Tuesday, October 27, 2009

More than you ever wanted to know about the mysterious Malkizedek

In the middle of Psalm 110, a short prayer poem, the speaker says: אתה כהן לעולם על דברתי מלכי צדק

Most (non Jewish) readers say this means (something like) "You are a priest forever by my order, Oh Malkizedek." (Malkzedek is a King of Salem, described also as a priest, who gets a very brief mention in Genesis.)

This reading was favored by the Church fathers (their Chazal, l'havdil to the nth) because of its polemic value, as the verse, when its read this way, seems to serve some Christian purposes:

1. Abrogation of biblical law. The psalm seems to say Malkizedek was a valid and eternal priest, yet he did not come from Aaron's family, and had not been circumcised. Early Christians took this as a biblical proof that neither are really necessary?*

2. Catholicism foreshadowed. Much of early Christian biblical commentary was devoted to the discovery of typologies, which is something like the Ramban's "maaseh avot siman l'bonim."  This story is used in this way twice: First, Malkitzedek, who was appointed a priest by divine decree was taken as a foreshadowing of Jesus; some even say the "you" in the verse is Jesus himself. Second, interpreters noted that Malkizedek's gift to Abraham was bread and wine, rather then the expected bread and water. This, in turn, was taken as a foreshadowing of the Eucharist.

*According to James Kugel, the earliest appearance of the "Malkizedek was not circumcised, therefore we don't need to be circumcised either" argument is in Justin Martyr's Dialogue with Trypho. Justin lived in the second century. At around the same time a book appeared, the Seder Olam -also a second century work, which said Malkizedek was Shem, the son of Noah. Another tradition says that Shem (and therefore Malkizedek) was circumcised. This appears in Genesis Rabba and Avot de Rabbi Nathan. The date of Genesis Rabba is uncertain, but Avot de Rabbi Nathan is a geonic work, dating to the 700s. This dating leads me to wonder if perhaps our idea that Shem was circumcised (and perhaps even the earlier idea that Malkizedek was Shem) began as a response to Christian claims. [Note: I'd be thrilled to death to receive your corrections on the dating.]

Back to the verse in Pslam 110.

Nachaum Sarna (a Jewish reader) takes our verse this way, "You are a priest forever after the order of Malkizedek." He explains that this mention of an "order of Malkizedek" suggests that a longer story about the king, and perhaps his priestly order, was once known in Israel and that the psalmist is referencing a book, or set of teachings, now lost.

Rashi (also a Jewish reader) takes it yet another way, reading the verse: "You are a priest forever because of the speech of Malchizedek."

This is quite clever, for reasons I'll explain presently, but first lets look at the whole of Rashi's comment:
From you will emerge the priesthood and the kingship that your children will inherit from Shem your progenitor, the priesthood and the kingship, which were given to him. דִבְרָתִי מלכי-צדק. The “yud” is superfluous, like (Lam. 1: 1): “the city that was once so populous (רבתי).” Because of the speech of Malchizedek, because of the command of Malchizedek. You are a priest, Heb. כהן. The word כהן bears the connotation of priesthood and rulership, as (II Sam. 8:18): “and David’s sons were chief officers.
 As you can see, Rashi has found a way to drop the yud, and turn the word divrati into divrat; having done this he now has an answer to a pressing biblical riddle, namely: Why did Makizedek lose the priesthood? Answer: He was unsuitable, for when he met Abraham with bread and wine, he delivered a defective blessing putting Abraham ahead of God (see also Nedarim 32b where the emendation of דִבְרָתִי is different.)  This "speech" disqualified him from the priesthood. According to Rashi, this Psalm is addressed to Makizedek's replacement, and because it does not speak of Malkizedek as an eternal valid priest, the Christian typology is undermined.

Robert Alter (also a Jewish reader) (I think) (update: He is: duh) goes yet another way, writing that the reference to Malchizedek is a pun (the word means "righteous king") He takes the verse as "You are a priest forever, by my solemn word, my righteous king." He believes the Pslam addresses a King, and sees no reference here to Christianity or lost literature and, unlike Rashi, no reason to depart from the plain meaning of the words.

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