In Jesus’ debate with the Sadducees, He defended His position that there will be a resurrection of the dead by quoting Exodus 3:6. Luke records Jesus as saying, “But even Moses revealed that the dead are raised in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live before him.” (Luke 20:37-8, NET).

Jesus’ argument seems to be as follows:

(1) God can only be “the God of…X”, if X exists

(2) God identified Himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob centuries after their death

(3) Therefore, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob still existed when God spoke to Moses

I find two problems with this line of reasoning.

First, there is no grammatical argument from Exodus 3:6 that demonstrates the continued existence of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in Moses’ day. Biblical Hebrew did not have tense, so it’s not as if one can argue that since the present tense was used in Exodus 3:6, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob must have still existed in some manner in Moses’ day. Even if Biblical Hebrew had tense, and the present tense had been used here, it still wouldn’t follow that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob still existed in Moses’ day. If I said “This is the land of Washington, Adams, and Lincoln,” I do not thereby commit myself to the notion that George Washington, John Adams, and Abraham Lincoln are still alive in some sense, and no one would understand me to be making such a claim. I am merely using their names as a descriptor. In the same way, one would naturally read God’s statement that He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as a descriptor. It was a way for God to identify Himself – nothing more and nothing less.

Secondly, while Jesus’ argument may demonstrate that humans are immaterial souls who survive their death in a conscious state (something the Sadducees denied), I fail to see how it demonstrates a future resurrection of the dead. Some additional premise or Biblical citation would be needed to demonstrate that disembodied souls will return to bodily life. No such argument is given.

I confess some trepidation in saying this, but it seems like Jesus offered a poor Biblical proof-text for His position. And yet, when you read the text, Jesus’ opponents found it extremely persuasive. They were not able to offer any rebuttal. Am I missing something here? I do not want to say Jesus’ argument missed the point, but I cannot deny the fact that his argument appears to fall short of its intended goal.

My only suggestion for figuring out how this could have been persuasive to Jesus’ audience was if they presumed that if life continued beyond the grave, there would, of necessity be a resurrection from the dead. Perhaps they understood proof for one as proof of the other and Jesus was building on that assumption. Even if this is correct, it only resolves the second problem, not the first.

Does anyone have any insights on this passage they would like to offer?