Melchizedek in 4QVision of Amram and Hebrews 7
One previously unknown text found at Qumran was 4Q543-547 Vision of Amram. The story goes that Amram (grandson of Levi and father of Moses and Aaron) married off his daughter Miriam to his younger brother Uzziel. At the wedding feast Amram calls to his son Aaron and says, “Call for my son, Malaki’yah [messenger of God] [Moses]… who will give wisdom.” Then, a break in the fragments. Next, Amram goes up from Egypt to Hebron to build a burial site for the patriarchs, but a war begins to break out between Egypt and the Philistines, stranding Amram away from his wife (and aunt) Jochebad for 41 years. He remains faithful to her the entire time, and she to him. Then, another break in the fragments. Amram has a vision: two angelic beings are arguing over who will have authority over Amram. One, dressed in multi-colored clothes with a face like a viper and who rules over the darkness, is named Melkiresha, king of wickedness. The other rules over the light, so he is presumably the opposite of the first character (though the text is fragmentary). He would be dressed in white, and would be named Melkizedek, king of righteousness. The text also mentions that he is smiling, has something on his forehead (a phylactery? the high priestly diadem?). Two choices for Amram. Who will he choose to follow?
Some have interpreted this text as a kind of cosmic dualism where there are two paths, good and evil, black and white. The dualism used here as a literary troupe, these interpreters have assumed, indicates a more general dualism that goes throughout the universe. However, the helpful article “Reassessing the Dream-Vision of the Vision of Amram (4Q543-547) by Blake Alan Jurgens offers a more deflationary reading. Instead of thinking about this text as cosmic dualism, he reads it as a rivalry between two warring priesthoods (or the actual priesthood and an idealized conception of what the priesthood should be). He gives several reasons for this. The incestuous marriages between Miriam and Uzziel and between Amram and Jochebad would ostensibly be forbidden, so the fact that it appears anyways indicates that the author is trying to say something that involves endogamy. The most plausible explanation is that the priestly line had to be preserved from impurity and needed a known genealogy extending back as far as possible, so these marriages secure the priestly qualifications of Amram and by extension Aaron. Furthermore, if the other figure opposite Melkiresha is Melkizedek, then the priestly connotations of Melchizedek must be important, since he is always and everywhere associated with the priesthood. The object on Melchizedek’s head may be the high priestly diadem inscribed with the sacred name (Exodus 28:36-38). The colorful robe on Melkiresha may indicate the dazzling wealth and status of the high priesthood (Exodus 39:1-7; Philo Special Laws 1.84-95; Josephus Ant. 3.184-186; Ben Sira 50:5-11).
Why does this matter? I will quote from Jurgens’s conclusion:
“Interestingly enough, Amram’s apparent choice of Melchizedek over Melchiresha associates him with an entirely different priestly inheritance, one which temporally and genealogically is independent of the Levitical line. This makes Melchizedek an exceptional individual to align one’s self with, especially if one is attempting to exhibit both the flaws of priestly administration in Jerusalem as well as establish a ground for sacerdotal authority which does not fall under the categories of a corrupted administration. This means that allegiance with the ancient priesthood of Melchizedek, due to its pre-Levitical origins, served as a priestly endorsement that was not dependent upon the opinions and approval of other priestly powers. The bestowal of the title ‘a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek’ would have provided the one claiming this pedigree a link to an ancient priesthood and the cultic authority which derived from it, both of which would have served him well in any case where the legitimacy of his office was being questioned or threatened. It is far from presumptuous to note that such an agenda would have suited a wide array of Jewish sects and groups during the Second Temple period who faced opposition from the reigning priestly authorities in Jerusalem. Considering the general consensus that the Vision of Amram was initially composed sometime in the latter third/early second centuries BCE, it seems that Robert Duke’s assessment that the author of the Vision of Amram may be assessing the priesthood of Onias II and intermarriage of his sister into the Tobiad family is certainly plausible, though such specific historical interpolation is difficult to discern in a fragmentary document such as the Vision of Amram.”
“Nevertheless, it seems rather likely that Amram’s vision is referencing a conflict over the legitimacy of a particular priestly group, a conflict in which the author may be using the choice of Amram as a mirror image ofthe possible choices others may have been making in light of a perceived corruption ofthe priestly line and office. Thus, it diould come as no surprise that multiple פרשגן of Amram’s sacred and esoteric words would be extant in the Qumran library, especially when one considers the community’s general opposition to the governing authorities ofthe Temple. Though the Vision ofAmmm was not a literary product of the Qumran community, the visionary experience of Amram, and his subsequent allegiance with Melchizedek over Melchiresha, could have been reappropriated by the Qumran community and applied to any potential conflicts they may have been experiencing with the Jerusalem Temple, adding clout to their case for sacerdotal legitimacy in opposition to the alleged corruption of the reigning religious authorities.”
I think 4QVisions of Amram could be helpful for understanding Hebrews 5-7. The author of Visions of Amram has selected a character one generation before Aaron (and thus the priesthood). This matters because if the selected character was one generation after Aaron, for example Eleazar or Ithamar, then whatever priestly construct this text comes up with would be subordinated to the ordinary Aaronic priesthood. By going back a generation, the reverse happens: you get down below the foundation. This also appears to be the logic in Hebrews 7, but instead of selecting Amram, the author of Hebrews has selected Abraham. “Melchizedek did not trace his descent from Levi, yet he collected a tenth from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises… One might even say that Levi, who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham, because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor” (Hebrews 7:6-10). Just like in Visions of Amram, the construction of an alternate priestly line 1. is situated genealogically prior to Aaron, and 2. invokes the figure of Melchizedek and tells how Aaron’s ancestor interacted with him.
On a more speculative note, the author of Hebrews could share the same critical attitude toward the Jerusalem priesthood. Maybe this is because the Temple was administered by the Sadducees, who were considered corrupt and illegitimate. Or because the High Priest was selected by the King, who in the case of Herod was corrupt and half Idumean (so, ethnically illegitimate). Or maybe this was because the Temple had been destroyed, if Hebrews was written after 70 CE. While it is impossible to know the exact political situation behind the Epistle to the Hebrews, using Melchizedek to assert a unique priestly role for Jesus certainly served some political function with respect to the Jerusalem priesthood.
However, the argument of Hebrews 7 goes beyond this genealogical and priestly discourse. First, the problem is that Jesus cannot actually be situated before Aaron — he has a known tribal identity, the tribe of Judah, and nobody from the tribe of Judah has ever served as a priest (7:14). Second, Melchizedek by 7:15 turns out not to be the genealogical progenitor of another priesthood, but a literary foil for the author to compare Jesus against. Melchizedek’s priesthood is, explicitly, not on the basis of his genealogy (7:16), since he has no father or mother or genealogy nor beginning of days nor end of life (7:3). Third, what happens instead is that at the resurrection of Jesus, the Father has declared the words of Psalm 110:4 over him: “You are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.” Because of Jesus’s “indestructible life” (7:16) he can serve as a better priest because he will never die. His priesthood comes not on the basis of genealogy, and produces no further offspring, because he himself is our great high priest forever.
The author of Hebrews participates in the contemporary talk about the priesthood, genealogy, and the patriarchs, and uses recognizable literary strategies when maneuvering these topics. But he uses them for his own purposes, and he deploys these literary strategies to make an argument based on resurrection (“indestructible life”). The resurrection of the dead was a shared belief among some Jews but not all. Notably, the Sadducees who administered the Temple complex did not believe in the resurrection. Hebrews may then be driving the wedge in further: not only is the currently priestly class illegitimate and corrupt (a common belief in the lead-up to the war in 70 CE and in reflection after the fact) but those same people cannot see the solution due to their own blindness. This makes me wonder if the author of Hebrews, in addition to appealing to his Christ-following audience, is trying to make his argument appeal to the Pharisees and perhaps certain other Jewish groups as well. It cannot be a coincidence that Hebrews’ main argument and main rhetorical strategies align with several of the main divides in the matrix of early Jewish sectarianism. Perhaps this points to a time before the Jesus movement gave up the politics of early Jewish life and still thought they could make a meaningful contribution to those sectarian debates.