Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The Curse of the Tree in Deuteronomy

"You must not leave [the criminal’s] body on the tree overnight. Be sure to bury him that same day, because anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse" (Deuteronomy 21:23).

Moses, under divine inspiration, told the people that if a man were put to death for a capital crime and his body hung on a tree, they were not to leave the body on the tree overnight. They were to bury the corpse the day of the execution so that the land would not be defiled by it (Deuteronomy 21:22–23).

When we read this law we think of crucifixions or hangings. In Israel, however, people were not put to death this way; rather, they were stoned to death. In some cases, the dead body was burned with fire, probably fire from God’s altar, but no one was burned alive (Leviticus 20:14; 21:9). In worse cases, the body of the stoned criminal was hung up for public display, but it was taken down and buried the same day.

If the crime was extremely heinous, the body was to be left out for the birds and wild animals to devour. Moses told Israel that if they rejected God, God would bring such a curse on them: “Your carcasses will be food for all the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and there will be no one to frighten them away” (Deuteronomy 28:26). Abraham had frightened away the birds who came to devour his sacrifice (Genesis 15:11), but if Israel rejected the Lord, they would lose the protection that came from being sons of Abraham.

During David’s reign there came a famine from God and the Lord said that it was because Saul had slain many of the Gibeonites, who were consecrated to the Lord’s service. By attacking God, Saul and his house departed from Israel, and to atone for Saul’s crime, David was required to put seven of Saul’s sons to death. Afterward, they were hung on a tree for the birds to eat, but Rizpah guarded them and drove the birds away until David took pity on her and buried the corpses. Only after the corpses were buried did God lift the plague (2 Samuel 21:1–14).

Jesus was actually slain on a tree where he hung for a time after His death, taking the curse for us. God saw to it that the law of Deuteronomy 21:23 was fulfilled, in that Jesus did not remain on the cross overnight but was buried the day He died.

Even in death, the human body is to be given respect. The Bible does not forbid cremation, and in times of plague it may be necessary, but the normal method of showing respect for the body is proper burial. Why is the body, even the body of a criminal, to be accorded such respect?