Mark 12:18-27. One bride for seven brothers?

And Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection. And they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife, but leaves no child, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother.

There were seven brothers; the first took a wife, and when he died left no offspring. And the second took her, and died, leaving no offspring. And the third likewise. And the seven left no offspring. Last of all the woman also died. In the resurrection, when they rise again, whose wife will she be? For the seven had her as wife.”

Jesus said to them, “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.

And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living. You are quite wrong.”

  

Jesus has been teaching in the Temple for a while now. His teaching began with quotes from Isaiah and Jeremiah, accusing those who had charge of the temple of turning into the kind place that robbers use to hide from the law.

He didn’t back down from that position when challenged. The rulers came to him to ask him who he thought he was, saying things like he’d said. Jesus asked them questions instead, and wound up accusing them of being tenants if the temple, refusing to make way for the proper owner of the place.

Pharisees came to him, trying to test him with a question about taxes, but they were sent away looking foolish and petty.

Now we have another wave of attackers, trying to drag Jesus down, to find a chink in his armour. They ask a playground question about marriage in heaven…

1. Who are these Sadducees? What do they believe?

2. What is the background to their question? Why do they think it’s a tough one?

3. Why must there be seven brothers? Wouldn’t two make the point just as well?

4. How does Jesus respond initially?

5. What does Jesus mean by talking about angels? What are angels? How will we be like them?

6. Why does Jesus then appeal to the “passage about the bush”? What is his reading of that passage, and how is it relevant?

7. What can we take from this passage in Mark?

 

1. Who are these Sadducees? What do they believe?

The Sadducees are a religious party within Judaism. They are not a popular party, with widespread grassroots support- not like the Pharisees. They are mostly upper class- the Jewish aristocracy. The priestly families tend toward the Sadducaic. They are often wealthy, with old money. Maybe a bit like Episcopalians in the US- they tend to be educated, well-off and influential. But where they differ sharply from the Episcopalians is that the Sadducees see themselves as religious conservatives. This can be confusing for us, because our categories of conservative and liberal in doctrinal terms don’t map onto the Jewish theological history.

In one sense, the Sadducees were like our liberals (like the Episcopalians in fact). They were pretty much anti-supernaturalists. Mark says here that they denied the resurrection. They thought that this life was your lot, and when it was over, your number was up. After death, there was nothing, only the grave- Sheol. Luke tells us in Acts 23 that they said there was no resurrection, and also that they said there were no angels or spirits. Josephus, a Jewish historian of the day, tells us similar things. Those seem to be some of the key flashpoints between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. Remember how Paul stirs up arguments between them by saying he is a Pharisee and is on trial because of his belief in the resurrection (Acts 23:6). The Pharisees all start cheering and defend him, saying that maybe an angel or a spirit has spoken to him.

But although the beliefs of the Sadducees were what we might call extremely liberal, and in fact not orthodox Judaism at all, they would defend themselves fiercely against the charge of heterodoxy. They would claim to be originalists. They would say that they were the faithful Jews, rejecting all the superstitious accretions of later years, rejecting the fanciful doctrines of the Pharisees, and going back to Moses. Some people say that they rejected the writings of the prophets and the later histories and the wisdom literature of the OT, holding only to the Pentateuch, the first five books- Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, all thought to be written by Moses. That may not be quite true. They might not have totally rejected all the other writings. But certainly Moses was their big authority, and they would claim to be going back to Moses and believing what Moses believed. Later books may have had their value, but they weren’t on the same level as Moses. The Sadducees would accuse the Pharisees of being the liberals, the modernisers, inventing new teachings.

 

2. What is the background to their question? Why do they think it’s a tough one?

The argument between the Sadducees and the Pharisees lies behind their question. They think of Jesus as being more similar to the Pharisees than to themselves. They’re probably right in that. And so they come to Jesus with a question about this disputed doctrine of resurrection. Now they’ve had years of squabbling on this point with the Pharisees. They’ve rehearsed their arguments over and over, and this- they think- is one of their best hostile questions. It’s their best shot.

And, naturally for the Sadducees, it’s based on what Moses taught. Moses laid down the law about levirate marriage. Levirate marriage, by the way, has nothing to do with Levi or the Levites. It gains its name from the Latin word for brother-in-law- “levir”. In Israel, there was a law mandating levirate marriage. The Sadducees here summarise the law very neatly and accurately, but you’ll find the law given in full, by Moses, in Deuteronomy 25, saying,

If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. And if the man does not wish to take his brother’s wife, then his brother’s wife shall go up to the gate to the elders and say, ‘My husband’s brother refuses to perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.’ Then the elders of his city shall call him and speak to him, and if he persists, saying, ‘I do not wish to take her,’ then his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders and pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face. And she shall answer and say, ‘So shall it be done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.’ And the name of his house shall be called in Israel, ‘The house of him who had his sandal pulled off.”

So this law arises out of the promises made to Israel- that they would inherit the land, that their children would dwell in it, that a great nation would be made of them. The thing driving this particular law is the concern that a man’s seed should not die from Israel. The land will be divided up by families. Each family will have an inheritance. When the father of the family dies, his inheritance will be divided up among his sons. If he has no sons, his daughters can inherit, under certain restrictions.

There’s also a test case given by Moses in Numbers 26, 27, and 36, concerning the daughters of Zelophehad. Zelophehad was a Manassehite who had only daughters, and then died. The five sisters went to Moses to appeal to him to give them the inheritance, for their father’s sake. Their concern was that if the inheritance be given to others- perhaps to Zelophehad’s brothers or other relatives- then their father’s name will be blotted out of Israel, just because he didn’t have any sons. And they plead that their father wasn’t the sort of rebel who deserved to have his name blotted out. Moses agreed, and ruled that the line of inheritance ought to be first sons, then daughters, then brothers, then the next nearest living kinsmen. Later, men from Manasseh appealed to Moses that if these property owning women marry outside the tribe, everything will be mixed up because Manasseh will lose part of his inheritance. Moses again agreed, and amended the law to include a provision that these five women may only marry men from their own tribe.

We can see that the issue of children and inheritance was pressing for the Israelites. And out of that concern came this legislation- if a man dies married, but childless, then his wife inherits his property, and she is the only one who bears his name. It is then obviously her duty to seek to continue his family line. And it is also the duty of the man’s brother, or the man’s nearest relative if no brother is alive. The woman’s first child will then be raised as though he were the son of the dead man. He will carry the dead man’s name and inherit the dead man’s estate. Any other children will be counted as the son of the living brother.

Most Israelites would be keen to do that- they would certainly want it done for them if they died childless, and most brothers are concerned for one another, and wouldn’t want each other’s lines to die out. But some would be reluctant, so there is a penalty attached for shirking this duty. The woman can complain to the elders, and the unwilling brother will be hauled up before the court. He’ll be given one last chance to change his mind, and if he refuses, then he’ll be publicly shamed, and shame will attach to his house. His children and grandchildren will suffer for it. He can’t brush it under the carpet.

We have a pre-test case for this with Judah’s sons in Genesis 38. Onan is told by his father to raise up sons for his dead brother. He doesn’t refuse outright, but secretly spills his seed on the ground each time before he goes in to his brother’s widow, so she never has any children. He thinks he can get away with it, but God sees him, and punishes him for it. He dies for his callousness and his lack of concern for the promises God had made.

We have an example of it working well with Ruth and Boaz. Ruth was a Moabitess who has married an Israelite, and her husband died childless. Boaz was Ruth’s husband’s kinsman. There was actually one nearer kinsman, but he was happy to let Boaz take Ruth on, and do the duty of a brother-in-law. Boaz clearly wanted to marry Ruth for her own sake, but see how he framed it before the elders- Ruth the Moabite, the widow of Mahlon, I have bought to be my wife, to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance, that the name of the dead may not be cut off from among his brothers and from the gate of his native place. You are witnesses this day.”

He’s not lying. It is important to him that the line of Mahlon be continued. And all of this legislation- in Numbers, Deuteronomy, Genesis, and Ruth-  is driven by the desire to perpetuate family lines, and keep inheritances where they belong. It’s a big part of the Israelite national pysche.

So- getting back to Mark- the Sadducees’ point is this: “Moses, and all Israel, believed that a man should marry his dead brother’s wife and have children for him. That’s not just a minor point of law- it’s a big one. It’s pretty central to our whole national identity and culture. And it’s incompatible with a belief in resurrection, isn’t it? You resurrection-mongers haven’t thought it through, have you? You think we can all be raised from the dead, and it will be fine. But it can’t work like that. Life is too complicated, and death complicates everything beyond redemption. The dead are dead. Everyone knows that. We know they’re not coming back. We behave as though they’ll never come back. When a man dies, his wife isn’t reckoned as still married to him- she is free to marry another. In fact, it’s her duty to marry another. If everyone’s going to be raised, then what do you do with a woman who has been married to more than one man, eh? Whose wife will she be? It matters, because of the promises God made to us about our inheritance.

 

3. Why must there be seven brothers? Wouldn’t two make the point just as well?

Two brothers would make exactly the same point, but seven brothers change the tone of the question. We know already from the context that this is a hostile question, an attempted ambush. But this just underlines that point. The Sadducees go with seven brothers because seven is funnier than two. The example is just about possible, but it’s pretty outlandish. It’s the sort of question Sadducee children would ask to taunt Pharisee children in the playground; “Hey Pharisee, if you think you know all the answers, answer this one. You can’t, can you?”It’s a reductio-ad-absurdam, or perhaps a propagatio-ad-absurdam.

Seven, of course, is the number of completeness in Jewish thought- seven days make a week and so on. So it’s a natural number for the Sadducees to choose. But they only want a big number because this is not a serious question. They call Jesus “Rabbi”, but they don’t really want to listen to his teaching. If they actually wanted to know how people who believed in the resurrection thought it would play out with real life situations- if they wanted Jesus to explain his views to them- then they’d have asked the question more humbly than this. They don’t give a more realistic scenario.

If someone came to you, claiming to be interested to know what Christians thought about things, and especially to be interested in the idea of a physical resurrection, and they asked a question along the lines of…

“You know the resurrection of the body? You Christians really look forward to it, don’t you? Well if you’ve just recently died, and your body lies there in the grave, still recognisably you, then I can see that the resurrection of the body seems a pretty simple affair- like it was with Lazarus, or Jairus’ daughter.

But how does it work if a missionary goes to a remote island inhabited by cannibals, preaches to them, and they hate what he says, kill him, and eat him? His body’s all mangled up and bits of it are inside other people. Doesn’t that complicate things a bit?

OK, you say that doesn’t pose a problem to your God. You say he can sort out mangled bodies and pull bits out of other people’s stomachs, and put them back together again with not even a bite-mark. But even then you could still be left with a problem.

Suppose one of those cannibals who ate the missionary is struck by the “truth” of what the missionary said, and becomes a Christian himself.  But the rest of the tribe see that as a betrayal, and they turn on him and eat him. Another cannibal, one who’s had bits of the missionary for breakfast, and bits of the convert for tea, is himself converted, and he’s also put in the pot the next day. And then yet another cannibal, moved by the example of the three martyrs, is converted and they gobble him up in his turn.

Say this happens seven times, and the final cannibal-Christian-convert dies, having already digested meaty chunks of the previous six victims. Come the resurrection, how will that last man’s body be raised? Will his liver belong to him, or will part of it belong to cannibal number four? Whose body will his left leg belong to? Which of the seven can lay claim to the bits which once belonged to each of them?”

I think you’d know that it wasn’t a serious question. Sure, there is a real question in there, but the basic way the question is phrased, and the example chosen, make it ridiculous.

The Sadducees are deliberately trying to be funny. They’re playing to the crowd, playing this one for laughs. And that’s meant to add to Jesus’ embarrassment. He’s not supposed to be able to answer it, and he’s supposed to be left looking stupid as a result. They are trying to deny him any chance of a dignified retreat. He can’t just stroke his beard and say, “Well, that’s a very good question. Very interesting, how the resurrection will work out in practical terms like that. Yes, I’ll give it some thought and get back to you. Perhaps we can talk tomorrow.” People would laugh at him. He’d look foolish. If he can’t come up with a snappy retort, he’s sunk.

Bear in mind that the strategy of Jesus’ enemies at this point is to undermine his popular support. They would love just to arrest him, lock him away, and kill him on the quiet. But they can’t, because the crowds are always around him. So they first need to put a sizeable dent in his popularity. The Pharisees and Herodians had a go a little earlier, and now it’s the turn of the Sadducees. They are coming in waves, like the attackers of some ancient city, trying to overwhelm the defences by persistence, each group having its own shot at glory, and as a consequence giving Jesus no let-up.

 

 4. How does Jesus respond initially?

The best defence is often an attack, and a wrongly hostile question doesn’t deserve a polite answer. The course of wisdom might be to give a polite answer anyway, but that isn’t always the case. It’s not what Jesus did here.

Jesus turns on the Sadducees and tells them that they’re ignorant- they “know neither the scriptures nor the power of God”. They’re ignorant even of the books of Moses which they claim to view so highly. And more than that, they’re ignorant of the power of God. They are men who don’t know God, Jesus tells them. They don’t know him experientially. They’ve never really known his power. They’ve never talked to God, face to face. They are men like Jacob was pre-Bethel; believing in God, believing in the covenant, wanting to be part of it, but never having met with God. The Sadducees are playing with fire, and not feeling the heat. They talk about religion, but they don’t know God. They are unregenerate men, and Jesus tells them so, bluntly. It is an answer that will certainly antagonise these men, who are used to being treated with deference and honour.

Sometimes, an inflammatory answer is wise and necessary. When you have someone who claims to be a Christian, but who is mocking fundamental Christian truths- like the resurrection, for example- then he’s not a Christian no matter what he says. Having a scholarly debate with the guy is probably fruitless. Having that debate in public undermines your position. It will look like you think his viewpoint is legitimate, that you think he’s really a Christian, and that you have a few minor differences which you can work out together. And that’s a false impression. Someone who denies the resurrection is someone who doesn’t know God. And that should be made clear.

Jesus doesn’t just level accusations at them though. He does answer their question. He gives them two answers, one involving angels, and the other involving the patriarchs. The tone of those answers is consistent with accusation of ignorance.

Jesus first argues from analogy to the angels. He says that the dead, when they rise, will be like angels. Not that they will be angels, but that they’ll be like them. We’ll look at the substance of that argument in a moment, but first just think about the response it’s intended to provoke. The Sadducees (in Acts 23) “say there is no… angel”. If Luke means that they denied the existence of angels, then Jesus’ answer to them here is meant to antagonise them further. He’s telling them that in the resurrection, we’ll be like some beings they don’t believe exist. But since the crowd mostly do believe in angels, the Sadducees are going to be stuck for an answer. If they come back with, “Angels, schmangels. What do we care for that kind of rubbish?”, then they’ll do themselves no favours with the people. They came to turn the crowd against Jesus. They could end up turning the crowd against themselves.

Jesus secondly argues from Moses. We’ll look at the substance of that argument in a moment too. But again, first look at the tone. Jesus opens by asking, sarcastically, if the Sadducees have ever read the books of Moses- if, perhaps, they are unfamiliar with the passage about the bush (surely among the better known passages in Moses). That sort of sarcasm is not the accepted way for a young rabbi to address these luminaries of the Sadducees.

And Jesus closes by saying “You are quite wrong”. He hasn’t softened towards them at all. He isn’t trying to persuade them, saying “So don’t you see, Moses actually did believe in the resurrection. And levirate marriage isn’t such a big problem as it might easily seem. And Moses’ writings do tell us that he thought the dead still lived in some sense. I think we can all really learn from this. So thanks for your question.” These are short, rude, almost angry answers. The Sadducees aren’t open to being convinced- they are out to humiliate Jesus by holding him up for mockery. So Jesus deals with them appropriately, pointing out their basic unbelief, and mocking them in turn, as well as showing that their question doesn’t pose an insuperable problem. These men are rank unbelievers, and are scoffing at Jesus. Of course, they could listen to Jesus even now. Jesus’ answer has substance to it. But first, they would have to repent and swallow their pride.

 

5. What does Jesus mean by talking about angels? What are angels? How will we be like them?

So what are angels like? Angelology is complicated, and attracts lots of vain discussion. The word angel simply means “messenger” in Greek. Angels are God’s messengers, God’s agents, doing God’s will. That’s the way we read of them in Genesis. I’m not sure how the Sadducees could take a high view of Moses and deny angels, because you have them there from the start. Angels come to meet with Abraham, and eat with him, and one of those angels actually is the Lord. Jacob sees a staircase up to heaven, with angels going up and down on it. There is traffic between heaven and earth, with angels going both up and down.

Angels aren’t like men. They have bodies of a sort- they can walk and speak and eat. But they don’t seem to be limited the way we are. They can appear suddenly, and disappear suddenly. An angel can come to Zechariah in the holy place in the Temple, and it seems that nobody saw him go in. An angel can appear inside Peter’s prison cell, without alerting the guards standing sentry, or the guards to whom Peter is locked.

And, importantly, angels don’t seem to have blood ties to one another. Mankind is like a big tree, with Adam as the root and trunk. That’s a helpful Bible picture of us. We’re all related to Adam- we grew out from him. What he does, affects us all. Angels aren’t like that. They don’t marry, and aren’t given in marriage- those are the words Jesus uses here. We marry- men take women as their wives, exclusive to them, and enter into union. We are given in marriage- a father gives his daughter away to her husband. That is necessary, because she’s on one branch of the tree of humanity, and her father, the bigger branch from which she grows, needs to authorise her being shifted onto a different branch. Angels don’t have those sorts of family ties. And in the resurrection, neither will we.  Jesus is arguing that in the resurrection, the complications surrounding earthly inheritance and marriage ties just won’t exist. The world won’t be the same.

Perhaps more important though, is the relation angels bear to God. For the holy angels- the “angels in heaven” about whom Jesus is talking- God is their focus. They exist to serve him. Their faces are always turned towards him. Perhaps the point is that in heaven, the redeemed will have their hearts full of God. They will be full of love and worship and adoration to God. It’s not that we won’t love other people; it’s that we’ll love God first and foremost.

There is marriage in heaven. But it’s the great marriage, the marriage of which our human marriages are merely shadows and reflections. At the resurrection, Jesus Christ will take his bride, the church, to live with him forever. That swallows up everything else. The Sadducees are way too limited in their ideas of what heaven could be like.

 

6. Why does Jesus then appeal to the “passage about the bush”? What is his reading of that passage, and how is it relevant?

“The passage about the bush” is in Exodus. Specifically, Jesus is quoting Exodus 3:6. The Scriptures Jesus had weren’t organised into chapter and verse. The chapter and verse divisions in our Bibles, and the section headings, are later additions to the inspired text. Jesus, and the early Christians, referred to passages by their content. So Jesus here refers to the “passage about the bush”. And Paul writes to the Romans, and says “Don’t you know what the scripture says in the passage about Elijah” (Rom 11:2).

In the passage about the bush, Moses met God for the first time. Moses was out tending his father-in-law’s flock when he turned aside to check out a peculiar bush, which was on fire but wasn’t being burnt up. When he drew near to the bush, God spoke from the bush, and identified himself by saying “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

Jesus’ point is very simple. He emphasises the word “am”. When God says this, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob have all been dead for years. But there must be some sense in which they live before God. Otherwise God would have said “I was the God of Abraham, etc.”.

There are plenty of other scriptures which teach the doctrine of resurrection much more strongly and directly than this one. One thinks of Daniel 12:2- “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake…”, or of Isaiah 25:8- “He will swallow up death forever”, or of Isaiah 26:19- “your dead shall live, their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead.”

But Jesus is aware that he’s talking to Sadducees. He’s already argued from the angels, in whom they don’t believe. Now he argues from Moses, whom they do believe. If he’d quoted Isaiah, then although the Sadducees would be answered publicly, they wouldn’t go home and have to think about what Jesus had said. They would just dismiss it among themselves, saying that Isaiah has got to be subject to Moses.

By arguing from Moses, Jesus is forcing the Sadducees to think about his answer, and he’s also humiliating them in public. These men claim to hold Moses is the highest possible esteem, and to cling to his writings as the only real revelation from God. But Jesus first sarcastically asks them whether they’ve even read Moses, and then shows them that they’ve never understood Moses. Moses wrote this down- that God saw Abraham as living, though he was dead. Death wasn’t the end for Abraham, or Isaac, or Jacob.

 

7. What can we take from this passage in Mark?

We can take all sorts of things legitimately- like teaching on the resurrection and on how things will be in the next world. But Mark’s overarching concern here is to show us how mighty Jesus is. There just aren’t any realistic challengers to his authority. He is God’s anointed. He’s the king. His enemies will be put under his feet. Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Here, even though the cross is yet to come, we see Jesus’ victory prefigured. He has come to the temple as the rightful heir. The temple is his Father’s house, and he has come to claim it. A bunch of mere men think that they own the temple. They think they have the right to make of it whatever they choose. They think they should get to dictate to Jesus what he can and can’t do and say in the Temple. And Jesus utterly humiliates them all. They attack him all at once. They come at him group by group. They give him their best shots, desperately trying to dethrone him, scheming and plotting with hearts full of hatred and envy. But when the dust settles, Jesus remains undefeated. He is the Lord of the Temple.

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