Genesis Folklore of Faith, lesson 16

Genesis 14: Melchizedek. Adult Bible Class Home Moravian Church. Originally aired on January 28, 2006.

Introduction:   Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope that it was a good week for you and that this week will be filled with opportunities to love and learn. We need to be reminded of our calling and the true purpose of life this time of year when tax forms and W-2s arrive in the mail. We sometimes forget that in ancient Israel the required tax was called a tithe. Part of that money went to support the temple and the priesthood, but much of went to care for the poor and suffering. In our lesson for today, we have the first mention of a tithe in the Bible.

Wrap up from previous week:           Last week we discussed Lot, and I may have overstated my fondness for Lot. We will get to see Lot as an adult in Genesis 19, which we’ll look at in detail. It’s not a pleasant story. After we went off the air, members of the class discussed the fact that these stories in Genesis are not simply history, they are part of what theologians term Salvation History. In other words, these are stories were remembered because they were meaningful. We don’t have the entire history of the patriarchs, just the parts that later generations saw as important. It is the meaning of the stories that occupy our attention in the church today. In my interpretation last week, I emphasized Abram’s decision to live in peace with his neighbors. In our lesson for this week, we get a different picture. Abram is anything but peaceful in Genesis 14.

Problems with Genesis 14:    Today we are looking at one of the stranger stories in Scripture. One of the reasons I like this chapter is that it causes biblical scholars today such problems. Some see it as one of the oldest stories in the Bible dating back to the bronze age; others date it to the time of King David; still others put it as late as the 2nd century before Christ. It is a chapter that does not fit into the schema of J and P sources. You may remember from an earlier lesson that it appears that Genesis is made up of two major sources, one named for Yahweh (J) and the other named for the priests (P). Genesis 14 is neither J nor P. It also doesn’t fit with the other Abraham stories. As you read through Genesis, this chapter stands out like a sore thumb. This makes it interesting for scholars and frustrating for average readers.

            Part of the problem with Genesis 14 is that it begins with a chronicle of a war among nine kings of the ancient Near East. I’m not going to read verses 1-11 aloud because they are basically a listing of the various kings and the cities that went to war. I will tell you that over a century of intense historical research has failed to identify any of these kings or even where most of these cities. According to the text we have, several kings rebelled against the overlord, which led to a major battle in the Valley of Siddim where there were once tar pits. We don’t even know where Siddim was, although it might have been near the Dead Sea.

            One of the cities defeated in that battle was Sodom, and that is why it is interesting to the author of Genesis. If Genesis was written in Babylon during the Exile, as many scholars think, then it is likely that the author had found a record of an ancient battle in Mesopotamia that mentioned the defeat of Sodom. He copied this Babylonian report into his book on the patriarchs of Israel much as modern historians quote from other sources. One indication of this is the fact that Abram in this report is called a Hebrew. That word was almost never used by the Israelites to describe themselves. It was what outsiders called them.  

Abram the Warrior:               What made this chronicle of a long-forgotten war among nine kings important enough to be included in Genesis? The answer is that Lot was involved in this conflict. Just as many of you know about places like Iwo Jima and Anzio or the Gulf of Tonkin because you or your relatives were caught up in battles in those far away places, the children of Israel recalled the battle of the nine kings because it involved Lot and Abram. In short, poor Lot got captured in the battle.

            In fact, most of the people of Sodom and all their possessions were captured. The Bible reports this so calmly: “The enemy took all of the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah, and all their provisions, and went their way.” Ancient hearers of this tale knew the horror contained in that brief sentence. They would have no trouble picturing the scene of pillage, rape, and murder of the innocents as the cities were overrun and the survivors taken into slavery. Lot was one of them, and even though the people of Sodom were sinners, they were not left to suffer.

            A survivor came to Abram with the news of the defeat. This would make a great scene in a movie wouldn’t it? One boy who managed to flee the scene of carnage comes to Lot’s uncle with the news, and Abram listens in shock and anger. These few verses are a stark reminder that the ancient world was a dangerous place. Violence was the solution to political disputes, and it was common to take hostages and captives as spoils of war. Thank goodness that we have progressed beyond such methods today. Thank goodness that we would never kidnap someone and take them into a foreign country and abuse them. Thank goodness that in our day and time families do not have to face the prospect of their relatives being held by men of violence.

Abram’s Response:               But this is what Abram faced. He responded by calling upon his friends and allies, including Mamre the Amorite. Remember he dwelled near the terebinths of Mamre. It is good to have friends in difficult times. One of our presidents said that if you cannot kill all of your enemies you need to make as many friends as you can.

            Abram gathered his household, and he took 318 men to fight for Lot. Again, we get a feeling of the Old West in this story from the Old East. No doubt, part of the reason this story was told by the Israelites was to honor their ancestor Abram. He is depicted here like one of the judges of ancient Israel, a Gideon or Joshua. With a small army of dedicated servants, Abram pursued Lot’s captors all the way to Damascus in Syria. Abram was victorious against the more powerful foe, in part because Damascus was a city of the Amorites, his allies. He rescued Lot and the others taken by the enemy. This included the women who were taken as slaves.

            In this story, Abram appears as a tribal chieftan or a sheik rather than a simple nomad. We learned last week that he had become prosperous. With prosperity came responsibility. When trouble came, Abram had to defend his people, but notice that this was not a war of conquest or national pride. Abram had a single goal in mind – to get Lot and his family back from captivity. While he was at it, he liberated all the captives and restored the property stolen by the invading army. Abram is a warrior here, but more importantly he is a liberator and a savior. This is confirmed by his actions after the battle. I’ll be reading verses 17-24.

Read 14:17-24

Restoration:               Abram went to war in order to rescue his nephew. We sometimes forget that it is a divine obligation to take care of your family in appropriate ways. Abram did the right thing in risking his own life for the sake of Lot just we are called to make sacrifices for those whom God has given us to love and protect. Sometimes it is costly to love your family. In this case, Abram was victorious, but he could have died or been captured. That’s not the most important part of the story, though. In fact, the battle is just a prelude.

            It is what Abram does as victor that is important. Ancient hearers would expect that Abram would keep Lot’s possessions in exchange for rescuing the unfortunate boy. He had let Lot make his fortune in chapter 13, but now he had Lot in his power, and could be rewarded. Instead, he simply restored Lot to his former life. He gave Lot his life, his family, his property, and his authority. Once again we see the stature of Abram as a patriarch.

            He also had the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah in his debt and in his power. Abram could have made himself a great and powerful king or least a very wealthy man by keeping what he had just taken from the enemy. The king of Sodom even offers this freely. Keep it; just return the people. But Abram refuses to be rewarded for his victory. He did not go to war to make himself rich and powerful. He remained a liberator not a conqueror. The lesson that Genesis teaches is that if you are going to be a liberator, you have to relinquish claims to the property of the people that you liberate. Abram refused to make himself wealthy. He did what he set out to do. He freed the captives. For this, he was blessed.

El Elyon:                     Now we come to the most intriguing part of this chapter. Abram was blessed by a strange figure named Melchizedek, the king of Salem. He was a Canaanite, and his name probably means ‘king of righteousness,’ but it also associates him with the deity Zedek. Like many ancient kings, Melchizedek was both the political and religious ruler, and he blessed Abram in the name of El Elyon, God Most High.

            This is really intriguing since El Elyon was the name of the chief god of the Canaanite pantheon. He was the creator of heaven and earth in Canaanite mythology. Isn’t it surprising that Abram the Hebrew was blessed by a Canaanite priest in the name of a Canaanite god? This is one of those passages that remind us that the Old Testament is not as exclusive as we think it is. Abram did not look at Melchizedek and say, “Hey, buddy, we worship different gods. You take your bread and wine and leave me alone. You worship a false god and I’m not going to pray or eat with you.” That’s what we do today, don’t we?

            A minister in the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church lost his job because he prayed with Jews, Muslims, and Catholics in a public event after 9/11. I’ve had Moravian ministers tell me that Muslims worship a different god than we do. Orthodox Jews and conservative Muslims won’t pray with each other or with Christians. But here is the patriarch Abraham, the father of faith for all three of our religions, accepting the blessings of a pagan priest named Melchizedek. Extraordinary. It’s so extraordinary that we just ignore it instead of learning from it.

Creator:          Abram accepted the blessing of Melchizedek, and even gave him a tithe of the spoils of war. He acknowledged the authority of this priest of El Elyon and honored him in an appropriate fashion. They both recognized that there is one creator of heaven and earth regardless of the names that we use. There is one God and father of us all. In verse 22, Abram makes it clear that the LORD, or Yahweh, is the same as El Elyon. In fact, many of the names in the Old Testament contain the word “El” for God, such as Bethel. It may interest you to know that El in Arabic is Lah. The word Al-lah simply means the God, just as El means God in the Old Testament. We can be thankful that Father Abraham was gracious enough to eat with the king of Salem, and it gives us a model for dealing with our neighbors today.

Melchizedek:             Melchizedek himself became a subject of much speculation through the years. Many people have wondered why the Bible would have a story about this strange priest-king of Salem. It helps to understand that Salem is Jerusalem, the city of David. Jerusalem was originally a Jebusite city, not an Israelite one. King David took control of it and made it his capital, and then Solomon built a temple on a site considered sacred. We also know that David and Solomon established a priestly order known as the sons of Zadok. It is quite likely that this story of the priest-king of Salem was originally a story to support the priests of Zadok in their claim that their priesthood was actually older and superior to that of Levi or Aaron. They were the descendents of Melchizedek to whom even Abram gave tribute. We don’t know for sure, but we do know that Psalm 110:4 refers to “a priest on the order of Melchizedek.”

            There is more to the story of Melchizedek, however. Centuries later, scribes wondered why Melchizedek suddenly appears in the Bible and is never mentioned again. Perhaps he came from heaven, like an angelic messenger. Perhaps he will come again like Elijah. You’ve probably heard of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, which include the oldest copies of the books of the Old Testament, but you may not have heard that there were many other writings found in Qumran. Some of these were written by a Jewish sect called the Essenes. They saw the history as a struggle between the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. They were looking for a heavenly deliverer who would rescue the faithful from the hands of the wicked. This deliverer would purify the temple and restore true religion. In at least one of the Qumran scrolls, the heavenly deliverer is the priest Melchizedek. There are only fragments of the scroll today, but it appears that Melchizedek was viewed like archangel Michael, but he was a priest. The Essenes took the phrase “priest of God Most High” to mean that Melchizedek was the high priest of heaven itself who would be the protector of the Children of Light.

            This had an impact on Christian theology in the first century. The New Testament book of Hebrews describes Jesus as a priest on the order of Melchizedek, and it says that he is the high priest of heaven. The author of Hebrews seems to have known of this tradition from the Essenes, but he makes it clear that the biblical Melchizedek is a forerunner of Christ, not Christ himself. For the New Testament, this story of the patriarch Abraham receiving bread and wine from the priest of Jerusalem and giving a tithe in return becomes a story anticipating the redemption and blessing of Christ himself. Jesus, the high priest of our profession, blesses us with bread and wine in the name of God Most High. Thus, the New Testament brings together the story of Abraham as the father of faith with the universal call of the gospel. We can be thankful that Abraham was not as exclusive in his faith as we are. He saw that Melchizedek’s El Elyon and his LORD were the same creator.

Conclusion:                 We don’t have to go down the mystical paths of the Essenes or even the book of Hebrews to draw important lessons from Genesis 14. I do hope you’ve seen that even such a difficult passage of Scripture can provide blessings for us. Whether you are pondering the complexities of international politics, wondering how to live in a pluralistic world, or simply tying to make your own way through life’ difficulties, take a moment to contemplate Abram. We can learn from his zeal in protecting those whom he loves, and we can also learn from him what it means to be a liberator. Remember that he did not enrich himself by his actions, but sought the good of others. We can also learn from the fact that he was willing to accept the blessings of Melchizedek. If someone wants to bless you in the name of the creator of heaven and earth, perhaps you should accept that blessing, even if you do not recognize the name by which it is given. We Christians see the Canaanite priest of El Elyon as a revelation of Christ our Lord. That should give us pause when we deal with people of other religions today. What blessings have we lost by being too exclusive in our relationships with others?

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