Without Father, Without Mother — Examining Hebrews 7
By Jason Smith
As the matter of the begotten nature of the pre-incarnate Son of God continues to be agitated within Seventh-day Adventism some have sought to prove this an impossibility by referring to a verse in Hebrews about an ancient king/priest named Melchizedek. Let’s quote it now.
“Without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest continually — Hebrews 7:3
An argument is made that this verse proves the pre-incarnate Son of God to be without a beginning so therefore He could not have been begotten. Is this a fair use of Scripture? Let’s examine the matter together now.
Before we move forward I would invite you to pray for the guidance of God’s Spirit and ask that you read the whole chapter. Truthfully you should read all of Hebrews but just chapter 7 should do in order for us to properly understand the point.
Now Melchizedek was the king of Salem and a priest of God during the time of father Abraham (aka: Abram). He provided bread and wine after Abraham successfully fought against the kings who had taken his relative Lot captive. Melchizedek blessed the patriarch and Abraham gave him a tithe of all. You can read the historical narrative in Genesis 14.
Now the author of Hebrews uses Melchizedek as a symbol for the Lord Jesus Christ. He says that Jesus was made a priest after the order of Melchizedek (i.e. Heb 5:6, 10; 6:20). This is in harmony with a Messianic prophecy recorded in Psalm 110. In chapter 7 the author helps us to understand how Jesus meets this prophecy. Let’s pick up with the text.
“For this Melchisedec, king of Salem, priest of the most high God, who met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings, and blessed him; 2 To whom also Abraham gave a tenth part of all; first being by interpretation King of righteousness, and after that also King of Salem, which is, King of peace;3 Without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest continually — Hebrews 7:1-3
Now Melchizedek was a true historical figure. Jewish tradition says that he was Shem. While the Bible does not identify Melchizedek for us by any other name there is no valid reason to understand him to be anything other than a mortal man. He had a father and mother and he lived and died back in those early days.
So then what do we make of the description that he was “without father, without mother, without descent [lit: genealogy], having neither beginning of days, nor end of life”?
There are some who argue that Melchizedek must have been an incarnation of the holy Spirit because they take this language literally. While there is a rumor that Ellen White supported this view it is just hearsay. A better interpretation here is to examine what the Bible teaches about the requirement for priestly ministry and a typical Hebraic understanding. When we understand these two points then we will be able to properly understand this verse. So let’s look at the Scriptures. This specific verse is referring the time of the Jewish return from Babylonian captivity. It is referring to a specific group of Levites:
“These sought their register among those that were reckoned by genealogy, but they were not found: therefore were they, as polluted, put from the priesthood. — Ezra 2:62; Nehemiah 7:62
Did you catch it? This group sought for the record of their genealogy but could not find it. Thus they were without genealogy but this does not really make them without parentage but it means they could not serve as priests. A Levitical priest, in order to serve, had to have a record of their genealogy. This is what enabled the individual to the service and rights pertaining to the priesthood.
Melchizedek, on the other hand, had no such requirement. Thus what is said is not a reference to his Person but rather his priesthood. It was of a different order. Thus when God’s word says Melchizedek was without father, without mother and without genealogy the Hebrews would easily understand this as an assertion that he had no priestly lineage requirement or succession like how the Levitical priesthood did. This point is developed more as throughout the chapter as I hope you have seen from you reading.
Another very important point to understand here is the Hebraic way of thinking. The Jewish commentator Philo, in his work "On Drunkeness" refers to Sarah as "αμήτορα" (without mother). This does not mean she was really without a mother but in the Hebraic mode of thinking the absence of any mentioning was the same as non-existence. You could then use that to make a point as Philo continues on to do. Again Philo, this time in his work "The Worse Is Wont To Attack The Better" reasons that because the Scriptures have "never once mentioned his [Cain's] death in the whole of the law" this shows "enigmatically that...folly is an undying evil, which never entirely perishes, and yet which as to its capability of dying receives all time, and is never wholly free from death." Again he is using the absence of any reference to Cain's death to prove that evil lives on. It is also reported in some commentaries that the Jewish Rabbis argued that a proselyte to the Jewish faith could be married to his own sister if she had a different father. The reason why they allowed this was because "a Gentile has no father." That is the father is not reckoned in Jewish genealogies (see Bereishit Rabbath 18:1). This does not mean that there is no actual father.
Thus, in Jewish thought the absence was a valid basis upon which to make an assertion and neglect of good was a valid basis to charge with doing evil. For example they believed that if you could save a life but did not do so then that was the same as if you had murdered. The absence of the effort to save became the same as the effort to take life.
“It was a maxim among the Jews that a failure to do good, when one had opportunity, was to do evil; to neglect to save life was to kill… — The Desire of Ages 286.2
So the absence of any record of his parentage could be used to make a point and that is what the author of Hebrews does here. The fact that there is no record of when Melchizedek was born and no record of when he died is used by the author to represent the Son of God’s everlasting priesthood. Now, again, this is not literal teaching about Melchizedek but a Hebraic idiom. Thus he is presented, through this idiom, as if “he liveth” —Hebrews 7:8
The author of Hebrews continues on to present “how great this man was” by noting that Abraham gave him a tenth of the spoils. He explains how the sons of Levi who are priests take tithes of their brethren according to the law. This is contrasted with Melchizedek “whose descent is not counted from them [Levites]” received tithes of Abraham and blessed him. And the blessings come from a superior — Hebrews 7:4-7
Please note here the inference here that Melchizedek actually does have a genealogy but it is not from the Levites. And then we have the aforementioned reference where Melchizedek is presented as still being alive. Again this is due to there being no record of his death. The author continues on to develop this theme of Melchizedek’s superiority by noting that, in a way, you could say that Levi paid tithes in Abraham because he was yet in his father’s loins when that interaction occurred —Hebrews 7:9, 10
Then a conclusion is drawn that perfection could not be accomplished by the Levitical priesthood (under which the people received the law) because if that were the case then there would be no prophecy of a priest arising after the Melchizedek order and not after Aaron’s order. And since the priesthood is changed there is also a need of a change of the law — Hebrews 7:11, 12
So what is the point of all of this? It is just about to be seen.
“For He of whom these things are spoken pertaineth to another tribe, of which no man gave attendance at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord sprang out of Juda; of which tribe Moses spake nothing concerning priesthood. And it is yet far more evident; for that after the similitude of Melchizeder there ariseth another priest, who is made, not after the law of a carnal commandment, but after the power of an endless life. For he testifieth, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek” — Hebrews 7:13-17
Here we see the proper application. Those who take vs. 3 and seek to apply it to the pre-incarante Son of God, as a proof that He was unbegotten, are performing eisgesis instead of exegsis. The author’s application is to the Man Christ Jesus. If you read the book of Hebrews you will see a continual theme is about how Jesus, by means of His humanity and sacrifice of Himself, has obtained a functional priestly ministry. Thus it is talking about Him in His humanity. That is the case here. We are referring to Him as One that “pertaineth to another tribe,” specifically when He “sprang out of Juda.” We are talking of Him as the priest that “ariseth” being “made, not after the law of a carnal commandment” - that is the law requiring the genetics of Levi - but “after the power of an endless life” - that is His resurrection from the grave to die no more.
“But this man, because He continueth ever, hath an unchangeable priesthood 25 Wherefore He is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by Him, seeing He ever liveth to make intercession for them. 26 For such an high priest became us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens;27 Who needeth not daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifice, first for His own sins, and then for the people's: for this He did once, when He offered up Himself.28 For the law maketh men high priests which have infirmity; but the word of the oath, which was since the law, maketh the Son, who is consecrated for evermore. — Hebrews 7:24, 25
The clear application here is to the resurrected Jesus. And please notice that the oath we are dealing with here “was since the law.” Again this proves that the application of vs. 3 is not back to the pre-incarnate Son of God but rather to the incarnated Son of God, particularly after He resurrected.
When the Scriptures tell us that Melchizedek was without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life and was “made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest forever” this is actually a reference to Jesus of the tribe of Judah, who does not have a priestly lineage requirement from Levi and who rose to everlasting life and became a functioning priest after the Melchizedek order. The lack of references about Melchizedek made him a fit symbol or resemblance of what the Man Christ Jesus would be in His royal priesthood as King and High Priest.
While it may be tempting for some to use this verse in reactionary theology against begotten theology, we must note that the Son of God has never been “without father.” While we cannot date His pre-incarnate begetting it is nevertheless a truth revealed to us by holy Scripture. He is begotten from eternity. Speaking of Himself as YHWH’s Wisdom the Son of God tells us:
“YHWH begot Me, beginning His way, before His works since. From eternity I was established, from the beginning, before the earth was, When no depths were there, when there were no fountains abounding with water, I was birthed. Before the mountains, before the hills were fasted, I was birthed” — Prov 8:22-25 (Author’s Translation)
The servant of the Lord tells us:
“Christ is declared in the Scriptures to be the Son of God. From all eternity He has sustained this relation to Jehovah. Before the foundations of the world were laid, He, the only begotten Son of God, pledged Himself to become the Redeemer of the human race should men sin…” —Ms22-1905.4
“Christ should be uplifted as the first great teacher, the only begotten Son of God, who was with the Father from eternal ages. The Son of God was the great teacher sent into the world as the light of the world. “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.…” — SpTEd 230.1
And truthfully we cannot say that the Son of God was never without an “end of life” because He truly died in the spring of AD 31 and was truly dead for a brief period. By His own assertion He “was dead.”
“I am He that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death. — Revelation 1:18
What we can say, though, without the slightest fear of repudiation, is that He will never die again. Thus the proper understanding of Hebrews 7:3 is that it is speaking about the resurrected Man Christ Jesus and it does not prove Him unbegotten in His pre-incarnate existence.