The Origins of Jerusalem and the Priesthood

“Isaac Blessing Jacob”, by Gustav Doré

This week’s Torah reading is Toldot, featuring the births and early lives of the twins Jacob and Esau. After twenty years of marriage, Isaac and Rebecca finally conceive. The pregnancy proves to be a strange one, though, with Rebecca’s restless womb feeling like a battlefield. Rebecca decides to seek the counsel of a prophet to figure out what’s going on. It is revealed that she is carrying twins, each of which will go on to found large nations and kingdoms that will always compete with one another. Even in the womb, they are already struggling for dominance. It is prophesized that ultimately the elder twin (Esau) will serve the younger twin (Jacob).

The Torah is unclear about who it was that made this prophecy. In the simplest sense, it is possible that Rebecca herself received the prophecy directly from God since she, too, was a prophetess like all the matriarchs. However, the accepted tradition (and the one cited by Rashi) is that she went to consult with Shem, the son of Noah.

Shem, or Melchizedek?

Depending on how one reads the verses, Shem must have lived for 600 or 602 years. (In the past, we’ve written of the seemingly impossible lifespans of the pre-Flood generations.) The traditional year for the Flood on the Hebrew calendar (where years are designated with an AM, anno mundi) is 1656 AM, approximately 2104 BCE. Shem was around 100 years old at this time (Genesis 11:10), which means that Shem lived roughly until 2156 AM. Abraham was born in 1948 AM, Isaac in 2048 AM, and Jacob in 2108 AM, so it is a very real possibility that Shem met all three patriarchs.

In the 14th chapter of Genesis, we read about Abraham’s war with the alliance of four kings, headed by Amraphel of Shinar. After defeating the kings, Abraham is greeted by Melchizedek, the king of Salem (Shalem), who is also described as being a priest (kohen). Rashi cites the midrash that Melchizedek is none other than Shem, the son of Noah. How did Shem become Melchizedek?

Back to the Tower of Babel

A few weeks ago we wrote of the Tower of Babel and how this Tower was very different from what people generally think. In the aftermath of the Tower, the people – once all living in a single city, with a single language – were scattered across the Earth, and their languages confounded. Not surprisingly, since their languages had totally changed, their names must have totally changed, too. After all, how could those scattered to, say, China, retain their old Semitic names from a life they no longer had any memory of, and with syllables they could no longer pronounce in their new tongue?

Indeed, Rashi tells us that Amraphel, the king of Shinar – leader of the alliance against Abraham – is the very same person as Nimrod – the king who previously tried to kill Abraham by throwing him into a fiery furnace! Before the Tower, the king was known as Nimrod (in fact, many consider him to be the one who spearheaded the Tower project). Now, after the confounding of languages, he was Amraphel of Shinar. And in the same way, Shem was now Melchizedek of Salem.

The First King of Jerusalem

The Torah tells us that following the Flood, Noah brought sacrificial offerings to God. The midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 30:6) fills in that it was actually Shem who facilitated the offerings. Upon exiting the Ark, Noah was attacked by a lion and seriously injured, preventing him from performing the sacrificial rites. Shem stepped in, becoming history’s first official priest. He held onto this role for several centuries. Knowing that Jerusalem is the spiritual centre of the world, and God’s chosen site for offerings, Shem settled there. He called the place Shalem, literally “wholeness” and “peace”, and soon became its king as well.

Following Abraham’s war, it is said that Shem, now known as Melchizedek, conferred the priesthood upon him. The priesthood was then passed down from father to son through the special birthright and blessing (as we read in this week’s portion). With the sin of the Golden Calf at Mt. Sinai, the firstborn of Israel collectively lost their rights to the priesthood, which was now transferred solely to the tribe of Levi, and more specifically, to the descendants of Aaron. To this day, Jews do the pidyon haben ceremony thirty days after the first male child is born, commemorating this transfer of priesthood from the firstborn to the descendants of Aaron.

Meanwhile, Abraham would later ascend Mt. Moriah in the territory of Salem to bind Isaac in the Akedah. Following this test, Abraham called the place Hashem Yireh, literally “where God is seen”. The Sages say that since the righteous Shem called the place Shalem, and the righteous Abraham called it Yireh, God did not want to choose one name over the other, and so, combined the two to make Yerushalaim, Jerusalem.

The Return of the Righteous Priest

How the life of Shem-Melchizedek came to an end appears to be a mystery. Some ancient Jewish texts put him in the same league as Elijah and Enoch, two people who are said to have never died, but rather ascended to the Heavens alive. The Talmud (Sukkah 52b) speaks of a “Righteous Priest” who comes at the End of Days, together with Elijah and the two Messiahs: Mashiach ben David, and Mashiach ben Yosef. The midrash identifies this Righteous Priest as Melchizedek. Together, they make up the “Four Craftsmen” prophesized by Zechariah that will finally usher in a new, peaceful world. May we merit to see it soon.

2 thoughts on “The Origins of Jerusalem and the Priesthood

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