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Communion Meditations (2015)

A Curious Law

Originally scheduled for September 27

Deuteronomy 21:22-23 NIV  (22)  If a man guilty of a capital offense is put to death and his body is hung on a tree,  (23)  you must not leave his 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. You must not desecrate the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance.


It is a curious passage. The ancient Hebrews did not execute a criminal by hanging him. Death was by stoning, or occasionally burning to death and sometimes by the sword. What is referred to here is the practice of hanging the body of one who has been executed in a public place. The ancient Hebrews used the word tree to mean any form of wood; it was usually done on a post with a horizontal beam. It was designed to increase the shame attached to the criminal. Most often, it was used for royalty or other important people. You will recall that the Philistines took the head of King Saul and put it in the Temple of their God. Likewise, David took the head of Goliath and brought it to Jerusalem. The key point is that it was used to increase the disgrace and shame of the execution.

The warning to the Israelites than concerns desecrating the land. In their minds, the land of Israel was God’s possession which he had parceled out to them. It was God’s land, and it was not to be desecrated. We might ask why the body had to be buried on the same day.

·         One reason is that this limits the scope of anger. If that body stays up for a few weeks it will be a constant reminder both to winners and losers and may provoke more bloodshed.

·         We must also recall that the body is God’s temple — the temple of the Holy Spirit. As such, even the body of a criminal should be treated with respect.

·         There is a third thought: moral defilement. If you continually hang the bodies of criminals, leaving them up for weeks, what does it do to the mind of your people — especially the young ones? Perhaps the perils of violent video games can be seen in this illustration.

Whatever the rationale, the Pharisees understood the law quite well. Everything had to go according to the law, or there would be no end of bickering about it. So, they buried him on the same day to conform to even the slightest details of the Mosaic law.

Indeed, the Mosaic law would recognize the sacrifice of Christ as an atonement sacrifice. The Pharisees made sure that the rules were followed to the letter. Apparently they got it right, for no one ever raised the issue in the church (or in the Jewish community) of whether or not this was an atonement sacrifice. It also gave the Pharisees a chance to examine the body carefully. They had every opportunity to make sure that he was — as the munchkins said of the Wicked Witch — he was really “most sincerely dead.”

When we take communion we are to remember the pain and suffering of his sacrifice for us. This is fitting, for with this pain and sacrifice he bought our salvation. But we should also remember that this was an extremely shameful death. It was a disgrace to be crucified. As you partake this morning, remember that he bore not only the pain but the shame of the cross — and he did it for you, because he loves you.

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