Melchizedek - Shem - Sargon?
There is an ancient tradition that equates Shem with Melchizedek, “the priest of the Most High God.” (Gen 14:18) In Genesis 14, after the slaughter of the kings, Abraham is met by Melchizedek, king of Salem (which is Jerusalem according to Psalms 75:3). In Jewish, Christian, and Muslim tradition, this Melchizedek is identified with Shem.
Melchizedek is mentioned only once more in the TaNaKh [OT], in Psalms 110. There (Psalms 110:1) the LORD addresses David’s lord (אֲדֹנִי ’ădōnî ‘my lord’), which is Abraham who obtained the promise and his seed the Messiah (Gen 22:16; Mat 22:44). In Psalms 110:4 David states that, “The LORD hath sworn, and will not repent, Thou are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” Thus the Messiah is “a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.”
In the book of Hebrews, this verse (Psalms 110:4) is quoted repeatedly (Heb 5:6; 6:20; 7:17, 21), and Jesus is identified as “a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” Jesus’ priesthood as typified by Melchizedek pre-dated Aaron and therefore is not determined by descent from Aaron (Heb 7:11-14).
But what does it mean where (Heb 7:3) Melchizedek is described as “without father, without mother, without descent [ἀγενεαλόγητος], having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest continually”?
The book of Hebrews surely sees Jesus Christ as such “a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” But is it in fact saying that Jesus was the Melchizedek to whom Abraham paid tithes?
Those who see Melchizedek as a messianic type (and not actually Jesus) point out that in Genesis 14 nothing is said of Melchizedek’s parentage, his genealogy, his birth and death — things so important to those holding the office of Aaronic priest. And so the point of Heb 7:3 is that these factors were not mentioned when Melchizedek was called “the priest of the Most High God.” But if, as tradition says, Melchizedek was Shem, then, comparatively speaking, Shem’s priesthood was as if eternal. It spanned many generations of normal men. Shem not only knew almost a century of life in the pre-Flood world, he lived for 502 years afterward.
In his commentary on Genesis, E. A. Speiser suggests that Genesis 14 looks like something taken
from a cuneiform document (such as the Amarna letters), and that the title “Melchizedek” would have been expressed with the cuneiform signs lugal.du, ‘the king is just, legitimate’, same as Šarru(m)-kîn, or Sargon, in East Semitic.
So the question arises: If Shem was Melchizedek, could it be that Shem had also ruled as Sargon of Akkad, king over the world’s first empire?
Sargon’s dominion stretched from Cyprus in the Mediterranean to Bahrain in the Persian Gulf. This was the king who subdued Elam and established Akkadian hegemony over Sumer. Whoever Sargon was, it was he who was largely responsible for the dominance that came to the Semitic speaking Hebrews of the ancient Near East. Note how Shem is introduced in the Table of Nations: “the father of all the children of Eber” (Eber being the eponymous ancestor of the Hebrews).
It is interesting that Melchizedek came out to meet Abram after Abram’s defeat of a confederacy of kings who represented much the same peoples that Sargon had subdued many years before. Apart from Amraphel (whom some equate with Hammurabi), the kings slaughtered by Abram bear non-Semitic names: Chedorlaomer, of course, is Elamite, Arioch appears to be Hurrian, and Tidal is Hattian (the pre-Indo-European language of Anatolia).
Certain details in the Mesopotamian records militate against linking Sargon with Shem. Yet owing to the fact that these were recorded and preserved in the great centers of Assyro-Babylonian paganism, they may not entirely demolish the theory.
Consider, for example, the so-called “Sargon legend”. It makes Sargon an illegitimate child whose mother was a priestess. Sargon was left as a baby in a Mesopotamian canal in much the same manner as Moses was left in the Nile. As Sargon asserts (in the cuneiform document), “My mother was a high priestess, my father I do not know. My paternal kin inhabit the mountain region.”
Now, of course, this does not sound like Shem who honored his father Noah (Gen 9:23)!
But though such cuneiform texts may record the garbled creations of idolatrous Mesopotamian priests, nevertheless they may actually be based on certain facts. Consider the Jewish legend that Melchizedek was illegitimate (Ginsburg, Legends of the Jews, Vol. V, pg. 228), and also the Jewish legend that Noah’s wife was Naamah, the daughter of Lamech a descendant of Cain (Gen 4:22).
Now this Sargon-Shem equation is speculation, of course, but it still presents an interesting view of Mesopotamian history. Obviously, a great deal has been omitted from the very compressed account of the first 2500 years of human history recorded in Genesis.
Ginzberg, Louis. 1901-1938. Legends of the Jews. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America.
Lewis, Brian. 1980. The Sargon legend: A study of the Akkadian text and the tale of the hero who was exposed at birth. American Schools of Oriental Research dissertation series, No. 4. American Schools of Oriental Research.
Speiser, Ephraim Avigdor. 1964. Genesis: Introduction, Translation, and Notes. Des Moines, Iowa: The Anchor Bible.