Stories Jesus told with women in them
Parable of the women with 7 husbands (Luke 20:27-40)
This is a fascinating little story because it has the unusual element of a rare appearance of the Sadducees—who mostly left harassment of Jesus to the Pharisees—and an example of a parable being given from someone other than Jesus. Here’s the story, then we’ll start exploring context and characters:
“Some of the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus with a question. ‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman and died childless. The second and then the third married her, and in the same way the seven died, leaving no children. Finally, the woman died too. Now then, at the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?’
Jesus replied, ‘The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection. But in the account of the burning bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord “the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.’
Some of the teachers of the law responded, ‘Well said, teacher!’ And no one dared to ask him any more questions.”
First, let’s take a moment to echo what the teachers of the law said. Well done, Lord Jesus. You refused to be trapped by the straw man the Sadducees set up for you!
Just as an aside, you and I don’t have to be trapped by the hypotheticals others cook up for the sole purpose of making us choose between two untenable positions. There is always a third way, the right way, the truth answer.
Okay, that was just a sidebar. Let’s open up the story of the woman with seven husbands. First of all, who are the Sadducees? Next, how in the world does this women get maneuvered into marrying seven guys in a row from the same family? What sort of snare were the Sadducees trying to trap Jesus in? What’s the context for this context? And what did Jesus do that shut them up for good?
Sadducees—The Sadducees were a small but powerful sect: they were the wealthy, aristocratic governing class. Theologically they were liberal intellectuals who only recognized the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, as scripture. They threw out all the prophets, wisdom books, and historical books as mere literature. They didn’t believe in angels or the resurrection, or even much of a life after death. The Pharisees, on the other hand, believed fervently in the resurrection, but most of their proof texts were not in the first five books of the Bible.
As a rule, the Sadducees and the Pharisees were largely antagonistic towards each other. Sadducees saw Pharisees as somewhat fanatical in their approach to God, scripture, and faith, and found them to be frustrating and difficult when it came to keeping peace with Rome.
Seven Husbands—In ancient Jewish law if a man died without any children to carry on his name, his brother was called upon to marry the widow and produce at least one child in his brother’s name. This came to be known as the levirate law for the Latin word “levir,” which means “the husband’s brother.” Here’s the actual text:
“If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel.” (Deuteronomy 25:5-6)
So the Sadducees asked their question about the seven brothers. It was actually a frivolous question, because, as you can see from the text, technically, in the levirate law, the brother was acting in his dead brother’s place, the child would be considered the dead brother’s, and the widow would still be considered the wife of the dead brother.
The Snare—The Sadducees had been observing, the last three years, how the Pharisees would try, again and again, to get Jesus in trouble over sex and marriage issues. Familiar, right? Who’da thunk it, that two whole thousand years later, we would still be embroiled in sex and marriage issues today, with people bating Christians over these matters?
But Jesus, again and again, had managed to escape the trap without in any way compromising integrity, truth, grace, mercy, or God’s word. So, the Sadducees, who considered themselves clearly superior in intellect and matters of Torah, held up a story they figured was airtight. It included a woman who married seven times, and presumably had marital relations with all seven brothers. Jesus had, however, made it clear that marriage is between one man and one woman for a lifetime (Jesus stated this unequivocally in His Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:31-32, then expanded on that theme in a showdown with the Pharisees in Matthew 19:3-12).
The Sadducees figured they had Jesus in a vice, because either He was going to have to appear wishy-washy and soften on marriage, or appear ridiculous in His defense of life in heaven. They were pretty wily. An open confrontation may have caused resentment among the crowd, who clearly loved Jesus. But to be polite, rational, philosophical, calm…Jesus would appear pretty homespun next to them. That was their whole method of operation. Make Jesus look pathetic, and laughable.
Plus, to make any case with them, Jesus had only the Pentateuch to work with, the books of Moses.
The Context—The context everyone could see was the week of preparation for the Passover. Since it was one of the three festivals every Jew was required by God’s command to come to Jerusalem to celebrate, the streets of Jerusalem were filled with sojourners and pilgrims from the whole known world. Jesus had already ridden triumphantly into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, with adoring fans throwing cloaks and palm branches onto the street as a red carpet for Messiah.
According to a couple of the gospels, Jesus had again cleared the temple of money lenders and animal venders, which had thoroughly angered the Sadducees, who had high stakes in the temple market. Now, Jesus was teaching daily among the golden colonnades of Solomon’s portico in the temple, and He was gathering ever larger crowds of people, and speaking boldly for God, and against the teachings of the religious establishment.
The Jewish religious leaders were infuriated with Jesus’ indictment of them. In their plot to kill Him, they tried to weaken His power base by manipulating Him with carefully loaded questions. Either Jesus would incriminate Himself and get arrested, or His teaching would make Him unpopular with the people.
But there was another reason for these questions that Jesus’ enemies did not realize. Jesus was about to die as the Lamb of God, and according to God’s law, it was necessary for every Passover lamb to be examined. If any blemish at all was found on the lamb, it could not be sacrificed. Jesus would also be publicly examined by the religious leaders, and they would not be able to find any fault in Him.
Next post, we’ll take a look at how Jesus artfully and adeptly both sidestepped the snare, and taught well on life everlasting.