Revd Dr Jim West reviews Melchizedek, King of Sodom by Robert R. Cargill
The topic of Robert Cargill’s third book is King Melchizedek and whether he ruled over Shalem or Sodom.
While Melchizedek has traditionally been associated with the city of Shalem, Cargill argues he was in fact King of Sodom. This is a theory that appears to have arrived on the scene only in the early 20th century, explicated by Charles Edo Anderson, who believed, without any manuscript support, that Shalem was actually Sodom in the story of Genesis 14, in which Abraham meets Melchizedek.
To carry on the Andersonian tradition, Cargill does a bit of exegesis in describing the structure of the narrative and the meaning of the King’s name and, frankly, he does a very good job of it.
He then turns to the real heart of the matter: how did Sodom become Shalem in the Andersonian reading of Genesis 14? To attempt to answer this question, Cargill looks at the text of the Hebrew Bible. He also takes a side-glance at the propriety of adopting the more difficult reading. This is a bit odd, given the fact that the principle applies to text critical matters and there is not any ancient text which has Sodom in the place of Shalem. Indeed, Cargill confesses: “I propose that in verse 18 the name is to be misunderstood as a gloss. Specifically, I propose that in verse 18 the name Sodom was altered to Shalem for the theological purpose of distancing Abram from exchanging goods and oaths with the King of Sodom… Melchizedek was originally the King of Sodom, not Shalem.” (p. 20)
I appreciate the proposal, but there is not a shred of textual evidence for this supposition. It is a hypothesis without a foundation. It is speculation lacking evidence.
Even so, Cargill spends the remainder of the book building a very carefully constructed edifice in support of his hypothesis, and readers may find themselves persuaded by his argument. It is, after all, very good. It is very bright and creative and almost persuasive, save for the one troublesome fact that there is no support for it that is not imaginary.
For example, in chapter five, Cargill attempts to demonstrate that there were sectarian redactions made to the Samaritan Pentateuch and the Masoretic text. And, of course, he is right. Cargill’s abiding problem, however, is that there is no textual evidence that Sodom transformed into Shalem because of sectarian emphases. Indeed, even if we posit the possibility of such changes, what could their motivation be? Cargill actually undermines his argument at this point, as he gives textual examples of sectarian changes, which is something he cannot do with Genesis 14. That sectarian changes happened does not prove that Genesis 14 is an example of them.
Cargill is at his very best as exegete. He understands the text and its issues, and he brilliantly describes the text’s meaning. His abiding problem, however, is that no matter what evidence he musters and what texts he assembles which happen to name Melchizedek, he has no reason besides supposition to assert that Sodom should replace Shalem as Melchizedek’s city. In short, he does not make his case, in spite of his excellent exegesis, because the case cannot be made without textual support. His is an impossible task because whatever case he makes, it stands on air.
All in all, this is a very interesting book and you should read it. Its central thesis is unproven but the material is well presented.
Perhaps at some point in the future there will be a discovery in the Judean desert of a jar containing a scroll, and on that scroll there will be a copy of Genesis 14 with a variant reading in which Melchizedek is described as the King of Sodom. Then Cargill’s argument will be vindicated (if not entirely proven).