Scripture: “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance.” Deuteronomy 21:22-23 ESV
Observation: Addressing mandatory capital punishment for an incorrigible son, Moses shifts his thinking to a related matter regarding any crime punishable by death: how to dispose of a body hung on a tree. The person’s body must not be left exposed to the elements but buried before sundown. Why? Otherwise, Israel would defile their sacred Promised Land (above verses) by allowing scavenging animals to dismember the body, unnecessarily creating an eye sore and a stench, marring God’s holy land flowing with milk and honey.
So does this law apply to only those executed by hanging? No, the Hebrew verb tālâ cited in verse 22 means “to hang up,” implying the elders have already put the man to death. Thus, these instructions would apply to all means of execution, even the stoning of a rebellious son for repeatedly dishonoring his parents (see yesterday’s Daily Focus for more detail). But why hang a person already dead? In the Ancient Near East, and even in modern times, those in power would display a dead body to warn would-be dissidents. For Israel, though, any such severe warning must not be excessive to minimize the mental anguish the surviving loved ones would suffer.
Takeaway: Verse 23 presents a troubling statement that requires further explanation: Why does God curse a hanged man? Nowhere else do we read of exposing a dead body that invokes a curse from God (other than in the above manner). The Apostle Paul provides insight in his letter to the Galatians. Paul argues, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree'” (Galatians 3:13 ESV). While he omits who has cursed the body hung on a tree, Paul understands that through shameful exposure on a tree (the cross), Christ has borne our sins in his body and incurred the Farther’s curse that he would otherwise direct toward us, hopeless lawbreakers.
Here, we again see the progressive, organic nature of Scripture. From the inception of this seemingly random law, it exhibits grace toward grieving loved ones to remediate the shame of their deceased family member. And it reaches fulfillment in Christ, who bore our shameful sins in his body while hanging from his cross. Thus, Jesus assumed the curse we deserve. But the rest of our Gospel tells us that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus buried his body before sundown, and the grave could not contain him: He has risen and lifted the curse, removing our shame.
So what’s our response? Paul writes this letter to the Galatian church to reroute them from their egregious u-turn toward seeking salvation in the law. While the law provides boundaries and warning signs, faith in Christ and his gift of the Holy Spirit are our only source and means of taking possession of our Promised Land. Indeed, now that we are free from the curse, let us claim our inheritance and travel by faith onward and upward with heads held high, beholding Christ’s glory.
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for your Son who bore our sins in his body as he hung from a cross and set us free from your curse that remains on those who reject you and your Son. Would you please help us to walk by faith, relying on Christ’s completed work and the guidance of your Holy Spirit to press onward and upward beholding your Son’s glory? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling