In this story Jesus confronts the limiting rationality of Sadducees who think it impossible that God should raise the dead. Their theology is limited by their own experience and rational argumentation.
I dare say that is not too uncommon in our present moment as well. For example, it is not unusual to hear, “If God is like _________, then I could never believe in a God like that.” The assumptions present in that statement are numerous but at bottom it rests on the presumption that God must fit (or conform to) my rationality to be worthy of my affirmation. It turns the table on the God-human relationship as we judge an infinite God by a finite, fallible human rationality.
Jesus catches the Sadducees doing this very thing.
The Sadducees, authorities in the Jewish ruling council (the Sanhedrin), appear as the fourth group to attempt to trip up Jesus while he taught in the temple. The chief priests and elders questioned Jesus about his authority to cleanse the temple, the Pharisees and Herodians questioned him about the Caesar tax, and now the Sadducees question him about the resurrection. But this last question does not seem to be the same sort of question as the first two since those endangered his life. Actually, this last question was one of many inter-Jewish disputes between the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
So, what is the function of this question? At one level, it may simply be an attempt to stump Jesus and thereby undermine the hold he had on the populace as a teacher. The Sadducees, by using their “trump” question–the question that would immediately defeat the opponent (like “what about the person who dies on the way to baptism?”), possibly hoped to dishonor Jesus and demystify his status as a great teacher.
At another level, something more significant may be at stake in this question. Some suggest that it is about power, land ownership and ruling authority. Levirate marriage laws (Deuteronomy 25:5-6 ; cf. Genesis 38:8) secured the inheritance of land within a clan or family through regulations that mandated that a brother marry his sibling’s childless widow. The land could not be inherited by a widow (read: woman) and thus she needed a legitimate child to inherit the land. If this is the point, then their question is about who will inherit the land in the resurrection as much as it is whose wife will she be.
Others, I think more correctly, suggest that the issue concerns the nature of the new age, the reality of a resurrected world and life in it. The Sadducees assume that resurrected life is wholly identical with the present reality. For them resurrection, as they understood it from (presumably) the Pharisees, is that there is little to no difference between resurrection and resuscitation. And this is the point that Jesus addresses directly.
Jesus claims that they err because they “know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.” This is an important characterization. It signals exactly how Jesus will respond to the query.
First, they do not know the power of God. They have limited God by their own conception of rational possibilities. Resurrection, for them, can only mean that life will continue as it is now. But Jesus undermines this assumption. While there is continuity between the present and resurrected life (our personal identities, for example), there is also discontinuity. The new age (the resurrected life) will be different. Procreation will not be part of the coming age so there is no need for marriage as it presently exists regulated by Torah legislation. We will be “like angels”–not that we will be angels ourselves; that is, our communal relations will be similar to how the angelic community lives in harmony with each other. The difference between angels and humanity, however, is that we will inherit the land (the cosmos).
Second, they do not know the Scriptures. Jesus quotes Exodus 3:6 which recalls a key moment in Israel’s history, the day when Moses encountered Yahweh at the burning bush. Many interpreters focus on the present tense (“I am the Gd of Abraham”) as the key to how Jesus uses the text in response to the Sadducees. In other words, God is still the God of Abraham, that is, Abraham is still living. This form of Jewish “grammatical exegesis,” however, does not seem to fully fit the bill since this does not really say anything about resurrection but, at the most, only their present ongoing existence (which is not resurrected life itself).
Instead, following Janzen’s suggestion [JNST 23 (1985) 43-58], Jesus is not utilizing a grammatical exegesis but is rather employing a narratival hermeneutic. When Jesus uses the ancestral formula, “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” we remember the ancestral narratives of these patriarchs. We remember Abraham whose wife was barren but yet gave life. We remember the barrenness of Rebekah and Rachel. The wombs of Israel’s ancestors were dead but God gave them life. Thus, the formula remembers a God who brings life out of death. This is the God of Israel, the one who brings life from death. Yahweh is a resurrecting God, one who delivers Israel from death. God does not leave Israel in death but gives life.
The Sadducees are faulted on two counts. They put God in the box of their own rationality and they don’t even know their own story.
Humans, whether we are talking about theodicy, omniscience or other issues in philosophical theology, tend to put boundaries on their gods. They like them to conform to their expectations and to the limits of their own rationality. We will only believe in a God who suits us or we will only believe something about God that fits within our parameters. This is the mistake of the Sadducees. They do not know the “power” of God or, we might add, the frailty and fallibility of their own rationality.
At the same time, we don’t just believe in any god. Rather, we confess the God of Scripture. We embrace a narrative logic. This God is faithful; Yahweh does not lie. This God is powerful; Yahweh can save. We read Scripture, not simply to do tidbits of grammatical exegesis, but to hear the narrative story–to embrace the narrative logic–of the self-revealing God. We know the Scriptures so that we might know our God and experience the life God gives. With Jesus, we confess that our God delivers from death.
Such a confession does not fit our experience. People die all around us and they do not come back to life. Just like the succession of seven brothers, they all die. But the narrative logic of Scripture–the narrative of a redeeming, life-giving God–overwhelms our experience and we confess that God will raise the dead and give life.
This confession, however, is not simply about resuscitation. Rather, we confess that God will inaugurate a new age. God will create a new heaven and a new earth in which the redeemed people of God will live in their resurrected bodies suited for the new age. While our rationality (and even our science) may find that hard to believe, Christians confess both the power of God and the narrative logic of Scripture.