The main argument of this passage (7:1-10) is that Jesus is a high priest after the order of Melchizedek. But what does that even mean? Who was that Melchizedek? And what is the author of Hebrews doing with that historical figure? These are the questions we are trying to answer as we look more closely at the passage at hand.
This Melchizedek is mentioned only twice in the OT: in Gen 14 and in Ps 110. The author is going to show that Jesus is better in his priesthood because he is after the order of Melchizedek and not after the Aaronic (or Levitical). Even Abraham (the great father of faith) when he came back from the battle, rescuing his nephew Lot, paid tithes to this “priest of the God Most high” and was blessed by him. This implies that Melchizedek was greater than Abraham and even Levi and that this kind of priesthood is therefore better than the one of Aaron/Levi.
This superiority becomes clear through the appointing of the Messiah after the order of Melchizedek and not Levi (7:11). For if through the Levitical priesthood perfection would have been possible than why the need for another one? Jesus’ priesthood is superior because it was confirmed by an oath (7:20-23), Jesus is immortal (7:24), sinless (7:26), the sacrifice of the Messiah only had to be done once for all (7:27), and it is instituted under a better covenant – the new covenant (ch.8).
The story the author of Hebrews is retelling is that of Gen. 14 (the only other place besides Psalm 110 where Melchizedek is mentioned in the OT). Abraham comes back from his battle against the four kings and rescued his nephew Lot and others with him. Then Melchizedek, “king of Salem” and “priest of God Most High,” arrives and blesses Abraham.
Bruce observes that even though the Genesis account does not mention a whole lot about this figure, the author of Hebrews finds significance in both what is said and what is left unsaid (157). The author takes the name of the author to be important as well (verse 2). First, his name (or part of it; i.e., zedek) is associated with the Hebrew ṣeḏek which means “righteousness” and secondly the place of his sacerdotal ministry is Salem which stands in close association with “peace” (Hebr. šālôm). These characteristics of this figure are of importance because they also prefigure the Messiah to come – our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (Ps. 72:7; Isa. 9:6f; Zech. 9:9f).
That Melchizedek is “without father or mother or genealogy” and that he has neither “beginning of days nor end of life” (verse 3) has to be seen in the immediate context in order to draw an accurate conclusion. The context in which this verse is written talks about the comparison of the Levitical priesthood and that after the order of Melchizedek. So the silence of the Genesis account of maternal or paternal heritage is significant for the author “because of the contrast it posed with the Levitical priesthood, where recorded line of descent was required for accession to the priestly office (Exod 28:1; Lev 21:13-15; Num 3:10; 18:1; Ezra 2 :61-63; Neh 7:63-65)” (Lane, 165).
The word agenealogētos (“without recorded descent [i.e., genealogy]”) gives further indication to the metaphorical use of the figure of Melchizedek. It is not that he did not have any descents or ancestors, but that those are not recorded in the Genesis account. Such is significant enough to the author to elaborate on. Philo interprets the word amētōr (“without mother”) used of Sarah, for the same reason; i.e., for the reason that her mother is not mentioned in the Genesis account (Lane, 166).
Melchizedek’s priesthood was thus not established on any external grounds. In Gen. 14 God already implies that there is going to be a displacement of the Levitical priesthood, by one who continues to be priest forever (Lane, 167). “Melchizedek is like the Son of God in the sense that he foreshadows his unique and never-ending priesthood” (Peterson, in loc.). What Melchizedek is in the text, Christ is in reality!
Now the author further identifies the greatness of this Melchizedek (verses 4-7). Even the great patriarch, the father of our faith, Abraham paid a tenth of akothiniōn (i.e., the best choices of the spoils) to this priest. The Levitical priests by contrast get the tithe because it is demanded by the law (cf. Num. 18:26-28) from their fellow people. But Melchizedek who is not a descent of Levi received the tithe from Abraham (and as it were from Levi himself; v. 9) and blessed him. The superior – Melchizedek – blesses the inferior – Abraham, ancestor of Levi. Thus the superiority of Melchizedek over the Levitical priesthood is established.
Again the other looks at the biblical account of Genesis and can state that “it is testified” that Melchizedek lives (verse 8). There is no mention of his death and thus the literary style corresponds to the true reality of Christ (cf. v.16; Rom. 6:9; Rev. 1:8,; Bruce, 163; Peterson, in loc.; Moffatt, 94).
As mentioned above, one might even argue that Levi himself through his association with Abraham (i.e., through corporate identity) paid a tithe to the superior Melchizedek (verses 9-10).
What is the significance of the high priesthood after the order of Melchizedek? Why is the author even bothering in elaborating on a figure which is only mentioned a couple of verses in the OT? These questions will be answered by the author of Hebrews himself (see the upcoming post on such).
Bruce, F. F. The Epistle to the Hebrews. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990.
Lane, William L. Hebrews. 1-8. Word Biblical Commentary, v. 47A. Dallas, Tex: Word Books, 1991.
Moffat, James. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Edinburgh: Clark, 1948.
Peterson, David. “Hebrews.” New Bible Commentary : 21st Century Edition, 4th ed. Ed. D.A. Carson, et al. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, USA: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.