There is a common hope among family members that when they die that they will be reunited with their loved ones – including their spouses. Some faith traditions, like Mormonism, make this idea a centerpiece of their faith. Marriages performed in a Mormon Temple are consecrated not only for the present life, but also for the next life. While mainstream Christianity doesn’t make that belief quite as explicit as does Mormonism, the expectation for many is that family life will continue on in the next life much as it does in the present life. While this view is common, is this the way Jesus understands marriage and family? In other words, did Jesus preach a message of family values – at least in a way that many modern American Christians understand that concept?
Throughout this study we have been wrestling with what the Bible has to say about marriage. One thing that is clear is that the Bible doesn’t contain one continuous understanding from beginning to end. Therefore, while there are clear differences between that age and this age, there are important present within the biblical story itself.
This difference is seen expressed in a conversation between Jesus and a group of Sadducees. While the central issue here isn’t marriage, but the resurrection, the conversation does raise questions about how Jesus understood marriage and family. The Sadducees, who didn’t believe in the resurrection, sought to trap Jesus with a question about the ancient Jewish practice of levirate marriage. They hoped to point out the ridiculousness of resurrection thinking by asking to whom a man was married, if he participated in a levirate marriage.
In ancient Judaism, which lacked a developed sense of the afterlife, one’s legacy was to be found in one’s progeny (children). Think of the promise made to Abraham and Sarah, that through their descendants by way of Isaac, the nations would be blessed. Many families, even today, are concerned about passing on the family name. It’s one of the reasons why many families prize having a son. In American culture it has been the tradition that the wife would take on the husband’s name, so that their children would continue carrying on the patrilineal line from one generation to another.
With levirate marriage, if a man dies, leaving a widow, but no child (hopefully a male child), then a kinsman, usually a younger brother is to marry the widow. This kinsman hopefully will father a child in the name of the now deceased brother, so that the family line can continue. One of the best examples of this practice is found in the story of Tamar.
In this story from Genesis, Judah, the son of Jacob and Leah, marries a Canaanite woman named Shua. In time this couple has several sons, the oldest being Er. Judah obtained for Er a wife named Tamar. Unfortunately he dies – more specifically God kills him because of his wickedness -- leaving Tamar without a husband and without a child to carry on the family name. Wanting to make sure that the family line continued, Judah sent his second son, Onan, to marry Tamar. But he too was wicked. As Genesis puts it, “since Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, he spilled his semen on the ground whenever he went into his brother’s wife, so that he would not give offspring to his brother.” This displeased God, and he dies. Since the third son was yet too young to be given in marriage to Tamar, Judah tells her to wait till he’s grown up. She did for awhile, but when Judah failed to offer her the third son (apparently Judah had begun to see a pattern) and after her mother-in-law died, Tamar decided that she would entrap Judah by playing the prostitute. In the course of time, Tamar became pregnant with Judah’s child. Actually she gives birth to twins. After being confronted by her father in law with her supposed adultery, she proves that Judah is the father of the twins – Perez and Zerah (Genesis 38). By the way Perez is an ancestor of David and Jesus. With this, Judah accepts the children as his own.
There is another matter this story reminds us of. Men were not, normally, accused of adultery. It was only women. A man could, as Judah did, engage in extra-marital behavior without much penalty. A woman, on the other hand, since she was considered property had to remain chaste, except in the context of marriage.
With this background we can hear the question posed by the Sadducees to Jesus. They offer a hypothetical situation. Suppose there are seven brothers, none of whom are successful in their attempt to provide a child – they’ve failed to leave a legacy. So, they ask Jesus – well then if there is a resurrection, and a woman has had seven husbands, none of whom could provide a child, then who would she belong to in the afterlife? Note here that the question has to do with ownership of the woman.
The Sadducees want to see what kind of a biblical interpreter Jesus is. Is he a good traditionalist like them or is he a liberal like the Pharisees? To them, the idea of levirate marriage served as a good example of why the idea of the resurrection is really a silly notion. In their reading of Scripture there is no resurrection, so the right answer would be that none of them would be her husband since none of them would experience an afterlife. Instead of answering the way they expected, Jesus simply turns the tables on them by suggesting that marriage is really not that important in the long scheme of things. Jesus resolves the dilemma by proclaiming that their example of levirate marriage is irrelevant, since in the new realm there is no need for marriage. That’s because there will be no need for procreation. Of course, this may mean that there won’t be any heavenly family reunions either.
Why is that? Well, marriage, family, procreation – as we see with levirate marriage – has a lot to do with security. Even in the Genesis 2 story, which I believe focuses on the need for companionship, is about security. In the new realm of God, however, security is to be found in God and not one’s mate or one’s progeny. Remember that for Jesus, one’s brothers and sisters, and even mother (remember that for Jesus and his context, God is one’s Father), is to be found in the community of faith. Perhaps one reason why the Sadducees, as members of a wealthy sector of society, did not find the idea of resurrection to be compelling is that they found sufficient security in this life, and therefore needed no promise of more to come in the next life. They took to heart the promise that wealth was a sign of blessing, and as persons of wealth they had sufficient blessings.
While marriage isn’t the focus of the passage, it does raise an important set of questions relating to the ultimate value of marriage and family. This is an important question for churches, which tend to place high value on families, often to the exclusion of those who are single.
Due to the division of roles and the limitations placed on women in ancient societies, marriage and family was the key to survival. Levirite marriage not only provided a legacy, it provided security to a woman who had been completely dependent for her survival on her husband. Without any social safety net, she was extremely vulnerable unless there was family – either a husband or a child. This may be one reason why Laban made sure that Jacob married Leah before offering he offered Jacob Rachel in marriage. If Rachel was married first, that would have placed a mark against Leah’s marriagability (Genesis 29). In the case of the levirate system, a widow became the wife (and thus the property) of the one who claimed her. Consider the story of Ruth and Naomi. In marrying Boaz, her nearest kinsman willing to claim her as his wife, Ruth provided a future for herself and for Naomi. In producing a child, Naomi’s line continued through Boaz.
The woman in the Gospel story, however, ends up being married seven times but never has a child. Considering that barrenness was considered a curse, then this woman’s failure to bear a son meant that she was a burden to the six younger brothers who likewise were considered failures in their duty to the eldest brother. While the Sadducees had no need for resurrection, perhaps the promise of resurrection would have been for the woman in the story a sign of justice and freedom. Not only would she no longer be a burden to another, but she would no longer be the property of another.
As one who has been married for more than three decades, I would say that by and large marriage is something good and valuable. In many ways the modern understanding of marriage as a partnership of equals is a significant improvement on what was present in the first century and before. Women are no longer – in Western society – the property of her husband (or her father). A woman can chose her destiny – whether she wants to be married, whether she wants to work, whether she wants to have children. This not only frees women from earlier burdens, it frees men as well. They have choices. They can, if they have children, choose to stay home and care for the children, while the spouse (male or female) works outside the home. But marriage is not ultimate. It’s not the only way in which humans can find fulfillment. And as Jesus reminds us – there is no marriage in heaven. Whatever the after-life looks like, our current patterns of family life, including marriage, do not exist. This would seem to go the same for gay or straight couples.
Another Chapter in formation of Marriage Study Guide