Melchizedek: Ecological War
"Thou art a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek."
In ancient Rome one was declared an outlaw with this formula: "he shall be denied fire and water," that is, one was to be refused all the simple necessities of human existence, such as firewood and drinking water, which nature offers free to all. By slow degrees of degradation we have been brought to where we buy clear water by the bottle and pay a week's wages to heat a modest home for a month. In some ways we're far worse off than Rome's outlaws, who at least breathed clean air! And we don't even seem to realize that, when every element -- earth, air, fire and water -- is fouled around us and offered back at a price, we're outlaws and warred upon.
As always, organized religion has failed us. The most forward-looking bureaucrats of the Book, in a desperate last-ditch effort to make themselves presentable, may now try to show they care about the planet. But in fact, the official scriptures, by the official reading, have nothing useful to say. The Quran of the mullahs views nature only as a demonstration of God's fine qualities: Nature's value is purely intellectual, and it isn't even meant to last. Everything's to be effaced on the imminent Last Day. Official Christianity is similarly eager for the end, when irreparably fallen nature will be improved into a paved city, the New Jerusalem.
Conventional Judaism has a sane relation to nature, but a neutral and pragmatic one with nothing to add to the ecology debate. Yet religion is indeed what we need to mobilize forces for the earth, and we have to seize back the scriptures from their unworthy stewards. Those who have translated and interpreted the scriptures for us have been men of conventional faith, whose piety censored and misrepresented the texts. But the great prophets of our shared traditions, Moses, Isaiah, Jesus and Mohammed, were archetypal dissidents, in every way alien to the committees that have translated them into English from the time of King James and George Sales on to the present day.
There is, for instance, a Hebrew word for ecological balance, and one of the most commonly occurring words in the Bible: tsedeq. It is translated, perfunctorily, as "righteousness," because to translate it fully and fairly, with its dazzling range of meanings, would have revealed an unacceptable degree of "paganism" in the Bible. At root, it means "rainfall in due proportion," and meanings like "rightness," "justice" and "righteousness" arose as extensions and expansions of the original meaning. This is no surprise. For the archaic societies of the ancient near east, important concept words are always deeply rooted in the realities of physical life. Abstractions, even for things like colors, don't enter the vocabulary of Hebrew until well into period A.D.
We'll get a clearer understanding of how tsedeq evolved by examining the parallel Egyptian world ma'at. It comes from the verb ma-a which originally meant "to rightly measure," and referred to the resurveying of the fields after the Nile's floodwaters withdrew each spring. The existence of private property depended on an accurate ma-a of the silt-covered land.
There is a large choice of glyphs with the same phonetic value in Egyptian, so the ones which are chosen can often signify a word's meaning. Ma-a is spelled with a mound of earth emerging from under floodwaters, a scythe, and an arm. This notion of rightness, evidently grew right out of the well-worked riverside acres. The word was early on made an abstract feminine noun, Ma-at, which means rightness both in the agricultural and moral sense.
Israel depended on rainfall as Egypt did on the Nile's flooding. Like ma'at, tsedeq came to take on a more general sense, but it evolved in ways far more profound and meaningful for us than ma'at. The genius of the Hebrews was to always adopt the best poetic and religious conceptions of their neighbors, but then deepen them with moral meaning. It was the chief god of the farming Canaanites, the storm god Baal, who guaranteed tsedeq, rainfall and crop growth. The Hebrews, who adopted so many features from this Canaanite Zeus, took over tsedeq as well, but enlarged it to create a view of the moral and natural worlds as inseparable. (Very unlike us Americans, who see ecological devastation as not a crime, but merely a pity.)
The word tsedeq, in its fullest sense, can mean "world in balance" both ecologically and politically. The eighty-fifth psalms says:
He's quick to save those who regard him with awe, his
glory shines across their country like sunlight,
fairness and generosity meet in how God treats a just
the balance of the scales of justice, the balance of nature (tsedeq) coincide, sweetly they meet, like a kiss,
the land brings forth abundant wheat, abundant honesty beneath a sky clear as a conscience.
If God will grant us the power to be good, the land will
give us good things.
The ecological balance of the ancient near east was not the exclusive responsibility of the gods. The king, as vice-regent of the sky god, guaranteed his people the benevolence of earth and sky. The kings of Israel were monarchs on this sacerdotal model with a special moral dimension, as we see in the seventy-second psalm, a coronation hymn:
O God, make the king just! May his sons after him
maintain the world in balance (tsedeq), may he make society fair
and give the poor their rights
so the hills and valleys can bring forth their crops, the fair return for fairly paid work.
Let the king defend the rights of the poor, protect the impoverished, let him crush and humble those who cheat the people,
O king, do this and you'll be more glorious to your people than the sun, more splendid than the moon, remembered from
age to age,
you will be like the autumn rain that renews the mown
fields after harvest, like the heavy rains of winter that soak the
dry land to its depths.
In the days of such a king, good men, perfect men, will flourish, and abundance will be unaltering beneath the changing moons.
The god of the Hebrews appropriated not only specialized vocabulary from the Canaanites, but myths and images too. One can see something parallel in Milton's Paradise Lost, where the God of the Bible is sometimes referred to as "Jove," and Hesiod's battle of the titans was adapted to become the war of the rebel angels. The most important Canaanite myth Yahweh absorbed was that of Baal, the god of rain, who is every year defeated by Mot, the god of death and drought. Each autumn Baal returns with the autumn rains, to restore tsedeq.
Isaiah, Habakkuk, Joel, Hosea, and Nahum all draw on this myth for their apocalyptic poems. Isaiah's version gives a description of the country robbed of tsedeq, which foretells global warming:
The land is bleaching under the sun, pales as if sick with sorrow,
the world wears out, dries up, discolors,
noble, commoner, all fade under the heat.
It isn't just the time of year -- it's the time of reckoning!
The land was desecrated under its inhabitants! They broke
God's holy law, they twisted the statutes,
till the Eternal Covenant, the promise that the rains would fall
in season, the agreement between heaven and earth, was annulled.
That's what kindled this heat! Do you dare expect you'll
see clouds again?
That's why hot haze eats at earth like a curse. The guilty
with their land are drubbed under sunlight.
That's why the world burns all punishing summer, why so few still walk these streets of endless August.
I remember when we still had four seasons, not just one chill drizzling winter which lasted till June to be replaced by three months of greenhouse haze. And I remember the lies of servile scientists on the TV news, assuring us global warning wouldn't happen, that the weirdness of our weather was a normal variation. And now we have a generation of children for whom "Aprill, with his shoures soote" is as baffling for the meteorology as it is for the spelling. And we're all so happy to play with our cell phones seated high in our SUV's that none can be persuaded to care.
The prophet Habakkuk's second chapter ties global warming to capitalism, represented by Baal's old enemy Mot, the god of drought and death:
They wanted, they took. They had money and force, it was theirs.
Their fat faces gaped wide as the grave. They were Mot,
they became the god of Death -- they were never satisfied,
they harvested all the goods of the nations,
what belonged to every people they heaped up at home.
The contemporary circumstance that inspired Habakkuk was the Babylonian Empire, which differed from modern imperialism only in scale. In his seventh chapter, Habakkuk explains the final fate of empire in terms of the contradictions of capitalism:
Keep on shopping, haul it home, you've got credit, take
till quick as a snake bites the bill falls due: pay it all, with
the interest, now!
Melchizedek appears for the first time in Genesis 14, in a scene set around 1800 B.C. Abraham has just rescued his nephew Lot, captured during a war between the city-states immediately south of Jerusalem. Returning victorious from battle, Abraham is acknowledged as ruler of the region by Melchizedek, king of Jerusalem, who utters this blessing:
Blessed be Abram
by God Most High,
creator of heaven and earth.
The impeccably monotheist blessing was added when the tale was written down, some 800 years after the events narrated. Melchizedek, petty king of a then inconsiderable Jerusalem, doubtless existed, though the name is actually a title. It means "I acknowledge the kingship of the god (Baal) who brings the rainfall." Names on this pattern, compounded with the word tsedeq, and indicating that this was a sacred king who magically represented the storm god in state rituals, were common among Canaanite sovereigns. A few centuries later Joshua will encounter another king of Jerusalem whose name is Adonizedek, which is identical, except that the word for lord (adon) is used instead of that for king (melek).
When Yahweh gave the Hebrews Jerusalem as their capitol, he gave them with it much of the cult of middle eastern sacred kingship. Psalm 110, a coronation hymn, acknowledges this:
The Lord has sworn it: he will not back down:
you are sacred king for all time, like Melchizedek.
The Hebrews saw themselves as a continuation of Canaanite civilization, just as the Germanic barbarians who became the kings of Europe saw themselves as the heirs of Rome. The Hebrew kings were all Melchizedeks, just as the Tsars and Kaisers were Caesars. And in the course of time Melchizedek became, as Caesar has in European literature, an independent mythological figure.
The Dead Sea Scrolls, the first-century A.D. library of the Essenes discovered in 1947, contains a scroll of Melchizedek. The Essenes practised a pure form of communism, and their scroll, written in the context of Israel's struggle against Roman domination, describes Melchizedek as an eschatological hero who will fairly redistribute property, defeat the armies of evil, and sound the ram's horn to announce abolition of all debts (the Jubilee). The scroll is valuable because it shows that the Melchizedek myth was drawn on as an important source of spiritual strength in Israel's struggle to the death against the Roman Empire. A struggle which was obviously anti-imperialist, and from the viewpoint of the Essenes, anti-capitalist.
So important a part of the national mythology was Melchizedek, that Paul acknowledges him in his letter to the Hebrews, written at roughly the same time as the Melchizedek scroll (though of course Paul is only mentioning Melchizedek to bolster the prestige of Jesus):
His name, in the first place, means "king of righteousness"; next, he is king of Salem, that is, "King of Peace." He has no father, no mother, no lineage; his years have no beginning, his life no end. He is like the son of God. He remains a priest for all time.
There is an Apocalypse of Mechizedek, preserved in the fourth-century A.D. library of Gnostic manuscripts found in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945. This book contains revelations made to Mechizedek by various angelic messengers. The fourth-century Cypriot bishop Epiphanius, in his book Against the Heresies, tells us enough to confirm that there was a Mechizedekian Christian sect and that the book from Nag Hammadi is theirs. This late account of Melchizedek is of interest to us because it provides an esoteric (though equally epic) counterpart to the Melchizedek of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Paul. This Melchizedek describes his own experience of gnosis, or ultimate self-recognition, thus:
O Father of the All, you have had pity on me and you have sent the angel of light from your aeons to reveal, he caused me to be raised up from ignorance, from death into life. For I have a name, I am Melchizedek, the priest of God Most High; I know that it is I who am truly the image of the true High Priest of God Most High . . .
Melchizedek is Christ! He recalls his crucifixion and his rising from the dead. He recounts how the angels announced his victory in terms that made it clear he was still the eschatological warrior of the Dead Sea Scrolls:
They said to me, "Be strong, O Melchizedek, great High Priest of God Most High, for the archons who are your enemies made war; you have prevailed over them, and they did not prevail over you, and you endured, and you destroyed your enemies."
We are called to use the concept of tsedeq (world in balance) to bring to the ecological struggle powers which are only unleashed by religious belief. In doing this we are entitled to the name of Melchizedek. The title of the old Canaanite priest-kings who guaranteed the land's tsedeq was more fully understood by Old and New Testament period prophets. It came to be the title of a royal warrior who defends sacred ecology and resists the forces of capital. The Gnostic Melchizedek of Nag Hammadi further deepens the figure into a one whose ultimate heroic act is that of achieving self-awareness: the understanding that he is the Melchizedek, that he has the annointed King, the Messiah, the Christ, within him.
We are all called to this new order or mystical chivalry, the Order of Melchizedek. Kingship is a powerful metaphor and has a long tradition of democratization and esoteric reinterpretation. The Stoics, who made it their ideal to live in accord with nature, secundam naturam, used to say that only the wise man deserves to be called a king, solus sapiens rex. This is the sort of kingship I have in mind, a gnostic one, that need only be realized to be made real, a royalty that can be shared by all, like that of Tennyson's Arthur:
But when he spake and cheered his Table Round
With large, divine, and comfortable words,
Beyond my tongue to tell thee - I beheld
From eye to eye through all their Order flash
A momentary likeness of the King . . .
This is the kingship of which Isaiah spoke, a royal defense of the whole natural world. His vision begins with the vindication of an injured tree, and expands into universal harmony of human with human and with every other species.
A branch will grow forth from Jesse's family tree, a
flowering bough rise up from the wounded stump,
and the spirit of God will rest on this last, best offshoot of
David's clan, a spirit of wisdom and insight, a spirit of courage
and wise policy, a spirit conferring knowlege of God and awe
and that son of David will eagerly breathe in the God-awe
like a delightful perfume;
he won't judge by appearances, by what his eyes see, or
decide by what his ears hear,
but he'll see justice done to the poor and protect the rights
of the wretched of this world,
and the sentences he pronounces will strike like a rod, the
sharp truth of his decisions will cut down the wicked,
he'll gird on righteousness (tsedeq) like a sword-belt, wear
honesty like armor;
then the wolf and the lamb will live together, the leopard
and the goat will sleep in the shade side by side,
the calf, the lion andf ox will be friends, and a little boy
will be able to lead them around,
the cow and the bear will graze together and leave their
young to rest in the same place, lions will eat straw like cattle,
and a toddler will safely play at the viper's hole and
securely stick his hand in the adder's den
None will harm and none kill anywhere on my holy mountain,
but the earth will be as full of direct knowlege of God as
the ocean is of water.
Image by copepodo, courtesy of Creative Commns license.