Evidence #401 | April 17, 2023

Wordplay on Melchizedek

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Scripture Central


In the Book of Mormon, the name Melchizedek is connected with “peace” and “righteousness.” While these associations can also be found in Hebrews 7:1–2, their implementation in the Book of Mormon is both creative and unique.

Melchizedek and Righteousness

When preaching to the apostate Nephites in the city of Ammonihah, Alma linked “righteousness” with the following three ideas: (1) ordination to the high priesthood, (2) faith, and (3) repentance:

there were many who were ordained and became high priests of God; and it was on account of their exceeding faith and repentance, and their righteousness before God, they choosing to repent and work righteousness rather than to perish (Alma 13:10)

Eight verses later, Alma invoked this same set of concepts, except “righteousness” turns up missing and instead “Melchizedek” is mentioned twice in short succession:

But Melchizedek having exercised mighty faith, and received the office of the high priesthood according to the holy order of God, did preach repentance unto his people. And behold they did repent; and Melchizedek did establish peace in the land in his days (Alma 13:18)

One intriguing explanation for this word swap is that Alma recognized that “righteousness” is actually embedded in the meaning of Melchizedek’s name itself. As famously described in Hebrews 7:1–2, Melchizedek is “by interpretation King of righteousness.”1 Thus, rather than simply explaining the meaning of Melchizedek’s name, as seen in Hebrews 7, Alma appears to be subtly hinting at the connection through wordplay.

Alma preaching to the people of Ammonihah. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

Strengthening this proposal is the fact that these are the only two passages in Alma 13 which feature this specific combination of ideas (faith + repentance + ordination to high priesthood). Furthermore, these similar clusters of concepts happen to be situated at the beginning and ending of a subunit in Alma’s literary structure (vv. 10–20), making them especially likely to relate to one another in some meaningful way.3

Melchizedek and Peace

Hebrews 7:1–2 also associates Melchizedek with the following meaning: “King of Salem, which is, King of peace.”4 These elements (“Salem” and “peace”) likewise turn up in Alma’s discussion of Melchizedek in Alma 13. Yet, once again, their implementation appears to be both novel and creative. In this case, Alma situates “peace” at the center of a chiastic structure, bounded on the outside by the name “Melchizedek” and his title as the “king of Salem” (Alma 13:18):


and Melchizedek



did establish peace in the land in his days;



therefore he was called the prince of peace,


for he was the king of Salem;

When broken down into its constituent parts, Melchizedek can be rendered as follows: melchi (king) zedek (righteousness).5 Thus, “Melchizedek” and “king” would function reasonably well as synonymous elements in the outer layers of the chiasm. The shared etymological description found in Hebrews 7 suggests that Alma and the author of Hebrews were likely drawing from a similar textual or oral tradition.6


As can be seen, both of the elements—(1) righteousness and (2) peace—that are associated with Melchizedek’s name in Hebrews 7:1–2 turn up in Alma 13. One might assume that Joseph Smith simply lifted these ideas straight from the New Testament and applied them here.7 Yet their subtle and creative implementation may cause one to doubt that explanation. If this proposed wordplay and chiasm are valid, then the author of Alma 13 appears to have emphasized the meanings of Melchizedek’s name in manner that is both novel and characteristically Hebrew.8

Book of Mormon Onomasticon, s.v. “MELCHIZEDEK,” online at onoma.lib.byu.edu.

Robert L. Millet, “The Holy Order of God,” in The Book of Mormon: Alma, the Testimony of the Word, ed. Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1992), 61–88.

John W. Welch, John M. Lundquist, and Stephen D. Ricks, “The Melchizedek Material in Alma 13:13–19,” in By Study and Also By Faith, 2 vols. (Provo and Salt Lake City, UT: FARMS and Deseret Book, 1990), 2:238–272.

BibleHebrews 7:1–2Book of MormonAlma 13:10–22


Hebrews 7:1–2

Book of Mormon

Alma 13:10–22

  • 1 Because this description reflects an ancient etymological view of this name as held by the author of Hebrews in the first century AD, it is therefore valid on its own terms. The technical etymology of Melchizedek stretching back into earlier biblical eras, however, is likely more complicated. Joseph A. Fitzmyer has argued that Melchizedek “must have originally meant ‘[the god] Sedeq is my king,’ or less likely, ‘My king is righteous(ness)’.” Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “Melchizedek in the MT, LXX, and the NT,” Biblica 81, no. 1 (2000): 65. Latter-day Saint commentators have likewise remarked on the uncertainty surrounding the name’s true origin and meaning: “It may be translated in many ways, including, ‘the King is Righteous,’ or ‘the King is Legitimate,’ or perhaps ‘Righteousness is King,’ or ‘My Lord is Sedeq (a Canaanite deity).’ The intrinsic meanings in these roots themselves have led some to claim that Melchizedek is not a personal name in Genesis 14:18 at all. The words may simply refer epithetically to ‘the just king’ (the king of Sodom?), or, as Albright suggests, they may be a corruption of a line once reading ‘the king who was allied with [Abraham].’” John W. Welch, John M. Lundquist, and Stephen D. Ricks, “The Melchizedek Material in Alma 13:13–19,” in By Study and Also By Faith, 2 vols. (Provo and Salt Lake City, UT: FARMS and Deseret Book, 1990), 2:245. Whatever the case may be regarding the name’s meaning, it would appear that, like the author of Hebrews, Alma also recognized “righteousness” as a valid association, either due to the name’s perceived etymology or through homophonic association. Note that the author of Hebrews isn’t the only ancient writer to associate Melchizedek with “righteousness.” Similar associations were made by Philo, Josephus, and later Jewish rabbis. See Gert J. Steyn, “The Vorlage of the Melchizedek Phrases in Hebrews 7.1–4,” Journal of Early Christian History 13, no. 1 (2002): 207–223; Birger A. Pearson, “Melchizedek in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Gnosticism,” in Biblical Figures Outside the Bible, ed. Michael E. Stone and Theodore A. Bergren (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1998), 181; Welch, Lundquist, and Ricks, “The Melchizedek Material in Alma 13:13–19,” 250–253.
  • 2 While each of these ideas are individually expressed elsewhere in this textual unit, these are the only passages where they cluster together in this manner.
  • 3 Verse 9 definitively ends the previous textual unit by stating: “And thus it is. Amen.” We can therefore be confident that verse 10 is beginning a new subunit in Alma’s discourse. In addition to outlining the necessary qualities of a high priest (faith + repentance + righteousness), verse 10 also emphasizes the large quantity of men who attained this status: “there were many who were ordained and became high priests of God.” The final verses of the unit then revisit these ideas. In verse 18, Melchizedek is presented as an archetypical high priest who exercised significant faith and repentance, and then in verse 19 the number of righteous ancient high priests is again emphasized: “Now, there were many before him, and also there were many afterwards, but none were greater” (v. 19). Finally, in verse 20, Alma closes out the unit in a pronounced way: “Now I need not rehearse the matter; what I have said may suffice.” In other words, verses 10–20 can be seen as an inclusio (a literary unit demarcated by similar material at its beginning and end). With that structural relationship in mind, the case for the intentional association of “righteousness” in verse 10 with “Melchizedek” in verse 18 is considerably strengthened. It should be noted that there is likely a scribal error in these verses (probably due to a transcription error in the underlying ancient text rather than its modern translation) and that verse 16 should actually immediately follow verse 12. See Grant R. Hardy, “New Light: The Book of Mormon as a Written (Literary) Artifact,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 12, no. 2 (2003): 107–109, 118.
  • 4 Instead of being an accurate etymology, this designation is narratively derived. For more information on “Salem” and its meaning of “peace,” see https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/h8004/kjv/wlc/0-1/.
  • 5 See Book of Mormon Onomasticon, s.v. “MELCHIZEDEK,” online at onoma.lib.byu.edu.
  • 6 A similar explanation has been proposed for Philo’s association of Melchizedek with “peace.” Birger A. Pearson writes, “It appears … that much of Philo’s interpretation of Melchizedek that parallels what we found in Hebrews is traditional, if only because it can be found in other Jewish sources. This is certainly the case with his etymology of Melchizedek’s name, ‘righteous king,’ and probably also with the etymology of Salem as ‘peace’.” The footnote following this statement draws attention to the work of yet another scholar (R. Williamson) who “has shown conclusively that the author of Hebrews did not use any of Philo’s writings. Thus Philo and Hebrews evidently share a common tradition.” Pearson, “Melchizedek in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Gnosticism,” 181. How old that tradition was and where it originated has been lost to time, but its presence in the Book of Mormon suggests it stretched back at least into Lehi’s day. For further insight, see Steyn, “The Vorlage of the Melchizedek Phrases in Hebrews 7.1–4,” 215.
  • 7 This, of course, would require that Joseph Smith was (1) familiar with these New Testament passages and (2) able to recall them from memory during his dictation of the Book of Mormon. While certainly not impossible, this knowledge on his part cannot simply be assumed, especially considering the enormous amount of accurate biblical ideas and precise textual connections that can be found throughout the Book of Mormon. Although not especially impressive on an individual basis, each textual relationship adds to the collective burden of knowledge and memory that Joseph would have to possess in order to produce the Book of Mormon.
  • 8 The same could be said about Alma’s entire treatment of Melchizedek. While it clearly relates to the Old Testament passages referring to this enigmatic figure, it offers many unique and original insights. As noted in Welch, Lundquist, and Ricks, “The Melchizedek Material in Alma 13:13–19,” 263, “Alma 13:13–19 conveys far more than the usual historical or etiological interpretations of the puzzling Genesis account.” For a brief sampling of scholarly studies investigating Melchizedek’s presence in ancient texts and traditions from various times, locations, and cultures, see Gard Granerød, “Melchizedek in Hebrews 7,” Biblica 90, no. 2 (2009): 188–202; Steyn, “The Vorlage of the Melchizedek Phrases in Hebrews 7.1–4,” 207–223; Fitzmyer, “Melchizedek in the MT, LXX, and the NT,” 63–69; Deborah W. Rooke, “Jesus as Royal Priest: Reflections on the Interpretation of the Melchizedek Tradition in Heb 7,” Biblica 81, no. 1 (2000): 81–94; Pearson, “Melchizedek in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Gnosticism,” 176–202.
Wordplay on Melchizedek
Book of Mormon

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