Contrary to what might be expected, the first priest mentioned in the Bible is not from the Tribe of Levi. In fact, the first priest is described before Levi is even born. In Genesis 14, we are introduced to Melchizedek, who is described as “Priest of God Most High.” Identified in Psalm 110 and extensively reflected upon in the Letter to the Hebrews, Melchizedek remains an elusive figure in the Scripture.
Even so, he appears in the Roman Canon at Mass; today’s priests are ordained to “the Order of Melchizedek,” and his appearance in Genesis forms the basis of some of our theology of the priesthood.
The first question that arises is regarding Melchizedek’s very identity: who is he? His appearance in Genesis 14 is quite minimal and set at a point very early in Abram’s faith journey, as Abram defeats several war lords in the land of Canaan. Identified in the Scripture as “King of Salem,” ancient Jewish sources see him as the leader of the entire area, a wise sage of a man whom the rest must respect. But this does not answer the question of his identity. We must look back even further.
As Abram presents Melchizedek with a tithe, Melchizedek gives him a blessing in return. Here is the hint we’ve been looking for! The last person to receive a blessing was the oldest son of Noah: Shem. Adding up the dates of Shem’s life, we learn that he was actually still alive during Abram’s time, and in fact outlived Abraham!
Blessings at this time in history were not things that could be easily exchanged, once they were given, they could not be taken back. (See Jacob’s stealing of Issac’s paternal blessing from his older brother Esau.) Blessings are tangible things, so Melchizedek/Shem must still have the one given to him by his father, Noah; and he now passes it on to his descendent Abram, the one chosen by God to be the father of many nations.
All of these identities have priestly functions, but it is taken to an even greater degree when we see what Melchizedek offers as a priest, for priests offer sacrifices and Melchizedek offers a sacrifice of bread and wine. This sets off signal flares in the eyes of a Catholic, for our priests also offer sacrifices of bread and wine, now fulfilled in Christ to be His very Body and Blood.
What becomes important for today is that the priesthood in which Catholic Priests share, and by extension that all the baptized share in as well, goes back not just to the Sacrifice in the Jerusalem Temple, but back to the very foundations of creation by God. Melchizedek is identified as “a priest forever” in Psalm 110, his priesthood continues on into the ages. The Catholic Priest, in the place of Christ the Head, also shares in this eternal priesthood, continually offering a sacrifice of bread and wine before God in Heaven.
Uniting all of this into one, we see God’s divine plan in the scope of Salvation History. That Jesus came when He did is not some type of accidental occurrence, but had been planned out from before by our Loving Father. God wants to give us the tools to return to His presence in Heaven. Let us therefore rejoice that Christ left us with the great gift of the priesthood, that He continues to choose men to serve Him in this way, so that we might all come to worship Him forever around His altar in heaven.
This archival article is reprinted with permission from The Catholic Telegraph, and has been updated for content.