Who Was Melchizedek?

Melchizedek’s sudden appearance and disappearance in the book of Genesis is somewhat mysterious. Melchizedek and Abraham first met after Abraham’s defeat of Chedorlaomer and his three allies. Melchizedek presented bread and wine to Abraham and his weary men, demonstrating friendship. He bestowed a blessing on Abraham in the name of El Elyon (“God Most High”) and praised God for giving Abraham a victory in battle .

Abraham presented Melchizedek with a tithe (a tenth) of all the items he had gathered. By this act Abraham indicated that he recognized Melchizedek as a fellow-worshiper of the one true God as well as a priest who ranked higher spiritually than himself. Melchizedek’s existence shows that there were people other than Abraham and his family who served the one true God.

And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.) And he blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.
(Genesis 14:18-20 ESV)

In Psalms 110, a Messianic psalm written by David, Melchizedek is seen as a type of Messiah.

The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” The LORD sends forth from Zion your mighty scepter. Rule in the midst of your enemies! Your people will offer themselves freely on the day of your power, in holy garments; from the womb of the morning, the dew of your youth will be yours. The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” The Lord is at your right hand; he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath. He will execute judgment among the nations, filling them with corpses; he will shatter chiefs over the wide earth. He will drink from the brook by the way; therefore he will lift up his head.
(Psalms 110:1-7 ESV)

Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, saying, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, “‘The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet’? If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?”
(Matthew 22:41-45 ESV)

This theme is repeated in the book of Hebrews, where both Melchizedek and Jesus Christ are considered kings of righteousness and peace. By citing Melchizedek and his unique priesthood as a type, the writer shows that Jesus Christ’s new priesthood is superior to the old Levitical order and the priesthood of Aaron.

For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything. He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace. He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever. See how great this man was to whom Abraham the patriarch gave a tenth of the spoils! And those descendants of Levi who receive the priestly office have a commandment in the law to take tithes from the people, that is, from their brothers, though these also are descended from Abraham. But this man who does not have his descent from them received tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior. In the one case tithes are received by mortal men, but in the other case, by one of whom it is testified that he lives. One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him.
(Hebrews 7:1-10 ESV)

I have heard some people speculate that Melchizedek was actually a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus Christ or perhaps even the Holy Spirit. This viewpoint is highly unlikely. So the question remains, who was Melchizedek?

Melchizedek was the king of Jerusalem (Salem) in Abraham’s time. The Targum and the Talmud identify him with Shem the son of Noah. He was also a priest; the Rabbinical sources give no details about his priesthood, but they indicate that he was not as worthy a person as Abraham. The people who passed down religious traditions from Adam to Abraham and his descendants include Shem.

In Judah God is known; his name is great in Israel. His abode has been established in Salem, his dwelling place in Zion. There he broke the flashing arrows, the shield, the sword, and the weapons of war.
(Psalms 76:1-3 ESV)

The Targum and the Talmud point out that Jerusalem was referred to as the City of Righteousness.

Therefore the Lord declares, the LORD of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel: “Ah, I will get relief from my enemies and avenge myself on my foes. I will turn my hand against you and will smelt away your dross as with lye and remove all your alloy. And I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning. Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city.”
(Isaiah 1:24-26 ESV)

Jerusalem’s kings were called “King of Righteousness” (Malki-Tzedek in Genesis 14:18) “Lord of Righteousness” (Adoni-Tzedek in Joshua 10:1).

As soon as Adoni-Zedek, king of Jerusalem, heard how Joshua had captured Ai and had devoted it to destruction, doing to Ai and its king as he had done to Jericho and its king, and how the inhabitants of Gibeon had made peace with Israel and were among them, he feared greatly, because Gibeon was a great city, like one of the royal cities, and because it was greater than Ai, and all its men were warriors. So Adoni-Zedek king of Jerusalem sent to Hoham king of Hebron, to Piram king of Jarmuth, to Japhia king of Lachish, and to Debir king of Eglon, saying, “Come up to me and help me, and let us strike Gibeon. For it has made peace with Joshua and with the people of Israel.”
(Joshua 10:1-4 ESV)

Melchizedek had no recorded predecessor or successor in his priesthood, and his nationality, genealogy and offspring are left undisclosed in Scripture. He was a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ, who has an unending priesthood, unlike the imperfect Levitical priesthood that died and needed successors. The resurrected, sinless Jesus Christ continues alive forever, having His priesthood without any successors, and is able to save completely those who are approaching God through Him, because He is alive to make intercession for them.

Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. For the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests. This becomes even more evident when another priest arises in the likeness of Melchizedek, who has become a priest, not on the basis of a legal requirement concerning bodily descent, but by the power of an indestructible life. For it is witnessed of him, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.” For on the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness (for the law made nothing perfect); but on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God. And it was not without an oath. For those who formerly became priests were made such without an oath, but this one was made a priest with an oath by the one who said to him: “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever.'” This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant. The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.
(Hebrews 7:11-25 ESV)

In the Aramaic Targum of 1 Chronicles 1:24, Shem, son of Noah, is described as High Priest. At least one Targum source, Codex Neofiti, uses the name Shem rather than Melchizedek in the Genesis 14 passage. In early Rabbinical sources, “Rabbi Zechariah said in the name of Rabbi Ishmael: The Holy One, blessed be He, desired to derive the priesthood from Shem, as it is said: And he was priest to El Elyon.” According to the chronology of Genesis 11:10, Shem must have outlived Abraham by 35 years, and did not die until Jacob himself was 50. Jewish writer, Ephrem of Syria (306-373 AD), in his Commentary on Genesis identifies Melchizedek as Shem. However, the thrust of Jewish commentary on the passage is that the priesthood of God held by Noah then Shem was transferred to Abram at the time. The passage in Psalm 110:4 is seen as referring to Abraham by some Rabbinical commentaries, with Abraham being the Adonai-Zedek mentioned in the passage.

As far as the speculation that Melchizedek was a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit, there is absolutely no proof of this. In the Book of Hebrews, it clearly states that Jesus Christ was compared with Malki-Tzedek, not that He was Malki-Tzedek. Would Jesus Christ have come to earth and ruled as an earthly king over a city? Melchizedek is similar to Christ in that they are both priests and kings. Therefore, Melchizedek could be called a “type” of Christ, but they are almost certainly not the same person. The text in the Book of Hebrews that refers to Melchizedek being without father or mother or genealogy likely refers to his office of priesthood.