Mark 12:20

There were once seven brothers. The eldest married, but died and left no family;

brothers are connected
blood thick

one commits all
all back-up one

compulsion beats desire
first constrains last

limits another’s self

knowing one’s place
decides one’s pace

until only shadows remain
casting their pall over all

Seven brothers. This is going to be a long story, perhaps even shaggy.

As soon as the first line is uttered, those familiar with Jesus’ religious heritage could see a line of argument being set in place.

As soon as the last phrase is spoken, there is an inevitability to the next verses. It would be interesting to combine this story with the pattern of “The House that Jack Built” to get a feel for the nested connections between individuals, family, tribe, and additional levels of cultural and economic relationships.

Instrumentally, marriage here is a family relationship expressing ownership. Marriage for kings is an expression of political alliance, which has a large economic component. For those who are under the sway of a king, marriage is also commoditized through dowries and other customs of who lives where. In both cases, it keeps power with the male of the species simply on the basis of a particular gender expression of biology. As much as anything, male succession is an economic construct.

While the text talks of “children” it should be noted that we are primarily talking about a son. There are some exceptions for daughters to inherit (see Numbers 27:1–11), but the Sadducees, like all interpreters, are capable of selecting which stories to emphasize and which to conveniently overlook.

When marriage as ownership and power-over enters to claim universality, there needs to be a process for what to do when the assumptions do not pan out as planned. This Deuteronomic story asserts a right to complete an original intention to pass on the eldest son’s property within the family. This keeps the property of a “wife/son” in the husband’s family. Thus the economic value of the “marriage” is brought to completion and all remains as it “should be”.

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