Melchizedek the Priest-King blessing Abram

The title of this post is actually somewhat deceptive as it implies that the post is going to be about Melchizedek, who can be considered a king, a priest, and also a god, and about the “Forbidden Degrees” (sounds tantalizing, eh?), which the title seems to suggest have some connection to Melchizedek. Well, as far as I know, there is no direct connection, so sorry if that was misleading.

But this post is about two exciting, if apparently unrelated, subjects that I’ve read about recently.

Melchizedek: King, Priest, and God

First, I would like to post a few very interesting remarks on the person of Melchizedek that I was recently re-reading in an article by my PhD supervisor, James Davila, entitled “Melchizedek: King, Priest, and God” (in The Seductiveness of Jewish Myth: Challenge or Response, ed. S. Daniel Breslauer (Albany: State University of New York) 217-34). This article contains some of the most current, thorough, and exciting research on Melchizedek I’ve seen. It covers the Melchizedek traditions from the Old Testament (Gen. 14; Ps. 110), the New Testament (Hebrews), the Dead Sea Scrolls (11QMelchizedek; Songs of Sabbath Sacrifice), Gnostic texts (2nd Book of Jeu, Pistis Sophia, a Coptic Gnostic tractate), and comparisons with the Ugaritic (Canaanite) traditions.

I highlight here some of the most significant ideas.

Davila addresses the first mention of Melchizedek, in Gen. 14:18-21.  Here, Melchizedek is presented as the king of Salem (which Davila later identifies as Jerusalem) and priest of God Most High (El Elyon). He notes that scholars have difficulty dating this passage and identifying its source.  John Van Seters wants to date it to the post-exilic period, imagining that Melchizedek describes the priestly leadership of the Second Temple period. Davila, on the other hand, rejects this view, explaining:

I see no reason for the post-exilic priesthood to hold up a non-Israelite priest-king as an example unless he had already been firmly established in the traditions of the First Temple period. I read Genesis 14 as an epic tale of the heroic exploits of the Abram that, in its present form, serves to show the ancient roots of the priesthood held by the line of Davidic kings. ((Davila, 218))

Psalm 110, Davila suggests, “unambiguously associates the priesthood of Melchizedek with the king in Zion.”1 This psalm, one of the “royal psalms”, is the only other mention of Melchizedek in the Hebrew Bible.  Most scholars agree that it had its life setting “in the pre-exilic Judean royal cult located in Solomon’s temple during the period of the Judean monarchy.” It is often associated with an annual New Year enthronement festival. The key verse (v. 4) in this psalm reads: The LORD hath sworn, and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek. This promise of Melchizedek priesthood is given to the Davidic king.  Davila notes:

[T]here are other indications that the Davidic line of kings also carried out priestly functions. In 2 Samuel 6 we are told that  David himself wore a priestly ephod and danced before the ark of the covenant when it was brought into Jerusalem. The list of David’s court officials in 2 Sam. 8:15-18 also informs us that “David’s sons were priests” (v. 18). Thus, Psalm 110 associates a priesthood of Melchizedek with the Davidic royal cult in the Jerusalem temple.2

So, in summary, the Hebrew Bible presents Melchizedek as (apparently) a mortal man who is both the king of Jerusalem and a priest of God Most High. He was seen as the model for the Israelite kingship ideology, and the Davidic kings were likewise seen as both king of Jerusalem and priest of God Most High. Besides the passages in Genesis and Psalm 110, Melchizedek is not mentioned again in the Hebrew Bible — which we may think odd considering his apparent stature and influence in pre-exilic times.  Of course the great histories of the Bible were written just before and after the exile, and these scribes had varying (mostly negative) opinions concerning the monarchy, as well as significantly different religious ideas from that of the royal cult of pre-exilic times. It is only in the New Testament book of Hebrews that we hear tell of Melchizedek again. We read in Hebrews 7:1-3:

For this Melchisedec, king of Salem, priest of the most high God, who met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings, and blessed him;  2 To whom also Abraham gave a tenth part of all; first being by interpretation King of righteousness, and after that also King of Salem, which is, King of peace;  3 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.

Davila comments:

It is then argued that Melchizedek was greater than both Abraham and the Levitical Priesthood, and that Jesus is a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek as described in Psalm 110. For the writer of Hebrews, Melchizedek is a preexistent and immortal priestly divine being “like the Son of God.”3

He next turns his analysis to the Qumran text 11QMelchizedek, which although fragmentary, gives some incredible insights regarding the community’s view of this figure, which differs greatly from the simple treatment in the OT and gives possible insights into the thinking of the writer of Hebrews. Davila explains that this text speaks eschatologically and “seems to give a chronology leading up to the eschaton and then describes the final judgment as administered by a divine being named Melchizedek.” Melchizedek is supposed to come at the end of the “tenth jubilee”, on the Day of Atonement, to judge the nations, save the good and destroy the wicked. Furthermore, Davila notes:

…[I]n line 10 of this text Melchizedek is called a “god” (elohim)…So in this document from Qumran Melchizedek is pictured as an angelic or divine being (an elohim) who may have priestly associations and who is an eschatological judge.4

Davila goes on to highlight some of the other beliefs expressed in further texts from Qumran and from Gnostic sources.  In most of them, Melchizedek is described as an angelic high priest or god and even identified as Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit. What are we to make of all this? Davila is right on with his analysis of it all. He says, summarizing the trajectory of these traditions:

He begins as a king and priest of pre-Davidic Jerusalem and then, some centuries later, is described also a a divine heavenly being, a god (elohim or theos) who defeats and destroys the forces of evil at the last judgment and delivers souls from the underworld. I submit that the problem of the development of this tradition has never been squarely face by scholars. How do we get from Melchizedek the priest-king to Melchizedek the god? My proposal is this: his divinity was not invented in the Second Temple period; rather it was suppressed in the Hebrew bible. In other words, the apparent change from man to god is a matter of suppression of older traditions that were excluded from the biblical canon, not of innovation in the Second Temple literature.5

This conclusion is remarkably significant. According to Davila, we are to assume that in the royal religion of the First Temple, Melchizedek would have been seen as a priest-king who was deified.  I think it stands to reason that we could say, then, that the subsequent kings of Jerusalem of the Davidic line could have been viewed in like manner. This helps us understand why in Psalm 45:6 the king is specifically addressed as a god.

Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: the sceptre of thy kingdom is a right sceptre.

While the idea that the king is somehow divine is common in Egyptian and other Ancient Near Eastern religions, the idea has not been readily accepted for the Israelite/Judean kings, and that has to do greatly with the fact that there is not much evidence for the idea in the Old Testament as we now have it. However, as Davila states it, it is very likely that these ideas did exist, once upon a time, but were suppressed by later writers and editors that no longer followed that belief system.

The Seal of Melchizedek

The Forbidden Degrees

The following is taken from Dr. Andrei Orlov’s blog (see the specific post here; don’t worry that some of it is in Russian, most is English). For those who haven’t followed this blog long, Andre Orlov was my adviser for my MA program in Theology at Marquette University.  Orlov (who has also written much on Melchizedek), is an expert in the mystical traditions of early Judaism.

I have reproduced some passages that he posted on his blog from the Hagigah (or Chagigah), a Jewish treatise found in the Babylonian Talmud.  I am no expert on these writings, so I really couldn’t share much background info on them with you. It seems that the word hagigah signifies “festivity” and refers to a “festal-offering” that was given at one or more of the three principal pilgrimage festivals of ancient Judaism. The writings apparently give rules for ritual cleanliness and guidelines for the offerings, but offer rules for many other subjects as well. Again, I’m no expert on this, but from what I’ve seen and what I quote below, there is some very interesting material, if you can get past all the technical language and debating over ritual requirements.

A word of warning: the following is not easy to get through and even less easy to understand.  If you can get anything out of it, consider yourself a true sage and enlightened soul!

One more introductory thought: the rabbis (R. Johanan, etc.) cited here were under the belief that certain mystical doctrines were too sacred to speak of (only under certain circumstances with worthy and prepared individuals). These include, as you can read below, the “forbidden degrees”, the “Story of Creation”, and the writings of Ezekiel concerning “the Chariot” (God’s throne). There were certain consquences (good and harmful) when these topics were spoken of, so the greatest of care was needed in addressing them, and they were never expounded on in public. I am not quite sure what the “forbidden degrees” refers to (I can speculate, but may be wrong). I have seen other lists of these forbidden topics, and from what I can remember, I believe the topic of sacred marriage (perhaps as discussed in Song of Solomon?) is sometimes cited. If anyone has any further insights on this, please let me know!

UPDATE: In an email, Dr. Orlov directed me to Rachel Elior’s opinion on what the “forbidden degrees” were as explained in her book, The Three Temples. She indicates that they may have had reference to “the sexual union of the Cherubim” in the Holy of Holies of the temple (I wasn’t far off!).  Now, if the rabbis wouldn’t talk about it, I probably shouldn’t either. I will say that there are some Jewish traditions that say that the cherubim that were in the Holy of Holies were (at least at times) understood to be entwined in a conjugal embrace which likely has something to do with the reason that holiest place was sometimes called “the bridal chamber.” To read more about this, have a look at Raphael Patai’s The Hebrew Goddess, and also Eugene Seaich’s A Great Mystery: The Secret of the Jerusalem Temple, The Embracing Cherubim and At-One-Ment with the Divine.

Here is the text, thanks to Dr. Orlov’s blog:

m. Hagigah 2:1 The forbidden degrees may not be expounded before three persons, nor like Story of Creation before two, nor [the chapter of] the Chariot before one alone, unless he is a Sage that understands of his own knowledge.

Whoever gives his mind to four things it were better for him if he had not come into the world -- what is above ? what is beneath ? what was beforetime? and what will be hereafter? And whosoever takes no thought for the honour of his Maker, it were better for him if he had not come into the world.

b. Hagigah 13 R. Johanan said to R. Eleazar: Come, I will instruct you in the 'Work of the Chariot'. He replied: I am not old enough. When he was old enough, R. Johanan died. R. Assi [then] said to him: Come, I will instruct you in the “Work of the Chariot'. He replied: Had I been worthy, I should have been instructed by R. Johanan, your master.

The Rabbis taught: There was once a child who was reading at his teacher’s house the Book of Ezekiel, and he apprehended what Hashmal was, whereupon a fire went forth from Hashmal and consumed him. So they sought to suppress the Book of Ezekiel, but Hananiah b. Hezekiah said to them: If he was a Sage, all are Sages! What does [the word] Hashmal mean?-Rab Judah said: Living creatures speaking fire. In a Baraitha it is taught: [Hashmal means], At times they are silent, at times they speak. When the utterance goes forth from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He, they are silent, and when the utterance goes not forth from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He, they speak. b. Hag 14b Our Rabbis taught: Once R. Johanan b. Zakkai was riding on an ass when going on a journey, and R. Eleazar b. 'Arak was driving the ass from behind. [R. Eleazar] said to him: Master, teach me a chapter of the 'Work of the Chariot'.2 He answered: Have I not taught you3 thus: 'Nor [the work of] the chariot in the presence of one, unless he is a Sage and understands of his own knowledge'? [R. Eleazar] them said to him: Master, permit me to say before thee something which thou hast taught me.4 He answered, Say on! Forthwith R. Johanan b. Zakkai dismounted from the ass, and wrapped himself up,5 and sat upon a stone beneath an olive tree. Said [R. Eleazar] to him: Master, wherefore didst thou dismount from the ass? He answered: Is it proper that whilst thou art expounding the 'Work of the Chariot', and the Divine Presence is with us, and the ministering angels accompany us, I should ride on the ass! Forthwith, R. Eleazar b. 'Arak began his exposition of the 'work of the Chariot', and fire6 came down from heaven and encompassed all the trees in the field; [thereupon] they all began to utter [divine] song. What was the song they uttered? -- Praise the Lord from the earth, ye sea-monsters, and all deeps . . . fruitful trees and all cedars . . . Hallelujah.8 An angel9 [then] answered10 from the fire and said: This is the very 'Work of the Chariot'. [Thereupon] R. Johanan b. Zakkai rose and kissed him on his head and said: Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, Who hath given a son to Abraham our father, who knoweth to speculate upon, and to investigate, and to expound the 'Work of the Chariot' -- There are some who preach well but do not act well, others act well but do not preach well, but thou dost preach well and act well. Happy art thou, O Abraham our father, that R. Eleazar b. 'Arak hath come forth from thy loins.

Now when these things were told R. Joshua, he and R. Jose the priest were going on a journey. They said: Let us also expound the 'Work of the Chariot'; so R. Joshua began an exposition. Now that day was the summer solstice; [nevertheless] the heavens became overcast with clouds and a kind of rainbow appeared in the cloud, and the ministering angels assembled and came to listen like people who assemble and come to watch the entertainments of a bridegroom and bride. [Thereupon] R. Jose the priest went and related what happened before R. Johanan b. Zakkai; and [the latter] said: Happy are ye, and happy is she that bore you; happy are my eyes that have seen thus. Moreover, in my dream, I and ye were reclining on Mount Sinai, when a Bath Kol was sent to us, [saying]: Ascend hither, ascend hither! [Here are] great banqueting chambers, and fine dining couches prepared for you; you and your disciples and your disciples' disciples are designated for the third class. But is this so? For behold it is taught: R. Jose b. R. Judah said: There were three discourses: R. Joshua discoursed before R. Johanan b. Zakkai, R. Akiba discoursed before R. Joshua, Hanania b. Hakinai discoursed before R. Akiba; -- whereas R. Eleazar b. 'Arak he does not count! -- One who discoursed [himself], and others discoursed before him, he counts; one who discoursed [himself], but others did not discourse before him, he does not count. But behold there is Hanania b. Hakinai before whom others did not discourse, yet he counts him! -- He at least discoursed before one who discoursed [before others].

  1. Davila, 219
  2. Davila, 219
  3. Davila, 221
  4. Davila, 222
  5. Davila, 224

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