The Afterlife: Whose Wife in the Afterlife?
Editor’s Note: SpokaneFāVS is publishing a series of columns on the subject of life after death. This long fascination with the afterlife crosses centuries, cultures, geography, religions, philosophy and science. What does life after death mean? Is it a subjective existence, a continuation of our consciousness or personhood as we knew it on earth? Is it a bodily existence, or a disembodied/spiritual existence? Who or what decides the character of the afterlife ? Is it possible to believe in God and deny life after death? If there is no afterlife, does that mean religion has lost its purpose? Does it mean our lives on earth are meaningless? These and other questions will be addressed over the next few weeks.
By Kurt Queller
In a previous piece, I sketched the historical developments that led to the surprisingly late introduction into Jewish thought of an afterlife doctrine. We observed that in Jesus’ time, some had still not bought into the idea of a general resurrection of the dead. Notable among these were the Sadducees (a party of wealthy absentee landowners with close ties both to the Jerusalem temple establishment and to the Roman imperial occupation). The more traditional notion of divine rewards and punishments in the present life suited them well; it appeared to lend a stamp of divine approval to their own worldly wealth and privilege.
A fascinating dialogue between the Sadducees and Jesus is narrated in the gospel of Mark. To demonstrate the logical impossibility of a general resurrection, the Sadducees propose a clever argument, which Jesus parries with an equally astute rejoinder (Mark 12:18-27). Regarding a hypothetical woman who has successively outlived seven husbands, before finally dying herself, they ask: “In the resurrection, whose wife will she be? For the seven had her.”
Ancient agrarian societies regarded marriage as a sexual property transaction, in which a woman was transferred from the power of her father to that of her husband. While today we speak of anyone of whatever gender as “getting married,” In antiquity one used distinctively gendered verbs. A man “married” a woman (active voice), while the women “was given in marriage” to him (passive voice of the same verb).
The sexual property implications were quite clear in Biblical Hebrew. A husband was his wife’s ba’al— literally, “master, owner” [masculine],” while the wife was be’ulah, a feminine passive form of the same verb root, meaning “one who is mastered, owned.”
The Sadducees’ case further invokes so-called levirate marriage custom. It was thought unacceptable for a man to die without a male heir, through whom his name and patrimony might be passed down through future generations. The customary remedy was for the dead man’s brother (whether already married or not) to take the widow as wife. This not only afforded the widow some economic security; crucially, it was also intended to provide an heir for the dead brother, with the first son of this new marriage fulfilling that role.
There was thus no fundamental contradiction in a man (a potential or actual owner of sexual property) “having” several wives at once. A woman, meanwhile, might be married to several husbands successively (as in the Sadducees’ story). A woman with multiple husbands simultaneously, however, was inconceivable. How could a woman be ”owned’ and “mastered” by several men at once?
Mark shows Jesus adroitly parrying the Sadducee’s challenge. This is best seen diagrammatically, with Jesus’ three-part response aligned over against the three structural components of the challenge:
In (1), the Sadducees introduce their challenge using an abstract noun (“the resurrection”), referring to a doctrine that they reject (and believe they are disproving). In (2), they spring the material question: “whose wife will she be?” In (3), they provide a rationale for their question: “the seven had her” successively in life, and that was fine, but how could they now, in this supposed resurrection of the dead, all “have” her at once?
Jesus responds point by point — but each time with a surprising twist that slips the patriarchal rug out from under the Sadducees’ cleverly constructed argument.
First, rather than referring to “the resurrection” (1) as a vague, timeless abstraction, Jesus speaks of “when they rise from the dead.” The verb suggests an actual ongoing activity in the present — and the preceding narrative has indeed shown this to be the case. (See, most strikingly, the intertwined stories at Mark 5:21-43 of a woman redeemed from social death, and a girl raised from actual death.)
Second, Jesus pointedly rejects the vague future-tense presuppositions of the Sadducees’ question — “whose wife will she be? Again, he responds in the present tense: “they neither marry (Greek: gamizoun [what men do, in acquiring a wife]) nor are given in marriage (Greek: gamizontai [what happens to women]).” These are the Greek verbal counterparts of the Semitic terms for mastery and ownership, referred to above. Rejecting the implications behind these gender-skewed verbs, Jesus hints that, whatever marriage might mean in the new age that his ministry is presently inaugurating, it does not involve the transfer of women as sexual property.
FInally, in response to the Sadducees’ rationale for their question about ownership (“for the seven had her”), Jesus answers with a simile: “they [men and women alike] are like angels in heaven.”
The Sadducees’ argument that “the seven had her” presupposes that a woman, once acquired through marriage, can henceforth be understood only as one who is mastered and owned by a man. Jesus’ concluding simile undermines this presumption, framing the relationship between men and women in terms of their shared similarity to a third, external point of reference: angels. If women and men, here and now, are equally likened to these celestial beings, then how could God’s will countenance the mastery and ownership of the one set of humans by the other?
Our story ends with Jesus’ admonition that God “is not God of the dead, but of the living.” At one level, this clinches the directly preceding argument, where Jesus is shown quoting Yahweh’s words to Moses at the burning bush, identifying himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In Moses’ time, these ancestors had already been long dead, but the divine “I am…” suggests that those who have died (to us) are never dead to God, who remains “God of the living.”
At another level, this final saying also clinches Jesus’ response to the Sadducee’s case of the hypothetical widow. Their citation of levirate marriage custom ironically reflects their concern with perpetuating their own names and transmitting their own considerable property down through their own patrilines.
But that custom focused not only on dead men’s honor and the property rights; it was equally concerned with the precarious social and economic situation of the widows who survived them. Jesus’ closing admonition implicitly critiques the Sadducees’ use of the widow, who for them is just a fictional prop in a doctrinal controversy. Their treatment of actual widows is unmasked just a few verses further on (Mark 12:40), where we find Jesus excoriating the temple scribes for “devour[ing] widows’ houses.” His assertion that God is God “not of the dead, but of the living” here packs a similar punch: God’s essential concern is not with the property rights of dead men, but with the real problems of the living poor (widows and orphans, in particular).
Jesus’ own essential concern, in this passage, is thus not to debate points of doctrine about what happens after we die. While the Sadducees’ statements are all past and future hypotheticals, those of Jesus are all present-tense statements about the life-and-death social and economic concerns of real, living people.
This is a pattern in Mark. In the next (and final) installment in this series, we shall see how, in the one other case where Mark’s Jesus responds to a question about the hereafter, he shifts the focus even more clearly from afterlife speculation to issues of social and economic justice, in the here and now of God’s dawning reign.
Kurt Queller, Senior Instructor Emeritus, taught linguistics, history of English, Bible as literature, German and occasionally other languages at the University of Idaho.