06 June 2010

A priest of El Elyon

The first reading from Genesis presents the intriguing character of Melchizedek, king of Salem, and priest of El Elyon (God Most High) who offers Abram a sacrifice of bread and wine. Why is this significant for the celebration of this feast of the Eucharist?

There are two significant points of distinction about the passage from Genesis 14:18-20. The central character, Melchizedek, is only mentioned in this one brief passage, and then again in Psalm 110 (the Responsorial Psalm today) across the whole Old Testament - and yet Melchizedek comes into the theology of the New Testament (through Hebrews 7) and the early Church as a symbol of the priesthood of Jesus and as a model for the ordained ministry.

The name Melchizedek comes from two Hebrew words - Melek meaning king, and sedeq meaning justice or righteousness. So already his name means the King of Righteousness (Heb 7:2). But additionally he is described as the King of Salem - a name that is connected both to the Hebrew word for peace (Shalom) and to the city of Yerushalem / Jerusalem. Genesis 14:17 says that this event takes place in the King's Valley which leads up to the site where Jerusalem was established. Finally, this king of righteousness, and prince of peace is a priest of God Most High (El Elyon) brings a sacrifice (that is what 'kohen' / priests do) of bread and wine. So it is no wonder that the early Church sees in Melchizedek a figure of Christ.

The second point is that when Melchizedek meets Abram (his name has not yet been changed to Abraham) he blesses (baruch) Abram in the name of 'El Elyon'. El is the most generic name for God or divinity in the Semitic languages, including Canaanite. Abram is returning after doing battle with the Canaanite kings to rescue his nephew Lot who had been captured by them. In the Canaanite pantheon, El is also the father of their main god, Ba'al. So perhaps you can understand the reticence of the Hebrews to refer to their God by the most generic name 'El'. Before the revelation of the sacred name of God to Moses, described in Exodus 3, YHWH - which becomes the most common way of calling upon the Lord, and is usually translated in English bibles as LORD - over 6000 occurrences - God was often referred to as Elohim (strictly the plural form of El) or using a descriptive word with El - such as El Elyon in the text here, or in forms like El Shaddai (meaning something like God of the mountains, but the exact meaning of the Hebrew is unclear; it is only when it is translated into Greek in the LXX text that the meaning 'God Almighty' is offered) or El Olam (Everlasting God). But this specific name for God - El Elyon, God Most High - is only used in this passage out of all the Old Testament. And we don't know why.

The descriptive Elyon is found regularly enough across the pages of the OT, but not connected to El as it is in this passage - until you arrive at the New Testament. There, (in Luke 1) when the angel appears to Mary, she is told that she will give birth to the son of the Most High God. Zechariah is told that his son will be a prophet of the Most High. And then right across the ministry of Jesus he clearly sees himself to be the fulfilment of the ministry of Melchizedek - the king of righteousness, the prince of peace, and priest of El Elyon. Paul understands these connections when he describes (20 years before any of the Gospel accounts) the Last Supper, using the language of covenant and sacrifice.

Jesus likewise in the Gospel today first welcomes the crowd and teaches them - as a king and priest was meant to do. Then he invites his disciples to feed the people - but they continue to be thick and miss the prophetic point; all they suggest is to send the people away. Jesus instead reminds them that a king is meant to gather into unity, so he takes what is available (the bread and fish) and says the baruch (blessing) over the gifts and then gives the abundant food to the disciples to distribute.

Although Jesus is the perfect fulfilment of the priest Melchizedek, he also shares this ministry with his disciples, and continues to invite us to be fed and nourished by no less than his very body and blood, so that we in turn can welcome others to share at this feast; as we are transformed by these most precious gifts, so also we are invited to transform all that we bring to the altar of El Elyon.

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Recorded at St Michael's, 9.30am (11'10")