Melchizedek is an obscure individual who makes but one appearance in the Bible, and most folks can’t tell you where or when. But Latter-day Saints sure can, for the high priesthood of Mormonism bears his name. Unfortunately, our exclusive focus on his priestly authority causes us to miss something profound in his encounter with Abraham.
To grasp the import of this episode, we have to focus on what was going on in Abraham’s life before Melchizedek arrived and what immediately followed. In other words, we have to read it in context.
From the beginning, Abraham’s quest was a lonely one. It began when the Lord commanded him to leave hearth and home for an unknown destination:
Go forth [lit., go to yourself] from your country,
And from your relatives
And from your father’s house,
To the land which I will show you; … (Gen. 12:1 NASB)
To remain on the path God has laid before him, Abraham finds he must distance himself from the negative influences around him. Periodically, however, those external forces threaten to disrupt his pilgrimage. There is a famine that afflicts the land promised him by the Lord, leading to forced exile in Egypt. (Gen. 12:10.) While there, he engages in subterfuge to disguise his marital status. (Gen. 12:13.) Next, there is a falling out with his nephew, Lot, over their accumulated wealth. (Gen. 13:6.) His downward spiral reaches its nadir when he is drawn into the “War of the Kings” and makes compromises that threaten his spiritual welfare.
During this conflict Lot, who was living in Sodom, is taken captive by one of the two allied armies. In order to rescue him, Abraham made an unholy alliance with the King of Sodom, Bera, whose very name means “son of evil.”
Abraham’s army not only succeeds in rescuing his relative, but also vanquishes his foes, winning the war for Sodom and its allies. He is enriched by the spoils of war, which include “women, and the people.” (Gen. 14:16.) Bera soon arrives on the scene ostensibly to propose a division of the booty. But their meeting is abruptly interrupted by the arrival of a mysterious, uninvited visitor (Gen. 14:17-20 NASB):
17 Then after his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley). 18 And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; now he was a priest of God Most High. 19 He blessed him and said,
Blessed be Abram of God Most High,
Possessor of heaven and earth;
20 And blessed be God Most High,
Who has delivered your enemies into your hand.
He gave him a tenth of all.
Little is known about Melchizedek, other than he was a city-state king of Canaanite, Amorite, or Hurrian extraction. His city was Salem, likely an early name for Jerusalem. But to Abraham he was a complete stranger, referred to as a priest of El Elyon (“Most High God”).
In the spirit of giving, Melchizedek “brings out bread and wine.” This stands in stark contrast to Sodom’s most grievous sin, which, according to Ezekiel, had plenty of bread but did nothing to alleviate the suffering of the poor and needy. (Ez. 16:49.)
The theme of giving continues at the end of their meeting with the statement: “He gave him a tenth of all.” While most biblical scholars believe Abraham is the one paying the tithe, the statement is ambiguous, suggesting it could be Melchizedek’s generosity that is on display here. And even if he is the recipient of Abraham’s donation, he gives him a valuable spiritual gift by accepting it.
The contrasts continue to mount as the first words spoken by Melchizedek to Abraham are “Blessed be Abram” while Bera begins by saying, “Give me.” And in the course of blessing the patriarch, Melchizedek introduces a new name for God: “God Most High,” inviting Abraham to turn his gaze away from earthly concerns and temptations and look heavenward where his genuine protector resides.
Melchizedek’s intervention succeeds. Abraham severs his alliance with Bera and refuses to take anything from him. In doing so, he invokes the oath he had sworn to the “Lord God Most High,” using the very same language of his priestly visitor.
As noted by the biblical scholar Judy Klitsner:
[A]t this critical juncture in Abraham’s life, Melchizedek’s name and essence, as well as his words and actions, remind the patriarch of his purpose and his calling. If Abraham could reconnect with the ideals that first motivated him, he would again look upward to God, the source of all blessing. Melchizedek fortifies and inspires Abraham by epitomizing the justice and righteousness that will serve as the foundations of God’s covenant.
Abraham’s lonely spiritual quest is mirrored in the life of Moses, who also, at a critical moment, has an unexpected encounter with a priest from a foreign land.
Moses begins his life in a solitary manner. As a young man, he seeks a community of likeminded individuals who share his values. He first looks to the Egyptians, but there sees only violence and oppression. When he can find no one to intervene to stop an Egyptian from smiting defenseless victims, he acts unilaterally, taking the life of the assailant.
Next, he makes a sojourn among the Israelites, but finds them behaving much as their oppressors, one Hebrew slave striking another. When he takes it upon himself to challenge the aggressor, his virtuous motives are met with ridicule: “Who died and made you king?!?” (Exodus 2:14.)
His vigilante acts eventually compel him to flee. But after he finds a safe haven, he picks up right where he left off: singlehandedly rescuing seven damsels in distress from intruding shepherds. These women are the daughters of Jethro, Priest of Midian.
An introduction quickly follows and Jethro, seeing something special in Moses, promptly betroths him to his daughter, Zipporah. Moses, for the first time in his life, no longer feels estranged from the world around him.
The most important encounter between Jethro and Moses, however, occurs later, shortly after the Israelites miraculous exodus from Egypt. This time Jethro greets him with language strikingly similar to that employed by Melchizedek (Ex. 18:10-11):
10 So Jethro said, “Blessed be the Lord who delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of Pharaoh, and who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. 11 Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the gods; …
But the next day, Jethro offers counsel dissimilar to that given by Melchizedek to Abraham. He sees that his son-in-law’s solitary mindset is causing him to micromanage the affairs of his people. So he takes him aside and says (Ex. 18: 17-18):
17 … “The thing that you are doing is not good.18 You will surely wear out, both yourself and these people who are with you, for the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.”
He urges Moses to teach them correct principles, and let them govern themselves, and to appoint worthy leaders and judges to resolve minor disputes and other quotidian matters. His use of the phrase “not good” (Heb. Lo tov) is noteworthy. It appears in only one other place in the Pentateuch: “It is not good for man to be alone.” (Gen. 2:18.)
As Judy Klitsner notes, Moses enjoys his greatest success as leader shortly after this encounter with Jethro. But he continues to struggle with his tendency to act unilaterally. Eventually, his “I’m-in-charge” temperament ends in tragedy. When he neglects to abide by the Lord’s strict instructions regarding the manner in which he is to perform a miracle to quench the people’s thirst in the desert, Moses and his brother are denied entry into the Promised Land. (Num. 20:9-12.) Moses ends his career, the way he began it. Alone.
At times, each of us is in need of inward focus and detachment. Retiring to the quiet places for contemplation and meditation can be nourishing and rejuvenating. But this should be done not just for our personal intellectual and spiritual edification; rather, it should also be pursued to better equip us to serve our fellowman.
The Savior lived this principle, retreating at times to the desert or the mountains to commune with his Father. There, his earthly mission was given greater clarity, thereby augmenting his love and compassion for the sheep he had come to lead.
Judy Klitsner also sees another valuable lesson in these stories:
“[They] intimate that it is not the messenger, but the message, that is of utmost importance. Only those who prove capable of providing moral and pragmatic guidance—whether Israelite or non-Israelite—will rise to the position of priesthood. In fact, the shifting identity of the priests implies that no one group has sole claim to this distinction.”
The stories of Melchizedek and Jethro, among other things, challenge us to seek out sources of wisdom wherever we can find them and not be content with the things we think we already know. As President Hugh B. Brown eloquently observed: “Our revealed truth should leave us stricken with the knowledge of how little we really know. It should never lead to an emotional arrogance based upon a false assumption that we somehow have all the answers–that we in fact have a corner on truth. For we do not.”
 Comway, Joan, Ronald Brownrigg, Who’s Who in the Bible, p. 70, Wings Books, New York, 1993.
 Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, J.H. Walton Editor, Vol. 1, p. 82, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2009.
 Melchizedek was the first person to be given the title of “priest” in the Hebrew Bible.
 Klitsner, Judy, Subversive Sequels in the Bible, Maggid Books, 2009.