Hung Upon a Tree

“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

Speaking and Hearing Evil

Also take not heed unto all words that are spoken, lest thou hear thy servant curse thee; for oftentimes also thine own heart knoweth that thou thyself likewise hast cursed others (Ecclesiastes 7:21-22).

There is an ill that we have all experienced, that gets all of us flustered, and yet we have all done to others. That ill is speaking evil or cursing another.

There are all kinds of reasons for it happening. We offend people, intentionally or unintentionally, and mouths begin talking. We may be trying to help– or trying to hurt. Perhaps we have not done as well as we could at living the life we are trying to live. Unfortunately, some of the times when we are living the life we are trying to live, the mouths keep talking.

We all know that we should not– we should speak words that build up and encourage, and we should not be bitter in our words (Ephesians 4:25, 29, 31). But we are human– and we all are more free with our tongues than we should be (James 3:1-10).

The Preacher knows all of these things. And yet his counsel seems strange to us– do not listen to all of the words that are spoken (Ecclesiastes 7:21). Normally we hear exhortations to listen (James 1:19)– and we all know that even though we have two ears and but one mouth, the mouth tends to dominate over the ears. We tend to be better at talking than listening, so why should we not listen?

The reason for not listening also seems strange. We should not listen lest we hear “[our] servant cursing [us].” Granted, the Preacher is writing at a time when society was more stratified than it is now, and many people had servants. As a master, to hear your servant curse you would be one of the greatest insults and indignities.

But wait a second. If people are talking about us, shouldn’t we want to know about it? Wouldn’t we want to listen even more if such things take place?

Well, certainly, we want to know. But is it good to know? Is it good to consider how others have cursed us, regardless of their social standing?

The Preacher encourages us to consider ourselves as we answer. Have we not, at times, cursed others, if not by word, in our hearts? What would happen if they all knew what we had felt and/or said? How would we want them to respond?

We should not imagine that the Preacher is excusing anyone when they curse others. He is considering the way things are, not necessarily the way things should be. We do well, therefore, to truly heed the Preacher’s advice. It is counter-intuitive to not take heed to curses that are leveled against us. It is much easier to dwell on them and allow bitterness and/or resentment to grow.

Yet we must take stock. We are no better than others; others are not really better than us. We would never want others to hold our cursings, internal or external, against us. We do best, therefore, when we show such grace to others, recognizing our own failures!

We are given a choice in life– we can either bear the burden of every negative word we hear about ourselves, or we can decide to not give them any heed. The former leads to anxiety, anguish, and constant feeling of betrayal; the latter, despite being the harder road, allows us to live in some measure of peace with our fellow man.

We should not be so simplistic as to think that we are never the subject of evil thoughts or cursing, just as we cannot deny that we have had such thoughts ourselves. Let us keep the “Golden Rule” in mind (Luke 6:31), and not take heed to every word spoken about us!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Fig Tree Religion

And on the morrow, when they were come out from Bethany, [Jesus] hungered. And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find anything thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for it was not the season of figs.
And he answered and said unto it, “No man eat fruit from thee henceforward for ever.”
And his disciples heard it (Mark 11:12-14).

The long-awaited time had come. Jesus of Nazareth, believed by many to be the Messiah, the Christ of God, had entered Jerusalem in triumph (cf. Mark 11:1-11). He will soon strike at the heart of the religious power structure in Jerusalem by cleansing the Temple of its moneychangers and merchants (Mark 11:15-19). And what do we find in the middle of these great events? Jesus’ rebuke of a fig tree.

It seems rather anticlimactic. Why does Mark interrupt the grand story of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem by telling us about this fig tree?

It may help to understand a bit about the situation. Even in Jerusalem, late March or early April is a bit early for figs to be ready. Most of the trees would not even have their leaves yet. But this fig tree did have its leaves– and when a fig tree has its leaves, it is indicating that it has its fruit hidden underneath. This particular fig tree, however, was false– perhaps it was a different subspecies, or perhaps it was a young tree– for it exposed leaves but had no fruit within it. Highly disappointed, Jesus curses the tree because it made a presentation without its substance.

That may be the clue to understanding the importance of this interaction. Mark very well may have us to understand that there is more to this story than just a fig tree.

The fig tree may represent the Jews and the Judaism of the day. Fig trees are good, and figs are good. Fruitless fig trees that have no leaves are understandable, but what cannot be tolerated is the fig tree that has leaves but no fruit. Thus it is with Israel in Jesus’ day, especially the religious authorities, the chief priests, the elders, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. It was a good thing to be a Jew and to be a part of the covenant with God. It would be understandable if a Jew were learning his faith or recognized in humility how much further he had to go. But to have the outward appearance of religion without its substance– its fruit– was intolerable. And that was precisely what Jesus saw in the Judaism of His day!

Soon after these events He would excoriate the Pharisees for being whitewashed tombs– pretty on the exterior, but full of dead men’s bones inside (cf. Matthew 23:27). They worry about keeping dishes clean, but inwardly are defiled (Matthew 23:25-26). On the exterior their religiosity is beyond a doubt; inwardly they remain unconverted and sinful. There is little hope for such people; they are, like the fig tree, cursed, never to provide fruit for mankind again.

We would do well to learn the lesson of the fig tree and avoid “fig tree religion.” We know from experience and statistics that the vast majority of the people around us in America believe in God and in His Son Jesus Christ. Most people would claim to be Christians. A lot of those people attempt to maintain the exterior of goodness and piety– they seek to look like the “good people” of society, and yet inwardly they may remain unconverted and sinful. Such a faith cannot save (Matthew 7:21-23)!

It is one thing to be as a fig tree without fruit and without leaves– had this fig tree been as such, Jesus would have likely just passed it by. Therefore, it is one thing for people in our society to be sinners and recognize that they are sinners. Such is actually the first step in coming to a real knowledge of the truth (Ephesians 2:1-10, Titus 3:3-8). Jesus, after all, came to save sinners (cf. Matthew 9:11-13).

The real danger comes from providing the pretense of righteousness and/or religiosity without any substantive fruit. These are the “righteous” of Matthew 9:11-13, those who certainly think they are healthy and sound and profitable but really are not. They are self-deceived, and self-deception is the hardest kind of deception to overcome (Galatians 6:3, James 1:22-25, 1 John 1:8). As long as they remain in that condition, nothing can be done for them or with them (cf. Revelation 3:14-22)!

But what of ourselves? Who are we? Are we fig trees without leaves and without fruit? Then let us grow in knowledge and faith to maturity, showing fruit for the Lord (Hebrews 5:14, 2 Peter 3:18). Do we have leaves and fruit, believing in God and obeying Him? Well and good; let us abound all the more (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:1, 9). Or are we the fig tree with leaves but no fruit, having the pretense of religion but not the substantive fruit thereof? We must always be on guard against this danger, considering ourselves (2 Corinthians 13:5, Galatians 6:4). If we find ourselves in this condition, we must immediately repent, and work to show the fruit that is in keeping with that repentance (1 John 2:3-6)!

Therefore we can see that the story of the fig tree is quite appropriate in its context. Jesus is about to encounter the superficial piety of the Judaism entrenched in Jerusalem, and it will be cursed. Let us not fall into the same trap, and let us both show leaves and bear fruit for God!

Ethan R. Longhenry