Thursday, October 18, 2007

Lekh Lekha II: Malkitzedek and more הקדמה

ומלכי צדק מלך שלם - לכך הפסיק בין ויצא מלך סדום לויאמר מלך סדום וכתב בינתיים ומלכי צדק מלך שלם הוציא לחם ויין, ללמדנו שאמת השיב אברהם למלך סדום כשאמר לו בלעדי רק אשר אכלו הנערים ולא אמר אכלנו, כי הוא אכל משל מלכי צדק:

Why, asks Rashbam, does this vignette about Malkitzedek, king of שלם (seemingly an earlier name for ירושלים), break up the story of chapter 14? If you read the text carefully, you will see that the chapter reads seamlessly if you skip from the end of verse 17 to verse 21: The king of S’dom comes out to greet Avram upon his triumphant return, and he then addresses him, offering him all to keep all of the possessions of S’dom that Avram recovered from Kedorlaomer and the other kings who had raided their former vassals. There is seemingly no need to hear about Malkitzedek’s greeting of Avram as well, at least at this point in the story.

There is a temptation to make something mythical of this interlude, and, indeed Rashi (for English, see here) cites an aggadah that Malkitzedek is none other than Shem, the son of Noah, and this conciliatory gesture was intended to show that Shem ancestor of the eponymous Semitic peoples of the East, was not at all upset at Avram for defeating his descendants, the Mesopotamian kings. [In the Christian Bible, Malkitzedek becomes an even more potent figure, based in part on Tehillim 110:4, a psalm that was said to have Christological overtones. For a reasonable summary, see here.]

But Rashbam senses that none of this explains why the story is here, as opposed to at the end of the encounter between Avram and the king of S’dom. He resorts again to his technique of הקדמה, which we discussed in an earlier post: The story of Malkitzedek bears out Avram’s claim to the king of S’dom a few verses later. In 14:24, Avram agrees to accept from the spoils only as much as his apprentices ate on the journey and cedes to his allies, Aner, Eshkol and Mamre, to take their due. The implication here is that Avram himself did not even eat from the spoils on the way back from the battle. That seems too pious to be true! But when we see that Malkitzedek brought out bread and wine for Avram to eat and drink, it indeed seems that he was not availing himself of other food, thus corroborating his later claim. [The notion that Malkitzedek brings out the bread and wine because Avram is hungry was already suggested by Rashi in his comment on 14:18.] Again, we see Rashbam viewing the Torah as a book that intentionally sets up its reader for greater comprehension later on, even at the cost of interrupting the narrative.


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