When the Sadducees approach Jesus in the temple with their question ridiculing resurrection from the dead, they are part of the collective violence surrounding Jesus. This is not a polite debate to entertain viewers on evening TV. The Pharisees have just asked their question to entrap Jesus and triangled in the Roman authorities to boot. Groups of people who normally hate each other but have united against Jesus.
Their question zeroes in on the practice of Levirate marriage, where the younger brother of a man who dies childless marries his brother’s widow. This practice presupposes that one is dead when one dies and that immortality is gained only through one’s offspring. Even this ploy fails in this case as all seven brothers die childless after having married this poor widow. No immortality there. Jesus is trapped. Or is he?
Jesus reply, referring to the words spoken by God through the burning bush, is universally admired for its clever exegesis of a text from Torah that the Sadducees would have to accept as authoritative. But there is much more here than declaring that God is a God of the living. In Raising Abel James Alison explodes this reply by saying that the power of God which the Sadducees do not understand “is that of being completely and entirely alive, living without any reference to death. There is no death in God. God has nothing to do with death, and for that reason facts which are obvious to us, like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob having been long dead at the time of Moses, simply do not exist for God. Let’s put this another way: for us ‘being alive’ means ‘not being dead;’ it’s a reality which is circumscribed by its opposite. For God this is simply not the case. For God being alive has nothing to do with death, and cannot even be contrasted with death.”
These words pack a wallop that throws us through at least seven spheres of being teeming with life. Alison is surely not suggesting that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are counting the days off their celestial calendar! This is about quality of life, eternal life as Jesus means it in John’s Gospel.
Let us revisit the question with these stirring words in mind. There is a second way that marriage is used as a way to defeat death besides having offspring. Marriage is a means of restraining mimetic rivalry by placing the partner off limits to all others. Otherwise, everybody might kill everybody fighting over sexual partners. In the context of seven brothers, this is especially important and incest laws add extra restraint on the brothers of the bride who might be especially presupposed to rivalry. The premature death of the older brother changes the picture and suddenly the wife goes to the next brother in line. This is not a good way to win a game of mimetic rivalry, however, as the offspring still belongs to the older, the dead brother and not to the younger brother who is still alive. The Sadducees’ hypothetical case adds to the mockery by imagining that the seven brothers meet up with this poor widow in the resurrection and fight over her like dogs fighting over a bone, presumably with no end in sight. (The widow doesn’t matter much in this scheme of things.)
Jesus explodes all this by saying that there is no marrying or giving of marriage in Heaven. There is no bride to fight over after all. There is no longer anything whatever to fight over. Just try to imagine life without having something to fight about! The image of Jesus as the Bridegroom and the Church (that’s all of us) as the bride suggests that the intimacy of marriage is a good shared by all without need of restraints of any kind. Like the Sadducees, we are profoundly mistaken about the power of God as long as we cling to the rivalries of the seven brothers.