NT scholars agree that Paul’s remarks in Gal. 3:10-14 present challenges to interpreters because of his multiple OT citations in 3:10-13 and because of his reference to the blessing of Abraham in 3:14. Paul cites Deut. 27:26 (Gal. 3:10), Hab. 2:4 (Gal. 3:11), Lev. 18:5 (Gal. 3:12), Deut. 21:23 (Gal. 3:13), and he alludes to Genesis when he refers to the blessing of Abraham (Gal. 3:14). In this piece, I focus on Paul’s reading of Deut. 21:23 in Gal. 3:13. In the latter text, Paul cites Deut. 21:23 to provide scriptural support for his statement that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, because it is written: cursed is everyone who is hanged upon a tree” (Gal. 3:13).
In agreement with numerous NT scholars of Galatians, I argue a familiar twofold thesis: First, Paul cites Deut. 21:23 to provide scriptural support for his premise that the curse of the law fell upon Christ in both his perfect life and in his penal substitutionary death so that he would deliver Jews and Gentiles, who place faith in him, from the law’s curse. Second, Paul’s reading of Deut. 21:23 is Christological. His reading is both similar to and very different from the readings of his non-Christian Jewish contemporaries, because of God’s calling/conversion of Paul to faith in Jesus Christ and because God revealed his Son “in” Paul so that he would preach Jesus as the gospel (=good news) amongst the Gentiles (Gal. 1:15-16).
I support my thesis by a brief comparative analysis of Deut. 21:23 in its OT context, the readings of Deut. 21:23 in the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) 11QT 64.6-13, 4QpNah frgs. 3-4, col. 1, lines 7-8, and Paul’s citation of Deut. 21:23 in Gal. 3:13. By setting Paul’s Jewish-Christian reading of Deut. 21:23 in conversation with the readings of his non-Christian Jewish contemporaries, my comparative analysis seeks to demonstrate that Paul offers a Spirit-illuminated Christological reading of Deut. 21:23 that should be instructive for all Christian readers of the OT as we read the OT as Christian Scripture.
Deut. 21:23 in Its OT Context, in the DSS, and in Gal. 3:13
The one who hangs on a tree in Deut. 21:23 refers to a violator of Torah (=the Mosaic covenant) whose disobedience resulted in being hanged on a tree after having already been executed for his transgressions (Deut. 21:22-23). Specifically, Moses states the parents of a rebellious son unwilling to listen to their discipline should bring the transgressor and their accusations of him to the elders at the city-gates so that all of the men would stone this rebellious son to death (Deut. 21:18-21). This stoning both served as an act of atonement to “purge” evil and the evil one from the community and served to motivate others in the community to fear the Lord and obey Torah (Deut. 21:21).
After the elders stoned someone who committed a “capital offense” (NIV Deut. 21:22), the people possibly hang the dead body on the tree for everyone in the community to see what would happen when a member of the community violated the stipulations of Torah. In Deut. 21:23, Moses commands the community to remove the dead body from the tree so as not to defile the land the Lord would give his people as an inheritance, because “he who is hanged is cursed of God” (ESV Deut. 21:23). This hanging neither explicitly refers to the means by which the violator of Torah died nor explicitly to the act of crucifixion.
Many (not all) NT scholars agree that both DSS 11QT 64:6-13 and DSS 4QpNah frg. 3-4, col. 1, lines 7-8 use the language of Deut. 21:23 to refer to those who were put to death by means of crucifixion. However, to my knowledge, DSS 11QT 64:6-13 and Gal. 3:13 are the only texts in the Second Temple period that state the crucified person was cursed. To be clear, numerous Second Temple Jewish texts within Paul’s cultural context talk about death by means of crucifixion (e.g. Josephus, Antiquities 12.255-56; 18.64; Testament of Moses 6:9; 8:1; etc.). Yet, these other Jewish texts do not identify the crucified person as cursed (cf. Josephus, Antiquities 12.255-56).
DSS 11QT 64:6-13 states that disobedience (likely to Torah) in the community leads to a curse if a person disobeys, but Paul asserts that Torah curses those who are seeking justification by means of Torah instead of by trusting in Jesus Christ alone by faith to be justified (Gal. 3:10-12). For example, by citing Deut. 27:26 (cf. also Deut. 28:58-68), Paul says those who identify with “works of the law” are under the law’s curse (Gal. 3:10). These works of law refer to the Torah (i.e. to all the stipulations of the Mosaic covenant) (Lev. 18:5; Deut. 21-28; cf. Gal. 5:3). Paul’s reading here is interesting since Deut. 27:26 makes the point that disobedience to Torah leads to a curse (cf. Deut. 21-28), whereas here Paul states one’s association with Torah places one under a curse.
Paul reads Deut. 27:26 this way because of his calling by God and conversion to Christ (Gal. 1:15-16). God showed him through his encounter with Christ that (1) no one can obey the law to the degree that it demands (Gal. 3:11), that (2) the righteous one (that is, the justified one) by faith will experience eternal life and not by “works of the law” (Gal. 3:11; cf. Hab. 2:4), that (3) the law requires comprehensive obedience but no one can perfectly obey it (Gal 3:12; 5:3; Lev. 18:5; Deut. 21-28), that (4) the law is part of the present evil age (Gal. 1:4), only leads to a curse (Gal. 3:10), enslaves (Gal. 3:15-4:11), doesn’t give life (Gal. 3:21), and that (5) God “was well pleased to reveal his son in” Paul “so that he might announce him [Jesus] as good news amongst the Gentiles” (Gal. 1:15-16) (brackets mine).
In Paul’s view, those seeking justification in the law reject God’s divine action in Christ and remain under the curse of the law, enslaved to the present evil age, and reserved for God’s eschatological wrath (1:4; 3:11-14; 5:2-4, 16-21; 6:8-9). But only God’s action in Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection can deliver us from the law’s curse by faith (Gal. 1:1, 4; 3:13; 4:4-6), so that we would receive the blessing of Abraham, namely the Spirit, by faith (3:14; 4:4-6) and so that we would be redeemed from spiritual slavery and become heirs and sons by faith through God’s action in Christ (cf. Gal. 4:4-7). The law promises life for all who (perfectly) obey it (Lev. 18:5; cf. Gal. 5:3), but the law doesn’t give anyone the ability to obey it perfectly to achieve the life that it promises (cf. Gal. 3:21; Deut. 21-28). To the contrary, the law only enslaves (Gal. 3:15-4:31). However, Paul’s emphatic point in Gal. 3:13 is that “Christ” (not the law) redeemed Jews and Gentiles from the law’s curse to give us eternal life and the life-giving Spirit by faith (Gal. 3:10-14).
Paul argues God invaded this present evil age by sending Jesus to break into the present evil age to deliver Jews and Gentiles from the present evil age by means of his incarnation, perfect life, substitutionary death, and victorious resurrection (Gal. 1:1, 4; 3:13; 4:4-6). Although Jesus perfectly obeyed the law, proven by the facts that God raised him from the dead and gave him resurrection-life (Gal. 1:1) and that he justifies by faith all who place faith in Christ and gives them eternal life (Gal. 2:16-5:1; 5:16-6:10), Jesus was still cursed in life, because he was born under the curse of the law by virtue of becoming a man (Gal. 4:5-6), and he was cursed in death, the proof of which is in his crucifixion (Gal. 3:13; cf. Deut. 21:23).
Paul cites Deut. 21:23b as proof that Jesus became a curse in death for Jews and Gentiles to deliver us from the law’s curse. Paul’s citation basically follows the Greek translation of the OT (=LXX), which adds the words “tree” in its translation of the Hebrew text. Yet, Paul deletes the words “of God” in the Hebrew text and “by God” in LXX Deut. 21:23b possibly to connect explicitly the curse with the law instead of with God to dissuade the Galatians from turning away from his gospel, which emphasized faith in Christ, to the false gospel, which emphasized “works of the law” (cf. Gal. 1:8-9; 2:16; 3:13, 21).
Certainly, Paul believed that when the law judged and cursed sinners, God himself was judging sinners, because the law came from God and because he judged those who disobeyed it (cf. Exod. 20-40; Num. 25; Deut. 21-28). In Galatians, however, Paul argues the law only brings a curse, not a blessing, that God brought the blessing of life promised in the law only through the Christ, and that God gives this soteriological blessing to all who have faith in Jesus Christ apart from the “works of the law” (cf. Gal. 2:16-3:14). Paul likewise states that Jesus was cursed not because he was crucified, which the Jewish texts above support by not identifying the crucified person as cursed by crucifixion (Josephus Antiquities, 12.255-56; 18.64; Testament of Moses 6:9; 8:1). Instead, according to Paul, Jesus’ crucifixion proves he bore the law’s curse for us both in his perfect life, because he was born under the curse of the law (Gal. 4:4-5), and by means of his shameful death “for our sins” (Gal. 1:4; 3:13), because he was crucified (Gal. 3:13), to give us the life promised in the law but the life not given by the law (cf. Gal. 3:10-14 with 3:21).
Thus, Paul’s Spirit-illuminated Christological reading of Deut. 21:23 is scriptural proof to the Galatians (Gentile Christians), who likewise have the Spirit dwelling in them by faith because of Jesus’ death and resurrection (Gal. 1:1, 4; 3:13-14; 4:5-6), that Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ alone, is God’s provision for the eternal life promised in the law. Jesus Christ became a cursed Jewish man in his perfect life and in his shameful death to deliver all (Jews and Gentiles) who place faith in him from the law’s curse and from God’s wrath (cf. Gal. 1:8-9; 3:13; 5:2-4; 6:7-8). Therefore, those who profess faith in Christ are absolutely foolish if they turn away from the gospel of Jesus Christ to trust in our own works of so-called self-righteousness when God has already provided eternal life only through Jesus Christ by faith (Gal. 2:16; 3:1-14). Paul warns a turn to “works of the law” as the basis upon which we are justified by faith instead of faith in Jesus Christ alone will keep us enslaved to the present evil age and the law’s curse (Gal. 1:4, 3:10, 13), resulting in our eschatological judgment (cf. Gal. 1:8-9; 5:2-4; 6:8).
Paul’s Spirit-illuminated Christological reading of Deut. 21:23 supports that Jesus Christ, the perfect, cursed, and resurrected Christ, and Jesus Christ alone, delivers sinners from the present evil age, from the curse of the law, and from God’s eschatological wrath. May we as Christians likewise responsibly read the OT in a Spirit-illuminated Christological way.
 For a detailed explanation of Gal. 3:10-14 and for a critical interaction with scholarship, see my Christ Redeemed ‘Us’ from the Curse of the Law, and my Galatians commentary.