There is an ancient legend, which is of interest to us Christians. It goes like this:
After Adam, there were two lines of descendants: The descendants of Cain, who repudiated the covenant, and the descendants of Seth, who adhered to the covenant. At that time, first born sons were the family priests, offering up sacrifice on behalf of the family. Genesis 5 lists the genealogy of such sons from Adam to Noah. Note the lineage is from Adam through Seth, the third-born son of Adam. Yet Seth carries the role of first-born, because the real first-born, Cain, repudiated the covenant, when he murdered the second-born, Abel. It is through Cain and his lineage that evil spreads through the world. Note especially Gen 4:19-24 regarding Lamech, who introduces polygamy and also boasts of his murders.
In Gen 6:1-8, we read about “the sons of God” mating with the beautiful “daughters of men.” Their children were called “the Nephilim, the mighty men of old.” The sons of God were the children of the covenant, that is, the descendants of Seth. The daughters of men were, in contrast, the women of Cain’s lineage, those who did not keep the covenant. The men of the covenant, the so-called “sons of God,” inter-married with these women and fell away from the covenant. It seems humanity in general fell away from God’s covenant, and only Noah and his children remained faithful. God destroyed humanity, saving only His remnant family.
According to legend, the remains of Adam (notably, his skull) were kept by his first-born priestly descendants. These remains ultimately fell into Noah’s hands. At the time of the Flood, Noah took Adam’s remains aboard the ark for safe keeping. Noah’s first-born son, Shem, became the next in line for the family priesthood. However, the family we are talking about is the only family in the world; so long as Shem was alive, he was the High Priest of all humanity. As such, he was an OT image of Christ, as we shall see. Anyway, Shem became the steward of Adam’s remains.
So far, much of this legend can be gleaned from Genesis. Now we move to pure legend. Shem became the father of his tribe. An angel visited Shem and told him to uproot his tribe and follow him to a place God had prepared for him. Shem obediently did as he was told; he and his family/tribe followed the angel day after day until they arrived. And there, Shem pitched camp, as did the tribe. The origin of a town was born. The place was an area of seven hills and on one of the hills, Shem buried Adam’s remains. This is the origin of Jerusalem and the hill wherein Adam was finally laid to rest was called Golgotha – the place of the skull. Christians know this location well.
33 And when they came to the place which is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on the right and one on the left. (Lk 23:33)
The new Adam died on the location of the old Adam’s grave. This is highly significant, as the sin of Adam brought death into the world, while Jesus’ obedience to that same death saved us from sin. There is a direct relationship between the death of the old Adam and that of the New. Often, artistic representations of the Crucifixion show a skull at the base of the cross; that is the skull of Adam.
This is not, however, the end of the legend of Shem. According to Gen 11:10-11, Shem lived to the ripe old age of 600 years. This same chapter of Genesis lists the genealogy of first-born sons (priests) from Shem to Abram. If we add up the ages from each father to son, Shem was 390 years old when Abram was born. And we can consider that although these first-born sons were family priests, Shem was the High Priest, as eldest among them.
We then come to the story Abram and Melchizedek. Read Genesis 14; several kings went to war against several other kings. In the fray, Abram’s nephew, Lot, was taken prisoner. Abram mustered an army from his own tribe and defeated the victor kings’ armies and released his nephew from captivity. Then:
18 And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. 19 And he blessed him and said, "Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; 20 and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!" And Abram gave him a tenth of everything. (Gn 14:18-20)
This Melchizedek was “priest of God Most High.” In this phrase, many ancient rabbis saw the High Priest, Shem, who was still alive, as noted above. In fact, the name Melchizedek is not a name, it is a title; it means King of Righteousness. He is also King of Salem, salem being the Hebrew word for peace (Salem is anglicized; most people know this Hebrew word better as shalom.) If this is indeed Shem, then he named his seminal town Salem. Salem is identified in Scripture as Jeru-Salem. Note Psalm 76 equates Salem and Zion, Zion a well-known alternative name of Jerusalem:
2 His abode has been established in Salem, his dwelling place in Zion. (Ps 76:2)
In another post I will continue this theme that Salem and Jerusalem are one and the same.
It is also interesting that Shem’s name is merely the Hebrew word for “name.” Shem seems to be a man with no name – it’s as if his name was replaced by the word name to keep us guessing. And Melchizedek is also a man with no name, only a title. These comparisons lend weight to the rabbinical legend.
The Epistle to the Hebrews, chapters 4-7, describes how Jesus is a high priest, “according to the order of Melchizedek.” That is, Jesus also offers bread and wine, similar to Melchizedek. Likewise, as Shem was the first-born and High Priest, so Jesus is the first-born Son and High Priest of His family, which is the Church. Finally, Shem’s titles are reminiscent of Christ: King of Peace and King of Righteousness.
I am not advocating that these legends are historically true. However, knowing such legends is helpful for understanding Scripture. Some of the sources for these legends are Targum Neofiti, Genesis Rabah & Babylonian Talmud: Nedarim.