The following is a sermon Sara Barton preached at Culver Palms Church of Christ in Culver City, California.
Imagine Mel Gibson on top of a hill, war paint on his face, wild hair blowing in the wind as he rallies his men before they storm the opposing troops in the valley below. He shouts, “Freedom!” and they all charge into battle . . .
I can’t stand those movies. Bloody battle scenes and guttural war cries are not my cup of tea. But regardless of my personal feelings, here’s our text, beginning in Genesis 14:8:
Then the king of Sodom, the king of Gomorrah, the king of Admah, the king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela went out, and they joined battle in the Valley of Siddim against King Chedor-lahmer of Elam, King Tidal of Goiim, King Amraphel of Shinar, and King Arioch of Ellasar, four kings against five.
In their world, this was world war.
Now the Valley of Siddim was full of bitumen pits; and as the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, some men fell into them,
If there’s one thing I enjoy even less than a bloody battle scene, it’s death by bitumen pits.
So the enemy took all the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah, and all their provisions, and went their way; they also took Lot, the son of Abram’s brother, who lived in Sodom, and his goods, and departed.
My brother’s son JC has been a Green Beret in the U.S. Army since 2001. So I have a nephew embroiled in battle in the Middle East . . . so did Abram.
Now when Abram heard that his nephew had been taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, three hundred eighteen of them, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. He divided his forces against them by night, he and his servants, and routed them and pursued them to Hobah, north of Damascus. Then he brought back all the goods, and also brought back his nephew Lot with his goods, and the women and the people. [emphasis added]
In one night, Abram defeated the allies that four kings could not defeat. In this text, he is “Super Abram.” And this impressive feat did not go without notice.
After his return from the defeat of Chedor-lahmer, the king of Sodom went out to meet Abram at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley).
And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. He blessed him and said,
“Blessed be Abram by God Most High, provider of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” [emphasis added]
Here we are in Genesis, in the beginning, back to the origin of the blessing that changed everything. Every. Thing. The Lord had called Abram and made a promise: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
The long-term view of this story is that we are among all the people on earth. This isn’t just an ancient story of a battle and a blessing that ended a long time ago. This is our story. This is about our blessing, too. And when we look back at this critical juncture in history and the events of Abram/Abraham’s life, we get a glimpse into how the Lord wants blessed people like us to behave.
Today, in our English vocabulary, we certainly have a wide variety of connotations for the word “blessing,” so we should probably think for a moment about what kind of blessing we are talking about here.
For example, we all know that polite people give a blessing when someone sneezes: “God bless you.” But that’s not the kind of blessing that’s central to our text.
In the South where I grew up, we have a distinctive take on the word blessing. You can actually be as mean as you want, as long as you say, “Bless her heart,” after your statement: “She has really put on a lot of weight, bless her heart.”
In the social media world, there’s a focus on blessing, where it’s common to hashtag a blessing, revealing how we define being blessed.
- Blueberries are half price at Whole Foods #blessed
- Was just moved up to business class for my cross country flight #blessed
- Caught a piece of bacon falling out of my sandwich right before it hit the ground #blessed
These connotations of blessing are not what the Bible is getting at. As God’s children, heirs of the greatest blessing known to humankind, we know we are blessed, we have faith that our blessing includes something more that’s coming—but we often struggle to understand what blessing means in the meantime. Faith is no easy task.
I think the same was true for Abram in our story. There’s no doubt he had been blessed, but the storyline indicates that he struggled to understand what that blessing meant, especially while he and Sarah waited and waited and waited for the child of the blessing to arrive. They grew weary while they waited.
In this post-battle scene of chapter 14, Abram has a decision that might not seem immediately clear to those of us who have never personally plundered booty in war: Abram is being baited with wealth. As the decisive victor in a war among kings, Abram is now in a position of great power, and he can decide whether to handle his newly acquired loot justly, or unjustly. With great power comes great responsibility. Or, in the biblical narrative, we might say with great blessing comes a great task.
While we may not know much about plundering sheep and cattle, we’re a lot more like Abram than we might think. Daily, we are baited, and we have decisions about how we will handle the stuff we acquire, about whether we believe we are our own providers and definers of blessing or if God is the blessing definer and provider of heaven and earth.
In the story, Abram’s choice is exemplified by two kings standing in front of him. This week as I’ve been picturing this story, I keep visualizing scenes from The Price is Right, the game show. Contestants stand in front of two curtains or doors. Will they choose Door Number 1 or Door Number 2? The crowd shouts at them, “Number 1! Number 2!” And Bob Barker or Drew Carey holds the microphone to the contestant’s anxious face, and the crowd gets quiet, and the choice is made.
For Abram, the nature of his choice is clear:
- At Door Number 1 is the King of Sodom. Genesis makes it clear what stands behind Sodom’s door: wickedness and unrighteousness.
- At Door Number 2, we have King Melchizedek, a high priest, whose name means “the king of righteousness.”
Unrighteousness or righteousness? In his handling of stuff, which will Abram choose? It’s a choice as ancient as Adam and Eve deciding whether to eat the fruit of good and evil, and it’s a choice as current as Queen Elsa choosing whether to use her secret gift for making ice to bless or to curse. There’s some amount of suspense to the decision, made even more dramatic when the king of Sodom speaks up and says to Abram, “Take the goods for yourself.”
But Abram says to the king of Sodom, “I have sworn to the Lord, God Most High, provider of heaven and earth, that I would not take a thread or a shoelace or anything that is yours, so that you might not say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’ “
In this post-battle bait, Abram decisively chose the Lord’s way of righteousness. He remembered how the covenant works. He remembered that with great blessing comes a great task. The Abrahamic blessing has often been summed up like this “blessed to be a blessing.”
Not “blessed so you can hashtag your stuff.”
Not “blessed so that you can live a lucky life.”
Not “blessed so that you can use your blessing to benefit yourself.”
Nowhere in Scripture are we promised worldly ease or favor or luck in return for our pledge of faith. In fact, it seems that the most faithful people in the Bible and in Christian history often died with nothing, many of them imprisoned and tortured. As he faced the King of Sodom, it’s like Abram knew where the blessing was ultimately headed:
Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful.
Blessed are the pure in heart.
Blessed are the peacemakers.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
When it comes to the Lord’s definition of blessing, being a blessing is no simple task, and it never has been. But, the beautiful thing about this story is that it gives us a clue how we might go about being a blessing in this battle-weary world. Here’s an act of righteousness, the text says; here’s a person of righteousness, the story illustrates: Melchizedek.
This priest Melchizedek shows up with bread and wine, and if there’s one thing Bible readers know, it’s that bread and wine represent something.
This priest of “God Most High” shows up to bless Abram. But here’s the catch—priests of God Most High, at least as Israel knows God, don’t yet exist. There aren’t any Israelites yet. There aren’t any priests yet. Any Levites yet. Any sons of Aaron yet.
As you can imagine, Melchizedek, a mysterious character with almost an angelic aura about him, creates lengthy theological discussion. Who is he? Where did he come from? What’s Abram doing cavorting with someone whose bread and wine are not kosher?
- Some scholars suggest Jerusalem is Melchizedek’s hometown, since “Salem” is the ending of Jeru-salem, making him almost an Israelite, or at least a pre-Israelite. It seems important to some, to show that Melchizedek does at least come from the right side of the tracks.
- Some have made a case that Melchizedek is Noah’s son, Shem, under a different name. So this transfer of priesthood to Abram is, in a sense, keeping it all in the family. This would mean that Shem’s lifespan was around 600 years, but that still makes him relatively young compared to Methuselah who lived to be over 900.
- Other scholars believe that Melchizedek is Jesus, mysteriously showing up like a time traveler. In the New Testament, the Hebrews writer makes significant connections between Jesus and Melchizedek.
These are only a few of the theories on the mysterious blesser in our story. I ran across an article with the title, “Who the heck was Melchizedek?” Ultimately, it turns out if you study this story in detail, all the best-of-the-best Bible scholars have long looked at this oddball character Melchizedek, and definitively concluded: “This is one mysterious priest.”
Maybe I’m just a simple person, but when I look at Melchizedek, with his symbolic bread and wine and with his little speech of blessing for Abram, I tend to think the point of the story is straightforward. Perhaps it doesn’t matter where he came from or what his connection was to Noah or the temple in Jerusalem or even to Jesus. Could it be that in his 26-word appearance, he simply teaches what it means to be a blessing? He exemplifies the Abrahamic principle: “You are blessed, so be a blessing. Bless others with no strings attached.”
Here’s one thing we know to be true. It was true in Genesis, and it’s true today: We human beings have always had our battles. Often those battles are between kingdoms and countries like in our story. But even more often the battles are between mothers and daughters, or husbands and wives, or couples and infertility, or individuals and their addictions. It’s just the way life is.
Life leaves us battle-weary and in need of a blessing. Not a hashtag kind of blessing or a sneeze kind of blessing. We face battles that leave us wondering . . . How should we make sense of violence? Where is God when we suffer? What’s our purpose when we wake up every morning? How do we keep believing when we can’t see God and we can’t see the outcome of what’s been promised? We long for clarity about what the Lord requires of us. Faith, believing in what is unseen, is no easy task.
Sometimes we need a flesh-and-bone blessing from someone else with faith in God Most High, maker of heaven and earth. Sometimes, we need a Melchizedek.
The names and details in the stories I will now share have been changed to be sensitive to my friends. But these are true scenarios. I’ve made them anonymous except for the one that is my own story.
A mother, Ellen, watched her son choose drugs and wild living instead of high school graduation and college with his peers. Ellen lost weight—not in the way we want to lose weight, but because grief and pain stole her appetite. Her eyes looked different. When she smiled, her eyes didn’t smile with the rest of her face. Battles leave scars, and Ellen was desperate for a blessing. That blessing came, not through her local church which is where Ellen expected it, but at AlAnon when she met another mother with an addicted child, a Jewish woman, who placed her hands on Ellen’s head and, with tears falling down on Ellen’s hair, prayed in Hebrew, “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face shine upon you. And give you peace.”
Cathy, an American Christian woman, was traveling abroad with a tour group, and on one occasion, she became quite sick. The kind of sick where you can’t hold your head up straight. You can’t even sit up straight. Chills and fever and fatigue. It was the kind of trip where she couldn’t simply stay put in a hotel room to recover, as the tour group must go on, so when the group went on an afternoon excursion, she found a simple couch in the waiting room of a tourist station. And several veiled Muslim women, covered except for their eyes, took care of her. She describes a fretful sleeplessness where she woke up when they washed her face, and she woke up when they said their afternoon prayers on the carpet all around her. She was battle weary, and her blessing came from anonymous, mysterious, prayerful women.
When John and I moved onto Cloverport Avenue, where we lived and raised our kids for over a decade in Michigan, we heard that one of the couples—our neighbors down the street, teachers at the local elementary school—were praying for our kids, Nate and Brynn. So we went to meet them; we wanted to meet the people praying for our kids. We knocked on their door and introduced ourselves. Each day of the week, they told us, during their morning prayers, they prayed for different children on our street. They prayed for Nate and Brynn on Tuesdays. Pam showed us the Tibetan prayer wheel she likes to spin while she prays, a Buddhist-influenced practice, even though they don’t consider themselves Buddhist. They are simply spiritual but not religious. John and I were new to the Detroit area and didn’t have family or friends when we settled there. We were weary travelers in a new place, and it was a blessing knowing that Pam and Andy prayed for our kids every Tuesday. A strong friendship emerged, and they still pray for us today.
In our pluralist culture, these stories might make us a bit uncomfortable in a Sunday morning Christian sermon. And if we’re uncomfortable, then we’ve understood the message of Genesis 14. Melchizedek: #makingChristiansuncomfortableforover2000years
The simple truth is this: We live in a world of battle-weary people, waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promised blessing and healing. This is our story.
This text challenges us that sometimes all we are called to do is be a blessing. Be a Melchizedek. Reach across the boundaries that so often divide us—of nationality and religion and race and political parties. Yes, there’s a time for correction and debate and even the drawing of boundaries. But there’s also a time for simple blessings. So take the opportunity, whenever you can, to be a Melchizedek—and bless others in the name of God Most High, provider of heaven and earth.
This text also challenges us to recognize Melchizedek when he or she shows up to bless us. The Good Samaritans. The Roman centurions. The outsiders-turned-heroes like Ruth and Tamar. We, like baby Jesus, accept gifts from mysterious magi from the East, believing that God Most High, provider of heaven and earth, is glorified when people choose righteousness instead of unrighteousness, when they choose to bless instead of curse.
Alter, Robert. Genesis: Translation and Commentary. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.
Brueggemann, Walter. 1982. Genesis: In Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982.
Longman, Tremper. How to Read Genesis. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2005.
Taylor, Barbara Brown. “Abraham’s Unchosen Blessing.” Lecture, ACU Summit, Abilene, TX, September 22, 2014.
Header image: Herchenroeder, Karissa. Chapel on the Hill, Abilene Christian University. May 2015. Retrieved from personal archives.
Sara Barton serves as the University Chaplain at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. Formerly, she taught in the Religion Department at Rochester College and served as a missionary in Uganda. Sara’s book, “A Woman Called: Piecing Together the Ministry Puzzle,” is available from Leafwood Publishers. Sara is currently pursuing her Doctor of Ministry Degree at Hazelip School of Theology. Sara and her husband, John, have two children: Nate is a senior at Pepperdine University, and Brynn is a sophomore at Abilene Christian University.