Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 15 (2015) - Review

Mathews, Joshua G., Melchizedek's Alternative Priestly Order: A Compositional Analysis of Genesis 14:18–20 and Its Echoes throughout the Tanak (Bulletin for Biblical Research Supplement Series, 8; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2013). Pp. xiv + 178. Hardcover. US$37.50. ISBN 978-1-57506-820-6.

In a revised version of a dissertation from 2011, Joshua G. Mathews attempts to move scholarship forward on the study of Melchizedek. The work provides a solid case for the significance of the Melchizedek episode (ME) in Gen 14:18–20 in the final form of the Pentateuch and the Tanak.

The figure of Melchizedek has generated an exceptional amount of scholarly literature and speculation in the history of theology and biblical scholarship without much consensus having been gained as to who he is or what his significance is. Classic proposals for the identification of Melchizedek range from Shem to an angel to a person of the Trinity, but none of the identifications meet the standards of critical exegesis.

In modern critical scholarship the ME is often regarded as a later interpolation to justify Davidic or post-exilic institutions or practices. H. H. Rowley's famous 1939 article “Zadok and Nehustan” identified Melchizedek as a Jebusite priest, later succeeded by Zadok. The episode was seen to be a late insertion to justify the merger of the worship of Yahweh with אל עליון by the Davidic monarchy.[1] More conservative scholars generally dislike the implications of David's syncretism, and admittedly, Rowley's view was partly based on debatable textual emendations as well as conjectures from circumstantial evidence. The most recent monographs and theses approach the topic from a New Testament point of view, but such an approach arguably imposes a problematic hermeneutic on the Hebrew Bible.

Mathews argues that Melchizedek's eschatological significance can be established from the Pentateuch itself, apart from later texts such as Ps 110 or the New Testament. The statement of the book's thesis fluctuates slightly . While the title suggests that the book focuses on the priesthood of Melchizedek, it deals in fact with both his priesthood and kingship. The author of the Pentateuch presents Melchizedek's priesthood as an alternative order to that of Aaron's, which eschatologically anticipates the fulfillment of the ideal that the Aaronic priesthood and the Sinai administration failed to realize. Moreover, the same pentateuchal author also connects Melchizedek's kingship with the Abrahamic covenant and its fulfillment in a messianic king from Judah. The eschatological significance of the royal priesthood of Melchizedek is textually signified within the Pentateuch and echoed throughout the Tanak.

After an introduction and a selective overview of the history of interpretation in the first chapter, the second chapter clarifies the study's “compositional analysis” and its presuppositions, as taken from Sailhamer.[2] The approach focuses on “the textual features resulting from this compositional activity in order to understand their strategic significance, as evidenced in the final composition itself” (p. 25). Locating the meaning in the text rather than the history it signifies, this method seeks to discover the meaning intended by the “author” of the Pentateuch and the Tanak. Here Mathews postulates a single author based on his observation of the unity and intentional composition of the final form of the Tanak (p. 25). Adopting and adapting mainly the criteria proposed by Jeffery Leonard, the methodology focuses on the verbal connections between passages and pericopae.[3] The methodology is fairly simple and straightforward. Yet, the results are quite fascinating.

Chapter 3 makes up the essence of the study. Pointing out verbal connections, Mathews demonstrates that Gen 14 and the ME are an integral part of the patriarchal narrative, and that the ME is compositionally connected to the eschatological message of the Pentateuch.

Mathews suggests that there are several significant contrasts throughout the Abrahamic narrative. One is between God and Abraham on the one hand and their foes on the other hand. In Gen 14, the mention of bitumen and the king of Shinar, whose name is fronted in the list of kings (v. 1), suggests an authorial connection of the enemies in Gen 14 to both the opposing forces at Babel in Gen 11 and Nimrod in Gen 10. Similarly, there is a contrast between two types of “possessions,” one associated with Yahweh's covenant blessing obtained through faith (15:1, 14) and another with the possession of Lot and Sodom (14:11–12, 16, 21–23). The climax is the blessing of Abraham by Melchizedek who calls Yahweh “Possessor (קנה) of heaven and earth” (Gen 14:19). The ME is thus integral to the contrasts and narrative development of Genesis.

Probably one of the unique contributions of the study is that it connects the ME to an eschatological reading of the Pentateuch. Following Sailhamer, Mathews takes the poetic passages in Gen 49, Num 23–24 and Deut 32–33 as the structural seams that signify the eschatological orientation of the entire Pentateuch. These poems talk about the distant future (באחרית הימים) and the coming king from the tribe of Judah, and the ME is verbally and hence compositionally connected to these eschatological and royal poems. Mathews calls these connections “a complex web of links” (p. 78). Some of the verbal parallels barely prove anything on their own, but cumulatively they make a good case for intentional connections. Mathews concludes that Melchizedek is “a king among kings not only by virtue of his role in Gen 14 or of his name and his description as king of Salem, but also due to the many links connecting him with these poems about the king who is to come ‘in the last days’ ” (p. 78).

As for Melchizedek's priesthood, its significance is demonstrated mainly in two ways: the concessive nature of the Aaronic priesthood and Sinaitic administration, and its contrast to the priesthood of Jethro in the structure of the Pentateuch. In the Exodus account, Aaron is introduced as a remedy to Moses' unbelief and God's anger, and he is implicitly and explicitly depicted as standing at the center of Israel's unbelief. There is at least “a modest authorial criticism” against the office and practice of Aaron the priest (p. 95). In contrast, Jethro, whose appearance brackets the Sinai corpus from Exod 19 to Num 10, is signified as an honorable priest by the structural contrast with the Sinai covenant. The scene of Jethro's appearance and the ME also share what Robert Alter calls a similar typescene as well as the same words and themes.[4] Mathews boldly contends that Jethro possibly represents a legal system different from that of Sinai covenant, and his priesthood is a “compositional succession” of Melchizedek's priesthood, “recognized in the way that the Pentateuch's author has crafted his narrative” (p. 112).

Chapter 4 analyzes how this ideal priesthood of Melchizedek is echoed in the rest of the Tanak. In Ps 110, which contains the only other mention of Melchizedek in the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh's battle and judgment against the nations echo the battle in Gen 14. The concept of peace (שׁלם) and righteousness (צדק) associated with the Davidic monarchy and Jerusalem are authorial pointers to the line of ideal and royal priesthood in the order of Melchizedek (מלכי־צדק) who is king of Shalem (שׁלם) and the eschatological ideal associated with him. Paralleling Zadok with Melchizedek, Mathews views the Abrahamic and Davidic covenant very positively in contrast to the Mosaic covenant. I think further elaboration on the relationship between these covenants may be necessary. Studies on Zech 3 and 6, as well as Ezra-Nehemiah, suggest that the hope of glorious restoration associated with Joshua the high priest echoes the eschatological priestly order of Melchizedek set forth in the Pentateuch.

The final chapter closes the book with a summary, synthesis, and some prospects for future studies, including studies on the Letter to Hebrews.

Overall, methodological clarity is the strength of this work. The textual connections Mathews points out and the narrative development he sees as surrounding the ME suggest that at least some versions of source theories have given up the unity of the text too hastily. If one shares Mathews' hermeneutical commitment that later biblical material (such as Ps 110 and Hebrews) cannot develop or change the meaning of earlier material (p. 35–36), his thesis is perhaps the way to proceed, and the study provides a welcomed result.

Kazuya Ishimatsu, McMaster Divinity College

[1] H. H. Rowley, “Zadok and Nehustan,” JBL 58 (1939), 113–41. reference

[2] John H. Sailhamer, The Meaning of the Pentateuch: Revelation, Composition, and Interpretation (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009). reference

[3] Jeffery M. Leonard, “Identifying Inner-Biblical Allusions: Psalm 78 as a Test Case,” JBL 127 (2008), 241–65. reference

[4] Robert Alter, The Art of Bibilcal Narrative (rev. and updated ed.; New York: Basic, 2011), 55–78. reference