Many members of the LDS church believe Shem, the son of Noah and the father of all the Semitic races, and Melchizedek, the famous high priest to whom Abraham paid tithes, to be the same person. Indeed, a short essay on the LDS Church’s own website by Alma E. Gygi, a Salt Lake City businessman, entitled “Is it Possible that Shem and Melchizedek are the Same Person?” provides arguments in support of this conclusion, see here. This essay will attempt to demonstrate why Melchizedek was not Shem, but will also use this issue as a case study in how careless we can be in adopting religious beliefs. The Melchizedek-Shem issue is relatively trivial, but too often, the same failure to require solid foundations for our beliefs leads to other mistaken conclusions on far more consequential doctrinal matters.
The first major piece of evidence that Shem wasn’t Melchizedek is one that Mormons too often ignore–neither the biblical writers nor the more accurate Book of Mormon writers, though they were writing on the very subject of the greatness of Melchizedek, mentioned anything about him being Shem, or being the son of Noah. If a proponent of the Shem=Melchizedek theory is willing to ignore this point, she should first show that Bible and Book of Mormon writers commonly referred to one person using two different names without informing the reader that both names referred to the same person. But such a showing can’t be made; indeed, the opposite is true.
Relevant Biblical Verses Regarding Shem
In the Bible, writers paid great attention to names, and took care to inform the reader when one person was known by more than one name. Some obvious examples might be Sarai-Sarah, Abram-Abraham, Jacob-Israel, Esau-Edom, Saul-Paul, Simon-Cephas-Peter and Joses-Barnabas, but there are many more. Joseph-Zaphenath Paneah, Reuel-Jethro, Gideon-Jerubbaal, Daniel-Belteshazzar, Hananiah-Shadrach, Mishael-Meshach, Azariah-Abednego, Hadassah-Esther, and Levi-Matthew are others, and still more could be listed. The Hebrews and Jews took care to identify the person about whom they were writing. Presumably, they would be even more inclined to do so if a person’s two names were both famous in their own right, such as would be the case if Melchizedek were Shem.
But a reading of the Bible shows that both Shem and Melchizedek are described separately, and are never suggested to have been in the same place at the same time, to have known each other, to have had common acquaintances, or to have even lived in the same area of the Middle East. Shem is famous for being one of three sons of Noah. Shem was one of the eight people on Noah’s ark who lived through the flood. He became the father of the Semitic race, from which Abraham, Isaac and Jacob sprang. His sons and grandsons, and the lands where they settled, are all named. (More about that later.) We know when he was born and when he died. But his significance in the Bible story is limited to his place in the genealogical line of patriarchs between Adam and Abraham, and as such, he became an ancestor of Jesus Christ. (See Luke 3:36) The only act of his that we know of, other than that he married, was on the ark, had children, and died when 602 years old, is that on one occasion, he, along with his brother Japheth, saw his father drunken and naked in his tent. The two sons then placed a blanket over their father while looking away from him so as not to see his nakedness. Other than that, nothing of particular significance is said about him. In the Bible, he is not described as being a high priest, king, or even a religious leader. Nothing is even said about him being righteous. No words of his are quoted. See Genesis 6:10-11:10.
According to the book of Genesis, Shem’s descendants became famous fathers of nations. According to Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary, “[a]fter the Flood he became the father of Elam, Asshur, Arphaxad, Lud, and Aram (usually identified by scholars as Persia, Assyria, Chaldea, Lydia, and Syria, respectively).”1 Two things are noteworthy about this information. First of all, none of the sons of Shem became fathers of nations in the area of Salem, which city, if we are correct in believing it to be the city that later became Jerusalem, was in the land of Canaan. We do know that Abraham, after he had migrated southward to Canaan from his ancestral homeland in Haran (modern Syria), lived in the southern portion of what would later become Judea. Therefore, because he returned to that area after the slaughter of the kings and met Melchizedek, we can infer that Melchizedek was king over a city in this same area where Jerusalem now is. Shem’s descendents did not live in this area, and that is why Abraham, himself a descendant of Shem, was characterized as a stranger in the land of the Canaanites, see Gen. 15:13 and 17:8. If Melchizedek was Shem, why was he living in an area where neither Shem nor his above-named sons had settled?
Second, since the Bible tells us that Noah’s ark came to rest on the slopes of Mount Ararat (see Gen. 8:4), and contains no record of Shem himself ever leaving this area, the reader shouldn’t infer that Shem traveled from Ararat to Jerusalem thereafter. The distance between the two points is over 750 miles, and it would be a journey Shem would have no reason to make. The area of Mount Ararat is a central location from which Shem’s sons spread out to the west and southeast. For Shem to migrate a long distance to Canaan would take him further away from the lands which his sons began to settle. And, it would take him away from his father Noah, for whom he was still caring after the Flood, as the incident with Noah’s nakedness demonstrates.
Finally, as argued above, if the Bible makes much about Abraham leaving Haran to come to Canaan, wouldn’t it have told us if Shem made an even more impressive migration after the Flood to become the king of a city in a land where he had never lived before?
Relevant Biblical Verses Regarding Melchizedek
By contrast, more important things are written in the Bible about Melchizedek. Famously, he brought bread and wine to Abraham and pronounced a blessing upon him, after Abraham returned from rescuing Lot and defeating four eastern kings in battle. On that occasion, Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek, whom the biblical writer describes as “king of Salem” and “the priest of the most high God.” (See Gen. 14:18-20.) Later, in New Testament times, Paul expounded on the greatness of Melchizedek (spelled “Melchisedec” in the New Testament), saying that his priesthood was of a higher order than that possessed by high priests descended from the sons of Levi, and that Christ, belonging to this higher order, would, like Melchizedek, remain a high priest forever. In fact, it is apparent that Paul, according to what he had been taught by the Hebrew scriptures in his education as a Pharisee, believed that Melchizedek had not died, but lived forever, and had no descendants. (See Hebrews 7:1-3, 5-8.) Clearly, Paul, himself a Jewish scriptorian, didn’t believe Melchizedek was Shem, since Shem was known to have died, and to have had famous descendants.2
Conclusions We May Draw from the Bible
Based on the above analysis, I assert that the silence in the Bible about Melchizedek being Shem means something. Why would the Bible go into great detail about Shem’s father, Noah, and say virtually nothing about Shem, if Shem had migrated 750+ miles to become king of what became the Bible’s most important city, and a great high priest to whom even Abraham showed deference? Why indeed, when biblical writers reflexively went out of their way to elevate their genealogical progenitors in the eyes of the reader? Why would the biblical scholars of Jesus’ day affirmatively teach that Melchizedek lived forever and had no children, and shroud him in mystery as a previously unmentioned king and priest who appears out of nowhere in Genesis, if he was one of their own revered ancestors?
Another example of this similarly perplexing abandonment of logic occurs with Mormons who argue that Christ was married during mortality. In so doing, they are willing to ignore the enormously important fact that the Bible doesn’t say that Christ was married, though it speaks at length about the marriages of far less important biblical figures. But the Christ-was-married advocates gloss over the biblical non-corroboration on that issue as if secrecy on such matters were the Bible’s default setting. If such Mormons could show that biblical writers routinely ignored the marital status of other religious leaders about whom they wrote, the biblical silence on Christ’s marriage would have far less significance. But such a showing not only can’t be made, the opposite showing is easily made. Even when the Bible doesn’t mention the name of a spouse, it reveals their marriage by chronicling who their children (and often their grandchildren) were. Biblical narrators wrote all about Jesus’s relationships and conversations with his mother (including his concern for her care as he looked down from the cross), his brothers, his apostles, other disciples and friends, Pharisees, publicans, John the Baptist, and the occasional woman encountered at the well, or brought before him for stoning, or seeking to anoint him with spikenard. If he’d have been married, that’s exactly the type of thing the biblical writers would have written about. The fact that the Bible doesn’t mention Jesus marrying, and doesn’t mention any physical posterity descending from him, when the New Testament writers all recognized him as the most important man in the history of the world, thus becomes an enormously persuasive argument that he wasn’t married when he walked the earth. (There are many other strong arguments that Jesus wasn’t married, and these derive from what the Bible affirmatively does say, but that is a topic of another essay to be written later this year on this website.
Relevant Book of Mormon Verses Concerning Melchizedek
The Book of Mormon contains no references to anyone who was known by dual names, nor does it mention Shem the son of Noah. However, Book of Mormon writers possessed Old Testament scriptures far superior to what we currently have in our Bibles (see 1 Nephi 13:23). Because of this fact, when they discussed Old Testament history in their writings, they usually provided more information on relevant points than that available in our current Bible. If a Book of Mormon writer were to speak on the story of Melchizedek, as Alma did to the people of Ammonihah, one would certainly expect him to not leave out important details highly relevant to the story being told. Nor would we expect him to add details about Melchizedek that further eroded the case for him being Shem, if those details were mere unsubstantiated legends that Alma deemed unreliable.
In his sermon to the people of Ammonihah, the Book of Mormon prophet Alma expounded on how God had called high priests in the ages before Christ’s birth to teach the people “in what manner to look forward to his Son for redemption.” In so doing, Alma included much information regarding ancient high priests that is not found in the Bible. Concerning Melchizedek specifically, Alma stated:
Now this Melchizedek was a king over the land of Salem; and his people had waxed strong in iniquity and abomination; yea, they had all gone astray; they were full of all manner of wickedness;
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; therefore he was called the prince of peace, for he was the king of Salem; and he did reign under his father.
Now, there were many before him, and also there were many afterwards, but none were greater; therefore, of him they have more particularly made mention.
(See Alma 13:17-19.) These verses, if they conveyed accurate information, as Mormons believe, leave no doubt that Melchizedek wasn’t Shem. Melchizedek was a king who had reigned under his father, who had also been a king but whose name Alma didn’t find worth mentioning. Melchizedek became more famous and revered than his father because he had preached repentance to the people of the land of Salem, who had all gone astray, and successfully caused them to repent.
But Shem’s father Noah was never a king, and was far more famous and spoken of than Shem. Neither Noah or Shem had successfully brought the city of Salem, nor or any other known people, to repentance through their preaching. Neither man was even recorded as having preached, having instead isolated themselves from the wickedness around them before the Flood. Noah never came anywhere near Salem in his lifetime, and would have had no reason to move over 750 miles to that land after he’d just spent 100 years of his life preparing for the Lord to take him to Mount Ararat. We know that after he left the ark, God blessed Noah to be agriculturally fruitful, and he planted a vineyard and drank the wine therefrom. (See Gen. 9:7-20.) It appears there was nothing wrong with the place God had led him to, and it wouldn’t make sense that there would be something wrong with it. Moreover, when Abraham was later led south from Haran to Canaan (and farther away from the Ararat area), it was to a land he was unfamiliar with, which wouldn’t have been the case if the famous Noah had moved there. In fact, the Bible says when Abraham got to present day Israel, “the Canaanite was in the land.” If Noah and Shem were nearby ruling over Salem, wouldn’t the Bible or Book of Mormon have mentioned more than just the presence of the nondescript Canaanites, who were descended from Ham?
The Point of this Essay
In other words, if a Mormon is taught that Melchizedek was actually Shem, and he conscientiously thinks to re-familiarize himself with the Book of Mormon’s teachings about Melchizedek, he would immediately see that the weight of evidence was strongly against such a conclusion. This should happen even if some former church president or general authority is quoted as saying Melchizedek was Shem. But somehow, this doesn’t seem to happen much in Mormonism. If it did happen, we wouldn’t find essays on the church’s own website like the one referenced at the beginning of this essay. That essay, like so many others on the Church’s website, not only ignores much biblical evidence, but also, precisely relevant verses from the Book of Mormon, the book which Latter-day Saints tout as the cornerstone of their religion.
This essay is only superficially about whether Shem and Melchizedek were two names used to describe the same person. That issue, in and of itself, is a relatively trivial question of no particular consequence for Christians, and is the part of this essay that doesn’t really matter. However, when studying LDS church doctrine or history, it is impossible to over-emphasize the need we should feel to determine if our most important religious beliefs are actually corroborated by our own historical records or foundational scriptures. We should realize how careless it can be to adopt improperly corroborated beliefs merely because they were taught to us by generally righteous parents or teachers, and the damage that such adoptions can cause if what we accepted as truth turns out to be false. As argued repeatedly in other essays on this website, if beliefs or practices enjoy no scriptural basis in the Bible, or in the book that we aver contains the fulness of the gospel (i.e., the Book of Mormon), that should be taken as strong evidence that that belief is not well-established enough to be accepted as true.
I believe God wants us to employ rigorous standards in determining whether our important beliefs are true. He wants us to look for corroborative evidence in the Bible and Book of Mormon, and in history. He doesn’t want us to be satisfied something is true just because it’s been commonly taught in church for many years. The Lord created mountains of intrinsic and extrinsic evidence to appeal to the intellect and show that the Book of Mormon was what it purported to be. He didn’t want us to believe it just because someone else who believed it had inculcated us with that belief. He wanted us to evaluate the evidence on our own. Mormons will devote many years of their lives engaged in vicarious work for the dead, for example, and never be troubled that not a word about such beliefs or practices was ever taught by Jesus to the Jews or the Nephites, even while he was busy teaching them about every other subject which he deemed important for them to hear or read. (In the case of vicarious ordinances for the dead, the omissions are particularly glaring; not even Joseph Smith, let alone Jesus, ever taught about vicarious endowments or marriages for the dead.)
Why Mormons Might Overlook their Own Scriptures
Knowledgeable orthodox Mormons may argue that John Taylor, a former church president, taught the Melchizedek=Shem doctrine. And this is true; he did, although he did so long before he became president of the church. He wrote of “the superior knowledge of men like Noah, Shem (who was Melchizedek) and Abraham, the father of the faithful, three contemporaries, holding the keys of the highest order of the priesthood. . .”3 But in order for this statement from John Taylor to persuade us Mormons that he’s right, should not those who accept it as authoritative need to show that Taylor studied this issue more than we have, and that his combination of intelligence, knowledge and inspiration was superior to our own? Can anyone make this showing? So far, no one has ever attempted to do so. And even if they could, wouldn’t it be extremely important to know what sources, exactly, he studied, and not just assume that he studied some unidentified writings? Just as importantly, do those who accept John Taylor’s statement not need to know what those who disagree with him have studied? If Taylor had said he reached his conclusion on Shem and Melchizedek because he heard Joseph Smith express the same conclusion in some conversation (though in actuality, he is not reported to have done so), would that obviate the need to read what others who disagree have written about the subject? Wouldn’t we still have to know how much Joseph Smith had studied this particular issue, or is Joseph presumed infallible in such pronouncements?
When we study the actual scriptures themselves, does it make reading them less necessary if we know Joseph Smith has already stated his interpretation of those particular verses? If so, why should we study anything, if some former church president or general authority has already spoken on the matter? Where do we get the idea that the scriptural understanding of high-level church leaders are automatically authoritative? Is this idea scriptural, or does it matter?
In bolstering the authoritativeness of the John Taylor statement, those who accept it are inhibited by the fact that our own church has, more than once, publicly disavowed statements made by past presidents of the church. Brigham Young’s from-the-pulpit pronouncements on blacks and the priesthood, for example, and the related doctrines and practices that were then perpetuated by John Taylor and the eight succeeding presidents of the church, are now declared on the church’s own website to be uninspired and influenced by then-common racist notions. In the October, 1976 LDS Church general conference, Spencer W. Kimball also denounced Brigham’s Young’s Adam-God teachings from the pulpit as false doctrine.
The Melchizedek=Shem proponents might also argue that in Doctrine and Covenants 138:41, President Joseph F. Smith is quoted as having seen, in a vision of the spirit world, “Shem, the great high priest…” D&C 138 is taken from Joseph Fielding Smith’s transcript of a vision which he said his father had dictated to him two weeks after having received it, which was soon thereafter printed in the Church-owned newspaper Deseret News. To be precise, we’re not discussing whether Shem was a great high priest or not, but whether he was Melchizedek. Nevertheless, assuming the transcript provided to the Deseret News contained no supplementation by his son, might we validly ask ourselves whether Joseph F. Smith’s account was influenced by the teachings of his predecessor, John Taylor, whose counselor he had been in the First Presidency, and whom he says he also saw in this same vision?
On a deeper level, should we not notice that Joseph F. Smith’s vision teaches the need for ordinances to be performed vicariously for dead people who died without baptism, which directly contradicts what Joseph Smith, his uncle, claims to have learned in a vision of his own? According to Joseph Smith, it was unnecessary to be concerned that good people had died without baptism, if they were good enough people that they would have accepted the gospel had they heard it during mortality. No ordinances for them were necessary; they were going to the celestial kingdom regardless. This statement of Joseph Smith, amazingly, is solid, canonized, LDS scripture, despite its obvious conflict with the LDS practice of baptizing for the dead in temples. See Doctrine and Covenants 137:5-9. (See also, Moroni 8:22, 23, for confirmation that Joseph Smith’s doctrine is correct.) But if we do notice this conflict, how free do we feel to decide who’s right and who’s wrong, and to announce our own conclusions, if it identifies some LDS doctrine as erroneous?
The atmosphere in the LDS Church is not one of encouraging such free and in-depth scrutiny of Mormon doctrine and history, if the scrutiny produces disagreement with what the Church teaches. We don’t want to learn that we teach untrue doctrine any more than we desire to learn that Paul H. Dunn fabricated his most famous experiences. Disagreements over doctrine and history can lead, not only to loss of a temple recommend and a church position, but to the imposition of church discipline, including excommunication. In many cases, orthodoxy is valued more than truth. To question church beliefs on a particular point is to suggest the LDS Church isn’t the “only true church,” despite the faith’s insistence that it is. No idea is perceived as more threatening than that.
The Shem-Melchizedek issue isn’t solely a Mormon teaching. It is taught by some Jewish scholars and rabbis, and some Christian scholars who study those writings. It is true that the Jewish Midrashic writings of a few rabbis in the centuries after Christ claimed that Shem was Melchizedek. The Shem idea resulted from the teachings of some scribes and rabbis who could point to no written authority for their assertions, and were, more than two thousand years after the fact, claiming said beliefs to be part of the old oral traditions of the Hebrews. Since the Talmud containing these writing consists of the writings of Jewish rabbis expressing their interpretations of the Torah and Tanakh, and expounding on what they claim to be oral traditions, these writings have become accepted by some. They gain acceptance the same way that Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith come to be accepted by many as actual Mormon doctrine, without God’s actual manifested endorsement.
If a Mormon, or any Christian, is inclined to accept the teachings of a few (out of many hundreds) rabbis on this subject, she should ask herself, How familiar am I with the other things that these same rabbis teach? Is she aware that the practice of rabbinic interpretation was started by the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, and continued for the next 300+ years, and as Jesus repeatedly pointed out, their interpretations were often very wrong? Identifying “who was who” was their particular weakness, and they weren’t able to discern that Jesus was the Messiah, or that any of the Christians were on to anything. Does she know that these rabbis also taught , for example, that Elijah was the reincarnation of Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron? The Shem idea is first seen in the era of the Dead Sea scrolls, and it’s written in the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. In fact, Dead Sea scroll fragments 11Q13 expound on the Shem-Melchizedek correlation, and appear to be the first to address this issue. Some scholars believe Paul’s lecture on Melchizedek in the book of Hebrews to be a response to Pharisaic teachings about Melchizedek which were gaining currency during his time. But the other Dead Sea scrolls, and later rabbinic writings also show that the writers were all over the map on the question of Melchizedek. Some believed he was the Messiah. Others believed him to be Michael the archangel; others, a very high angel or almost-God figure. The Dead Sea scroll writer referenced above even substituted Melchizedek’s name into the text of Isaiah 61:1,2 for the term “the Lord”, and did the same in Psalms 82:1.
It seemed to have been a tendency in Jesus’ time to link a great person to some other great person. Hence, various Jews thought Jesus was Jeremiah, or Elijah, or one of the prophets, or even John the Baptist (See Matt. 16: 13,14), and they questioned John the Baptist about this former identity as well (see John 1: 19-24). Jesus didn’t hide the link of John the Baptist to the prophecy of Elijah, or that he himself would come more than once, but the Jews seemed to want to establish all kinds of links between men unlinked by written scripture. Some Jewish scholars have explained that the desire to link Melchizedek to Shem is born of the Jewish need to explain why their forefather Abraham should show deference to anyone who appeared at first glance to be outside the chosen lineage.
Some credible evidence seems to indicate that Joseph Smith, and later such prominent Mormons as John Taylor, appear to have believed the Book of Jasher, a purportedly ancient work translated and published in English in 1840, to be authentic. The LDS Church today takes no position on the book and whether or not it is authentic. The Book of Jasher suggests Shem and Melchizedek to be the same person. (Perhaps significantly, Mormonism’s Book of Abraham, which Joseph Smith published in 1842, also contains some information about Abraham very similar to information about Abraham found only in the 1840 Book of Jasher.) I don’t believe the 1840 version of the Book of Jasher to be the authentic book mentioned by the same name in the Bible. Most scholars agree that it isn’t. But those Mormons who have written about it tend to defend it because it contains some assertions now believed by Mormons, not because they can marshal strong evidence of its authenticity. Because of some improbable stories in it, and some anachronisms, and some borrowing from the post-Christian Talmud, I believe it to be a forgery, though it contains much true history taken from the Bible along with several legends. Regardless, all agree that the original Book of Jasher wasn’t considered divinely inspired scripture by the Hebrews in the first place, and it wasn’t included in the Septuagint books provided by the Jews for translation into Greek. Therefore, there seems to be no good reason to accept it as a reliable source of history or doctrine on Melchizedek or any other point.
I think too often in the church we begin our belief synthesis with skin in the game, just like a lazy detective who wants to declare someone’s death the result of suicide instead of the more complicated matter of murder, so as not to have to perform a lengthy investigation. He therefore looks for clues that support his preferred conclusion. When we do this, we tend to ignore the biggest, most obvious clues leading to the opposite conclusion, because we’re not looking for them.
When we favor a belief because of its familiarity, or because it happens to appeal to us, but not because we’ve subjected it to thorough intellectual and spiritual scrutiny (though this specific Melchizedek-Shem question has no spiritual ramifications that I can see), we run the risk of disillusioning those who ask us to explain our beliefs. For example, if someone questions whether the Garden of Eden was really in Missouri, and our only support for that belief is that Joseph Smith said so, regardless of the geographical requirements for Eden set forth in the Bible, that person will likely eventually tire of hearing that type of answer to other questions, and will start doubting far more important things which are much more defensible. Right now, there are droves of people leaving, or losing interest in, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And the overwhelming majority of them are not bothering to investigate whether some of the things they’ve been taught are actually still true, though those things actually are true and very important. Instead, they’ve come to believe that their questions about church beliefs are likely to be met with improbable, illogical or far-fetched explanations, and that that’s just part of accepting Mormon beliefs.
Yes, I could be wrong on the Melchizedek-Shem question. But if I’m going to be wrong, I want it to be because, despite my having studied the issue with due diligence, the Lord hasn’t revealed enough information on that subject for my views to be fully informed. I don’t want to be wrong because my analysis was slanted toward only considering one side, or because no one proved my view to be impossible.
1. Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Ronald F. Youngblood, ed., (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995), 1162.
2. Whether Melchizedek didn’t actually die, as with John the Beloved and the “three Nephites” whom Jesus blessed to live on without tasting death until after his second coming, and whether or not he had descendants, the scriptures in the Bible and Book of Mormon don’t say. But it appears that some of Paul’s scriptural understanding of Melchizedek, to the extent that it contemplated the man himself having neither father nor mother or beginning of days, was in error. The Book of Mormon prophet Alma clarified this issue, explaining in Alma 13:7-9 that the phrase “without beginning of days” pertained to the priesthood itself, not Melchizedek:
This high priesthood being after the order of [God’s] Son, which order was from the foundation of the world; or in other words, being without beginning of days or end of years, being prepared from eternity to all eternity, according to his foreknowledge of all things—
Now they were ordained after this manner—being called with a holy calling, and ordained with a holy ordinance, and taking upon them the high priesthood of the holy order, which calling, and ordinance, and high priesthood, is without beginning or end—
Thus they become high priests forever, after the order of the Son, the Only Begotten of the Father, who is without beginning of days or end of years, who is full of grace, equity, and truth. And thus it is. Amen.
3. John Taylor, “Ancient Ruins,” Times and Seasons 5:23 (Dec. 15, 1844), 746.