22 “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, 23 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
God’s rules regarding the corporate stoning of a morally and spiritually degenerate son are now followed by strict instructions regarding the public display of the dead man’s body. Once the guilty party was put to death, it was common practice to hang the dead man’s body from a tree as a visual demonstration of the consequences of sin. It was also meant to serve as a deterrent, a somewhat macabre but effective means of discouraging others to take the same deadly path.
But God provided strict regulations concerning the disposal of the body. It had to be removed from the tree and buried the same day as the execution. Otherwise, the curse of God, which resulted in the man’s death, would extend to the land. The public display of the man’s corpse was meant as a further means of humiliating and degrading the guilty one for his death-deserving sin. Even in death, he would be subjected to ridicule and scorn. The hanging of the body did not bring about the curse. It was a result of the curse that had deemed the man as deserving of death.
The immediate burial of the body was essential in order to prevent ceremonial defiling of the land. Had the body been left hanging overnight, there is a greater likelihood that animals and birds would have desecrated the body, causing blood to spill onto the ground and essentially bringing the curse of the man upon the entire land. God had warned the Israelites about practicing the ways of the Canaanites. Their pagan, godless ways had literally cursed the land of Canaan, requiring God to ceremonially purge it by having the Israelites remove every vestige of Canaanite influence from the land.
“You shall not pollute the land in which you live, for blood pollutes the land, and no atonement can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it. You shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell, for I the Lord dwell in the midst of the people of Israel.” – Numbers 35:33-34 ESV
This requirement to bury the dead man’s body was meant to keep the Israelites from following one sin with another. Once the man was executed for his sin, his body was to be displayed, but then properly disposed of, so that the curse of death could be removed.
Sin against God has always carried with it a curse. When Adam and Eve rebelled against God in the garden, their actions brought about a series of curses from God, including the entrance of physical death into the equation.
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.” – Genesis 3:17-19 ESV
Adam’ sin brought a death sentence upon all mankind. It placed every single one of his descendants under a curse. And the apostle Paul goes out of his way to stress this sobering reality.
When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned. – Romans 5:12 NLT
For the sin of this one man, Adam, brought death to many. – Romans 5:15 NLT
For Adam’s sin led to condemnation… – Romans 5:16 NLT
For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. – Romans 5:17 NLT
Yes, Adam’s one sin brings condemnation for everyone… – Romans 5:18 NLT
Because one person disobeyed God, many became sinners. – Romans 5:19 NLT
Don’t miss what Paul is saying. All mankind is under a curse and worthy of death. For all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glorious standard of righteousness (Romans 3:23). There is none righteous, no not one (Romans 3:10).
The Israelites who stood back and threw the stones that took the guilty man’s life were no more righteous. They were no less deserving of death. Their sins, while perhaps less egregious, were no less worthy of death. Their very existence made them worthy of death because they stood under the same curse that had condemned Adam. But God didn’t require that they die. Instead, He extended them mercy.
This brings to mind the encounter between Jesus and the religious leaders of Israel. The scribes and Pharisees, seeing Jesus visiting the Mount of Olives, dragged a woman before Him whom they claimed to be guilty of the crime of adultery. They said to Jesus, “Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” (John 8:5 ESV).
And Jesus wisely responded to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7 ESV). And then John records, “when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him” (John 8:9 ESV).
There was no one in the crowd that day who could claim to be sin-free. The spiritual state of every single human being is that of a sinner who is deserving of death for their rebellion against a holy and righteous God. And that brings us to the vital link between this obscure regulation regarding the burial of an executed criminal and the remedy for the curse of death.
In his letter to the churches in Galatia, Paul provides us with a connecting point that makes this Old Testament passage relevant. He reminds his readers that the Jews, who were required to live according to the Mosaic law, were under a God-ordained curse if they didn’t keep the entire law perfectly.
For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” – Galatians 3:10-14 ESV
The painful reality was that no Jew had ever kept all of God’s law without fail. As a result, every single Jew stood condemned, cursed, and worthy of death. And Paul points out that keeping the law was never going to make anyone right with God. It was an impossible standard for sinful men to keep.
Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.”But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” – Galatians 3:11-12 ESV
The law was the righteous standard provided by God, but no one was able to live up to that standard. And then, Paul provides the missing link.
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”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. – Galatians 3:10-14 ESV
Jesus became the curse. He took upon Himself the sins of mankind and personally bore the full brunt of God’s righteous wrath against rebellious humanity. And His death was not by stoning. By the time Jesus began His earthly ministry, the Romans had outlawed the Jewish practice of stoning because they wanted to control all forms of capital punishment. So, when Jesus was tried before the Sanhedrin, they needed to accuse Jesus of a crime that would warrant the Romans putting Him to death. They chose to accuse Jesus of claiming to be the rightful king of the Jews and of mounting an insurrection against the Romans. This resulted in Jesus being “hanged on a tree” or crucified.
The prophet, Isaiah prophesied about Jesus and the death He would suffer on behalf of sinful mankind.
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed. – Isaiah 53:4-5 ESV
With His death, Jesus provided a means by which sinful men and women could escape the curse of the law. By placing their faith in His personal sacrifice on their behalf, they could be freed from living under the looming curse of death associated with failure to keep God’s law.
In his first letter to the believers in Corinth, Paul provided another encouraging connection between Adam and Jesus.
So you see, just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life. – 1 Corinthians 15:21-22 NLT
No one need die for their own sins anymore. God sent His Son to pay the penalty for every single violation of His law. But the gift of salvation made possible by Christ’s death and resurrection is only available to those who will accept it as what it is: A free gift made possible by God’s grace and received by faith alone in Christ alone.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.