Cursed Is Everyone Who Is Hung On A Pole? (Gal. 3:13; TNIV)

A person posted a comment to one of my writings with concern for the TNIV. The writer pointed out a peculiar rendering of Galatians 3:13-

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.”

I suppose that most people who have known the scriptures well have the same reaction as I do: “On a pole?” What did the TNIV do? The apostle Paul is quoting from Deuteronomy 21:23. The TNIV reads the same in Deuteronomy-

If anyone guilty of a capital offense is put to death and their body is exposed on a pole, you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse. You must not desecrate the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance. (Deuteronomy 21:22-23; TNIV)

So is the TNIV right or wrong? Should the word be “pole” or “tree?” Let’s start with the Greek.

The Greek word translated “tree” by most translations and “pole” by the TNIV is xulon. The Greek lexicons state that this word refers to wood or timber. Mounce’s Expository Dictionary says it means “tree, club, wood, stocks. It refers to living or dead wood or anything made of wood.” This Greek word is translated “cross” by the TNIV in 1 Peter 2:24.

Let’s go to the Hebrew and see if we learn any more. The Hebrew word translated “tree” by most translations and “pole” by the TNIV is ets. The Hebrew lexicons say that the word means “tree, wood, timber, sticks.” Basically, we are not given any different information than the Greek. In both cases it seems that the word describes wood and we must determine how the wood is being used.

So, I think we can see that “pole” is not overtly wrong. I would prefer “wooden pole” rather than just “pole” since a pole can primarily conjure in our minds a metal pole. So what do you think? Do you think the Israelites impaled people on wooden stakes (poles) as the form of punishment? Or do you think they were hung on trees? We know that the Gentile nations practiced execution by impaling the guilty on wooden stakes (see Esther). The only instance I can find of this practice is in Joshua 8:29.

And he hanged the king of Ai on a tree until evening.And at sunset Joshua commanded, and they took his body down from the tree and threw it at the entrance of the gate of the city andraised over it a great heap of stones, which stands there to this day. (ESV)

He impaled the body of the king of Ai on a pole and left it there until evening. At sunset, Joshua ordered them to take the body from the pole and throw it down at the entrance of the city gate. And they raised a large pile of rocks over it, which remains to this day. (TNIV)

At the very least, it is important to remember that a different translation of a commonly known text does not necessarily mean it is wrong. Look to the original language and see if the translation is reasonable. The TNIV does not appear to be in error with this translation. The question really centers around the Deuteronomic law and if it was speaking about wooden poles for impaling or trees for hanging.