revhead.gif (4972 bytes)

(Last updated 6/23/00)

As the Tabernacle, Temple and their implements are modeled after heavenly examples, so too is the priesthood itself. Extra-Biblical Jewish sources speak of a heavenly priesthood around Melchizedek, who is closely associated with Shem, the son of Noah.

Mas. Nedarim 32b - R. Zechariah said on R. Ishmael's authority: The Holy One, blessed be He, intended to bring forth the priesthood from Shem, as it is written, And he [sc. Melchizedek] was the priest of the most high God. But because he gave precedence in his blessing to Abraham over God, He brought it forth from Abraham; as it is written, And he blessed him and said. Blessed be Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth, and blessed be the most high God. Said Abraham to him, ‘Is the blessing of a servant to be given precedence over that of his master?’ Straightway it [the priesthood] was given to Abraham, as it is written, The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool; which is followed by, The Lord hath sworn, and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever, after the order of Melchizedek,’ meaning, ‘because of the words of Melchizedek.’ Hence it is written, And he was a priest of the most High God, [implying that] he was a priest, but not his seed.

The priesthood of Melchizedek is traced back to Adam. There is a teaching that the firstborn of each family was originally in the role of priest. Following the sin of the golden calf, this priesthood was tainted and given over to the Levites. This is also taught in the book of Hebrews.

Midrash Rabbah - Numbers IV:8 - TAKE THE LEVITES, etc. (III, 45). Our Rabbis have said: Why did the Holy One, blessed be He, order the firstborn Israelites to be redeemed by means of the Levites? Because originally, before the tribe of Levi arose, the firstborn performed the sacrificial service. As our Rabbis have learned: Before the Tabernacle was erected the high places were permitted and the sacrificial service was performed by the firstborn. From the moment when the Tabernacle was erected the high places were forbidden and the service was confined to the priests. There is proof that the firstborn offered the sacrifices before the tribe of Levi took office. Go back to the beginning of the creation of the world. Adam was the world's firstborn. When he offered his sacrifice, as it says: And it pleased the Lord better than a bullock that hath horns and hoofs (Ps. LXIX, 32) - he donned high priestly garments; as it says: And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins, and clothed them (Gen. III, 21). They were robes of honour which subsequent firstborn used. When Adam died he transmitted them to Seth. Seth transmitted them to Methusaleh. When Methusaleh died he transmitted them to Noah. Noah arose and offered a sacrifice; as it says: And he took of every clean beast... and offered burnt-offerings on the altar (Gen. VIII, 20). Noah died and transmitted them to Shem. But was Shem a firstborn? Japheth, surely, was the firstborn; as it says: Shem... the brother of Japheth the elder1 (Gen. X, 21)! Why then did he hand them on to Shem? Because Noah foresaw that the line of the patriarchs would issue from him. There is proof that Shem offered sacrifices; since it says: And Melchizedek, king of Salem * brought forth bread and wine; and he was priest of God the Most High (Gen. XIV, 18). Now was it to him that the priesthood was given? The priesthood, surely, was not given to any man until Aaron arose. What then is the meaning of the statement here, ‘and he was priest’? Because he offered sacrifices like priests. Shem died and handed it on to Abraham. But was Abraham a firstborn?5 The fact is that because he was a righteous man the birthright was transferred to him, and he offered sacrifices; as it says: And offered him up for a buntt-offerteg in the stead of his son (Gen. XXII, 13). Abraham died and handed it on to Isaac. Isaac arose and handed it on to Jacob. But was Jacob a firstborn? No; but you find that Jacob prudently took it [the birthright] from Esau. He said to him: Sell me first thy birthright (Gen. XXV, 31). Do you suppose perhaps that it was for no good reason that Jacob asked Esau to sell him the birthright? No! Jacob wished to offer sacrifices and could not, because he was not the firstborn. Said Esau: ‘What can I expect of this birthright? ' As it says: Behold I am at the point to die; and what profit shall the birthright do to me? 

* Identified with Shem
(footnote from Soncino Midrash Rabbah)

The Zohar has something to say about Melchizedek as well:

Soncino Zohar, Bereshith, Section 1, Page 87a - AND MELCHIZEDEK KING OF SALEM BROUGHT FORTH BREAD AND WINE. R. Simeon adduced here the text "In Salem also is his tabernacle" (Ps. LXXVI, 3). He said: ‘When God decided to create the world, He first produced a flame of a scintillating lamp. He blew spark against spark, causing darkness and fire, and produced from the recesses of the abyss a certain drop which He joined with the flame, and from the two He created the world. The flame ascended and encircled itself with the Left, and the drop ascended and encircled itself with the Right. They then crossed and changed places, going up and down alternately until they were closely interlocked, and there issued from between them a full wind. Then those two sides were made one, and the wind was set between them and they were entwined with one another, and so there was harmony above and harmony below; the grade was firmly established, the letter he was crowned with vau and vau with he, and so he ascended and was joined in a perfect bond. This is alluded to in the words "Melchizedek (lit. king of righteousness) king of Salem" (lit. completeness), i.e. the king who rules with complete sovereignty. When is he completely king? On the Day of Atonement, when all faces are illumined. According to another explanation, "Melchizedek" alludes to the lower world, and "king of Salem" to the upper world; and the verse indicates that both are intertwined inseparably, two worlds like one, so that the lower world also is the whole, and the whole is one. "Brought forth bread and wine": signifying that both of these are in it. AND HE WAS PRIEST OF GOD MOST HIGH: i.e. one world ministers to the other. "Priest" refers to the Right, and "Most High God,’ to the upper world; and hence a priest is required to bless the world. For this lower world receives blessings when it is associated with a High Priest; hence there is a special force in the words "and he blessed him and said, Blessed is Abram to the Most High God". After this model it behoves the priest on earth to intertwine his fingers when blessing in the synagogue in order that he may be linked with the Right and that the two worlds may be linked together. BLESSED IS ABRAM. The words of the text are a prototype of the formula of blessing (used by the Israclites). "Blessed is Abram" (in the sense we have given to it) corresponds to "blessed art Thou ". "To the Most High God" corresponds to "O Lord our God". "Possessor of heaven and earth" corresponds to "king of the universe. Further, AND HE BLESSED HIM indicates the course of blessing from below to above; BLESSED IS THE MOST HIGH GOD indicates from above to below. AND HE GAVE HIM A TENTH OF ALL: so that he should cleave to the place where the link was formed with the lower world.’

As they were going along they came across R. Yesa and a certain Judean with him who was explaining the text "To David: Unto thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul" (Ps. XXV, 1). He said: ‘Why is the inscription of this psalm simply "to David" and not "A Psalm of David"? It is because the real meaning is "for the sake of David", i.e. of his grade. "Unto thee, O Lord", i.e. upward-striving; "my soul", i.e. David himself, his original grade; "I lift up": to wit, I cause to ascend, since David was ever striving to rise to a higher grade and to link himself to it firmly. Similarly it was for the sake of his grade that David uttered the words "To David: Bless the Lord, O my soul" (where the word eth indicates his desire to be linked above) "and all that is within me bless his holy name" (Ps. CIII, 1), referring to the "beasts of the field" which are called "inwards".’ Said R. Eleazar to R. Yesa, ‘I see that you have come in company with the Shekinah.’ He said, "Assuredly it is so. I have been walking with him three parasangs, and he has told me ever so many excellent things. I hired him as a porter, not knowing that he was the shining light which I have discovered him to be.’ R. Eleazar then said to the man, ‘What is your name?’ He said: ‘Joezer’. Whereupon he said: ‘Let Joezer and Eleazar sit together.’ So they sat down on a rock in that field. The Judean then commenced to discourse on the text I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions, for mine own sake, and thy sins I will not remember (Is. XLIII, 25). He said: ‘The word "I" occurs here twice: once in reference to Sinai (cf. "I am the Lord thy God", Ex. XX, 2), and the other in reference to the creation of the world (cf. "I have made the earth and created man upon it", Is. XLV, 12), to show that there is no division between the upper and lower worlds. "That blotteth out thy transgressions": not merely removing them, so that they shall never be seen more. "For mine own sake": i.e. for the sake of the mercy which I dispense, as it is written, "For the Lord thy God is a merciful God" (Deut. IV, 31). Another explanation of the words"that blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake" is as follows. Sinners in this world impair the influence of the upper world, for when they sin, mercy and the supernal light depart, and the stream of blessing does not descend to this world, and this grade (of mercy) does not take up the blessings from above in order to convey them to the lower world. Hence God acts "for His own sake", in order that the stream of blessing should not be withheld. Similarly it is written, "See now that I, I am he" (Deut. XXXII, 39), to show that there is no division between the upper and the lower. See now, in this way, when there are righteous men in the world, blessings are sent to all worlds. When Abram came, blessings were sent to the world, as it is written, "And I shall bless thee, and be thou a blessing, i.e. that blessing should be found both above and below for his sake. When Isaac came he taught the world that there is a judge executing judgement above to punish the wicked, and he invoked justice upon the world in order that its inhabitants might fear God. When Jacob came he obtained mercy for the world and perfected men's faith in God. Hence in the days of Abram MELCHIZEDEK KING OF SALEM (salem=completeness), i.e. God whose throne was then established in its place and whose sovereignty therefore became complete, BROUGHT OUT BREAD AND WINE, i.e. produced the appropriate food for the whole world, and did not withhold blessing from all the worlds; from the upper grades He brought forth food and blessings for all the worlds. AND HE WAS A PRIEST TO THE MOST HIGH GOD, the whole thus being in the most perfect order; to show that as the wicked upset the world and cause blessing to be withheld, so the righteous bring blessing to the world and for their sakes all its inhabitants are blessed. AND HE GAVE HIM A TENTH OF ALL, to wit, of those blessings which issue from "all", the source of all the blessings which descend upon the world.

The subject of the Melchizedek priesthood will be covered in greater detail in our study on the book of Hebrews beginning later this year. An excellent study on Hebrews may be found at It provides information such as this:

Sha’ul identifies Yeshua with the Melchizadek figure in Ps. 110:4. While the Talmud identifies Melchizadek as a son of Shem (b.Nedarim 32b) the Qumran community had a more mystical view. In a document found among the Dead Sea Scrolls (11Q13) Melchizadek is presented as a future Messianic figure who would redeem those that are his. This Melchizadek is called in the Qumran document "El" and "Elohim," moreover Is. 61:1-2 is quoted in reference to him with "Melchizadek" substituted for YHWH. The redemption of this Melchizadek figure is also tied, in the Qumran text to the Day of Atonement. It is also significant that the Qumran community believed in two Messiah's "the Messiahs of Aaron and Israel" (1Qs 9:10-11) A priestly Messiah and a kingly Messiah.