Is Salem Jerusalem?


And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God. (Genesis 14:18)

Melchizedek is one of the most mysterious characters recorded in the Bible. He makes his debut in Genesis 14, and the totality of information provided about him is encapsulated within three brief verses (Genesis 14:18-20). It is interesting that the “Book of Beginnings,” which meticulously records all the “begets” of who’s who of important personages of early history, completely ignores the lineage of this apparently most significant person. The New Testament letter to the Hebrews does no better at identifying the parentage of this mysterious figure. Of Melchizedek, the writer of the book of Hebrew writes: “Without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest continually” (Hebrews 7:3, emphasis mine).

Some believe that Melchizedek was a real person, king of the city-state of Salem. However, Salem is only associated with Melchizedek in the Bible.[1],[2] Nowhere is it listed with the other cities in Canaan, and it is given no significance other than its association with Melchizedek. Some have suggested that Salem was the former name of Jerusalem. They attribute this to clay tablets found at the Tell el Amarna site, dated at 1400 B.C., identifying Urusalim as an early name for Jerusalem. They conclude that “Salem” is just an abbreviated form of Urusalim, and is therefore the same as Jerusalem.

I see several problems with that conclusion. First of all, the date of the Tell el Amarna tablets is about 800 years after Abraham’s encounter with Melchizedek. Israel’s entry into Canaan and the period of the Judges occurred around 1400 B.C. At that time, Jerusalem was known by that name (Jerusalem) and also by the name of Jebus.[3] The Bible identifies Jebus as the city of the Jebusites, and the Jebusites dwelt in the land at the time of Abraham (Genesis 15:18-21). It seems unlikely that the Holy Spirit would refer to the city of Melchizedek as Salem, if He was referring to Jebus (or Jerusalem), and if in fact, Jerusalem existed at that time.

Another problem arises when God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22). God instructed Abraham, “And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of” (Genesis 22:2, emphasis mine). It is widely accepted by Jews, Christians and Muslims, that the place where Abraham offered up his son (Muslims say it was Ishmael) was on Mount Moriah, the place currently occupied by the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. If Salem were the same place as Jerusalem, why then did God not clearly say, “Go up to Salem and sacrifice Isaac there”? A close inspection of the text gives the impression that the place to where Abraham was directed was uninhabited.  Note that God directs Abraham to “one of the mountains which I will tell thee.” This was a private matter among God, Abraham and Isaac. It seems unlikely that God would direct Abraham to a population center.

Is Salem Jerusalem? I think not. Jebus, a.k.a. Jerusalem, probably did not exist during Abraham’s lifetime. This would be consistent with the dates of the archaeological finds. So, if Salem is not Jerusalem, then what happened to Melchizedek’s city-state? The validity of the question relies on whether Melchizedek was a flesh-and-blood human being, and whether Salem was a physical place.

I contend that Melchizedek was a Theophany – a preincarnate manifestation of the Lord Jesus Christ. I arrive at this conclusion from the description provided in Genesis 14:18-20 and Hebrews 7:1-4.  As noted earlier, he is described as having no parentage, no beginning, and no end. Only God claims those qualifications. Furthermore, the book of Hebrews notes that he blesses Abraham, and the greater always blesses the lesser. Finally, Abraham offers a tithe (a tenth) of the spoils to Melchizedek. Everywhere else in Scripture, tithes are always associated with service to God, never to men.

His name is more of a title. Melchizedek is a combination of two Hebrew words: melek (king) and tsedeq (righteousness). Combined they render “King of Righteousness” or “Righteous King.” And he is the King of Shalem (peace). His full title could then be rendered as “Righteous King of Peace.” Who does that sound like?

Salem is not Jerusalem. Salem is not a physical place. And Melchizedek is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ, our King of Peace.


[1]  See: Genesis 14:18; Hebrews 7:1-2

[2]  Psalm 76:2 associates Salem with Zion – the dwelling place of God.

[3]  See: Judges 19:10-11; 1 Chronicles 11:4-5


Filed under Apologetics, Bible, Religion, Theology

2 responses to “Is Salem Jerusalem?

  1. Thanks! I appreciate your study on this.

    • James J. S. Johnson

      Don’t let those folks from Massachusetts kid you, this analysis of Salem is a winner! And Stephen Nielsen’s appreciation for it is not alone — this is stellar analysis, Ernie, — and it very carefully sorts through a theological thicket as dense as the famed “Hinckley underbrush” that Dr. Stan Toussaint is known to warn us about. By the way, compliments from Stephen Nielsen are real kudos, because his website is a devotional cornucopia of Bible truth.