The first readings for this week come from the Letter to the Hebrews. One aspect of this letter is a focus on the Old Testament figure of Melchizedek. So who is Melchizedek?
In the Book of Genesis, Melchizedek is the King of Salem (the ancient name for Jerusalem). He is briefly mentioned as having an encounter with Abraham as he is returning from rescuing his nephew, Lot. Melchizedek is mentioned as being not only a king but a "priest of God Most High" (Genesis 14:18). As a priest, he blessed Abraham and, in return, Abraham gave him a tithe, or a tenth, of his possessions.
This is the only mention of Melchizedek in the Old Testament. For a brief period he takes center stage, interacts with Abraham, and then disappears. Why then does such a seemingly minor figure take such a prominent role in the Letter to the Hebrews. The author of Hebrews, who was once believed to be St. Paul but is now considered to be unknown, references Melchizedek as being a forerunner of Christ precisely because he lived before the Jewish priesthood was founded in the person of Aaron and his descendants. Many believe Hebrews was written to prevent Jewish Christians from abandoning Christianity and returning to their Jewish faith. Thus, by referencing Melchizedek, the author would have been emphasizing Christ's establishment of a new tradition.