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Melchizedek serves an important theological role in the book of Hebrews. The author of Hebrews interprets Psalm 110 to speak of Jesus' priestly order (Melchizedek), thus resolving the potential problem that Jesus might have been suspected to be an illegitimate priest since he was not named after the order of Aaron.

As I understand it in Hebrews 7, he makes the argument that because because Abraham tithed to Melchizedek, it demonstrates that Abraham was blessed in some legitimate priestly fashion by Melchizedek, and that the one who blesses is superior to the one who receives the blessing, therefore Melchizedek is even superior to Abraham, which makes it quite fitting that Jesus would be after this priestly order, not the priestly order with descendants of Aaron who are limited by their own death. One might venture to guess from this theological interpretation that Melchizedek might have even been a type of theophany of Jesus, or if not, that his priesthood was special, unparalleled, and arcane.

However, the Anchor Yale Bible Commentary on the passage in Genesis 14:1-24 in dealing with the question of authenticity notes (p. 109):

Finally, the notice about Melchizedek merits a measure of confidence in its own right. He invokes an authentic Canaanite deity (see NOTE) as good Canaanite priest would be expected to do. Abraham, on the other hand, refers to Yahweh, using the Canaanite name or names in suitable apposition, which is not less appropriate in his particular case.

The NOTE referenced mentions:

El-Elyon. Both elements ('el and 'elyon) occur as names of specific deities, the first in Ugaritic and the second in Phoenician; the Aram. inscription from Sujin combines the two into a compound. Though appellatives at first ("god" and "supreme" respectively), both are attested also as personal synonym for Elohim; and 'elyon occurs either separately (Isa xiv 14; Ps ix 3), or as a divine epithet (Pss vii 18, xlvii 3, lvii 3, lxxviii 56). But these are relatively late passages which conceivably could hark back to instances before us. The question, then, is how to interpret the latter.

Now that this chapter is amply attested as a source unto itself, it is not only unnecessary but fallacious to harmonize its contents with other portions of the OT. As a Canaanite priest, Melchizedek would invoke his deity or deities by name; and this is what the above translation sought to reproduce. Abraham would just as naturally turn to Yahweh, especially in an oath.

While Speiser (the author of AYB Commentary on Genesis) argues that it's fallacious to harmonize El-Elyon, it seems to be attempting to prove too much from Melchizedek's choice of deity name he invokes. Melchizedek appears upon the end of a bloody struggle between pagan kings, but was not himself involved in the battles. His words impose divine significance upon Abraham's victory, which make little sense if Abraham does not believe in his god. Further, it would seem to undermine the general message of the Pentateuch. Why would the author of the Pentateuch who bundles law about the Levitical priesthood receiving tithes, and the Canaanite deities being abominations, include Abraham acknowledging the legitimacy of the pagan Canaanite priesthood of Melchizedek by paying him a tithe?

What's Speiser's argument here? Is it more than a simple reaffirmation of the source hypothesis?

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    El-Elyon means the same as the general term 'deity' as can apparently be seen in the Ras Shamra tablets (I have not seen them). So it could at the same time mean a Canaanite god and God. No worries. So I'm not sure what you are actually asking. – gideon marx Dec 23 '14 at 19:11
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    My question is why Speiser is so certain that Melchizedek was invoking a Canaanite deity, or more generally, how strong the arguments were. It seems far more likely that he was invoking either a generic name for God, an accepted name for the God of Abraham, or he was choosing to use the name El-Elyon (God supreme) as a bit of wordplay, i.e. Abraham was supreme in this battle, because he found favor with God supreme. In any case, Speiser seemed sure that the deity was decidedly Canaanite, so I was looking to find out how sound that argument actually is. On the surface it appears, "Not very." – Ben Mordecai Dec 23 '14 at 19:59
  • Many will say that Melchizedek was a convert of Abraham. This ignores the religious milieu. Gods were seen differently. All were considered valid (and still is). Example: these are 'numbers' (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Are these 'numbers' (3, 5)? Are these 'numbers' (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)? Is a rain god a deity? Is God the "Maker of heaven and earth" a deity? The term El Elyon was very specifically used in order for a discussion to take place. Is Allah a deity? Is God a deity? Does that make Allah = God? No, by definition they are not but it allows for conversation between the two religions. – gideon marx Dec 24 '14 at 8:43
  • To answer your question will take a massive effort with a loooong explanation of the Canaanite gods and the religious development of God. It is a book idea, not an answer. – gideon marx Dec 24 '14 at 8:45
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    Perhaps a good comparison would be between worshipping the God of Felicity and the god Felicity. Yahweh is the God of all joy, (which is felicity), but he is not the Roman goddess Felicitas. The Romans personified felicity and worshipped her, though an orthodox Christian or Jew could deny the worship of Felicitas and worship the God of Felicity, Yahweh. – Ben Mordecai Jan 25 '16 at 19:18
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Perhaps, some may agree with this (theophany). However, another way of looking at this passage in Hebrews is that the author is discussing an order or priestly appointment (precedent) without lineal descent. Just as Melchizedek had no known lineage (some Jewish commentators have written about traditions that Shem, Noah's son is Melchizedek, though this is disputed), so is Christ, who is eternal and without lineage [spiritual origin rather than earthly parentage]. The purpose of using Melchizedek is obvious in the text:

"He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever." (Heb. 7:3, ESV)

It's obvious that the author of Hebrews is trying to establish a priest who lasts forever (the reference to neither beginning or end and a priest forever and without father or mother or genealogy) as compared to the Levitical priests who were unable to continue in their office due to death (Heb.7:23). It could be argued that the author of Hebrews is using Melchizedek as a type of Christ rather than strictly demonstrating a theophany.

As I understand it in Hebrews 7, he makes the argument that because because Abraham tithed to Melchizedek, it demonstrates that Abraham was blessed in some legitimate priestly fashion by Melchizedek, and that the one who blesses is superior to the one who receives the blessing, therefore Melchizedek is even superior to Abraham, which makes it quite fitting that Jesus would be after this priestly order, not the priestly order with descendants of Aaron who are limited by their own death. One might venture to guess from this theological interpretation that Melchizedek might have even been a type of theophany of Jesus, or if not, that his priesthood was special, unparalleled, and arcane.

However, to discuss the question about El-Elyon, otherwise translated as "the Most High God" one should ask whether El-Elyon was the name of a 'God', who was identified as the Most High, or whether it was a common 'word' for the Most High God. In terms of the Old Testament Scriptures, it's clear that the term El-Elyon is referring to God.

You can see many Scriptures in the Old Testament that equate both, but in the Pentateuch (Torah), you'll find them here. Very early in the Pentateuch, YHWH is clearly the same deity as El-Elyon or the Most High God.

Balaam, the oracle of God equates them in this passage:

"the oracle of him who hears the words of God, and knows the knowledge of the Most High, who sees the vision of the Almighty" (Num. 24:26, ESV)

Those who misunderstood the nature of God, could make an idol, and name that deity after "El-Elyon". This doesn't necessarily mean that that deity that has been shaped or made is a true representation of God.

Therefore, it's unlikely that Melchizedek would have invoked a Canaanite deity.

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Not a full answer, but some interesting information:

I asked a similar question on judaism.stackexchange.com to ascertain the Jewish perspective. Understandably, they believe Paul (considered a heretic) was trying to supplant a non-Levite leader for the established and legitimate priesthood of Aaron. (How ancient church leaders marketed the new religion is, perhaps, a question for another time.)

Part of their answer was the supposition that Melchizedek was a priest --- not in the sense that there was an organized priesthood, but in the sense that he held the Birthright and the duty to pass that authority on. From their perspective, Melchizedek (Noah's Shem) passed the duty or priestly authority to Abraham, through whom the organized Priesthood of Aaron eventually was created.

A fair number of the comments have gone missing in that original discussion. That's truly unfortunate as they also had a lot of great information. It was in one of those comments that the idea that Melchizedek was "passing the torch" to Abraham was mentioned.

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