The Bible references being hung on a tree as a cursed state several times. This concept originates in Deuteronomy 21:22-23, which states “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.”
So according to these verses, anyone who is hung on a tree after being put to death for a crime is considered cursed by God. This was an extra mark of disgrace and humiliation for criminals who had committed particularly egregious offenses worthy of capital punishment. Their bodies were not even allowed to remain hanging overnight, but had to be buried promptly to avoid defiling the land.
This concept is reiterated in Galatians 3:13, which states “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.” Here Paul references Deuteronomy 21 to explain that Christ took the curse upon Himself by being hung on the cross, or tree, to set us free from the curses that come from failing to keep the Old Testament law perfectly.
There are several reasons why being hung on a tree was considered a cursed state:
- It was a sign of God’s curse and judgment on egregious sins worthy of capital punishment.
- It brought ritual uncleanness on the land if the body was left hanging overnight.
- It displayed the criminal for all to see and associated them with the shame of crucifixion, which was reserved for the worst offenders.
- It prevented a proper burial and implied the person was rejected by God.
Jesus willingly took this curse upon Himself on our behalf by being crucified on a cross made from a tree. He endured the shame, rejection, and divine punishment that should have been ours due to sin, so that we could be freed from the curses of the law and restored to a right relationship with God. His resurrection overcame the curse of death and demonstrated His victory over sin’s consequences. So while being hung on a tree was intended as a sign of humiliation, disgrace and divine curse, Jesus transformed it into a symbol of God’s love and mercy instead.
Some key verses about the curse of hanging on a tree include:
- Deuteronomy 21:22-23 – Explains that anyone hung on a tree after execution is cursed by God.
- Joshua 10:26-27 – Joshua hangs the five Amorite kings on trees until sunset to show God’s curse on them.
- 2 Samuel 21:6-9 – David allows the Gibeonites to hang Saul’s sons on trees as retribution.
- Galatians 3:13 – Says Christ became a curse for us by being hung on the cross/tree.
- 1 Peter 2:24 – States that Christ bore our sins by being hung on the tree, associating it with the curse.
The Origin and Meaning of the Curse
As mentioned, the concept of the curse upon those hung on a tree originated in Deuteronomy 21:22-23. At the time, the law required that anyone who committed a sin worthy of capital punishment was to be put to death (Deuteronomy 21:22). But they would then hang the executed criminal’s body on a tree as a further sign of humiliation, rejection and divine curse (Deuteronomy 21:23).
Hanging on the tree emphasized the connection between sin and death. It was reserved for the worst offenders as it prevented burial and allowed scavenger birds to consume the corpse (Deuteronomy 28:26). Leaving the body hanging overnight also brought ritual pollution on the land, so the deceased had to be buried promptly (Deuteronomy 21:23). The criminal’s name and memory were associated with shame and contempt (Proverbs 10:7).
So in summary, the curse served several purposes:
- A sign of God’s judgment and rejection due to severe sin.
- Prevented honor in burial and allowed the body to be consumed by scavengers.
- Brought contamination on the land if left overnight.
- Publicly displayed the executed criminal for added shame and humiliation.
- Served as a warning against unrepentant sin.
Examples of the Curse in the Old Testament
There are several examples of this practice of hanging executed criminals on trees to display God’s curse in the Old Testament:
Joshua Hanging the Five Amorite Kings
After Joshua and the Israelites defeated the five Amorite kings, he summoned them and had them hung on five trees until sunset. This was to show that they were under God’s curse (Joshua 10:26-27). Their bodies were taken down at sunset in accordance with Deuteronomy 21.
Hanging Saul’s Sons by the Gibeonites
In 2 Samuel 21, we read how David allowed the Gibeonites to hang some of Saul’s sons on trees as retribution for Saul’s unrighteous attack on their people. Verses 6 and 9 specifically mention this was done to remove the bloodguilt from Israel by placing the curse on Saul’s house instead.
Though not directly stated, the description of Haman’s death in Esther 7 implies he was hanged on a tree in disgrace for his attempted genocide of the Jews. The fact that his dead body was displayed heightens the probability that he was hanged on a tree as a sign of God’s curse.
While not explicitly mentioned as being hanged on trees, we can safely assume this was likely the standard practice for other criminals who received capital punishment in Old Testament times. Their public exposure on trees displayed God’s justice and curse on evil actions.
Jesus Becoming a Curse for Us
A key New Testament teaching is that Christ redeemed us from sin’s curse by becoming a curse for us when He was crucified on the cross (Galatians 3:13). Though crucifixion was a Roman practice, the fact that crosses were made from trees means Jesus took upon Himself the same curse pronounced upon those hanged on trees in the law.
By undergoing the divine punishment for sin in our place, Jesus freed us from having to bear that curse. Instead of rejecting and cursing sinners, God placed the curse due for our sins upon His own Son. He transformed an object of shame into a symbol of amazing grace and love.
Some ways Jesus paralleled the curse of being hung on a tree:
- He was executed for crimes He didn’t commit after being rejected by the Jews.
- He was hung publicly for all to see and mocked as one cursed by God.
- His body was pierced instead of being properly buried.
- He bore God’s wrath for sin on our behalf.
- He removed the curse of sin and death through His resurrection.
So while Old Testament criminals experienced abandonment and rejection by God when hung on trees, Jesus experienced abandonment from the Father so that we could be accepted as children of God (Matthew 27:46). By becoming the curse for us, He opened the way for people of all nations to receive Abraham’s blessing (Galatians 3:14).
The Tree as a Symbol
Because Christ’s death on the cross (tree) so profoundly reversed the curse upon those hanged on trees, the tree becomes an important biblical symbol:
- Source of curse – The tree as the means of hanging someone under God’s curse in the law.
- Source of blessing – The cross (tree) providing salvation from the curses of sin and death.
- Judgment and mercy – What brought God’s judgment as a hanging tree became the expression of His mercy in Christ.
- Shame and honor – The scandal of the cross brought honor to those who believe in what Jesus did there.
Trees are mentioned over 100 times in Scripture. But the tree as an instrument of death transformed into life eternal forms a central picture of God’s redemptive plan. The curse associated with hanging on a tree changed into a blessing for all through Jesus Christ.
Trees as Symbols Beyond the Cross
Beyond the cross, trees are associated with life, wisdom, blessing and even humanity’s downfall in the Bible:
- Tree of life – Stood in the Garden of Eden representing immortality for humanity (Genesis 2:9).
- Tree of knowledge of good and evil – When Adam and Eve ate its forbidden fruit, sin entered the world (Genesis 3:6).
- Trees by rivers – Symbolize the righteous who delight in God’s law (Psalm 1:3).
- Trees clapping hands – Picture all creation praising God (Isaiah 55:12).
- Cedar trees – Associated with majesty and kingship throughout Scripture.
- Vine and branches – Jesus compared Himself to the vine and believers to fruitful branches in John 15.
These examples demonstrate that beyond the cross, trees and wood represent key theological concepts in the Bible. Their repeated symbolic use ultimately points to spiritual truths regarding life, redemption, wisdom and God’s glory.
Implications and Conclusions
In summary, the concept of a curse upon those hanged on a tree originated in Deuteronomy 21:22-23 as a mark of God’s judgment and humiliation upon egregious sinners under the law. Jesus transformed the meaning of this practice by becoming the curse for us when He died on the cross, which was made from a tree.
Some key implications from these biblical truths include:
- We should feel the weight of sin’s curse and consequence apart from Christ.
- We can have deep gratitude for Christ absorbing God’s wrath for us.
- The tree embodies paradoxes like judgment/mercy and shame/honor.
- Jesus conquers the curses of sin, rejection and death for those who believe.
- Believers have assurance that they are now blessed children of God.
In the Old Testament, the tree represented being under God’s curse for unrepentant sin. But Jesus transformed the curse hanging upon a tree into a means of blessing, reconciliation, and life through His sacrificial death. As we reflect on the cross this Easter season, we can rejoice that what once symbolized rejection now means acceptance through faith in Christ.