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In the commentary on Melchizedek in Hebrews; the writer admitted he was going deep, speaking of things which could only be grasped by very mature believers (Heb. 5:10,11,14). It is therefore not wise to base fundamental doctrine on the teaching of such verses; nor should the Melchizedek passages loom large in the minds of those who are still coming to learn the basic doctrines of Scripture.
“This Melchizedek, King of Salem (Jerusalem), priest of the most high God, who met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings, and blessed him” is spoken of as being “without father, without mother, without descent (genealogy), having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God” (Heb. 7:1,3). From this it is argued by some that Jesus literally existed before his birth, and therefore had no human parents.
Jesus has a Father (God) and a mother (Mary) and a genealogy (see Mt. 1, Lk. 3 and cp. Jn. 7:27). ‘Melchizedek’ therefore cannot refer to him personally. Besides, Melchizedek was “made like unto the Son of God” (Heb. 7:3); he was not Jesus himself, but had certain similarities with him which are being used by the writer for teaching purposes. “After the similitude of Melchizedek there ariseth another priest”, Jesus (Heb. 7:15), who was ordained a priest “after the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 5:5,6).
The language of Hebrews about Melchizedek just cannot be taken literally. If Melchizedek literally had no father or mother, then the only person he could have been was God Himself; He is the only person with no beginning (1 Tim. 6:16; Ps. 90:2). But this is vetoed by Heb. 7:4: “Consider how great this man was”, and also by the fact that he was seen by men (which God cannot be) and offered sacrifices to God. If he is called a man, then he must have had literal parents. His being “without father, without mother, without descent” must therefore refer to the fact that his pedigree and parents are not recorded. Queen Esther’s parents are not recorded, and so her background is described in a similar way. Mordecai “brought up...Esther, his uncle’s daughter: for she had neither father nor mother...whom Mordecai, when her father and mother were dead, took for his own daughter” (Esther 2:7). The author of Hebrews was clearly writing as a Jew to Jews, and as such he uses the Rabbinic way of reasoning and writing at times. There was a Rabbinic principle that "what is not in the text, is not" (1)- and it seems that this is the principle of exposition being used to arrive at the statement that Melchizedek was "without father". Seeing no father is mentioned in the Genesis text, therefore he was "without father"- but this doesn't mean he actually didn't have a father. It's not recorded, and therefore, according to that Rabbinic principle, he effectively didn't have one.
The book of Genesis usually goes to great lengths to introduce the family backgrounds of all the characters which it presents to us. But Melchizedek appears on the scene unannounced, with no record of his parents, and vanishes from the account with equal abruptness. Yet there can be no doubt that he was worthy of very great respect; even great Abraham paid tithes to him, and was blessed by him, clearly showing Melchizedek’s superiority over Abraham (Heb. 7:2,7).
The writer is not just doing mental gymnastics with Scripture. There was a very real problem in the first century which the Melchizedek argument could solve. The Jews were reasoning:
‘You Christians tell us that this Jesus can now be our high priest, offering our prayers and works to God. But a priest has to have a known genealogy, proving he is from the tribe of Levi. And anyway, you yourselves admit Jesus was from the tribe of Judah (Heb. 7:14). Sorry, to us Abraham is our supreme leader and example (Jn. 8:33,39), and we won’t respect this Jesus’.
To which the reply is:
‘But remember Melchizedek. The Genesis record is framed to show that such a great priest did not have any genealogy; and Messiah is to be both a king and a priest, whose priesthood is after the pattern of Melchizedek (Heb. 5:6 cp. Ps. 110:4). Abraham was inferior to Melchizedek, so you should switch your emphasis from Abraham to Jesus, and stop trying to make the question of genealogies so important (see 1 Tim. 1:4). If you meditate on how much Melchizedek is a type of Jesus (i.e. the details of his life pointed forward to him), then you would have a greater understanding of the work of Christ’.
And we can take that lesson to ourselves.
(1) See James Dunn, Christology In The Making (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1980) p. 276 note 59.
Duncan Heaster has written over 20 books, some of which contain material relevant to The Real Christ. And there is a host of other relevant material...