Priestly Profiles: Melchizedek – The King-Priest

Without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life” (Heb 7:3).[1] So the writer to the Hebrews summarises the biography of one of the most enigmatic characters found in the pages of Scripture. For some, at least, of the Jewish rabbis, he was to be identified with Shem, the son of Noah.[2] For the Essenes of Qumran, he was an angelic being, probably the angel Michael.[3] For the poet who penned Psalm 110, the preacher who wrote the epistle to the Hebrews, and for you and me, his importance lies not so much in who he was, but in whom he points to. In a very remarkable way, God has superintended not just the historical actions of this man but the scriptural record of those actions, so that he might serve as a picture and a prototype for the priestly ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ. As such, he plays a vital part in the argument of the epistle to the Hebrews, and when we come, in the will of the Lord, to consider the high priestly ministry of Christ, we will need to examine that argument in some detail.

At this point in our survey, however, our focus is on Melchizedek as an historical figure. In that connection, we should note that, as numerous commentators have pointed out, the writer to the Hebrews is speaking about the presentation of Melchizedek in Scripture. There is no need to postulate a figure who was literally eternal or devoid of parents, or to see Melchizedek as a Christophany.[4] Indeed, in light of the writer’s statement that Melchizedek was “without father” and the epistle’s emphasis on Christ as the Son, this view creates significantly more problems than it solves. As to the record of Scripture, Melchizedek is without genealogy, something that is especially striking in a book filled with genealogies and in connection with an office where genealogy was crucial.[5]

Melchizedek’s significance for our understanding of biblical priesthood is obvious: he is the first person in the Bible to be called a priest. That being so, he has a clear claim upon our attention. Even apart from the gloss provided by the writer to the Hebrews, however, it is that there are important differences between Melchizedek’s priesthood and Aaron’s.

The distinctiveness of Melchizedek’s priesthood is underlined by the unique title that he is given. No one else in Scripture is called “priest of the most high God” (Gen 14:18). By contrast, the Levitical priests are referred to – only occasionally – as “the priests of the Lord” (e.g., 1Sa 1:3, 22:17; 2Ch 13:9). The significance of this title is expanded by Melchizedek’s own words as he blesses Abram in the name of “the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth” (Gen 14:19). Melchizedek’s priesthood stands outside of Israel’s covenant relationship with Jehovah – it is not only superior in its status, it is wider in its scope.

Melchizedek’s priesthood is also distinctive because it is a royal priesthood. Melchizedek was both “king of Salem” and “priest of the most high God.” This marks a significant difference between his priesthood and that of Aaron and his descendants. Israel has three mediatorial offices – the prophet to reveal God, the king to rule for God, and the priest to represent men before God. Kings could be prophets (as David was – Act 2:30). Priests could be prophets (as Samuel was – 2Ch 35:18). But, as Uzziah learned at terrible cost (2Ch 26:19), kings could not be priests – they could not so much as offer incense in the temple. Though the distinction between priest and ruler became somewhat muddied later in Israel’s history, kings, by divine design, were not priests and priests were not kings. This is all the more noteworthy in light of the fact that sacral kingship, involving the fusion, to some degree, of the roles of kings and priests, was quite common in Israel’s neighbouring nations.[6] Israel’s demarcation between the two functions was, if not unique, then certainly idiosyncratic, and it is striking, therefore, that Melchizedek is both a king and a priest. This is an important point for both the writers of Psalm 110 and the epistle to the Hebrews.

Melchizedek’s priesthood was distinctive in its character. We recall from Hebrews 5 that the Aaronic priest was “taken from among men … that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins: Who can have compassion on the ignorant, and on them that are out of the way” (Heb 5:1,2). The Aaronic priesthood was primarily and predominantly a sacrificing priesthood. By contrast, there is no explicit reference to Melchizedek’s offering any sacrifices. Sacrifice there must have been, for he had “already secured … righteousness and peace,”[7] but the emphasis in Genesis 14 is on a ministry of succour: “He had then dispensed such provisions as a needy sinner wanted; he was now dispensing what a weary conqueror after the toil of battle wanted. It had been already ‘righteousness and peace,’ and now it was ‘bread and wine,’ and ‘blessing from the possessor of heaven and earth.’”[8] The character of Melchizedek’s ministry is highlighted by the contrast between him and the King of Sodom. The latter came only with demands; Melchizedek brought blessing, and demanded nothing in return.[9]

It has often been remarked, but it is no less precious for it, that Melchizedek’s sudden appearance arrived just in time to fortify Abram for his encounter with the king of Sodom. This is supported by the narrative: as he dismisses the king of Sodom’s proposal, Abram identifies himself as someone who had lifted up his hand “unto the LORD, the most high God, the possessor of heaven and earth” (Gen 14:22). The echo of the title used by Melchizedek in his blessing emphasises the importance of Abram’s encounter with Melchizedek in reminding him of his identification with God who is “the possessor of heaven and earth.” Several translations render the title as “Creator of heaven and earth,” and there is a good argument in support of that reading. We might wonder, however, whether what strengthened Abram’s resolve not to be enriched by the King of Sodom was the reminder that he was already linked not just to the One who created all things but who owns all things. The Possessor of heaven and earth could meet all his servants’ needs and was able to enrich him beyond anything that the king of Sodom could offer – or imagine.

But while Melchizedek’s priesthood is different in many ways from that of the Levitical priesthood that followed, it is still a mediatorial office. It is especially in his pronouncement of a blessing that we see Melchizedek functioning as a priest. Blessing the people was a key element of the priestly responsibilities of Aaron’s sons, as outlined in Numbers 6:23, and like them, Melchizedek is doing something more than expressing polite good wishes – he is mediating the blessing of God to Abram.

From our perspective, it is almost impossible to think about Melchizedek without thinking of Christ, and difficult to read Genesis 14 other than through the lens of Hebrews 7. And indeed, it is only when we consider both passages together, along with Psalm 110, that the symphony of revelation achieves its full effect. Even as an isolated movement, however, the enigmatic episode of Genesis 14 adds considerably to our understanding of what priesthood is.

[1] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the KJV.

[2] Jakob J. Petuchowski, ‘The Controversial Figure of Melchizedek,’ Hebrew Union College Annual 28 (1957): 127-36. This identification seems to have appealed to some Jewish writers for it tends to counter the argument that the writer to the Hebrews makes about Melchizedek’s superiority. If he was Abram’s ancestor, the blessing and tithing are more matters of familial courtesy than the recognition of superiority.

[3] Gareth Lee Cockerill, ‘Melchizedek or “King of Righteousness,”’ Evangelical Quarterly, 63:4 (1991), 305–312. Fred L. Horton, The Melchizedek Tradition, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976) provides a useful comprehensive survey of discussions of Melchizedek up to the fifth century A.D., though his reliance on the documentary hypothesis in relation to the writing of Genesis and his general view of Scripture mean that he must be used with considerable caution.

[4] See, for a useful survey and discussion, Gareth Lee Cockerill, The Epistle to the Hebrews, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 302–306. As Cockerill points out, the writer’s approach has parallels in other Jewish writing.

[5] A point that is emphasized by Ezra 2:61–63.

[6] See Richard Anthony Purcell, ‘The King as Priest?: Royal Imagery in Psalm 110 and Ancient Near Eastern Iconography,’ JBL, 139, no. 2 (2020): 275–300, and M.J. Paul, ‘The Order of Melchizedek,’ WTJ 49 (1987) 195-211, esp. 196. Not everyone agrees that there was such a clear demarcation between king and priest; M.J. Paul provides a brief but useful discussion of some of the arguments.

[7] ‘Melchizedek,’ Bible Treasury, 2nd Ed., Vol. 1, Nov. 1857 (

[8] Ibid. (original emphasis).

[9] This contrast is underscored by a play on words in Gen 14:17-18. See Bruce K. Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 232-233.