This episode in the life of Abram reveals him to be a military man, but it also tells us about his contact with a priestly king, Melchizedek, who came to symbolise Christ.
The background to their meeting involved a regional war among the kings of various city-states. Abram’s nephew, Lot, got caught up in the drama. When his hometown of Sodom was ransacked, a number of people were captured by the soldiers of King Chedor-Laomer and taken away as prisoners. Lot was one of them.
When Abram found out, he decided to get involved in the war himself. He gathered together his own tribal army, which numbered over 300 armed men. Abram’s army then carried out a surprise night-time attack on Chedor-Laomer’s forces and totally defeated them. Abram then rescued Lot, along with the others who had also been captured.
After the victory, Abram was met by two grateful kings who had opposed Chedor-Laomer – King Bera of Sodom and King Melchizedek of Jerusalem (then known as ‘Salem’). Melchizedek was a righteous king, but also a priest of the Most High. He blessed Abram, giving him some bread and wine. In response, Abram gave him tribute – a tenth of his possessions.
This meeting between Abram and Melchizedek is deep in symbolic meaning. The New Testament goes into detail about how Melchizedek symbolizes Christ, who is also both a priest and king. Christ is described as a priest “resembling Melchizedek” (Hebrews 6:20-7:3, 15). Like Melchizedek, Christ did not inherit his priesthood from his ancestors or pass it on to a son. They were both appointed priest directly by God, on a permanent basis.
Like Melchizedek, Christ also offered bread and wine – at the Last Supper. As a result, Melchizedek’s offering of bread and wine came to symbolize the sacrifice of the Mass. The meeting between Abram and Melchizedek is therefore a very common scene in Catholic art. Very often, the story is pictured in stained glass, sculpture or mosaic – particularly in the sanctuary or on altars.
This opus sectile scene of Melchizedek offering bread and wine to Abram is found within the sanctuary of St James, Spanish Place, in London. The ceramic image is by John Francis Bentley and dates to around 1899. It sits alongside other Old Testament scenes that symbolize the Mass, such as the Passover and Noah’s Sacrifice. This particular style, with the use of deep blues and reds, was favoured by Bentley.
In the image, a kneeling Abram – still wearing his helmet – receives wafers of bread from King Melchizedek, who is clothed in priestly robes. The two figures both have haloes, reflecting their status as holy men. Two of Abram’s soldiers look on, while the walls of Jerusalem (of which Melchizedek was king) tower behind.
See the full image:
Where to find this work of art
St James, Spanish Place, London
Read the relevant passage