JOSHUA Hanged on a Tree (Part 2)

16 These five kings fled and hid themselves in the cave at Makkedah. 17 And it was told to Joshua, “The five kings have been found, hidden in the cave at Makkedah.” 18 And Joshua said, “Roll large stones against the mouth of the cave and set men by it to guard them…

22 Then Joshua said, “Open the mouth of the cave and bring those five kings out to me from the cave.” 23 And they did so, and brought those five kings out to him from the cave, the king of Jerusalem, the king of Hebron, the king of Jarmuth, the king of Lachish, and the king of Eglon. 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. 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 16–18, 22–26)

I have, previously, looked into this matter of Israel taking a defeated Canaanite king and “hanging him on a tree” (or “impaling him on a stick,” as the Hebrew reads literally). About the humiliation of a defeated, enemy king implicit in this act of torture, likely mutilation, and then public display of his abused, battered, and dead body for all — Israel and Canaanite — to see.

The humiliation here continues. Like cowards, the five kings flee their doomed and defeated people and hide in a cave. Where they are trapped. Joshua has the stone that trapped them rolled away, the kings dragged out, and adds to the humiliation — he tells their Israelite executioners to “put your feet on the necks of these kings.” They have been subjugated, and they will die, these five Amorite kings who led the alliance against Israel’s fraudulently acquired Gibeonite (Hivite) allies.

“Do not be afraid or dismayed,” Joshua tells the Israelites as he prepares to kill the enemy kings, reminding them that this job of conquering and subjugating Canaan will involve a lot of bloody, brutal, inhumane, and conscience-wracking work.

After which, they are “hanged on five trees” (or, “impaled on five stakes” JPS Tanakh), a demonstration to anyone who would look the lengths Israel is willing to go to demonstrate its seriousness about taking this land.

Taken down at sunset as Deuteronomy 21:22–23 commands (otherwise the presence of the dead body hanging/impaled will defile the land), the bodies are laid back in the cave. Which is then blocked up with stones. And they remain there “to this very day.”

We tend to think of crucifixion something exclusive to the Romans, a punishment doled out to rebels, to those who openly challenged the power of Rome, and a very public punishment at that. But clearly it’s something Israel did too. Here, this very public hanging on a tree/impaling on a stick is saved for the leaders of doomed and defeated enemies. Not rebels, but enemies to which no quarter shall be given and none expected.

For those who hang, it says: “We are willing to do this to any who oppose us. This is what we do to our enemies. Gaze upon our power and despair.”

For those who are hung, it says: “This is the fate of the doomed, of those who oppose power. Gaze upon me and despair.”

And these five defeated, enemy kings … are still entombed. Their bones still lie in that cave.

The allusions in this passage — in the treatment of the king of Ai and the five Amorite kings — to Christ are clear. They are enemies punished publicly, in the most humiliating way possible. This is what we do to enemy kings. We hang them. We impale them. We leave them up for all to see. So that the whole world will know what we’ve done.

What we’ve done.

That the killing was done by one whose name was Joshua — ַיְהוֹשֻׁע, one who saves — makes this even more interesting. Because in the gospels, the one who saves is the one who is killed. We pronounced him our enemy, and demanded his death. And we hung him on a tree.

In his humiliating public death at our hands, he says to us: “Gaze upon me, on what you have done, and see the glory of God, your salvation, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

And … there is a stone tomb outside Jerusalem that, unlike this cave at Makkedah, is empty.

It is empty.

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