There is a curious event that happened just after Avraham (Abraham) had defeated several kings and their armies to rescue his nephew Lot. As Avraham is returning home, the Torah says: “And Malchizedek the king of Shaleim (Salem) brought out bread and wine, and he was a priest of the Most High God. And he blessed him, and he said, “Blessed be Abram of the Most High God, Who possesses heaven and earth. And blessed be the Most High God, Who has delivered your adversaries into your hand,” and he gave him a tithe from all.” (Bereishit, Genesis 14:18-20)
Who was this Malchizedek and where was Shaleim? Why did Malchizedek bring bread and wine to Avraham? And was there any special underlying meaning to the blessing Malchizedek gave Avraham?
According to the Midrash (a collection of ancient biblical commentaries), Malchizedek, the priest or holy man of his time, was actually Shem the son of Noach (Noah), he was still alive through Avraham’s life – Shem living 600 years, and Shaleim was Yerushalayim, Jerusalem.
Malchizedek was also destined to have the priesthood pass directly from him, but as R. Zechariah said in the Talmud (volumes of legal discussions and commentary dating back over 1500 years), Nedarim 32b, because he blessed Avraham before he blessed God, the priestly honors and duties were taken away and given to Avraham. And that was why it said he, Malchizedek, was a priest and not he and his children.
Rashi, the preeminent Jewish medieval commentator, says Malchizedek brought bread and wine to Avraham for three reasons. He explains from the Midrash: that it was customary to give that food and drink to those who were weary from battle – Avraham returning from war; he wanted to show he bore no grudge toward Avraham for killing his descendants (those Avraham defeated) – Avraham by the way also being a descendant; and by bringing bread and wine, he hinted about the meal offerings Avraham’s own descendants would bring at the future Temples right there in Shaleim/Yerushalayim on the Temple Mount.
The Baal Haturim, yet another great Jewish medieval commentator, expounding on the words, “Blessed be Abram of the Most High God,” says there are seven verses in the Torah within which someone blesses God. The second one is the phrase here – Malchizedek to Avraham, “And blessed be the Most High God.”
The first one occurred earlier in the Torah when a drunken Noach, disrespected by his son Cham, Ham, appreciated that his other son Shem had acted completely differently and treated him, his inebriated father, with great respect. There in Bereishit (9:26) Noach said, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem.” Rashi adds, “… Who is destined to keep His promise to his descendants to give them the land of Canaan/Israel.”
So was there any special meaning to the blessing Malchizedek gave Avraham? After what I just mentioned above, I would like to propose that perhaps Malchizedek/Shem was thinking the following when Avraham was approaching the city of Shaleim/Yerushalayim:
Here comes my seven-times-great-grandson Avraham toward my city, which will one day be his people’s city in his people’s land. Years ago, Avraham’s ancestor, my father Noach, blessed God because I showed my father proper respect. I will show respect to Avraham, who himself showed deference for his family by waging war to rescue his nephew, by my going to greet the tired warrior with food and drink. And I will also bless him in the name of God, and I will bless God just like my father did. Further, I will let Avraham know with this bread and wine that his descendants will be using them to bring offerings at the future Jewish Temples in this very city.
And the rest as they say, is history.
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For the record, the other five “bless God” references noted by the Baal Haturim are as follows:
3 – In Bereishit (24:27) when Eliezer, Avraham’s servant on a mission to find a wife for Avraham’s son Yitzchak, said, “Blessed is the Lord, the God of my master, Abraham,” because he believed he just might have found the young lady, who was Rebecca.
4 – In Bereishit (24:48) when Eliezer recounted to Rebecca’s family why he was there and his meeting who would indeed become Yitzchak’s wife said, “And I kneeled and bowed to God and I blessed the Lord.”
5 – In Shemot, Exodus (18:10) after Yitro (Jethro), happy about how God rescued the Children of Israel from the Egyptians, said to his son-in-law Moshe (Moses), “Blessed is the Lord.”
6 – In Devarim, Deuteronomy (8:10), Moshe telling the Children of Israel that God was taking them to a good land, a productive land, said, “And you will eat, and you will be satisfied, and you will bless the Lord.”
7 – In Devarim (33:20), Moshe addressing the tribes just before his death, says to the tribe of Gad, “And of Gad he said: ‘Blessed (is the Lord).’”
Interestingly, says the Baal Haturim, there are 100 letters included in the seven “bless God” phrases, and that coincides with the 100 blessings Jews are to make to God throughout the course of each day (many of them in the daily prayers). (Talmud, Menachot 43b.)