The Real Question

This coming Sunday is the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Lectionary Cycle C. In yesterday’s post we considered the identity of the Sadducees and their resistance to the idea of Resurrection. Today we pick up the dialogue between Jesus and the Sadducees.

“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. And so 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’ controversial 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).

Image Credit: James Tissot: The Pharisees and the Saduccees Come to Tempt Jesus, Brooklyn Museum, Public Domain

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