It is significant in understanding the ways in which the scriptures function as a whole that our Lord Jesus Christ not only died, but specifically died by crucifixion. As an instrument of torture and death perfected by the Romans, the cross is an odd choice to be the primary symbol of a religion. Not only does it represent a terrible death for which the word “excruciating” was coined to describe the pain involved, it was also a means of public humiliation. Crucified individuals were crucified naked, exposed to the elements, and left to die over the course of what sometimes took days. The Romans often then left the bodies where they were to decompose, only throwing them into massive graves if and when they needed to reuse the structure for another crucifixion. It was both a means of execution and a means of projecting Roman power as a deterrent to rebellion. To peoples dominated by the Roman Empire, the image of a crucified victim represented degradation, forsakenness, and abandonment. To members of the Jewish communities under Roman domination it represented even more.
After giving instructions concerning death by stoning, Deuteronomy 21 gives special instructions regarding executions by means of hanging a victim upon a tree (v. 22-23). Deuteronomy does not forbid this mode of execution. It does however state strictly that the body must be removed from the tree and buried on the same day and not left there, even overnight. The reasoning for this in the text of Deuteronomy is that the one who is hung upon a tree is cursed by God and therefore leaving them hanging upon the tree will defile the land itself. Again, it is not the mode of execution which defiles the land and is thus forbidden. Rather, in this text it is the curse of God upon the victim of execution which defiles the land. This curse is drawn down upon the person by the method of execution and then must be alleviated through providing the victim with a proper burial.
The most prominent enactment of this curse by the Israelites takes place in Joshua 7 and 8 in the episode at Ai, which mirrors the flow of Deuteronomy 21. Israel has been commanded to devote the city of Ai to destruction and they suffer a blistering defeat. It is discovered that this is because a certain Achan had, in violation of Yahweh’s explicit command, stolen certain treasures for himself. The Israelites were in Canaan to execute the judgment of God against the Canaanites there, not to plunder and pillage in order to enrich themselves. Achan’s disobedience had led to Israel’s defeat, and so in a manner parallel to Deuteronomy 21:21, they purified themselves from the wickedness by stoning the involved parties to death. After this event, the city is destroyed and its people put to the sword. Following the victory, Joshua hangs the king of Ai upon a tree. But even in the case of this Canaanite king who has been punished by God with utter destruction, Joshua is careful to remove his body and bury it under a stone monument before nightfall (8:29).
The curse of God which is drawn down upon human persons through sin affects not only the person involved or even that person and their community. In the contemporary Western world, we think of sin in juridical terms and so look at God’s curse as punishment. We associate God’s curse brought about by wickedness with a person’s ‘eternal destiny’ after death. Israelite religion, as well as Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity, however, had rather what might be called a ‘biological’ view of sin. Sin is an infection. Things tainted by sin are treated in the same manner and according to the same purity regulations as those tainted by disease or mildew. Sin, and the curse that it brings, can be communicated from person to person and infects areas and objects and even the land. It must not only be forgiven as a transgression, but it requires purification. When Adam brings God’s curse upon himself in Genesis 3:17, not only is he cursed but the ground is cursed because of him. When the curse is more fully elaborated at the conclusion of the Torah in Deuteronomy 28:15-68, human wickedness is described as affecting the sky and the soil (v. 23-24). It is likewise directly associated with disease (v. 21-22). It is this association that produces the close link between healing and the forgiveness of sins throughout the Gospels. Much of the conquest narratives of Numbers, Joshua, and Samuel/Kingdoms must be understood as control of a deadly epidemic.
St. Paul describes Christ’s atoning work in terms of the curse in his epistle to the Galatians. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Torah by becoming a curse for us. Because, as it has been written, ‘Cursed is every one who hangs on a tree'” (3:13). The Apostle’s language is repeated in the liturgical prayer said, among other places, at the proskomedia service, “Thou hast redeemed us from the curse of the law by thy precious blood…” Relatedly, in Romans 8:3, St. Paul speaks of God having condemned sin in Christ’s flesh because he came in the likeness of sinful flesh. It has been common for centuries in the West to read these references on a surface level as referring to a form of substitution. These substitutionary ideas, however, miss the point of the way in which sacrifice in general, and atoning sacrifice in particular, functioned in Israelite and Second Temple Jewish religion.
What the Torah and the other Hebrew scriptures describe in narrative was enacted, made real, and participated in by the community through ritual. At the core of ritual is enacting future possibilities. Positive future possibilities are enacted to bring them to pass. Negative future possibilities are enacted in order to ward them off. Within most ancient cultures, the lines between religious ritual and ritual magic is more or less blurred. In Israelite ritual, however, ritual was aimed not at bringing about a change in deity or ‘making’ God perform certain actions on the community’s behalf. Nor was ritual viewed as grounded primarily even in the repairing of the relationship between God and the community, though this was a secondary effect. Ritual was aimed at the transformation of human life as persons and as community. Positive future possibilities were not guaranteed by correct ritual performance, nor were negative futures warded off as by a fetish. When Israel took that view in its ritual life, Yahweh was quick to call for an end to sacrificial ritual (cf. Amos 5:21). Rather, ritual was a participatory means by which the people themselves came to repudiate negative future possibilities and embrace positive ones and this expressed itself in moral action. We as modern people take for granted that there is a connection between religion and morality, but this close connection made Israelite and Jewish religion peculiar among the nations.
The curses of Deuteronomy, the curse of the Law, can be summarized under two heads. The first, and perhaps most obvious, is death. The second is exile and abandonment to slavery to hostile foreign powers. Both of these are seen in the curse placed upon Adam in Genesis 3, and written large as applied to Israel as a nation. These two fates ultimately befell Israel and Judah respectively. Within the ritual of the Day of Atonement (Lev 16), both of these possible fates are enacted using the two goats chosen by lot. One goat has the sins of the people laid upon it. This goat is not sacrificed. It cannot be. It is now infected with sin. As the people drive this goat, with spittings, strikings with reeds, and tauntings, out of the camp or city into the wilderness, they are condemning and rejecting their own sins in the flesh of the goat. They are rejecting the exile that will result from their sin by expressing hatred for that sin. The other goat suffers death, being slain and its blood used to decontaminate the physical sanctuary and through it, the camp or nation as a whole. The people are brought to transformative repentance through their participation in the ritual warding off of the curses of death and exile.
The New Testament writings express that Christ’s death on the cross fulfills ritual atonement in various ways. Matthew 27:24-61 shows this through narrative. St. Paul touches upon it in the arguments of his epistles with examples already given. Hebrews expresses this through direct analogy (Hebrews 13:12-16). All however see this ritual as having been fulfilled in Christ’s actual suffering of these two fates. Ritual is then not done away with, but transformed and brought to a new fullness in Christ. The New Testament narrative of Christ’s atoning work is enacted, made real, and participated in by members of the church as community through ritual. This participation produces repentance which brings about forgiveness, cleansing, and the healing of sin. For Israel and Judea, ritual represented a curse postponed and a deadly infection managed. Christ through his acceptance of the curse has removed us from it. He has removed the threat of death and ended the exile by restoring us to Paradise by coming, as God, to dwell in our midst. At the sign of the cross we come in repentance to repudiate and hate our sin and to be cleansed from it. This is made real for us as human persons in the ritual life of the church and expresses itself in a moral transformation of our lives as persons and in community.