Melchizedek and Salem
The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek, c. 1626, by Peter Paul Rubens
Where Science Meets Religion by Trent Dee Stephens, PhD, for the Come Follow Me lesson November 6-12: Hebrews 7-13
We read in Hebrews 6:20 and 7:1-4: “…Jesus, made an high priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec. For this Melchisedec, king of Salem, priest of the most high God, who met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings, and blessed him; To whom also Abraham gave a tenth part of all; first being by interpretation King of righteousness, and after that also King of Salem, which is, King of peace; Without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest continually. Now consider how great this man was, unto whom even the patriarch Abraham gave the tenth of the spoils.”
I have always been intrigued, as have many others, I’m sure, by who was Melchisedec (Melchizedek), king of Salem, and where/what was Salem. Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers says only, “Of Melchizedek we know nothing beyond what we learn from the brief narrative of Genesis 14,” and that, “King of Salem.--Jewish tradition affirms strongly that this Salem occupied the site on which Jerusalem afterwards stood; and certainly Salem is a poetic name of Jerusalem (Psalm 76:2). This tradition, found in Josephus and in the earliest of the Targums, agrees well with the circumstances of the narrative as far as we can follow them, and seems to deserve acceptance.”1
I tend to agree with the Pulpit Commentary, which states, “…indeed, how strangely suggestive is that fragment about the priestly king (Genesis 14:18-21) so unexpectedly interposed in the life of Abraham! In the midst of a history in which such a point is made of the parentage and descent of the patriarchs of Israel, at a time of peculiar glory of the first and greatest of them, one suddenly appears on the scene, a priest and king, not of the peculiar race at all, his parentage and ancestry unrecorded and unknown, who blesses and receives tithes from Abraham, and then as suddenly disappears from view. We hear no more of him; as about his origin, so about his end, Scripture is silent. And so he ‘abides’ before the mind's eye, apart from any before or after, the type of an unchanging priesthood…The idea seems to be that Melchizedek is thus assimilated to Christ in the sacred record, by what it leaves untold no less than by what it tells.”2
Our Bible Dictionary says of Melchizedek: “King of Righteousness. A notable prophet and leader who lived about 2000 B.C. He is called the king of Salem (Jerusalem), king of peace, and ‘priest of the most High God.’ Unfortunately, information concerning him in the Bible is relatively scarce, being limited to Gen. 14:18–20; Heb. 5:6; 7:1–3. Mention of the priesthood of Melchizedek is given in several other instances, primarily in Psalms and in Hebrews. However, latter-day revelation gives us much more about him and his priesthood… From these sources we realize something of the greatness of this prophet and the grandeur of his ministry.”
Genesis 14:18–20 states, “And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God. And he blessed him, and said, Blessed be Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth: And blessed be the most high God, which hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand. And he gave him tithes of all.”
The Joseph Smith Translation of Genesis 14:25-40 says, “And Melchizedek lifted up his voice and blessed Abram. Now Melchizedek was a man of faith, who wrought righteousness; and when a child he feared God, and stopped the mouths of lions, and quenched the violence of fire. And thus, having been approved of God, he was ordained an high priest after the order of the covenant which God made with Enoch, It being after the order of the Son of God; which order came, not by man, nor the will of man; neither by father nor mother; neither by beginning of days nor end of years; but of God; And it was delivered unto men by the calling of his own voice, according to his own will, unto as many as believed on his name. For God having sworn unto Enoch and unto his seed with an oath by himself; that every one being ordained after this order and calling should have power, by faith, to break mountains, to divide the seas, to dry up waters, to turn them out of their course; To put at defiance the armies of nations, to divide the earth, to break every band, to stand in the presence of God; to do all things according to his will, according to his command, subdue principalities and powers; and this by the will of the Son of God which was from before the foundation of the world. And men having this faith, coming up unto this order of God, were translated and taken up into heaven. And now, Melchizedek was a priest of this order; therefore he obtained peace in Salem, and was called the Prince of peace. And his people wrought righteousness, and obtained heaven, and sought for the city of Enoch which God had before taken, separating it from the earth, having reserved it unto the latter days, or the end of the world; And hath said, and sworn with an oath, that the heavens and the earth should come together; and the sons of God should be tried so as by fire. And this Melchizedek, having thus established righteousness, was called the king of heaven by his people, or, in other words, the King of peace. And he lifted up his voice, and he blessed Abram, being the high priest, and the keeper of the storehouse of God; Him whom God had appointed to receive tithes for the poor. Wherefore, Abram paid unto him tithes of all that he had, of all the riches which he possessed, which God had given him more than that which he had need. And it came to pass, that God blessed Abram, and gave unto him riches, and honor, and lands for an everlasting possession; according to the covenant which he had made, and according to the blessing wherewith Melchizedek had blessed him.”
These verses give us much more insight into the man Melchizedek. We learn even more from the Book of Mormon. Alma 13:14-19 states, “Yea, humble yourselves even as the people in the days of Melchizedek, who was also a high priest after this same order which I have spoken, who also took upon him the high priesthood forever. And it was this same Melchizedek to whom Abraham paid tithes; yea, even our father Abraham paid tithes of one-tenth part of all he possessed. Now these ordinances were given after this manner, that thereby the people might look forward on the Son of God, it being a type of his order, or it being his order, and this that they might look forward to him for a remission of their sins, that they might enter into the rest of the Lord. Now this Melchizedek was a king over the land of Salem; and his people had waxed strong in iniquity and abomination; yea, they had all gone astray; they were full of all manner of wickedness; But Melchizedek having exercised mighty faith, and received the office of the high priesthood according to the holy order of God, did preach repentance unto his people. And behold, they did repent; and Melchizedek did establish peace in the land in his days; therefore he was called the prince of peace, for he was the king of Salem; and he did reign under his father. Now, there were many before him, and also there were many afterwards, but none were greater; therefore, of him they have more particularly made mention.”
To Joseph Smith, it was revealed in Doctrine and Covenants 84:14 that, “Which Abraham received the priesthood from Melchizedek, who received it through the lineage of his fathers, even till Noah;” and in Doctrine and Covenants 107:1-4, “There are, in the church, two priesthoods, namely, the Melchizedek and Aaronic, including the Levitical Priesthood. Why the first is called the Melchizedek Priesthood is because Melchizedek was such a great high priest. Before his day it was called the Holy Priesthood, after the Order of the Son of God. But out of respect or reverence to the name of the Supreme Being, to avoid the too frequent repetition of his name, they, the church, in ancient days, called that priesthood after Melchizedek, or the Melchizedek Priesthood.”
But what of Salem? According to a Midrash, which is a Jewish explanation of scripture, using rabbinic interpretation common in the Talmud, the name Jerusalem is a combination of two names: Yireh, meaning “the abiding place,” the name given by Abraham to the place where he was commanded to sacrifice his son — now the Temple Mound in Jerusalem — and Shalem, “place of peace.”3 However, Salem may also be derived from, “The name of the Canaanite deity of the setting sun Salim, or Salem…The names [of Sahar and Salim] are rendered in modern scholarly texts as Shakhar and Shalim…”4 Shalem as a “Place of Peace,” may be the name given by high priest Shem.5 There are several possible derivations for the Jeru- part of Jerusalem. One suggestion is that it is from West Semitic yrw, “to found, to lay a cornerstone,” or the Sumerian uru, or yerû, meaning “city.”6
I assume that this Shem referred to in the Midrash was one of the three sons of Noah. According to the Biblical Timeline, from the Houston Christian University, the time from Noah’s flood to Abraham’s departure from Chaldea, was “422 years and ten days.”7 There were ten generations from Noah to Abraham.8 If Salem was named for or by Shem, then that might mean that Melchizedek was perhaps the fourth great-grandson of Shem.
We read the story of Abraham meeting Melchizedek, king of Salem, in Genesis chapter 14. However, the story of Abraham attempting to sacrifice his son, Isaac, which apparently occurred much later, is not described until chapter 22. Abraham was told in Genesis 22:2 to, “…Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.” Mount Moriah is commonly believed to be the mount upon which the attempted sacrifice took place and where Solomon’s temple was built later, on the eastern edge of the Old City. At least I tend to think of the sacrificial site as having been a wilderness at the time of Abraham and Isaac’s visit, but apparently Melchizedek, and his city/town of Salem were already there — or at least nearby.
Andrew Lawler stated in an April 2022 article in Scientific American, “…despite more than a century and a half of study, Jerusalem has largely confounded researchers. Entire eras within its 5,000-year-long archaeological record were missing, from the chapters documenting its early Judean roots to the later periods of Persian, Hellenistic and Arab dominance. Scientists knew little about the health of the city’s inhabitants, what they ate, who they traded with, or how they influenced—and were influenced by—their neighbors…”9
This paucity of information concerning what would have been Salem apparently has a number of reasons. For example, an archaeologist in Jerusalem, Rafael Lewis, has stated, “Anything from Neolithic times would be close to bedrock, but when we reach bedrock – the builders of the later periods have got there before us.” Those later builders, throughout time, needed firm foundations on the bedrock for their buildings. They created these foundations by clearing away the buildings and debris of earlier peoples.10
Furthermore, Lawler stated, “Unlike many other ancient Middle Eastern sites, Jerusalem is not a layer cake of a mound, with the old remains below and the new above…But complicating matters for archaeologists, a single stone hewn for an ancient Judean dwelling may have been reused by Romans for a temple, collected by Arabs to complete an arch and robbed by Crusaders to build a church. Given the dearth of wood and other organic materials used in construction, modern dating methods such as dendrochronology and radiocarbon, which rely on such materials, can be of limited use for determining when any given structure was built — and by whom…”11
That all apparently changed in 2005. In February of that year, Eilat Mazar began excavating a site on mount Zion, just north of the City of David, outside the walls of the Old City, near a place called the Ophel. See the map.
Map of Jerusalem: from Sacred Sites of the Gospels, Oxford: Clarendon Press (1903); with some labels added
In April 2006, Etgar Lefkovits said this of Mazar’s dig, “The finds came quickly. Surprisingly intact, just two yards beneath ground level, were Byzantine-era artifacts, including a fully-preserved room with mosaic floors dating to the 4th to 6th centuries C.E. When Mazar peeled back the room, she uncovered water cisterns, pools and a mikvab [a ritual bath] from the Second Temple period. But it was what was under these that would prove to be the most startling. The Second Temple remains were directly on top of thick foundation walls that protruded in all directions — and even beyond — the length and width of her 30-by-10 meter excavation site.”12
Lefkovits continued, “The pottery found under the building — that is, from before the building's construction — dated back to the 12th to 11th centuries B.C.E. — just before David conquered Jerusalem. But inside one of the rooms, Mazar’s team found pottery from the 10th to 9th century B.C.E., indicating that the building was in use during the period of David’s reign in Jerusalem. In addition, Mazar found a seal impression, called a bulla, of a late 7th-century royal official named Jehucal, son of Shelemiah, son of Shevi, who is mentioned twice in the Book of Jeremiah (37:3 and 38:1). ‘The bulla find — it’s an amazing find,’ she says, adding that it proves ‘that the site was an important center in the ancient Israelite monarchy for four centuries.’”13 Israel Finkelstein and others have argued that the date given by Mazar to the site is 50 to 100 years too early and does not represent David’s kingdom, but construction by later regimes.14 This controversy, with unquestionable religious and political undertones, continues to play out. However, those excavations, no matter the age, shed little if any light onto the city/town of Salem.
It appears that Salem and Jerusalem, before King Solomon, occupied roughly only about 12 acres on a ridge known as Mount Zion, and the city/town of around 500 people was dependent upon Gihon Spring for its water supply. In 1997, during the construction of a visitor center at the spring; the remains of two massive towers were unexpectedly uncovered. In 2010, Ronny Reich and Eli Shukron reported their excavation of the tower of unworked stones built around the spring, which they dated, based on pottery at the site, to the Middle Bronze Age (around 2000 to 1250 BC).15
However, a 2017 study by Johanna Regev et al., re-dated the spring tower, based on soil samples taken from under the tower wall to around 1000 years later than the Reich-Shukron date, stating that, “Scenarios for the construction of the tower during Middle Bronze Age (MB) and Iron Age II are considered, based on the new 14C data, yielding a series of dates, the latest of which falls in the terminal phases of the 9th century BCE, alongside previous excavation data.”16 Israel Finkelstein proposed that the tower could still be mainly Bronze Age but with restoration during the Iron Age, “In any event, a late 9th century date should come as no surprise, as there are other indications for the growth of the city at that time – from the Temple Mount (in my opinion the original location of the mound of Jerusalem) to the south, in the direction of the Gihon spring.”17
It appears, then, that after many years of archaeological excavations on and around Mount Zion, little light has been cast upon the murky history of Salem.
My next “Who is Adam” talk will be on Thursday November 9th. We will meet in the Relief Society room in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at fourth and Fredregill at 6 pm.
Trent Dee Stephens, PhD
1. biblehub.com/hebrews/7-1.htm; retrieved 2 November 2023
3. Ginzberg, Louis, The Legends of the Jews Volume I: The Akedah, translated by Henrietta Szold, Jewish Publication Society, Philidelphia, 1909
4. Golan, Ariel, Prehistoric religion: mythology, symbolism, University of Virginia Press, 2003, p.82; see also Anchor Bible Dictionary: Shalem
5. Ginzberg, Louis, The Legends of the Jews Volume I: The Akedah, translated by Henrietta Szold, Jewish Publication Society, Philidelphia, 1909
6. Hamilton, Victor P., The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1990, p. 410
7. hc.edu/museums/dunham-bible-museum/tour-of-the-museum/bible-in-america/bibles-for-a-young-republic/chronological-index-of-the-years-and-times-from-adam-unto-christ; retrieved 3 November 2023
8. Spero, Shubert, Jewish Bible Quarterly; jbqnew.jewishbible.org/assets/Uploads/393/jbq_393_tengenerations.pdf; retrieved 3 November 2023
9. Lawler, Andrew, The New Archaeology of Jerusalem, Scientific American, 326 (4):66-73, April 2022
10. Schuster, Ruth, Oldest Artifact Ever Found in Jerusalem, Revealed, haaretz.com/archaeology/2022-07-31/ty-article/oldest-artifact-ever-found-in-jerusalem-revealed/00000182-454e-d473-a7ca-fdcefd680000; retrieved 3 November 2023
11. Lawler, 2022
12. Lefkovits, Etgar, Eilat Mazar: Uncovering King David’s Palace, momentmag.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Uncovering-King-Davids-Palace.pdf; retrieved 4 November 2023
14. Finkelstein, Israel; et al., Has King David's Palace in Jerusalem Been Found? Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University, 34: 142–164, 2007
15. Reich, Ronny and Eli Shukron, A New Segment of the Middle Bronze Fortification in the City of David, Tel Aviv 37:141-153, 2010
16. Regev, Johanna et al., Absolute Dating of the Gihon Spring Fortifications, Jerusalem, Radiocarbon, 59:1171–1193 2017
17. Borschel-Dan, Amanda, Carbon dating undermines biblical narrative for ancient Jerusalem tower, The Times of Israel, 19 June 2017