Aug 262016


Today is the Roman Catholic feast of Melchizedek, a shadowy and obscure king mentioned in the Hebrew Bible whose tale has subsequently been elaborated upon in all kinds of mystical and quasi-historical literature, almost entirely because of his name (and his association with bread and wine).

Melchizedek , Melkisetek, or Malki Tzedek (Hebrew: מלכי־צדק; Amharic: መልከ ጼዴቅ malkī-ṣeḏeq; Armenian: Մելքիսեդեք, Melkisetek), is mentioned in Genesis 14 as the king of Salem and a priest of El Elyon (“God most high”) who brings out bread and wine and blesses Abram (later Abraham) and El Elyon.

In Chazalic literature – specifically Targum Jonathan, Targum Yerushalmi, and the Babylonian Talmud – the name מלכי־צדק is given as a nickname title for Shem, the son of Noah, and ancestor of Middle Eastern peoples, thus predating Abraham as an ancestor.

In Christianity, according to the Epistle to the Hebrews, Jesus as Christ is identified as “a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek,” that is, a Jewish High Priest.


I will spare you all of the endless conjectures about who Melchizedek was, but I am a little bit fascinated by some linguistic riddles associated with him. These all stem from the fact that ancient Hebrew was written almost entirely without vowels. There are characters for long /i/ and long /o/ but the rest you have to fill in yourself. Most of the time the text is clear without vowels, but you can make mistakes, and some words are deliberately ambiguous. Go here for an explanation of why Greek translations of the Hebrew Torah mistakenly assert that Moses had horns.

The name Melchizedek in Hebrew is made of the two elements melek “king” and ṣedeq “righteous(ness).” With the addition of the enclitic possessive pronoun (-ī), malk-ī means “my king” so that the name literally translates as “my king is righteous(ness)” (or it could also be “my king is Ṣedeq” where “Ṣedeq” is a proper noun). For the moment let’s just say that Melchizedek was the guy’s name. Unfortunately the text explaining where he was from does not make things easier. He is called king of Salem, but the place is written as שלם (s-l-m) which you can read in all manner of ways by adding different vowels – Salem or Salim, for example. Things are further complicated by the fact that the letter ש can be pronounced /s/ or /sh/, so the word could be pronounced “shalom,” which means “peace.” Thus, the text could be saying that Melchizedek was the king of peace, not of a place.

I can read ancient Hebrew well enough, but my competence stops short of historical linguistics, and I can’t contribute anything original to philological debates. Nonetheless, I can provide a few conjectures. My typically matter-of-fact Biblical exegesis leads me to say that the Melchizedek episode in Genesis comes from an ancient oral tradition, and the redactors of Genesis had a reason to include it. But we don’t now know what that reason was, and speculation (while typically Rabbinic) is a waste of time – unless you have a lot of time on your hands. Genesis is made up of all manner of source materials from different eras and places cobbled together to form a book, and scholars have spent decades sifting through, and sorting out the different strands. My own analysis of Genesis (in a forthcoming book, The Genesis Option), avoids that way of looking at the book. Source criticism is not my drug of choice.

Where this place called s-l-m, that was Melchizedek’s kingdom, is located, if it is a place at all, is a puzzle. There is no ancient site in the Middle East that we know of called Salem. Genesis 33:18, might give us a clue, though:

And Jacob came to Shalem, a city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Padanaram; and pitched his tent before the city.

The ancient town of Salim is normally taken to be this location. It is mentioned in the Gospel of John 3:23:

And John also was baptizing in Ænon near to Salim [Σαλείμ], because there was much water there: and they came, and were baptized.


In 1517, Salim was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire with the rest of Palestine. In 1596, it appeared in Ottoman tax registers as being in the Nahiya of Jabal Qubal of the Liwa of Nablus. It had a population of 42 households, all Muslim. The villagers paid taxes on wheat, barley, summer crops, olives, and goats or beehives, and a press for olives or grapes.

French explorer Victor Guérin came to the village in May 1870, after walking through fields of olives, figs and almond trees. He found a village 200 people, in ancient houses. A dozen cisterns in the village were dry, so the women had to fetch water from a stream, called Ain Salim, about 1 km NNW of the village. In 1882, the Palestine Exploration Fund’s Survey of Western Palestine described Salim as a small village, but evidently ancient, surrounded by olive-trees and with two springs to the north.

Archeology dates Salim to the Middle Bronze Age (the time classically associated with Abraham), and shows that it was originally a Canaanite village later taken over by Israelites. It doesn’t seem to have ever had much historical significance, however.


If you want to sift through the mountains of mystical and magical speculations about Melchizedek, knock yourself out. You’re on your own. Clearly the image of his gifts of bread and wine to Abraham suggested to early Christian authors that the narrative was a prefigurement of the Last Supper, and ultimately the Eucharist (holy communion). I’m going to leave that alone too. But a gift of food and drink does lead to some thoughts about cooking.

I have given a fair number of recipes here already from the ancient region of Israel and Palestine. You’ve got lots to pick from with lentils, wine, olive oil, and goat meat. I’ll focus on figs today. The fig tree is the third tree to be mentioned by name in the Hebrew Bible. The first is the Tree of life and the second is the Tree of the knowledge of good and evil (NOT an apple tree). Then Adam and Eve used the leaves of the fig tree to sew garments for themselves after the Fall, when they realized that they were naked (Genesis 3:7).

In Deuteronomy, the Promised Land is described as “a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey; a land where you will eat food without scarcity, in which you will not lack anything;” (Deuteronomy 8:8-10). During Solomon’s reign Judah and Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, lived in safety, each man “under his own vine and fig tree” (1 Kings 4:25), an indicator of national wealth and prosperity. 2 Kings 18 states that Hezekiah rebelled against the King of Assyria, of whom he had become a vassal. In response, the Assyrian commander attempted to sway the army of Jerusalem by offering deserters each his own vine and fig tree.

Figs are in full season here in Mantua, and I’ve been doing a lot with them, raw and cooked. Here is an image of one of my recent impromptu ideas, figs and cheese on bread as an open-faced sandwich.


To be more authentically Middle Eastern you’ll need to use goat or ewe’s cheese and flat bread, but I’m sure you can figure it out. The sweetness of the figs and the slight sourness of goat cheese make a great combination, especially added to the earthiness of whole wheat.