Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Melchizedek: Priest of what exactly?

Parshat Lech Lecha

In this parshah we hear about the war between the 4 kings and the 5 kings.  Originally, I was going to talk about the nations represented and the historicity problems of them, but that would turn out to be too similar to last week.  So instead, I'll focus on the following bizarre passage that occurs after the war concludes (Gen 14:17-24):
17 And the king of Sodom went out to meet him, after his return from the slaughter of Chedorlaomer and the kings that were with him, at the vale of Shaveh--the same is the King's Vale. 18 And Melchizedek king of Salem (shalem) brought forth bread and wine; and he was priest of God the Most High. (el elyon) 19 And he blessed him, and said: 'Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Maker of heaven and earth; (el elyon, koneh shamayim va'aretz) 20 and blessed be God the Most High, (el elyon) who hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand.' And he (who?) gave him (whom?) a tenth of all (of what?). 21 And the king of Sodom said unto Abram: 'Give me the persons, and take the goods to thyself.' 22 And Abram said to the king of Sodom: 'I have lifted up my hand unto the LORD, God Most High, Maker of heaven and earth,  (yhwh, el elyon, koneh shamayin va'aretz) 23 that I will not take a thread nor a shoe-latchet nor aught that is thine, lest thou shouldest say: I have made Abram rich; 24 save only that which the young men have eaten, and the portion of the men which went with me, Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre, let them take their portion.'
This small section has some very interesting facets, which we will explore today.

An insertion into the text?
One speculation which deserves mention is that verse 18 is an insertion into the story. Currently the story reads that the King of Sodom met Avram, and immediately after, Melchizedek, a name that finds its first mention here, arrives with food and wine, blesses him and, one of the people gives a tenth of something to the other. Then just as quickly, Melchizedek seems to disappear and we pick back up with a conversation between the king of Sodom and Avram. In fact, the disappearance is so complete, that there's only one other possible mention of Melchizedek (Psalms 110:4) in all of Tanach.

If you remove verse 18, everything looks fine, except now it would be the King of Sodom who blesses Avram. It's possible that one of the authors was not comfortable with a somewhat righteous King of Sodom, and therefore altered it so that Melchizedek is the one who's invoking divine blessing. Another option is that the entire blessing section of verses 18-20 are all inserted into the text. However, this isn't really what I most want to focus on, it's just an interesting idea that's worth thinking about when approaching passages like this, and provides an alternative to the various traditional explanations to the purpose of the elusive Melchizedek.

El Elyon Koneh Shamayim Va-Aretz
I have a bit of quibble with the translation above, and this presents one of the problems with reading only translations into English or another language. The Hebrew phrase, I want to focus on is what Melchizedek says, and Avram later echoes. It is:
Baruch avram l'el elyon, koneh shamayim va-aretz. (Blessed is Avram to El Elyon koneh heavens and earth)
later Avram says:
Harimoti yadi l'YHWH el elyon, koneh shamayim va-aretz. (I raise my hand to God, El Elyon, koneh heavens and earth.)
The word koneh translated often as "maker" or "creator" is not the usual word for this type of divine action in the Tanach. You might expect something like boreh (create) or oseh (make). Koneh usually means something like purchase or obtain, or in contexts like this, establish.  Regardless, it's somewhat nonstandard, and it makes it seem like we're dealing with a title.

The many names of God
It is no secret that the Torah has many different names and titles for God. Traditionally, Jewish commentaries have attempted to assign specific attributes to various divine names.  For example, I remember being taught in grade school that the name YHWH represented mercy, and Elohim represented justice.   However, modern scholars have looked at it differently, and think that different names of God represent actual different deities, or different cultures names for the same deity.  And later, all these aspects became merged into one deity.  The modern scholars view arose from discoveries in Ugarit and elsewhere of ancient Canaanite theology, in which the head deity was named El.  El wasn't just a word for a god, as it's used in the Tanach, it was a word for the god.  So, when confronted with a strange name for God, as we are here, it's worth taking a look through some other cultures and seeing if we see any similar names.

For this specific name, we need to look at Hittite mythology.  The Hittites were a large empire based in modern day Turkey that vied with Egypt for control over Syria during the Late Bronze Age (roughly 1600-1300 BCE).  They never quite made it as far south as Canaan proper, and eventually were destroyed by the Sea Peoples (13th century BCE) [1]. Some Hittite fragments have survived throughout the ages and from them we can construct their pantheon. Among the gods is the creator god, Elkunirsa, which in Hebrew might have been understood as El Koneh Eretz, very similar to the name of God used by Melchizedek and Avram in this passage.  This provides a neat little explanation for the title given, specifically, for the choice of the word koneh

It should be understood that a lot of the views we have of clean demarcations of gods was probably not shared by people around this time.  Many of the gods in different culture, where the same god, with different names.  Elkunirsa could very well have been the Hittite equivalent to the Ugaritic El.  In biblical Judaism, El and YHWH refer to the same god, so probably, Elkunirsa does also.  At this point, it's possible to go off on all sorts of wild speculations of why this name was chosen for this story, but I do not wish to do that. Instead, I will just simply conclude here with the point that the deity's name, Elkunirsa, survived, with some modifications, and found its way into the Torah.

Bonus Speculation
Since this was short for this week, I'll add some bonus speculation. In this week's parsha, Avram's name is changed to Avraham. As usual for biblical names, an explanation is given, he will be the father of many nations, Av hamon goyim, with Av Hamon sounding similar to Avraham. As far as biblical name explanations go, this one is a fairly big stretch, and it's worthwhile to look externally for another source for the name Avraham. Liverani gives a tantalizing explanation [2].

In a stele dating to the 15th century BCE, the Pharaoh Seti 1 records a victory over 'banu raham,' the sons of Raham. The stele was found in Beth Shean, which was then an Egyptian city just south of the Galilee. The speculation here is that the patriarch of this specific clan was the father of Raham, or Avraham. Later this patriarch was absorbed into Israelite culture, even as the original name of the tribe faded from memory. Is this explanation better than the biblical one?  Hard to say.  I'll leave that judgment to the reader.

1. Much much more on the Sea Peoples and their relationship to the biblical Philistines later.^

2. Liverani, "Israel's History and the History of Israel" Equinox pub, 2005, p. 263^


  1. Re: MalkiTzedek - there are references in Nach to AdoniTzedek King of Jerusalem - apparently, this was a title commonly given to the kings in Jerusalem.
    What purpose would be served by inserting verses 18-20 and break up the conversation with Melech Sodom? And if just verse 18 was inserted, you would have to also hold that the whole tithing at the end of verse 20 was also inserted. Emendations are easy. Explanations are more difficult.
    Check out Rashi/RMBN/OrHachaim - this question is a thousand years old. Melech Sodom meets Avram at the "Empty Valley, the Valley of Kings" - all the surrounding kings were there to acknowledge Avram as their king and emissary to Elokim. The King of Jerusalem is there as well along with all the kings. Only he comes bearing gifts and blessings, as opposed to the rest of the kings. Only he gets a tenth of the recovered treasure (not the other priests), because he served the El Elyon, as opposed to the other Elim. It's only after the tithing that King of Sodom realizes that Avrum intends to keep the treasure (why else would he tithe), so reduces his negotiating posture to just the captives.
    Lot to say about this episode, but no need to emend it.

    1. > there are references in Nach to AdoniTzedek King of Jerusalem - apparently, this was a title commonly given to the kings in Jerusalem.

      An important note is that these references are ahistorical. No name like melchizedek or adonizedek show up in the Amarna letters for example. So at best these are a mythological prototype Canaanite king invented by later Israeli writers.

      >What purpose would be served by inserting verses 18-20 and break up the conversation with Melech Sodom? And if just verse 18 was inserted, you would have to also hold that the whole tithing at the end of verse 20 was also inserted.

      No, the tithing of verse 20 is fine with just an insertion of verse 18. Although there are opinions that all verse 18-20 are an insertion, I'm not sure that's necessary.

      As far as what the purpose is, that's tricky. There are a lot of possible reasons for this, but it's been a long time since I thought about it.

      I agree that Rishonim discuss this episode in detail, and if their answers are satisfying to you, then that's fine. However, to me the answer you outlined above makes a lot of assumptions that I do not think are justified. For example, the El Elyon worshipped by Melchizedek is the same as the YHWH worshipped by Avram. That does not appear to be the case, since Avram uses a different name of God in his "reply." As if to say, you worship El Elyon, I worship YHWH. Another assumption is that the king of Sodom is worshipping some other god (this is one reason for the Melchizedek insertion btw, the redactor, for whom El Elyon and YHWH were synonymous, found it difficult that the king of Sodom worshipped the same god as Avram). There's nowhere in the text any indication that the king of Sodom or any other king worshipped different gods. That's just an added explanation the Rishonim provide to fit things nicely into their worldview. I don't think it's justified.

      The idea of textual alterations or emendations is not a possibility that the Rishonim ever entertained. If you reject this completely as a possibility, then a lot of their answers seem more plausible. But if you allow for textual alterations, then the explanations become a lot more simple than anything the Rishonim could come up with.