I know we’re on the wrong side of Easter (and especially Good Friday) to spend quality time with this sort of thing, but this passage from Deuteronomy 21 has always hit me hard, and I didn’t think to write about it until this afternoon (the first Monday after Easter):
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 [κρεμάσητε αὐτὸν ἐπὶ ξύλου], 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)
“Hang him on a tree.” That’s what Peter preaches he tells the story of Jesus to Cornelius — the story of Israel’s crucified Redeemer and King to a God-fearing commander of the Roman legion.
39 And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree [ὃν καὶ ἀνεῖλαν κρεμάσαντες ἐπὶ ξύλου], 40 but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. 43 To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name. (Acts 10:39-43 ESV)
A hanged man is cursed by God. Reviled. One nailed to a thing made of wood — this written long before Roman legions were running the affairs of Judea — is not blessed. He is to be taken down before sunset and buried, and the implication here is that to leave such a man nailed or strung up past that will defile the land itself.
Which is probably why Joshua does this with the five kings who fled after being defeated by Israel at the battle of Gibeon in Joshua 10, where the sun stood still while Israel fought:
24 And when they brought those kings out to Joshua, Joshua summoned all the men of Israel and said to the chiefs of the men of war who had gone with him, “Come near; put your feet on the necks of these kings.” Then they came near and put their feet on their necks. 25 And Joshua said to them, “Do not be afraid or dismayed; be strong and courageous. For thus the Lord will do to all your enemies against whom you fight.” 26 And afterward Joshua struck them and put them to death, and he hanged them on five trees [καὶ ἦσαν κρεμάμενοι ἐπὶ τῶν ξύλων ἕως ἑσπέρας]. And they hung on the trees until evening. 27 But at the time of the going down of the sun, Joshua commanded, and they took them down from the trees and threw them into the cave where they had hidden themselves, and they set large stones against the mouth of the cave, which remain to this very day. (Joshua 10:24-27 ESV)
I don’t think there’s any real parallel here. But there is an allusion. This hanging on a tree, this is what can be done to the condemned as an open symbol of the disgrace they are held in. To show the sin they’ve committed. These five Amorite kings (Adoni-zedek of Jerusalem, Hoham of Hebron, Piram of Jarmuth, Japhia of Lachish, and Debir of Eglon) made an alliance against Israel. They are defeated not by Israel’s might, but by an act of God (about which I will write on later this week), and the kings flee their defeated armies, hide inside a cave, and eventually trapped by Joshua. Who kills them. And inters their bodies in that same cave, rolling stones to block the entrance. The kings are already dead (Joshua sees to that) when Joshua hoists their bodies up, to show all how he — and God — have disgraced and humiliated them. (Note: the name Adoni-Zedek, אֲדֹנִי־צֶ֜דֶק, the king of Jerusalem, means “Lord of Righteousness,” for whatever it is worth.)
This hanging on a tree, this is what we do to our defeated, vanquished, and humiliated enemies. To cowards who fled and hid in the face of our vengeance and wrath. To sinners whose sins we have decided are so shameful that to let them linger past sundown would be to defile the entire land.
This is what we did to our Lord, the redeemer of the world. Thankfully, the cave when he was interred is now empty.
(At some point, this will be the core of a Good Friday sermon.)