On the coattails of the discussion of Jesus’ names comes a very bizarre, almost alarming question of one aspect of His deity. The Word says that Christ was/is/always will be our High Priest (Hebrews 4:14–16). But the Word also says that one has to be a descendant of Aaron in order to be a priest (Exodus 28:1). (Or, one has to at least be a Levite through direct patrilineal descendants of the original Levi, if not a direct Aaronic descendant through the fathers’ sides alone. For the record, this is what separates today’s first two of three post-exilic Jewish tribes. The three altogether are the Kohen tribe, the tribe of Levi, and Yisrael. Yisrael is anyone who is not of the priestly bloodline, while Levites are all of the priestly bloodline, “set apart” for their refusal to worship the golden calf [Exodus 32: 26–29]. Within the parent tribe of Levi is the bloodline of Aaron. From Aaron forward, and only through those who descend directly from Aaron through their fathers, is a smaller Aaronic tribe, the Kohenim. For the purposes of this study, and because interpretations of the matter differ from scholar to scholar, we will assume that the treatment is the same: One had to be a Levite/descendant of Aaron to have a place in the priesthood.)
That said, it was prophesied as far back as Micah (5:2) that the Messiah would not be from the Levite bloodline, but from the tribe of Judah!
What do we make of this apparent contradiction?
This is the mystery of Melchizedek.
(Special thanks to my brother in the Lord, Dr. Michael Heiser, a scholar behind the development of many Logos Bible Software resources, for his assistance and direction throughout this section of this study on biblical names.)
Who Really Is Melchizedek, Anyway?
What a complicated question this turned out to be when I recently asked it, myself. 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 [Melchizedek] blessed him [Abram], 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 [Abram] gave him [Melchizedek] tithes of all [or a tenth of everything].[i]
Did you happen to note that these two men—a non-Israelite and an Israelite (or pre-Israelite, that is, since Abram was a father of Israel but Israel was a couple of generations later)—were both respectfully and worshipfully acknowledging the same God?
In trying to better understand this somewhat obscure character, we must first look at his name. Melchizedek is the Hebrew Malki-Tsedeq, and it’s not pronounced mel-chiz-eh-dek like in most Christian circles today, but mal-kee-tseh’-dek. For good reason, many scholars interpret the meaning of this name to be “king of righteousness,” from what is stated in Hebrews 7:2: “To whom also Abraham gave a tenth part of all; first being by interpretation King of righteousness.” The ESV renders this verse in a way that reads more closely to the way we speak today: “And to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything. He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness.” However, though this is the translation of his name, there are also good reasons—namely potential pagan origins—some scholars say “not so fast” on the seemingly too-easy conclusion. Nobody is suggesting that the book of Hebrews is wrong, as any true, believing scholar of the Word knows that its contents are inerrant and infallible. But many scholars acknowledge that the Hebrews passage doesn’t go into the background detail necessary to explain how a name could translate to one thing, but have roots in another explanation.
The etymology of “Melchizedek” is technically impossible to know, though we can formulate some educated theories. Keep in mind as you read the following that Melchizedek was not an Israelite (and he certainly wasn’t a descendant of Aaron, Levi, or even one of the patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob—for that matter), so he would not have come by his priesthood of the “Most High God” Yahweh through that means. Also, since he wasn’t born and raised in the nation of God’s people as an Israelite, it shouldn’t be alarming if some of his roots are buried in the Canaanite system.
First, tsedeq in Hebrew means “righteous,” while malk is “king.” However, quite confusingly, Tsedeq is also the proper name of a Canaanite god. This means that “Melchizedek” could be “King of Righteousness,” like the title of the righteous king of Salem (as he was); or, it could be “My King Is Tsedeq.” Some scholars, like Dr. Michael Heiser in his Naked Bible Podcast, note that the typical rules of Hebrew grammar disallow for the i at the end of malki without switching from “king of [something]” to “my king is [something].” In this case, the name must become “My King is Righteous” or “My King is Tsedeq [the deity].”[ii] There are exceptions to this that suggest the i in the name Malki-Tsedeq might be a “vestige of the case system” (meaning a more ancient form of writing Hebrew letters),[iii] but it isn’t the likeliest possibility. It was at this point that Dr. Heiser saw my knitted eyebrows and raised me a double-take. The “wild card,” as he puts it, is that the Hebrew malk for “king” could also be the Canaanite god Malk (or Melek), giving a third possibility here that Melchizedek was actually named “Malk [the deity] is Righteous.” Elsewhere in the Old Testament (Haggai 1:1; Ezra 3:2), Heiser points out, we also run across the terms yotsedeq and yehotsedeq, both of which (for reasons complicated enough that I ‘ll refrain from elaboration) mean “Yahweh is righteous,” which means that Malki-Tsedeq could additionally be translated “Yahweh is Tsedeq.”
Clear as mud?
I know…pant, pant. Me too…
But even theologians like Heiser—who spend their very lives attempting to make it simpler for readers to understand the Bible—acknowledge that this one is a toughie. He concedes:
Again, all these things are possible with Melchizedek. It could be “my king is righteous,” “my king is Tsedeq,” “king of righteousness,” “Malk is righteous,” or “Malk is Tsedeq.” It could be any of those five things just in this one little name.[iv]
Still later in the discussion, the possibility is introduced that it could also mean “My King is Just.”
And even if the exact name were to be decided, there’s a whole second line of questioning in relation to the source of the name: Was Melchizedek’s name assigned at birth, like something we would expect to see on an ancient certificate? Did he take it upon himself in some act of devotion? Did he carry out some feat or participate in an event that attached him to it or earned it for him? Or was it just an adjectival epithet—would it appear as a mere epitaph on his grave, “Here lies that king who was righteous”?
Perhaps the most important question we could be asking, however, is this: If the i in malki is a factor that forces the “my king is” translation, as just explained, then Melchizedek’s name would have nothing to do with himself as king; his name would be an honorific name of some other king who was “Melchizedek’s king” in some way—and who would that be, if not Tsedeq? Doesn’t it seem a little desperate to say that we would assume this to be some other distant ruler when Melchizedek lived right there in Canaanite territory with a deity named Tsedeq?
If we’re being as honest as the best scholars out there, we simply don’t know. That’s why the research has to visit other connections to arrive at any possible conclusions.
Now, the territory that Melchizedek presided over was Salem. The Sumerian word for “city” was uru. So scholars believe one major possibility is that uru and Shalem together would have been the root derivatives of urusalim, which is one variation of how “Jerusalem” was spelled in some existent tablets, manuscripts, and early diplomatic correspondence among leaders of that day. Though there are other possibilities (and traditions, like those from our Latin Vulgate translator, Jerome), once one is equipped with all the information available (a luxury not afforded to scholars in the past prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls or the invention of tools like Logos Bible Software), the signs most heavily point to the idea that Melchizedek was the king of Jerusalem. Given, that’s early Jerusalem, during the days of the Jebusites and before the city would have been associated with Jehovah at all…but still Jerusalem. It’s important to acknowledge and remember that names at this primitive point in history and in this area of the globe would have been principally Canaanite/pagan still, until Israel’s Davidic rule later on (2 Samuel 5:6–7). With this detail in the back of our thinking cap, we hit our first reliable consistency within this etymological soup.
After Malki-Tsedeq, there was another ruler of the city by the name of Adoni-Tsedek, mentioned in Joshua 10:1–3 (with the alternate “zedek” transliteration spelling often given to Melchizedek; i.e., Adonizedek). What does his name mean? Remember our reflection on Adonai? Without doubt, Adoni-Tsedek means “my lord is Tsedeq.” This is glaring evidence that Melchizedek’s name would be tied to the same Canaanite deity, thus translated as “my king is Tsedeq.”
Some get to this point in the reflection—just as I originally did and as Heiser predicts his listeners will—and wonder why a priest of the Most High God, Yahweh, would be named “My King Is Tsedeq.” Who in the otherworld is Tsedeq, anyway, and why would a servant of Yahweh have anything to do with “another god”?
And here’s a telling question: Why does tsedek mean “righteousness” in Hebrew, anyway? If you’re familiar with how etymology works, you will know where this is going already. If the Israelites said it first, then there’s a possibility that a god by the same name in a pagan culture is coincidence (though, an unlikely one, considering how condensed the world population was at the time, and how neighbors’ language influenced surrounding people groups). If the pagans said it first and the word was adopted into the Hebrews’ daily language, the implications go berserk in another, more exciting direction.
Don’t worry. More answers are coming quickly, and they will fall like a sedative to your frazzled nerves and splintered thoughts. Getting to the end of this trail will be worth it, I promise.
In getting to the bottom of who Tsedeq is, we see that he can be traced as far back as the Babylonian pantheon and the Amorite pantheon. That links this deity to a vast number of ancient people groups and their languages, pulling in all sorts of names of this same god that don’t sound anything like Tsedeq (such as Kittu, Isar, and others). But in some of the personal, theophoric names (or names including deities) recorded in Ugaritic texts, we find Sdqslm, or, literally, “Tsedeq is Salem.”[v] The latter half of Jerusalem’s name, in context of this etymological journey, would have also pointed to the Canaanite deity, Shalem, who was also—wait for it—the god of justice (misor) and righteousness (tsedeq)! So, if Tsedeq is Salem, as the texts illustrate, then the ruling deity of “Jeru-salem” (literally “city of Shalem”), for time immemorial before Abraham and his family would have been greeted by Melchizedek, would have been Tsedek, the deity of righteousness, justice, and probably peace, if the scholarly links between the deity Shalem and the Hebrew word for peace (shalom) are as reliable as they appear to be. This also explains why, later on when Jerusalem has become the capital of Yahweh’s people, it is still referred to as “the city of righteousness” (Isaiah 1:21, 26).
Throughout the links, we see that Tsedeq is repeatedly connected to the sky, and more specifically, to the sun. At times, this is vaguer, whereas for other peoples, the worship of Tsedeq involved full-fledged worship of the sky’s celestial objects, which we all know Yahweh wouldn’t have anything to do with.
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Nevertheless, putting aside all other cultures for the moment, consider Melchizedek in light of all we’ve covered:
- He is a priest of the Most High God (El Elyon)—i.e., Yahweh, Himself, as acknowledged in both Genesis 14 and Hebrews 7.
- He and Abraham (a clear follower of Yahweh) worship the same deity.
- He is named after a “deity king,” Tsedeq, who is now shown to be the god of peace, justice, and righteousness.
- He is ruler over a city dedicated to and named after traits that are central and essential to our very own Jehovah God, especially as He interacted with His people in the Old Testament.
If you haven’t yet spotted the pattern, I’ll let Heiser point it out, as he does so in the best way:
Let’s just go all the way back. Abraham worships Yahweh. It’s just Abraham! He has some kids, he’s got some servants. Those are the Yahweh worshipers around. They’re living in Canaan because God told them to go there. Everybody else is a Canaanite. So of course, you’re going to run into people who are Canaanites, and they’re going to be people like this Melchizedek guy who is a priest of the Most High God.… If you walked up to Melchizedek and said, “Hey, who’s the Most High God?” he would say “Tsedeq!” All right?…
It means that we have a different name for the same deity.…
It’s difficult for us, looking at this, to think how this system worked. Maybe this is a poor analogy, but think about the way we refer to God. We refer to him as God, Yahweh, El, El Shaddai, Father. If we really sat down and thought about it, we’ve probably got ten or fifteen ways that we refer to God. We don’t theologically have any other deity above Him, yet we use all these different names. What if we were doing that in a historical context where some of the people who heard us use these names thought we were referring to other deities? That’s the kind of thing you have going on in biblical times.…
His covenantal name is Yahweh. He could go by these other names—and did. We have biblical evidence for that.…
Consequently, Melchizedek could bear the name of Yahweh or Tsedeq and not violate the theological proposition that Yahweh or Tsedeq.… In the final form of the biblical text, they’re one and the same. He could bear the name Tsedeq and refer to him as Most High because Tsedeq was Yahweh.[vi]
Heiser does go on to acknowledge that not every scholar comes to this conclusion. However, I want to leave Heiser’s podcast for a moment and go on my own scholarly trail of thought: Back to the “who said it first?” question… Why does tsedeq mean “righteousness” in Hebrew if that was the preexistent name of a pagan god unrelated to Yahweh? And on whose human authority would it ever be a good idea to retain that title as one for Yahweh, as we know already that they did (Jehovah Tsidkenu, “The Lord Is Our Righteousness”)? Why would the biblical writers make Yahweh’s very Name “Righteousness” in so many verses within the Old Testament using variations of the age-old “Tsedeq-deity” spelling, as we know they did (Isaiah 41:10; 45:19; 51:1, 5; 61:3; Psalm 4:6; 9:9; 17:1; 48:11; 58:2; 94:15; 98:9; 118:15–20; Jeremiah 33:16)? The very association to “a pagan deity” would force a more creative work-around than for the Israelites to retain that term for their true Most High God. To keep a pagan name for Him would be ludicrous and unfaithful, a total “Jezebel” move on the proverbial chessboard with God that has no other result but a smack-down checkmate from an angry God.
Not convinced? Think of it this way: In today’s Western, English-speaking culture, that would be like deciding that, because the deity name “Lucifer” means something as beautiful as “morning star” or “light-bearer,” we could make “Lucifer” at least a part of one of our names for Jesus, since Jesus also brought light into the world. Heaven forbid that our logic would ever allow for us to associate Christ’s powerful name with Lucifer just because they had a common trait or characteristic. It’s absurd that we would do that, and it’s equally absurd that the Israelites would commit that grievance…unless Tsedeq and Yahweh were actually the same deity. Then it all clicks into place.
We might get to this point and wonder why, if Jerusalem was already known as a territory dedicated to and even named after this same Yahweh under the Canaanite pronunciation “Tsedeq,” the Israelites would have been sent to conquer that area. If it was already territory that, etymology aside, belonged to the God of the Bible, then, regardless of how one pronounces a name, it seems odd that the Israelites were sent to take it over during the Davidic rule. Right?
Sure it does. But remember, there were hundreds of years between the Most-High-God-worshiping Melchizedek and the Adonizedek of Joshua 10, and there are many links between Tsedeq and sun worship in some of the neighboring cultures. Heiser explains:
What we know for sure is that by the time you get David coming in there and taking control of the city, there’s no ambiguity as to who David is worshiping. When the historical books get written, they’re going to reflect a theological revolution that, “No, we’re not going to come into this place called Jerusalem as Yahweh worshipers and you guys are doing your Tsedeq thing over here….” David goes in there and says, “We are claiming this turf because this was given to our ancestors by Yahweh, the Most High God. We’re claiming this turf—this city. This is going to be my capital. I am the one chosen by God to be king. This is going to be his place, and we’re not messing around with all these other deity names. If there’s talk of the Most High going on here, we’re not going to use the term Tsedeq, we’re going to use the term Yahweh.”[vii]
I think we’ve proven to this point that it’s not an impulsive or reckless conclusion to assume that Melchizedek was the king-priest of Tsedeq-Yahweh. Over in Psalm 110, verse 4, we catch another glimpse of this historical character, in a verse describing the Messiah: “The Lord hath sworn, and will not repent, ‘Thou [Jesus] art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.’”
UP NEXT: Destiny, Meaning Of Names, And Why Christ Never Had to Be “Of” the Aaronic Bloodline
[i] Please note: This section of Scripture was taken from the KJV. Originally, “Most High” would not be capitalized, but I made that adjustment to the text because: 1) This is how it would and should appear in any modern translation since the God being referenced in this verse is undoubtedly Yahweh, and 2) so that the readers of this book could more smoothly follow along with these words in the context of this study.
[ii] Michael Heiser, “Naked Bible Podcast,” Episode 166: Melchizedek Part 1a, July 9, 2017; transcript last accessed February 19, 2021, https://nakedbiblepodcast.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/NB-166-Transcript.pdf.
[v] Dr. Michael Heiser, “Naked Bible Podcast,” Episode 167: Melchizedek Part 1b, July 15, 2017; transcript last accessed February 19, 2021, https://nakedbiblepodcast.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/NB-167-Transcript-1B.pdf.
[vi] Ibid. Also note: Heiser uses the alternate spelling, “Tsedek,” in his podcast transcript. However, because the spelling could technically go either way and still refer to the same deity/Deity, we have changed the final letter to a “q” to match the Hebrew spelling for “righteousness” to avoid any further confusion.
[vii] Ibid. See previous endnote for a comment on spelling.