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Who Was Melchizedek?

Who Was Melchizedek?

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Question:

In this week's Torah portion, after Abraham's victorious return from battle, we read:"Melchizedek the king of Salem brought out bread and wine, and he was a priest to the Most High God. And [Melchizedek] blessed him, and he said, "Blessed be Abram to the Most High God—Who possesses heaven and earth—and blessed be the Most High God, Who has delivered your adversaries into your hand." And [Abram] gave him a tithe from all."1

Who was this Melchizedek? What sort of priest was he, and why did Abraham give him a tithe?

Response:

Taken alone, this tiny anecdote does indeed seem strange. The Torah tells us nothing else about this man and his relationship to Abraham.

The ancient Targumim (Aramaic interpretive translations) identify Melchizedek as Shem—son of Noah. Shem was one of the links in the chain who transmitted the G‑dly traditions that originated with Adam. These traditions were carefully handed down from generation to generation, and Shem—who headed an academy—was a key conductor of these teachings. The Midrash tells us that he was so perfect and so spiritually advanced that he was born circumcised.2

So why did the priesthood pass from him to Abraham's children? The Talmud explains that this happened as a result of his having blessed Abraham before blessing G‑d in the verses above. This is reflected in the only other place in Scripture where Melchizedek is mentioned: in Psalms 110:4, where we read, ". . . you are a priest forever because of the speech of Melchizedek." Because of Melchizedek's ill-chosen speech, the priesthood was taken from him and given to the seed of Abraham forever.3

Footnotes
2.

Bereishit Rabbah 43:6.

3.

Talmud, Nedarim 32b.
At first glance it seems problematic to say that the priesthood was taken from the progeny of Shem and given to the seed of Abraham, as Abraham himself was a grandson of Shem.
Tosafot offers two possible explanations: a. The priesthood was taken from the entire clan of Shem and became the exclusive privilege of Abraham’s seed. b. Natural progression would have conferred Shem’s status on his firstborn descendants—not Abraham. Thus, it was only because of this encounter that the priesthood was given to Abraham specifically.
RaN explains that the intent of the Talmud here is that the priesthood of Abraham’s seed was now only by merit of the righteous Abraham and not due to their relation to Shem—which is why they are the only descendants of Shem deemed worthy of honor.

Rabbi Menachem Posner serves as staff editor for Chabad.org.
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Michelle Cape Town, South Africa March 14, 2017

The Holy Bible speaks of Shem but does not refer to Melchizedek as him. Is there references in the Torah that Melchizedek was Shem?

Thanks Reply

Barbara Milton fl February 21, 2017

Why isn't it brought more who Abraham came from.? I always thought Abraham family didn't believe in one God. Thank you all for the input. Reply

Lesego South Africa September 28, 2016

Melchizedek Is there a proof text that supports the statement that says Melchizedek was Shem? Reply

Sam Kuperman April 15, 2015

The priesthood was not taken from Shem's heirs. . . Because Abraham himself was a descendent of Shem! Just as the priesthood eventually went to Aaron and his sons, and eventually the sons of Tzadok (of Aaron's line) the promise was not that ALL of Shem's children had the right to be priests any more than that all of Abraham's sons inherited the covenant (Ishmael did not, Isaac did). So the conclusion that Shem "lost" the priesthood seems to be an erroneous conclusion. Reply

Shai Canada December 25, 2013

comment on speech "ill-chosen" and priesthood "taken" At the time of his blessing over Abraham, Shem was really starting to get on in years, having crossed the century mark about the time of the flood. Given a sign (Abraham's victory against overwhelming odds: the combined armies of four kings) and perhaps knowing full well that Abraham was of his blood, it would only have been natural for Shem to consider passing along the torch. Being one so keenly attuned to Hashem's will (as Shem was) the proper course of action should have been obvious. So, I can't agree that his words were necessarily "ill-chosen" (i.e. out of sequence) or that the priesthood was "taken" from him. As far as I can tell, Shem, King of Righteousness, confirmed, before One and all, the faith of Abraham.

But who am I to argue...?

\ :^) Reply

Anonymous May 29, 2017
in response to Shai:

Perhaps, he should have considered "passing the torch" to someone that would actually outlive himself.

Abraham died before Shem did. Reply

Shai Canada May 29, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

True, but he didn't outlive Jacob ;) Reply

Dudu Fisher November 19, 2010

To Jay and Bnei It seems that both of you did not read footnote 4 where the author cites the explanations of this very point as given by the ancient rabbis who also noticed this issue. Reply

Yehoiakin (Jay) Carlsbad, New Mexico November 18, 2010

Melchizedek Yes, he was Shem. But Avraham was adecendent of Shem, and so the priesthood never changes hands out of the family, because it passed from Shem to his chosen heir, out of all his many decendents. Andfrom Avraham it gooes to his son, then to Ya'ocov. Then to Levi and out of all the children of Levi, to Aharon.
Melichizedek's family doesn't lose the statis of Cohenim, because Avraham Aveinu is a son of Shem. A Semite. This is where the term comes from. From Righteous SHem. Reply

Bnei Noach in Panama panama, panama October 20, 2010

Shem ben Noach is Abraham's Great Grandfather The priesthood did pass down through the line of Shem since Abraham is Shem's Great Grandson. Am I correct? Reply

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