Summary: Revealed scripture helps us understand the life and role of this prophet-king, who is largely a mystery in the Bible.
“None Were Greater”:
A Restoration View of Melchizedek
Revealed scripture helps us understand the life and role of this prophet-king, who is largely a mystery in the Bible.
Scriptural texts paint a somber scene of events occurring approximately 4,000 years ago in the land of Salem—a place full of abomination and iniquity. There was little room for faith among a people who “had all gone astray” (Alma 13:17). Yet in that time “of all manner of wickedness” (v. 17), an unusual child came forth. His destiny was to receive in time the same priesthood power manifested earlier by the prophet Enoch (see JST, Gen. 14:30-31).
Known to us as Melchizedek, the child grew and soon demonstrated great trust in the Lord. Relying upon God in events whose details are lost to us, the young boy escaped death by stopping the mouths of lions and quenching the violence of fire (see JST, Gen. 14:26). Because of his righteousness, in time he was ordained after “the order of the covenant which God made with Enoch” (JST, Gen. 14:27). Empowered with the same priesthood and covenants granted Enoch, Melchizedek changed his people and led them into righteousness. Indeed, Alma observed that of all the prophets of his time “none were greater” than the prophet Melchizedek (Alma 13:19). Thus, we hunger to know: who was this Melchizedek who merited such praise and admiration?
The Historical Melchizedek
The names Melchizedek and Salem suggest the uniqueness of the king of Salem and his people. In fact, the very name Melchizedek consists of the two Hebrew words malkî (“king”) and sedeq (“righteousness”), implying the king of Salem’s faith in God—“My king is righteousness.” 1 Similarly, the Apostle Paul interpreted Melchizedek as “King of righteousness” (Heb. 7:2). Salem, the name of Melchizedek’s land or city, may mean “peace” or “peaceful.” The Bible Dictionary in the LDS edition of the Bible identifies Salem as Jerusalem. Biblical text discloses that Melchizedek was the righteous leader of a group of people who earned a reputation for peace and stability. Thus, in the midst of violent and chaotic times dominated by warring tribal factions, Melchizedek and Salem indeed appear unique. 2
But the biblical record provides little historical information about Melchizedek. The few verses in Genesis record his offering Abraham bread and wine and receiving tithes from the spoils of Abraham’s military victory (see Gen. 14:17-24). Apart from a brief verse in Psalms (see Ps. 110:4), the only other biblical mention of Melchizedek is in the Apostle Paul’s instruction to early Christians about the Lord Jesus Christ’s role as the great high priest (see Heb. 5:6-10; Heb. 6:20; Heb. 7:11, 15, 17, 21).
With this limited information it is first helpful to know what those conclude who do not have latter-day revelation to guide them. From the account in Genesis 14:17-24 [Gen. 14:17-24], they note that Melchizedek is the first priest mentioned in the Bible, saying that he served the Most High God, the creator of earth and heaven. 3 They consider the gift of bread and wine to Abraham a demonstration of Melchizedek’s generosity. 4 They view the tithing Abraham paid to Melchizedek as a typical offering of the time, intended to support a king’s sanctuary. 5 A number regard Abraham’s willing submission to Melchizedek, a priest of the Most High God, as a reflection of Abraham’s covenant with God, or in this case reflecting Abraham’s willingness to recognize other righteous men. Some consider the blessing Melchizedek gave Abraham as a type of priesthood ordination. Others speculate that Abraham’s submission to the order of Melchizedek (see Heb. 7) was a recognition of Melchizedek’s greater authority, authority of which Jesus Christ’s power is an example. Many simply view a subsequent historical reference to Melchizedek in Psalms—“thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek” (Ps. 110:4)—as King David’s assumption of priestly functions as part of the royal duties. 6
One author summarized this confusion by calling Melchizedek an enigmatic figure “dimly outlined … against a background of immense and mystical remoteness.” 7 This uncertainty has led some to examine apocryphal sources and oral traditions. While interesting, such sources do little to provide reliable information on the identity of Melchizedek and his significance.
In contrast, truths restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith provide the most complete source for understanding this great king of Salem. The Joseph Smith Translation, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Book of Mormon, and the Prophet Joseph Smith’s teachings contain highly important insights and knowledge about Melchizedek as a historical person, giving an accurate perspective on his remarkable story of faith and valor (see accompanying chart).
The Book of Mormon tells us that Melchizedek reigned under his father. It was a difficult time for the kingdom because the people had “waxed strong in iniquity and abominations” (Alma 13:17). From the Joseph Smith Translation text of Genesis 14, we presume that Melchizedek faced great opposition as a youth in his desires to follow righteousness. These trials of Melchizedek resemble those faced at a later time by the prophet Daniel and his companions Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego. Melchizedek drew upon the power of faith in God to still savage lions and, when faced with a fiery death, quenched the fire through his faith in the Lord (see JST, Gen. 14:26).