“Teacher, Moses wrote for us, ‘If someone’s brother dies leaving a wife but no child, his brother must take the wife and raise up descendants for his brother.’ 29 Now there were seven brothers; the first married a woman but died childless. 30 Then the second 31 and the third married her, and likewise all the seven died childless. 32 Finally the woman also died. 33 Now at the resurrection whose wife will that woman be? For all seven had been married to her.”
The Sadducees are attempting to destroy Jesus’ credibility by raising the question of who interprets Moses faithfully, as they seek to demonstrate the alleged unreasonableness of faith in the resurrection of the dead, which Jesus shares. The starting point of the question concerns levirate marriage.
Levirate Marriage. The word “levirite” comes from the Latin, levir = “brother-in-law.” According to Culpepper (Luke, 388), such laws are found in Ugarit, Middle Assyrian, and Hittite codes as well as in Deut 25:5-10 (cf. Gen 38:8; Lv 18:16; Ruth 3:9, 12-13). Levirate marriage was a device to prevent a man’s name and family dying out. “Eternal life” was seen, not in terms of an afterlife, but in the continuity of the family and lineage after the man dies. When a man died childless, his brother was to take the widow and raise up children to the deceased (Deut. 25:5 ff.). Not many examples of the practice are recorded and interestingly those few always seem to regard the child as the child of its natural father and not of the deceased (cf. Ruth 4:5, 21). By New Testament times this custom seems to have fallen into disuse, so that the question was an academic one. But the Sadducees could argue that provision was made for it in the Law and thus came from Moses and that the Law accordingly, at least by implication, rejects the doctrine of resurrection. It really isn’t the law that is under question, but the reason for the law. Hence. they try to ridicule the idea of resurrection by referring to levirate marriage.
The Real Question. Joel Green (Luke, 718) writes that the focus on the resurrection from the dead in Jesus’ controversy dialogue with the Sadducees raises the more basic question of the nature of Jesus’ authority and the relationship of his authority with the authority of Scripture and its faithful interpretation. The Sadducees argue that if one takes the levirate marriage legislation seriously, it is obvious that the belief in a future resurrection of the dead is ridiculous because the reality of levirate marriage potentially leads to a complex web of familial relationships that would be impossible to sustain in the life to come. In other words, since rules such as levirate marriage exist for the present life, it is logically impossible that life goes on after death through resurrection.
Jesus’ questioners had failed to realize that the life to come will be essentially different from this life. Where the doctrine of resurrection was held among the Jews it was usually envisaged as an indefinite prolongation of this life, though no doubt with modifications and improvements. All enemies would be overthrown and delights would be multiplied. But essentially it would be the same kind of life as the present one. Some were so sure of the continuation of earthly conditions that they seriously discussed whether the resurrected would need ceremonial purification on the grounds that they had been in contact with a corpse (Niddah 70b). Jesus rejects all this. Life in heaven will be significantly different from anything on earth. Human relationships are largely a matter of place and time: they are bound to be different when neither of these applies. Jewish thought at its best realized something of this and on occasion rejected the concept of heaven as a place of material delights in favor of the view that it is basically a ‘feasting on the brightness of the divine presence’ (Berakhoth 17a).
Jesus argues that the Sadducees’ focus on (levirate) marriage was bound up with a focus on the social conditions of the present world (20:34), whereas entirely different conditions govern the life of those who are deemed worthy of the resurrection (20:35a), conditions that are no longer dependent upon marriage (20:35b) because the new mode of existence of the “children of God” no longer depends upon procreation, but rather corresponds to that of the angels (20:36). This argument does not mean that Jesus holds the view that the meaning of Scripture is not self-evident, but rather that it must be grasped in the context of an eschatological perspective. Jesus tells the Sadducees that people who quote Moses—in this case, the legislation concerning levirate marriage in Deut. 25—should also listen to Moses, about, for example, resurrection. Jesus’ assertion in 20:37 demonstrates that this interpretation misses the point of Jesus’ scriptural argument, which implies that the truth of belief in the resurrection of the dead can be ascertained in the plain meaning of the text of Moses’ encounter with God at the “burning bush.”
“That the dead will rise even Moses made known in the passage about the bush, when he called ‘Lord’ the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; and he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive” (Luke 20:37-38).
In this way Jesus has asserted his authority to interpret Scripture. Where the Sadducees have posed a case that they think will force Jesus either to renounce the resurrection or to allow polygamy, Jesus replies that the succession of husbands is a problem for the Sadducees only because they have not thoroughly comprehended the meaning of the resurrection: resurrection life and current existence are two completely different things. In heaven the marriage relationship will be transcended by a new kind of relationship that focuses on God
- Alan Culpepper, Luke in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995) pp. 387-90
- Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997) pp. 717-23
- Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, vol. 3 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991) pp. 310-19
- Jerome Kodell, “Luke” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Diane Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) pp. 972-3
- Leon Morris,. Luke: An introduction and commentary. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries Vol. 3: (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988) pp. 307-10
- Brian Stoffregen, “Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes” at www.crossmarks.com
- Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC.