An odd challenge: Seven marriages to seven brothers

New spouses exchange rings as Pope Francis, pictured in the background, celebrates the marriage rite for 20 couples during a Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Sept. 14. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

New spouses exchange rings as Pope Francis, pictured in the background, celebrates the marriage rite for 20 couples during a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican Sept. 14.
(CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Gary Michuta

Gary Michuta

No, the title isn’t a misprint. Rather, it is a reference to a challenge that the Sadducees put to Jesus in Matthew 22:24-29 (also, Mark 12:18-29 and Luke 20:27-40):

“Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies without children, his brother shall marry his wife and raise up descendants for his brother.’ Now there were seven brothers among us. The first married and died and, having no descendants, left his wife to his brother. The same happened with the second and the third, through all seven. Finally the woman died. Now at the resurrection, of the seven, whose wife will she be? For they all had been married to her.’”

Why did the Sadducees question the resurrection, and why did they use such a bizarre scenario to prove their point? A peak at what’s going on behind the Bible clues us in on one possible motive.

Why did the Sadducees question the resurrection? Acts 23:7-8 tells us that this Jewish sect not only did not believe in the resurrection, but they didn’t believe in angels, either. Why didn’t they believe in these things? The fathers of the Church taught that the Sadducees accepted only the first five books of the Bible, the books of Moses. Because the resurrection (and angels) are more explicitly taught in the later books of the Old Testament, they rejected these teachings.

But why propose such an odd scenario as a woman remaining childless through seven marriages to her husband’s brothers? Isn’t that odd? To us, yes, it is very strange. But according to the Old Testament law, if a woman marries and her husband dies without producing a child, it was the duty of the man’s brother to marry her and produce an offspring for him (Deuteronomy 25:5, Genesis 38:8).

The Sadducees were attempting to pit the resurrection against the law of Moses. Because Moses commanded that the brother(s) should raise up an offspring, who would be the woman’s husband at the Resurrection?

But the problem still remains: Why use such an outlandish scenario to prove your point? If you think about it, two marriages to two brothers would have proved it just as well. By proposing seven childless marriages to seven brothers, the Sadducees’ challenge could easily have backfired. All Jesus would have to say is: “Show me such a thing and I’ll answer your question.”

My suspicion is that there is more going on behind this text than meets the eye; in fact, there is a biblical example of a woman remaining childless after seven marriages to seven brothers. It takes place in the Book of Tobit (Tobit 3:8, 15).

Could the Sadducees be harkening to Tobit? If they did, it would add a new dimension to their argument. Remember, the Sadducees only accepted the first five books of the Bible. They didn’t accept Tobit as Scripture, but Jesus did. Why, then, use this example?

Perhaps it was to force Jesus’ hand, not only on the resurrection, but also on Tobit. Had Our Lord said, “Show me such a woman and I’ll answer your question,” they would have said, “See, your book of Tobit said this happened.” Jesus would then either be forced to dismisses Tobit (and possibly discredit himself in the eyes of His followers) or admit the problem is unanswerable and makes the resurrection seem absurd.

Jesus, of course, does neither. He says to the Sadducees, “You are misled because you do not know the scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:29-30).

Our Lord then goes on offense, citing a passage from the books of Moses (Exodus 3:6) that demonstrates the resurrection, saying “… have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living” (Matthew 22:31-32).

If this is so, the Sadducees may have had Tobit in their sights, as well as the resurrection.


Gary Michuta is an apologist, author and speaker and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.