Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Hanging of the King of Ai and Burying Dead Bodies (Joshua 8:29)

Joshua 8:29

King James Version (KJV)
29 And the king of Ai he hanged on a tree until eventide: and as soon as the sun was down, Joshua commanded that they should take his carcase down from the tree, and cast it at the entering of the gate of the city, and raise thereon a great heap of stones, that remaineth unto this day.

Adam Clarke writes that according to the Septuagint, the king of Ai was hanged "upon a double tree, which probably means a forked tree, or something in the form of a cross." (Adam Clarke Commentary) (Disclaimer: we do not endorse Clarke's Arminianism)

The text doesn't specify whether the king of Ai was hanged to death, or executed prior to being hanged. If Joshua is being consistent with his actions against the kings in Joshua 10:26, then execution preceded the hanging. Interestingly, Matthew Henry observes:
The hanging of them by the neck till the body was dead was not used at all among the Jews, as with us; but of such as were stoned to death, if it were for blasphemy, or some other very execrable crime, it was usual, by order of the judges, to hang up the dead bodies upon a post for some time, as a spectacle to the world, to express the ignominy of the crime, and to strike the greater terror upon others, that they might not only hear and fear, but see and fear. (Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible)
And E. C. Wines writes,
[B]urning, hanging, and burying beneath a pile of stones, which were of this nature, were, it is probable, according to the laws of Moses, inflicted after death, and are, therefore, to be looked upon as posthumous disgraces. (Commentaries on the Laws of the Ancient Hebrews, 263, 264)
Joshua ordered the body to be cut down at sundown in obedience to the Law:
22 And if a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be to be put to death, and thou hang him on a tree:23 His body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt in any wise bury him that day; (for he that is hanged is accursed of God;) that thy land be not defiled, which the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance. (Deuteronomy 21)
On why hung bodies were to be taken down, John Calvin writes:
The object of this precept was to banish inhumanity and barbarism from the chosen people, and also to impress upon them horror even of a just execution. And surely the body of a man suspended on a cross is a sad and hideous spectacle; for the rights of sepulture are ordained for man, both as a pledge and symbol of the resurrection, and also to spare the eyes of the living, lest they should be defiled by the sight of so horrible a thing. Moses does not here speak generally, but only of those malefactors who are unworthy of the honor of burial; yet the public good is regarded in the burial even of such as these, lest men should grow accustomed to cruelty, and thus become more ready to commit murder. Moreover, that they may take more careful heed in this matter, he declares that the land would be defiled, if the corpse should be left hanging on the cross, since such inhumanity pollutes and disgraces the land. (Harmony of the Law: Volume 3: Deuteronomy 21:22, 23)
By showing respect for the dead body of an executed criminal, the law opposes a culture of cruelty so frequent in non-Christian nations. If the bodies of executed criminals should be shown respect, how much more respect should be shown to the living? This approach contrasts with cultures that puts the body parts of executed criminals on public display for a long period of time.

However, it is not unlawful to display the bodies of such executed criminals for a short period of time, so long as, per Deuteronomy's prescription, the body is buried the same day as the execution. During this time this serves to warn and deter those who might also commit capital crimes.

This might be an example of an application of the equity of the law: When Charles I was beheaded, the executioner showed his head to the crowd, saying, "Behold the head of a traitor." Simply holding up the head of an executed villain for a moment is, like displaying a hanged body for less than a day, brief. On the other hand, a violation of the law's equity would be something like displaying someone's head on a spike on London Bridge until it rots.

Could the law's equity have implications for photographs of dead bodies? Is it lawful to post photographs in a newspaper of those killed in battle or in an earthquake? What about using images of aborted babies to convict others of the evil of abortionis it wrong, for instance, to have such an image put on a billboard for longer than a day? (One thing is for sure: the word of God has more power to convict one of evil than any other method man can come up with [Hebrews 4:12]—images included.) 

Back to the King of Ai. After Joshua cut down his body, he had it buried under a heap of stones at the city's entrance. In such a place, those coming and going are regularly exposed to the king's burial site, and are therefore reminded of the fate that awaits them if they engage in capital crimes. Thus, a burial place placed in a strategic location can serve as an ongoing deterrent without the desensitizing effects of an unburied body that is exposed publicly for a long duration.