Old Testament Lectionary

Epiphany 3 – Genesis 14:17-20

What on earth is this all about? Even a read of the whole chapter (which is always a good idea, as you will have become sick of me saying) only adds to the confusion. What is going on here, and how in any way will it be edifying for me to hear about it? Let me try to shed some light.

On one level this is a political story about two coalitions of kings trying to control the major trade route through the area. For kings, of course, think tribal chieftains: these are not great nations and mighty emperors we’re talking about here. But the group from the South had been ruled for 12 years by the group from the East, and they had had enough, so revolt ensued. The southern lot were roundly defeated by the eastern lot, and their towns were sacked and prisoners taken. But what is significant is that Lot, Abram’s nephew, who had chosen to go and live in Sodom, a proverbially evil place, was also captured, along with his worldly goods. Abram gets to hear about this, and so gathers a small army and sets out on what looks like a suicidal rescue mission. However, God is with him, and Lot and his goods are saved.

As Abram returns he is met by a jubilant King of Sodom, no doubt intent on thanking him for his rescue mission. But he is upstaged by the sudden appearance of Melchizedek, king of Salem (the same word as shalom – peace, and his name means ‘King of Righteousness’). The very different responses of these two contrasting kings is the crux of this story, which is actually about how Abram is going to live out the calling he received from God two chapters earlier. The King of Sodom and King Melchizedek sit on his shoulders like the little angel and demon you see in cartoons: which way will Abram choose to go?

The King of Sodom is business-like: let’s do a deal. I’d quite like to have back the people you rescued, but you can keep all the spoils. This sounds sensible: after all the spoils of war are normally due to the victor, and Abram can certainly live without a bunch of extra Sodomites. But Melchizedek’s approach is very different. He offers Abram bread and wine, here representing the simplest of ordinary food essential to life, and a blessing which is far more about God than it is about Abram. Abram chooses to refuse the riches offered to him by Sodom, not wishing ever to be beholden to a pagan king in the living out of his call from God. Apart from the legitimate expenses of the journey, he will have none of it, preferring the blessing of God and the simple provision he needs.

Melchizedek is mentioned a few more times in the Bible. In Psalm 110 he is mentioned as the originator of the priesthood which Christ came later to fulfil. The letter to the Hebrews explains in chapters 5 and 7 that Melchizedek’s priesthood is the original and best, and that the later priesthood based on the tribe of Levi is not the real thing, thus proving to Jewish Christians that Jesus is better than their previous faith to which they may feel temped to revert.

This strange story highlights a decision which all those who are called by God have to face. What do we have to do to remain faithful to that original call? And what’s in it for us? Interestingly this is a question raised by Peter in Mk 10. There is fortunately, little financial gain to be made from Christian ministry, but the question is about where our hears and sights are fixed, and how beholden we want to allow ourselves to become to what this world has to offer. Abram passes this test with flying colours: how are we doing?

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