And now on to the story of Melchizedek in verses 14-20. First, notice how Alma sets it up: it’s not just a story about Melchizedek, but a story about how a people and a high priest relate to one another. Verse 14 actually begins with “the people in the days of Melchizedek.” While this does make a nice transition from verse 13, I think Alma is doing more than just transitioning. I think he is wanting us to focus on “the people” and “Melchizedek” as two characters in the story that follows.
This idea isn’t shocking, I’m sure, but I think it’s important to take note of this. Before this point in the chapter, Alma seemed to be explaining what a priest was (a teacher) and how he got there (by a specific manner). Now Alma seems to shift the focus to how a high priest and a people relate to each other. I think that will become more and more significant as we go along.
(As the first of many tangents, I did some searching to see how priests were talked about before Alma 13. Were they described as teachers generally, or as teachers over a specific people? It turns out that Alma the elder was the first one to be called “a” or “the” high priest. Before that, we just have “priests” — in the plural — who are consecrated to teach. Under Alma and Alma the younger, many priests are called to assist in teaching the members of the Church. But only Alma, and then his son Alma, are called “the” high priest. Is this a significant switch? Are they being more like Melchizedek than other priests were before them? I wonder if part of what Alma is battling against in Alma 13 is the people’s idea that he is a teacher for members only, rather than a high priest over the whole people. See Alma 8:11.)
But, before we can get too far into seeing how a high priest relate to each other, we get this odd verse on tithing and Abraham (verse 15). Why does Alma talk about tithing in verse 15? Is it just to show how Abraham (an immensely important figure for the Nephites) relates to Melchizedek? Does it function like the discussion in Hebrews 7 does? Is there actually a reason to bring tithing itself up?
I think there actually is a reason to bring it up, and I even want to explore the possibility that tithing has something to do with being a high priest of the Holy Order of God. In order to do that, I’m going to take a detour through the JST of Genesis 14. Now I know there will be concerns that I’m assuming too much, but I am not actually suggesting that Alma had exactly what we have in our JST (since the connections between the JST and the brass plates are completely obscured). What I am suggesting is that these two passages, however they relate to each other, are filled with similar themes, and that is enough to merit some comparisons. We have references in both to Melchizedek, Abraham, tithing, high priesthood, order of God, building a city, causing a people to repent, and a Prince of Peace. My goal is to see how the JST handles these same themes, and see how that might help us see things we’ve overlooked in our Alma 13 text.
So — with what I hope is enough justification for a little fun with the JST — onward! Here are verses 25-27 of the JST of Genesis 14:
“And Melchizedek lifted up his voice and blessed Abram.
Now Melchizedek was a man of faith, who wrought righteousness; and when a child he feared God, and stopped the mouths of lions, and quenched the violence of fire….
And thus, having been approved of God, he was ordained an high priest after the order of the covenant which God made with Enoch”
Like Alma 13, this JST passage is careful to explain why someone was called as a high priest. Melchizedek was “a man of faith,” “wrought righteousness,” “feared God,” and controlled nature, even. God “approved” of his works, and Melchizedek became a high priest. I found it interesting that both the JST and Alma 13 found it important to explain why a high priest is called. (It’s also interesting how similar the “why” is to Alma 13.) I had assumed that Alma was explaining this to justify his position over the people, but perhaps there is more than just that going on here.
With a soft spot in my heart for anything connected to Enoch, Adam, or Abraham, it will be no surprise that I found the connection to Enoch fascinating, so forgive me as I indulge a bit (I think we’ll find it productive in the end). Enoch is the first person I know of who taught a wicked people well enough to get them to repent, build up a city, fend off all their enemies, and be translated into Heaven. Melchizedek is described as a high priest specifically “after the order of the covenant which God made with Enoch,” and I think that is language we shouldn’t pass over too lightly. I think we should hear in this that Melchizedek’s priesthood assignment was connected specifically with the work Enoch did: teach and build a city. I’m dying to know more about this “covenant” business too, but for now, I want to focus on the basic connection between Enoch, a preacher and city-builder, and Melchizedek, a preacher and city-builder.
On to JST verse 28:
It being after the order of the Son of God; which order came, not by man, nor the will of man; neither by father nor mother; neither by beginning of days nor end of years; but of God
The JST passage, like Alma 13, is intent on explaining that this order came directly from God (see Alma 13: 1, 2, 7, 9, and 16) and that it has no identifiable beginning (see Alma 13:8).
JST verses 29-31:
And it was delivered unto men by the calling of his own voice, according to his own will, unto as many as believed on his name.
I like the personal nature of the first half of this verse (God calls by his own voice, and by his own decision) but the last part is tougher to understand. Like Alma 13:4, there is a suggestion that as long as someone is faithful, they will be come a high priest. But my personal experience tells me otherwise. How I can reconcile these two things? I can read this in a round-about way, knowing that everyone has the chance to receive saving ordinances, “as if” they had been a priest, but Alma 13 and this JST verse seem to be pretty clear. How do you make sense of this? I’ll offer one idea, that corresponds with my work elsewhere so of course I like it, but I’d like to hear more ideas on this.
The next verse in the JST could be use to imply that it’s not that anyone who believes will receive the high priesthood, but all those of Enoch’s line who believe. Note how verse 30 starts with the word “For:”
For God having sworn unto Enoch and unto his seed with an oath by himself …
This seems to say that God gives the priesthood because of a promise God made to Enoch and to his seed. Was it meant only for their seed? Hard to tell for sure, but that does line up with D&C 107:40. I’ve looked around a lot in scripture for places that talk about a “chosen seed” which has a right to the priesthood, while anyone else is just helping them. (See lots of speculative ideas here.) If that’s at all on to something, then even if there are many people (who aren’t of the chosen line) who believe/are faithful/perform good works, etc., that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will become a high priest. They may, but it’s not automatically the case.
I think this is a fair enough reading of the JST, though it may or may not be a good way to read Alma 13.
All of verses 30-31 now:
For God having sworn unto Enoch and unto his seed with an oath by himself; that every one being ordained after this order and calling should have power, by faith, to break mountains, to divide the seas, to dry up waters, to turn them out of their course;
To put at defiance the armies of nations, to divide the earth, to break every band, to stand in the presence of God; to do all things according to his will, according to his command, subdue principalities and powers; and this by the will of the Son of God which was from before the foundation of the world.
While none of this matches up directly with Alma 13, sorry, it’s way too fun to pass up! What an incredible power! But not only incredible, it’s a power described elsewhere in scripture. Besides Enoch himself, it’s similar to Nephi’s power (in Helaman 10), and also to Jacob’s (see Jacob 4:7-8). In addition, the idea that this power is given over and over again throughout history is affirmed in D&C 128:9.
I wonder if this what allows priests to become a “Prince of Peace,” because they can use that power to defend their cities and end all wars around them? (See also D&C 45:67 – 70.)
But now on to JST verse 32:
And men having this faith, coming up unto this order of God, were translated and taken up into heaven.
While “translated and taken up into heaven” is pretty close to the idea of “entered into the rest of the Lord their God” (in Alma 13:12), it’s really the timing of the experiences that I want to talk about. In both cases, it appears to me that it is a result of being a faithful high priest, rather than a part of or the definition of the priest’s ordination. (Kim argued already for this point in this post.) Thinking about this again made me realize it would be impractical for these things to happen simultaneously, since the point of being ordained a priest is to work with people on earth.
Now to verses 33-34, which have quite a bit in common with Alma 13:18:
And now, Melchizedek was a priest of this order; therefore he obtained peace in Salem, and was called the Prince of peace.
And his people wrought righteousness, and obtained heaven, and sought for the city of Enoch which God had before taken, separating it from the earth, having reserved it unto the latter days, or the end of the world;
And here is Alma 13:18:
But Melchizedek having exercised mighty faith, and received the office of the high priesthood according to the holy order of God, did preach repentance unto his people. And behold, they did repent; and Melchizedek did establish peace in the land in his days; therefore he was called the prince of peace, for he was the king of Salem; and he did reign under his father.
I noticed at least these similarities: 1) priest/priesthood of/according to this/the (holy) order, 2) obtained/established peace, 3) called the Prince of peace/called the prince of peace, 4) people wrought righteousness/they did repent. And if we add in verse 32, we have a fifth similarity: 5) men having faith/having exercised mighty faith. Why so many similarities? More importantly: Why are these five points so crucial to the understanding of Melchizedek that all five are mentioned in both passages? How do these details explain the role of high priest in relation to a people? I’ll leave that an open question for now.
And hath said, and sworn with an oath, that the heavens and the earth should come together; and the sons of God should be tried so as by fire.
Enoch’s covenant seems to have included the promise that the heavens and earth should come together. I think this refers to other Zion cities that unite with Enoch’s city (see Moses 7: 62-64). If so, I think this supports the idea mentioned earlier that when Melchizedek is ordained after the covenant given to Enoch, he was given the assignment to build up a Zion city.
And this Melchizedek, having thus established righteousness, was called the king of heaven by his people, or, in other words, the King of peace.
And he lifted up his voice, and he blessed Abram, being the high priest, and the keeper of the storehouse of God;
Him whom God had appointed to receive tithes for the poor.
Wherefore, Abram paid unto him tithes of all that he had, of all the riches which he possessed, which God had given him more than that which he had need.
And now finally we get back to tithing, and we can begin to see why tithing is in Alma 13. If Melchizedek is building a Zion city, it would make sense that he would find a way to have no poor, like Enoch did. Melchizedek was a high priest and keeper of the storehouse. That signals that he was not just any high priest, but a high priest like Enoch was, one who was also building a city. So finally coming full circle, that little inclusion of Abraham paying tithing in Alma 13:15 actually strengthens the idea that a high priest, at least this kind of high priest, is more than a teacher of the commandments. (And I left tangents about Abraham himself here.) A high priest’s role is to teach a whole people, and in such a way, that they can create a Zion community. To that end, Alma can’t pass by the people in Ammonihah or anywhere else. Alma isn’t just performing teaching duties associated with a calling within and to the Church, it appears he is fulfilling his role as the high priest, the kind of high priest Melchizedek was.
So in summary again, I think here Alma shifts in verse 14 from talking about priests themselves to how a people and a high priest relate to one another. I think this is in part to answer his audience’s comment in Alma 8:11. A high priest is called, given powers, and assigned to bring a whole people into God’s rest. And Alma is working to that end, I think.