Today we are going to take a field trip outside the book of Hebrews and go all of the way back to the first book of the Bible and into Genesis chapter 14. Actually, I am going to reference chapter 13 as well.
All of this is necessary if we are to understand the story in Hebrews chapter 7 on how Jesus (of the tribe of Judah, not Levi) was a worthy high priest. And the story behind this story is to understand who this fellow named Melchizedek really is from the history of the Old Testament. And the story behind that story, which is behind the story of Jesus as a priest, is to know how it is that Abram and Lot encountered this person some 2,000 years before Christ.
Abram, who would later be called Abraham – so let’s call him that today – was called by God out of the area of the cradle of civilization to go to a place of God’s leading. He travelled there in obedience, along with this wife and his nephew Lot.
Abraham settled and lived a nomadic life in the Promised Land, though he never really owned anything other than a place of burial. But he lived peacefully among an Amorite group, surrounded as well by various people groups and cities and small kingdoms.
You may recall that as his clan of servants and herds prospered (along with Lot and his possessions of the same), the herdsmen of each quarreled with one another about grazing lands. In Genesis 13, Abraham offers Lot the first choice as to which direction to separate off from one another; and Lot makes the self-enriching choice to take the better land, though it came at a cost of being near a morally wicked group of people in a city called Sodom.
In ancient cultures, more dominant people groups and kings would extort tribute payments from lesser groups – in other words, “give us what we demand from you or else we will come wipe you out.” The early portion of Genesis 14 is a rather tedious listing of kings and peoples of antiquity. Here is the story in a sentence: A group of five kings from the Babylonian area (modern day Iran) demanded and received tribute from four kings in the Jordan Valley – the latter of whom got sick of it after 12 years of such servitude and refused to pay, which led to a mega-battle.
14:1 – At the time when Amraphel was king of Shinar,[a] Arioch king of Ellasar, Kedorlaomer king of Elam and Tidal king of Goyim, 2 these kings went to war against Bera king of Sodom, Birsha king of Gomorrah, Shinab king of Admah, Shemeber king of Zeboyim, and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar). 3 All these latter kings joined forces in the Valley of Siddim (that is, the Dead Sea Valley). 4 For twelve years they had been subject to Kedorlaomer, but in the thirteenth year they rebelled.
5 In the fourteenth year, Kedorlaomer and the kings allied with him went out and defeated the Rephaites in Ashteroth Karnaim, the Zuzites in Ham, the Emites in Shaveh Kiriathaim 6 and the Horites in the hill country of Seir, as far as El Paran near the desert. 7 Then they turned back and went to En Mishpat (that is, Kadesh), and they conquered the whole territory of the Amalekites, as well as the Amorites who were living in Hazezon Tamar.
8 Then the king of Sodom, the king of Gomorrah, the king of Admah, the king of Zeboyim and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar) marched out and drew up their battle lines in the Valley of Siddim 9 against Kedorlaomer king of Elam, Tidal king of Goyim, Amraphel king of Shinar and Arioch king of Ellasar—four kings against five.
So, since Lot lived near Sodom, he was caught up in the battle that ensued, which went against Sodom and Gomorrah. And Lot was carted off by the bad boys from the East, along with all his possessions.
10 Now the Valley of Siddim was full of tar pits, and when the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, some of the men fell into them and the rest fled to the hills. 11 The four kings seized all the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah and all their food; then they went away. 12 They also carried off Abram’s nephew Lot and his possessions, since he was living in Sodom.
When Abraham hears about all of this, he puts together a coalition of his servants and others of the Amorites around with whom he lived in peaceful alliance. He goes after the five kings of the East, whips them with a mighty spanking, and brings back Lot and others taken captive from Sodom (along with a significant cache of possessions).
13 A man who had escaped came and reported this to Abram the Hebrew. Now Abram was living near the great trees of Mamre the Amorite, a brother of Eshkol and Aner, all of whom were allied with Abram. 14 When Abram heard that his relative had been taken captive, he called out the 318 trained men born in his household and went in pursuit as far as Dan. 15 During the night Abram divided his men to attack them and he routed them, pursuing them as far as Hobah, north of Damascus. 16 He recovered all the goods and brought back his relative Lot and his possessions, together with the women and the other people.
Abraham meets two kings who are totally different in every way. Bera, the king of Sodom, offers him the treasures captured as a reward, which are refused. Melchizedek, the king of Salem (as in what would later be JeruSALEM), blesses Abraham. However, Abraham pays tithes to Melchizedek, honoring him as his spiritual superior.
17 After Abram returned from defeating Kedorlaomer and the kings allied with him, the king of Sodom came out to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley).
18 Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, 19 and he blessed Abram, saying,
“Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. 20 And praise be to God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand.”
Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.
21 The king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the people and keep the goods for yourself.”
22 But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “With raised hand I have sworn an oath to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, 23 that I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the strap of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, ‘I made Abram rich.’ 24 I will accept nothing but what my men have eaten and the share that belongs to the men who went with me—to Aner, Eshkol and Mamre. Let them have their share.”
So who exactly is this Melchizedek guy – the one whose name means “king of righteousness?” Some believe he was a theophany – a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus Christ. This is possible, though I lean away from that viewpoint. He was certainly a great man of stature before the Lord – recognized by Abraham as God’s man who was truly connected to the one true God.
The point of the passage and its reference in Hebrews (referring also to a passage in Psalm 110) is to say that Abraham saw Melchizedek as a greater person before the Lord. Abraham was the lesser, honoring the greater … and as we’ll see later, Abraham’s unborn great-grandson Levi was essentially paying tithes to Melchizedek as well. More on that next week.
An application for today is to see the great faith of Abraham. He had a promise from God that he and his family would be blessed. He did not take it upon himself to seize the best land. He did not take from the King of Sodom the great wealth offered him; Abraham rather believed in the promise of God that what was unseen was greater than what was visible. And this will be the story behind the story for Hebrews 11 as well. But let’s save that for a few weeks later.
But think of this story of Abraham when you hear our kids sing the theme song of the children’s musical program this Sunday. It is the BIG IDEA of what is a “Game Changer.”