Bread & Wine as a covenant meal

While studying for a series on communion I came across a few references to bread & wine in the Old Testament that intrigued me. So I reached out to those of greater brain power than me for some input. One of those was James Patrick, a friend in Emmanuel Church Oxford. I thought his insights were really helpful, so with his kind permission I’m sharing them here.

Here’s what I noticed:

“I’ve been reading and thinking a fair bit about communion and today noticed something I’d not thought of before. In Gen 14:18 Melchizedek comes out to meet Abraham and brings ‘bread and wine’. All commentators that I’ve read either ignore this or simply see it as referring to a meal. So Melchizedek offers Abraham a banquet. The phrase ‘bread and wine’ is only used three times that I can see and in Jdg 19:19 and Lam 2:2 I think it does refer to food or meals generally but I’m wondering whether there’s more significance (although I don’t know what) than it seems.It seems a strong coincidence to me that the enigmatic Melchizedek, priest of the God Most High would bring our bread and wine and that Jesus a priest of the order of Melchizedek commands his followers to regularly eat this priestly meal of bread and wine (albeit given new meaning).”

Here is James’ excellent response:

“You are right in thinking that ‘bread and wine’ refers to the basic elements of any meal in the Land of Israel (e.g. the eating described or implied in Jdg 19:19; 1Sam 10:3; 16:20; 25:18; 2Sam 16:1-2; 2Kgs 18:32 / Isa 36:17; Neh 5:15; Prov 4:17; Eccl 9:7; also Luke 7:33 – not sure about Lamentations 2:2 though). The phrase ‘bread and wine’ could be translated ‘food and drink’ even, though I wouldn’t want thereby to miss the added connotations you rightly note in the parallel with the Lord’s Supper.

Therefore it seems to me that the main significance of Genesis 14:18 relates not to the elements of the meal but to its context – on the one hand divine provision, and on the other a covenant meal.

Firstly, then, Abram did not actually need to be given any food, having managed to recapture the entire food supply of Sodom & Gomorrah (14:11, 16), but he had chosen not to take ‘a thread or a sandal thong or anything that is yours’ apart from what had been consumed on the journey (14:22-24). In that case, he was in fact in need of sustenance, and evidently Melchizedek was aware of this need, presumably knowing of Abram’s decision to ‘live by faith’ and not earn his wealth. Abram receiving from Melchizedek was therefore representative of his decision to receive even his most basic provisions from the hand of God Himself, and Melchizedek stood in the place of God for him as the authorised priest of God Most High.

In a similar sense, Jesus taking the two most basic elements of the Passover meal and instituting these as the symbols of His body, signifies not only that we are to remember Jesus’ sacrifice at even the most basic of our meals, but also that Jesus Himself is to be our ‘daily bread’ (i.e. coming to Him and believing in Him – John 6:35, 56), and that in eating these elements we remind ourselves that He is trustworthy to provide even the bare essentials of our lives (Deut 29:5-6; 8:2-4, 10; Rom 8:32).

Secondly, sharing a meal together is a standard feature of covenant-making in the Ancient Near East – as can be seen from Gen 26:26-31; 31:43-54; Exod 24:1-11; Jos 9:14? – which makes the covenant between Abram and God quite interesting.  This covenant was made initially in Gen 15, with God Himself promising unilaterally to be held to the covenant, and then established further in Gen 17 with Abram’s instruction to circumcise himself and all of his male descendants as a sign of their side of the deal.

The covenant meal, then, does not appear clearly in the passages explicitly about the covenant.  Yet in fact, there is a meal associated with each of the two aspects of the covenant: First, the meal shared by Melchizedek with Abram as guest hinted towards the promise of possessing the land for ever (Gen 14:19, 22; 15:7-9, 17-21) which was given as a direct response to Abram’s faith-filled rejection of the wealth of Sodom (cf. Gen 15:1). Second, the promise of a multitude of descendants through Sarah’s son Isaac was confirmed with a further covenant meal unwittingly shared by Abraham not long afterwards with God Himself as guest (Gen 17:2, 4, 21; 18:1-10).

In a similar way, Jesus washed the feet of the descendants of His friend Abraham (cf. Gen 18:4) in the context of the new covenant meal. The original covenant meal was shared by Jesus only with Jewish followers, but in the corporate sharing of this meal ever since, all across the earth, every follower of His has effectively participated in the same meal – one body because we all share in one bread. Ultimately, this first meal of the new covenant will be mirrored by its fulfilment in the Wedding Supper of the Lamb, when Jesus shares bread and the fruit of the vine anew with followers from every nation, tribe, people and language, in the kingdom of His Father (Luke 22:16, 18).”

So there we have it, communion has a shadow that extends as far back as Genesis with its roots in the promises and faithfulness of God and in His divine provision.

Photo by alextorrenegra

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