From Feast upon the Word (http://feastupontheword.org). Copyright, Feast upon the Word.
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- Verses 7:1-3: Superiority of Melchisedec priesthood.
These verses contain an implicit argument for the superiority of the Melchisedec priesthood: First, Melchisedec was the king that blessed Abraham at his moment of triumph over kings, suggesting that even at the moment when the great progenitor subjected earthly authorities to his power, Melchisedec remained higher than him. Second, Abraham paid a tithe to the king. This may imply that there was some sort of semi-feudal relationship between Abraham and Melchisedec, once again with Melchisedec in the superior position. Third, the author notes the derivation of Melchisedec's name, which was most likely a title rather than a proper name; furthermore both of the names are associated with Christ, who is the Prince of Peace and the Man of Righteousness. Fourth, the author seems to suggest that Melchisedec was an immortal being. Here he is playing on a convention by which it was assumed that a scriptural character whose genealogy was not given was in fact a quasi-divine being. Like the resurrected Christ, Melchisedec is portrayed as a divine priest of the eternal world who "abideth a priest continually."
- Verses 7:4-5: Inferiority of Levitical priesthood.
Having established Melchisedec's superiority to Abraham, the author now establishes the inferiority of the Levitical priesthood. The Levites came out of Abraham, yet all paid tithes to them. We have an oblique reference here to the "seed of Abraham," a status that the Pharisees exalt in in the Gospels. (Although, the author of Hebrews clearly has the Levitical priests rather than the Pharisees in his sights. The priests in the time of Christ were Saduccees rather than Pharisees.)
The language about the Levites coming out of Abraham may also be playing on pre-modern ideas about human reproduction. According to many ancient thinkers, a person literally grew from the seed of his father. The mother's womb was an entirely passive vessel on this view. Hence, in a very literal sense one was actually present within the body of one's ancestor. One example of this way of thinking is an Islamic legend about Adam, his seed, and God. The story was meant to explain human obligation to obey God. Back when Adam stood before God, God extracted from him a promise to obey. He (God) then pulled out of Adam's genitals all of his semen (seed), which then grew miraculously so that the entire human race stood before God. Having promised to obey Him, God then once again shrunk the race down to an infintesimal size and packed the seed back into Adam. In a similar way, the author seems to be suggesting that not only are the Levites inferior in authority to Melchisedec, but that they were literally present within Abraham when he -- and they -- were subjected to the authority of Melchisedec.
- Verse 7:24: Unchangeable priesthood.
The Greek word aparabatos in v. 24 has been translated "unchangeable" in the KJV ("permanent" in most other translations, "never pass" in this Aramaic version), but has an additional connotation of "not liable to pass to a successor."
This raises the question of whether the priesthood can be passed on to others. Steven Barton discusses two uses of the term priesthood in the scriptures and argues that v. 24 is referring to Christ's unique priestly calling to atone for sins, a calling that is not transferable to anyone else. In support of this interpretation is the reference in v. 21 to Melchizedek who is associated with immortality in rabbinic and early Hebrew writings. According to Barton:
- Many ancient people thought of Melchizedek as a being that popped in and out of the world and lives on still. Christ's priestly duty, then, was "after the order of Melchizedek," meaning (in Hebrews) that Christ's sacrifice was eternal (like Melchizedek). His role as true high priest and mediator has not been given to another, because (like Melchizedek) "he lives" (Heb. 7:8,25).
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- Verse 7:3. Craig A. Cardon, "Moving Closer to Him," Ensign, Nov 2006, pp. 94–96. Elder Cardon speaks of the power of the priesthood that changes our natures to become more like the Son of God (see JST Heb 7:3). "This likeness is not only in ordination and ordinance but also in the perfecting of individual hearts, something that occurs 'in process of time' as we '[yield] to the enticings of the Holy Spirit...'"
- Verse 7:24. See the article: Non-Transferable Priesthood by Steven Barton. Also, see some blog discussion here.
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