Melchizedek, King of ‘Sodom’

Sodom and its king, Melchezidek.  That’s the topic of Cargill’s third book.

Robert Cargill commences his study with an historical overview of the interpretation of Melchizedek.  Here he invites readers to an alternative theory concerning the city over which this character served as King.  A theory which appears to have arrived on the scene only in the early 20th century (1903 to be exact) as explicated by one Charles Edo Anderson.  Anderson believed (without any manuscript support) that Salem was actually Sodom in the story of Melchizedek in Genesis 14.

To carry on the Andersonian tradition, Cargill does a bit of exegesis in his second chapter, describing the structure of the narrative and the meaning of the King’s name and other such exegetical things and, frankly, he does a very good job of it.

Chapter three turns to the real heart of the matter: how did Sodom become Shalem in the Andersonian reading of Genesis 14?  To attempt to answer this question, Cargill looks at the text of the Hebrew Bible. He also takes a side glance at the propriety of adopting the more difficult reading.  Which is a bit odd here given the fact that the principle applies to text critical matters and there isn’t any ancient text which has Sodom in the place of Shalem.  Indeed, Cargill confesses

… I propose that in verse 18 the name is to be misunderstood as a gloss.  Specifically, I propose that in verse 18 the name Sodom was altered to Shalem for the theological purpose of distancing Abram from exchanging goods and oaths with the king of Sodom . … Melchizedek was originally the king of Sodom, not Shalem.  (p. 20)

I appreciate the proposal, but there, again, isn’t a shred of textual evidence for this supposition.  It is a hypothesis without a foundation.  It is speculation lacking evidence.

Mind you, Cargill will spend the remainder of the book building a very carefully constructed edifice in support of his hypothesis.  And readers may find themselves persuaded by his argument.  It is, after all, very good.  It is very Cargill-ian.  It is very bright and creative and almost persuasive save for the one troublesome fact that there is no support for it that isn’t imaginary.

At the end of chapter three, after arguing with all the acuity he possesses (and that is considerable), Cargill again opines

I propose that the change from Sodom to Shalem occurred in the post-exilic period, after the initial redaction of the Pentatuchal texts yet prior to the separation of the SP and MT traditions, and prior to any translations of the HB, including the LXX and the Targums (p. 35).

That’s convenient timing.  It allows the proposition to evade the unpleasant textual reality of the written text that we actually have.

Chapter four turns to the subject of how El Elyon became Yahweh.  This interesting chapter could stand on its own as an encyclopedia article on the subject.  It’s quite informative and ‘I find no fault in it’.

Chapter five is Cargill’s mighty attempt to demonstrate that there were sectarian redactions made to the Samaritan Pentateuch and the Masoretic text.  And of course he’s right.  There were sectarian redactions made and that fact is in and of itself well established.  Cargill’s abiding problem, however, is that there is no textual evidence that Sodom transformed into Shalem because of sectarian emphases.  Indeed, even if we posit the possibility of such changes, what could their motivation be?

But Cargill actually undermines his argument at this point, for he gives textual examples of sectarian changes!  A thing which he cannot do with Genesis 14.  So he provides readers with detailed, wise, and cogent illustrations from texts such as Ex 20 and Deut 5 and the SP’s 10th commandment; Dt 27:4 and its Mt Gerizim love.  And he’s right to insist that the Pentateuch was adjusted for sectarian reasons.  His problem is that Genesis 14 has no textual evidence of such a sectarian adjustment.   That sectarian changes happened does not prove that Genesis 14 is an example of them.

Chapter 6 is an examination of the transformation of Shalem to Jerusalem.  He begins

The evidence I have presented so far demonstrates clearly that there was an ideological competition, from the fifth through second centuries BCE and beyond between the Samaritan cult centered on Mt Gerizim and the Jerusalem cult centered on Mt Zion. (p. 55).

The word ‘clearly’ is always something of a red flag, isn’t it.  It may be clear to Cargill that his case has been made but others may not be equally convinced.  After all, we still have no textual evidence for the central claim.  And we don’t even have, yet, any corroboration.  We have instances and examples of various sectarian dabblings in the text; but we do not yet have any clear demonstration that sectarian interests affected Genesis 14’s choice of ‘Shalem’ and altered it to ‘Sodom’ or vice versa.

But Cargill continues quite manfully to muster evidence, even including a bit of Ugaritic (in Ugaritic font!!!).  When he arrives (after discussing Shalem  : Jerusalem) he brings readers to another aspect of his evidence: Tithes.  This too is an exceptionally written chapter which could also stand on its one in an extensive encyclopedia entry.  Cargill really is a very bright exegete and his work really is superb (even if his thesis in this volume lacks evidential support).  Chapter 8 examines Psalm 110.  And here, it has to be said, Cargill is at his very best as exegete.  He understands the text and its issues and he brilliantly describes the texts meaning.

His abiding problem, however, is that no matter what evidence he musters and what texts he assembles which happen to name Melchizedek, he has no reason besides supposition to assert that Sodom should replace Shalem as Melchizedek’s city.  In short he doesn’t make his case, in spite of his excellent exegesis, because the case cannot be made without textual support.  His is an impossible task because whatever case he makes, it stands on air.

Cargill, after his conclusion, provides readers with the Masoretic Hebrew text of Genesis 14.  This is followed by a second appendix with Cargill’s own translation of that passage.  A translation which – at verse 18 – describes Melchizedek as ‘King of Shalem’.  It’s hard to argue with what’s written when there isn’t any variant reading offering support for our speculative theories.

Finally there are a slew of other appendices (all the way to Appendix J) which offer the Hebrew language folk plenty of charts and tables to add to their other charts and tables (which things Hebrew language people dearly love).

There are endnotes instead of footnotes (why, Oxford?  Why?), a VERY thorough bibliography, an index of verses, and an index of subjects.

All in all this is a very interesting book. You should read it.  You should encourage your library to buy a copy.  Its central thesis is unproven but the material is well presented.

Perhaps at some point in the future there will be a discovery in the Judean desert and that discovery will be of a jar and in that jar there will be a scroll and on that scroll there will be a copy of Genesis 14 and in that copy of Genesis 14 there will be a variant reading and in that variant reading we will discover that Melchizedek was described as the King of Sodom.  And Cargill’s argument will be vindicated (if not entirely proven).


1 thought on “Melchizedek, King of ‘Sodom’

  1. Jeremiah Lawson

    Maybe the decision to use endnotes is a technical concession to the people who have to get the ebook version online. In e-books the endnotes are blue font numbers you can touch and the e-reader brings up the note in a pop up at the bottom of the reading screen. Oxford University Press may have decided it would cut down preparation and roll out time to have end notes so that physical and e-book formats can be more easily released at the same time. I find endnotes kill the flow of reading for physical books but for ebooks they are simple. OUP monographs on music are increasingly coming with a link and a password to access entire websites devoted to online examples of scores, music performances, and things like that. The books are still really well done but I am not sure how thrilled I am that to get the “full” book I’ve got to go on to a website that has content that isn’t technically even in the published book. 😦


Comments are closed.