melchizedek because Melchizedek was a priest. He does not address the issues that the law of giving a share of produce was promulgated centuries later, during the time of Moses, and even then, Levites, not priests got a tenth and priest received less than this amount.
- Yehuda Kil quotes a source in his commentary to Sefer Bereishit that blessing here means extoled, not a prayer; Melchizedek was recognizing that Abraham was beloved by God.
One should not imagine that I am criticizing the Torah by insisting that much in it is obscure. The opposite is true. Despite what most people would imagine, Jorge Borges was right when he wrote that all good literature must have ambiguity and obscurity. He added that this results in two authors of good literature: the one who wrote it and the one who reads it and interprets the ambiguities and obscurities.
story of Melchizedek is an example of the many biblical tales that sound
interesting but virtually everything about them is incomprehensible, and all we
can say about these tales are that they were composed to make us think, to add
to the tales our own ideas, and use them improve our understanding of life and
what is required of us.
 Hebrews 5:6-10, 6:20, and 7:1-21. There are other ancient refences to Melchizedek.
 Eight humans were saved in the flood: Noah, his three sons, and their four wives.
 N. Avigad and Y. Yadin, 1956.
 E. A. Speiser, The Anchor Bible, Genesis, 1964.
 Numbers 18:21.
 Mossad Harav kook, 1997.
 Unfortunately, I read Borges’ insight many decades ago and I am unable to find where he wrote it. Be this as it may, the idea is certainly correct.