“And if a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be put to death, and thou hang him on a tree; his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt surely bury him the same day; for he that is hanged is accursed of God; that thou defile not thy land which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance” (Deuteronomy 21:22-23).
It was just one more law explained in a series of other laws. At the time it was given, it perhaps did not merit much more thought or consideration than the laws given before it or after it; it might have seemed tame, in fact, compared to the law of stoning a rebellious youth in Deuteronomy 21:18-22. And yet this law would have profound consequences for Israel and all humanity.
The law given by Moses in Deuteronomy 21:22-23 is an example of case law, a frequent feature in this part of Deuteronomy. The law is straightforward enough: if a person has committed a capital crime, and the manner of punishment is hanging on a tree, the body should be taken down and buried the same day. Likewise, if a criminal were executed in some other way, and then his body was hung upon a tree as a public spectacle (cf. Numbers 25:4), the body should not be left up all night. The body should be taken down and buried because anyone who is hanged is accursed of God, and to allow a cursed person’s body to hang around for a few days would defile the land.
The law is understandable and the people would most likely have accepted it without difficulty; most of them, as far as we can tell, were not planning to commit capital crimes. Yes, other methods of execution had their place: stoning (cf. Deuteronomy 13:10), burning (cf. Leviticus 21:9), and stabbing (Exodus 32:27); nevertheless, various forms of suspension (hanging and the like) seemed to be the most common way of executing criminals, particularly in those cases where the Law did not specify stoning or burning. Even in those cases where other forms of execution were used, it served the interest of the executioners to hang the body up on a tree so that all would know what happened to the person and that they would share the same fate if they committed capital crimes. We can understand how such criminals, however executed, were seen as cursed: to be executed for a capital crime means that one must have done something truly terrible so as to deserve such a fate. To leave the body of such a one around would cause contamination!
Years later the Romans took over the land of Israel. The Romans had great confidence in crucifixion as a means of executing insurrectionists and other particularly nasty criminals. It was a horrendous and public way to die; it sent a very strong message to the rest of the inhabitants of the land: obey or suffer the same fate!
Around the year 30 of our era, a Man was brought before the Roman governor Pilate, and accused by the Jewish authorities of insurrection against Rome. At first Pilate did not want to see Him executed; nevertheless, he was more concerned about his own welfare than anything else, and when the crowd looked like it was about to riot, Pilate agreed to the sentence. The Man was crucified with two others outside of the city walls of Jerusalem. Since the time was of the Preparation for the upcoming Sabbath during the feast of Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, in consideration of Deuteronomy 21:22-23, the Jews asked the Romans to have the legs of the criminals broken, so their bodies might be taken away and buried (cf. John 19:31). The legs of two of the men were broken, but the first Man was already dead. His body was taken down and buried before sunset (cf. John 19:32-42).
These three, as well as every other Jewish person crucified, were reckoned as cursed because they hung upon the “tree” of the crucifix. In normal circumstances the reputation of such people were forever tarnished; everyone would know that they were now accursed because they hung on a tree. It was shameful; it was terrible. Even if one were really innocent, one would become accursed because of hanging on that tree!
Yet, within a few weeks of this event, some who believed in this one Man stood up before the Jewish religious authorities and declared how they had hung Him on a tree (Acts 5:30). They did not do so in shame or in defeat; instead, they did it in power and victory! They did so because this one Man was no ordinary person; He was Jesus of Nazareth, whom God had raised up as a means by which Israel (and later, all nations) would receive repentance and remission of sins (Acts 5:30-31). How could this be?
These people who believed in Jesus had earlier established that Jesus suffered death on the cross to fulfill the words of the Law and the prophets (cf. Acts 3:18). On the third day God raised Him up in power and He now rules as Lord (Acts 2:23-24, 36). A lot of people, when confronted with a story such as the one told regarding Jesus, would be tempted to minimize the humiliation, suffering, and shame, or at least not boldly proclaim it. Yet these early Christians did not just say that Jesus was crucified; they spoke about His death on the cross in the very language of Deuteronomy 21:22-23, well expressed in Acts 10:39:
“And we are witnesses of all things which he did both in the country of the Jews, and in Jerusalem; whom also they slew, hanging him on a tree.”
It would seem as if the early Christians, to an extent, gloried in how Jesus died on the tree, and therefore was accursed!
Another early Christian, Paul, would explain why Jesus’ method of execution, the cross, was so critical for the work which He came to do.
In Galatians 3:10 Paul quotes Deuteronomy 27:26 and declares that all who are of the law are under a curse: they have subscribed to do the law but have actually not kept the law. Therefore, according to the law, they are accursed of God. Then, in Galatians 3:13-14, Paul explains how Jesus Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us as it is written in Deuteronomy 21:21-22!
This is why early Christians talked about Jesus’ death in the way they did: Jesus was not accursed because of anything He did. He took on Himself the curse with which all who have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God are accursed; He who had no sin and did no wrong God made to be sin on our behalf so that we could be forgiven of our sins (2 Corinthians 5:21). Jesus, in “his own self[,] bare our sins in his body upon the tree” (1 Peter 2:24)!
It might have been just a small detail in one case law among others, but that detail was there for a reason. Jesus became accursed so that accursed humans could be set free from sin and death. Jesus endured capital punishment to redeem and restore sinful humanity. Let us praise God for His wonderful grace and mercy, and let us die to sin and live to righteousness through Him by whose wounds we are healed!
Ethan R. Longhenry