How could Melchizedek have had no father or mother?

Q.  How can the book of Hebrews say that Melchizedek, the priest who blessed Abraham, was “without father or mother” and “without beginning of days or end of life”?  Wasn’t he human?

Byzantine icon of Melchizedek

Here’s what I say about this in my study guide to Deuteronomy and Hebrews, where I note that the author of Hebrews talks about Melchizedek in the third of the four messages or sermons that make up the book:

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This message is based primarily on Psalm 110, but in it the author characteristically draws on other Scriptures for support, in this case the story in Genesis that describes who Melchizedek was.

The author first translates the word Melchizedek, explaining that it means “King of Righteousness.” Melchizedek was most likely not a given name, but an honorary title of the Jebusite kings who formerly ruled in Jerusalem, including the one in the Genesis story who greeted Abraham. (A similar example of an honorary title is the name Pharaoh that was given to all the rulers of Egypt.)

After the Israelites conquered Jerusalem, their own kings took over the title Melchizedek. Since the Jebusite kings had been priests, the Israelite kings also assumed an honorary role as priests and interceded for the nation in prayer. But they were not allowed to offer sacrifices; this was reserved for the descendants of Aaron under the law of Moses.

The author next explains that King of Salem (that is, of Jerusalem) means “King of Peace.” By translating these two terms, the author identifies Jesus, who is a priest in the order of Melchizedek by virtue of being the Messianic king of Jerusalem, as someone who helps people become righteous before God and so find peace with God.

Now come some more significant details—or rather, a significant lack of them. The Hebrew Scriptures usually introduce a new figure into their narratives by describing the person’s parentage and ancestry. They usually also report when a figure dies. But the book of Genesis doesn’t do either of these things in the case of Melchizedek.

This allows the author of Hebrews to observe that, when considered only in light of what the Scriptures say about him, Melchizedek seems to have no origin or ending. He appears to “remain a priest forever.” In this way he “resembles the Son of God,” and this allows him to serve as an earthly representation of the Messiah. This is why the Lord chose to name him as the head of the order of priests to which the Messiah (represented in Psalm 110 by the Davidic king) would belong.

This is a classic example of the author’s typological method, which is based on the understanding that transcendent spiritual realities are reflected in earthly replicas. A little later in this message the author makes the basis of this method explicit, noting how the earthly tabernacle had to be modeled after the heavenly pattern Moses was shown. The Greek word is typos, the source of the English word type, and so this interpretive method is known as typology.

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To summarize what I say in the guide, the author of Hebrews is able to establish a connection between Melchizedek and Jesus by considering Melchizedek in light of what the Scriptures say about him (that his title means “king of righteousness” and that he was king of Salem = “peace“), but only in light of what the Scriptures say about him, not what they don’t say.  Since the details of his parentage, birth, and death aren’t reported, this allows an even stronger typological connection to Jesus, who has a permanent priesthood “on the basis of an indestructible life.”

In other words, the key to understanding how the Bible could say that Melchizedek was “without father and mother” and “without beginning of days or end of life” lies in appreciating the distinctive typological method of the book of Hebrews.

“Whistler’s Mother” or “Arrangement in Grey and Black”?

In this series of posts, to consider whether chapters and verses specifically should be accepted as an inherent part of the Bible, I’ve been exploring more generally whether the accumulated marks of any artistic creation’s subsequent history as a cultural artifact become part of its essential substance and meaning.  We saw last time, in the case of the Liberty Bell, that the cultural artifact with its distinctive marks of wear—specifically, the famous crack—is actually preferable to the original pristine artistic creation, but only because this is an even better expression of the creators’ intentions.

In other cases, good reasons can be given for stripping away at least some of the marks of an artistic creation’s subsequent history as a cultural artifact, similarly in the interests of preserving or recapturing the creator’s original intention.

Consider the painting that James Abbott McNeill Whistler originally entitled Arrangement in Grey and Black. It has been given the popular title Whistler’s Mother and it has become an icon for motherhood and filial devotion.  In 1934 the U.S. Post Office even issued a stamp “in memory and in honor of the mothers of America“ that included only the figure from Whistler’s painting, not the overall composition, and even added some potted flowers!

It is safe to state that this appropriation of the figure is not just different from, but directly counter to, the artist’s intentions in painting it.  In explaining his artistic philosophy, Whistler once insisted:

Art should be independent of all claptrap—should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism, and the like. All these have no kind of concern with it; and that is why I insist on calling my works “arrangements” and “harmonies.”

In other words, Whistler himself explicitly rejected the sentimental approach to art that a title such as Whistler’s Mother would imply.  A viewing of his painting that was informed by this title, and which saw it as an expression of filial love and devotion, would therefore necessarily be in opposition to his intentions.  If we wish to understand the painting at all according to Whistler’s intentions, its popular title, at least, should be stripped away and replaced with the original one, and the figure should be situated within the entire original composition, so that viewers can once again appreciate Whistler’s purposes in painting it.

Some might counter that the figure in the painting has a universal quality, evocative of timeless human experience, that permits and even demands that its meaning not be limited by the views of the man who created it at a particular moment in Western cultural history.  Suppose that’s true.  Then even though we would certainly want to be aware of Whistler’s views and intentions, we could find a meaning in this figure that transcends them and reaches into interpretations that Whistler not only didn’t intend, but would actually have opposed.  In other words, a viewer might, in the end, see greater value in Whistler’s Mother than in Arrangement in Grey and Black.

However, we must note that a viewer making this judgment is not really seeing Arrangement in Grey and Black, but only a detail from it.   It is this detail, isolated from the rest of the composition, that people have used as an icon for filial devotion (as on the 1934 stamp).  Some meaning contrary to the artist’s intentions may be imputed to this isolated figure, but not to the composition as a whole, in its entirety as he created it.

This example shows that if the originally intended form or meaning of an artistic creation has been lost to “cultural associations,” repristinating that creation requires not only stripping away accretions, but also situating isolated parts back within the whole.  In the case of Whistler’s painting, the popular title should be taken away and the rest of the painting should be brought back.  (And the potted flowers have to go, too!)

I’ll conclude this series next time with some thoughts about the Bible in light of the examples I’ve explored.

James Whistler, “Arrangement in Grey and Black,” 1871