In Paul’s letter to the Christians of Galatia, he addresses an issue where some people were telling the Galatians that they had to obey Jewish traditions (such as the sign of circumcision) in order to obey the gospel of Jesus. This issue seemed to cause Paul to be furious when writing as this letter did not follow the same suit as his other letters: Paul gave no thanksgiving or praise to the Galatians. He staunchly defends his authority to teach them, and then he profoundly rebukes them for entertaining the “Judaizers.” He, then, condemns the Law, and praises the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul proclaims that everyone who is under the Law is under a curse and that Christ saved everyone from the curse by becoming the curse himself. This blog will be aimed at understanding what Paul meant by this statement.
First off, we must examine what Paul actually said. In Galatians 3:13, Paul says “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.’” He is quoting the Law, specifically Deuteronomy 21:22-23, which says:
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.
Both quotations mention that a man that is hanged on a tree is cursed; however, let us take a closer look at each quotation to see what is meant within context:
In order to establish the true meaning of Paul’s usage of this text, we must note the dissimilarities as well as the similarities. It is interesting that it says “[If a man] is put to death, and you hang him on a tree . . .” rather than it just saying “[If] you hang him on a tree . . .” The Hebrew word וְהוּמָ֑ת (and he is put to death) means “to be put to death” (obviously, right?). The Hebrew word וְתָלִ֥יתָ (you hang him on a tree) means “to be hanged” (also, duh). This might seem elementary up to this point, but what is interesting is the Hebrew word used here to convey “hanging” doesn’t necessarily mean the person was put to death by the hanging. The wording of this verse is vague, but it seems to imply that the hanged person was already dead. This practice of hanging the dead was not uncommon.
The Pharaoh’s chief baker was hanged after being killed by sword (Genesis 40:19), and Joshua killed and then hanged five kings (Joshua 10:26) where the same phrasing of Deuteronomy 21:22 is employed. Not only this, but as given in L. Cilliers’ paper on the history and pathology of crucifixion, it is noted that crucifixion “probably originat[ed] with the Assyrians and Babylonians, it was used systematically by the Persians in the 6th century BC.” This information eliminates the possibility of reference to crucifixion. This is important because it means that this text is not prophetic of Christ’s death. Albert Barnes also concluded that crucifixion was not the mode of death being referred to in Deuteronomy: “Suspension, whether from cross, stake, or gallows, was not used as a mode of taking life, but was sometimes added after death as an enhancement of punishment.” By conglomerating this information and noting that death happened before the hanging in this context, it can be concluded that the “curse” on the hanged man in Deuteronomy is not death itself.
Now, let us revisit what Paul was saying in light of this new information. In full, here’s what Paul says:
For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” 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”—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.
Now, what we must ask is “what did Paul mean when he said that Christ became a curse for us?” Well, we know that he didn’t mean that Christ died for us, at least that’s not what Paul is trying to convey with the word “curse” since he’s referring to Deuteronomy 21:22-23. Therefore, applying the context of Deuteronomy 21:22-23, since the curse is not death per se, the curse must be what is left:
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.
Saying that a man has committed a crime punishable by death is to say that God has condemned him to death. This curse, then, is condemnation from God. This condemnation can be viewed in many different ways which lead to multiple theories of how the atonement that Christ made for the sins of humanity actually works. I will give an example of how one view of the “curse” can lead to an atonement theory.
Penal Substitutionary Atonement:
The view on the “curse” that brings about the penal substitutionary atonement theory is the view that when Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” God literally forsook him because of the sin imputed to him.
R.C. Sproul claims that Jesus was actually cast out from the presence of God, being cast into hell until he rose on the third day. While he has the view of the curse that supports his conclusion of penal substitution, Jesus being cast into hell is in stark contrast to Jesus’ response to the criminal on the cross: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
In opposition to this theory, Jerome Hall, in Biblical Atonement and Modern Criminal Law, writes, in view of the penal substitutionary atonement theory, that “It is contrary to the spirit of the New Testament to list a set of ‘vocables’ as substitutes for penalty, compensation, transferable merits, sins carried over, sins accepted for the sinner and so on.” He goes on, in the words of Dillistone, to say that any idea where Jesus appeased or propitiated the Father’s wrath in lieu of humanity is blasphemy.
A clearer view of the penal substitutionary atonement theory, I believe, is one that has its roots in the atonement practices found in Leviticus 16:
Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat. Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses . . . And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness . . . For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the LORD from all your sins.
In this view of the atonement, Christ is the goat that is killed as well as the goat that is sent off out of the camp to “bear all their iniquities.” The sacrificed goat is the representation of what happened to Christ’s body while the wandering goat that is to be sent to Azazel—which is typically thought of as either meaning “scapegoat” or “removal”—foreshadows Christ’s removal from God’s presence once he had borne all the sins of the people. This is where the theory of imputational sinfulness comes from.