Tucked away in a not-so-well-known book of the Bible, in a not-so-well-understood chapter of that book, in a rather long, almost eccentric argument concerning Christ’s superiority to the Israelite priests, is a verse that I find difficult to read with a straight face. Was the author winking when he wrote it? Or was he stone-cold serious? It has baffled me for years. And for years I’ve been pondering the meaning of it, and its implications for our understanding of the body, the family, and genealogy. I’m still unraveling this mystery, so bear with me, but here are some tentative thoughts I have regarding it.
In Hebrews 7, the author compares and contrasts Jesus as the über-priest to the priests of the old covenant. At the core of his argument is an intimate connection he draws between Christ and the elusive figure of Melchizedek. For the sake of simplicity, let’s just say that he argues that in every way that Melchizedek surpassed the OT priests, so does Jesus. In Genesis 14, when Abraham returned from a successful battle, the king-priest Melchizedek went out to meet him. He served Abraham bread and wine; he blessed the patriarch; and, Abraham, in turn, placed in the hands of Melchizedek a tenth of all the spoils of war.
That exchange, the giving of a tithe by Abraham, and the receiving of that tithe by Melchizedek, is easily skimmed over, but not by the author of Hebrews. Every detail is under the interpretive microscope. For, as he builds his case for Melchizedek’s (and Jesus’) superior priesthood, he includes this: “And, so to speak, through Abraham even Levi, who received tithes, paid tithes, for he was still in the loins of his father when Melchizedek met him,” (Hebrews 7:9-10).
Did you catch that? Levi was “still in the loins” of Abraham, his great-grandfather, when he handed over the tithe to Melchizedek. Therefore, what Abraham did, Levi did, though Levi himself still had to travel from Abraham’s loins to Isaac’s loins to Jacob’s loins, into and out of the womb of Leah, before he would utter his natal cry. True, the author adds "so to speak" to rein in this radical claim, but the claim is still made. Thus, so to speak, little Levi was ensconced within his great-grandfather’s male parts that day, the tithe-receiving priest become the tithe-giving priest, handing over a tenth to Melchizedek, the altogether superior man of God.
Let’s think about this.
I am Chad Bird, the son of Carson, who is the son of Lee Roy, who is the son of Roy—my “Abraham”. This I wonder: was I in the loins of Roy when he grew up near Axtell, TX? when he farmed his cotton fields? when he worshiped at the local Methodist church? when he moved into the house his son, Lee Roy, built him in his old age? Was I, so to speak, there, in my “Abraham”, as he went through life?
If there’s any part of the Bible that’s like quicksand to a would-be reader of Genesis through Revelation, it’s the genealogies. So-and-so begat so-and-so, who begat so-and-so, all of which begets ZZZs in all but the most zealous of readers. Yawning a read though they be, these lists of descendants cry out a truth that is both frightening and beautiful: no man is an island unto himself, but a piece of earth bound inextricably to the continent of his family. Levi was in the loins of his great-grandfather Abraham, and I was in the loins of my great-grandfather Roy, because a man is who he is not only by virtue of the choices he makes in life, but by the family whence he comes, and the choices that family makes. At the moment of my conception, I already had a history. I am conceived with a biography. We think of the moment when the sperm fertilizes the egg as the opening chapter in human life, but perhaps it is only the next chapter in a story that already has volumes written.
Think of it this way: traditional Christians have no problems speaking of the “Fall of Adam” as their own fall into sin. They’ll nod as Paul preaches, “in Adam all die,” (1 Corinthians 15:21) and sing with gusto,
All mankind fell in Adam’s fall,
One common sin infects us all
From sire to son the bane descends
And over all the curse impends.
But if I am so bound up in the history of the first man, all the way back at the dawn of creation, how can I not also be bound up in the more recent history of my family?
Though the implications one can draw from this way of thinking are manifold, one that especially strikes me is that my identity—the who and what that makes me, me—is about far more than Chad Bird. I inherited not just DNA, but an identity, formed by my father, whose identity was formed by his father, and so forth. And I will pass that identity on, along with whatever modifications I make to it, to my children. For I already bear in my loins my own great-grandson. Who I am matters, for who I am influences my posterity.
In this week when we hear much about the sanctity of life, it is good to recall that life does not begin at conception. It begins before. And it continues long after death.