“Hanged Upon a Tree”

Brant Gardner

In Deuteronomy, hanging communicates dishonor, not the mode of death. Josephus confirms in his version of Moses’s law: “He that blasphemeth God, let him be stoned; and let him hang upon a tree all that day, and then let him be buried in an ignominious and obscure manner.” The Dead Sea Scrolls, which postdate Lehi’s departure from Jerusalem, describe hanging as an accepted method of execution for treason. Possibly this form of execution existed as early as Lehi’s day.

There is little information on hangings among Mesoamericans, but a late Classic Period (A.D. 250–600) mural from Mulchic, Yucatan, shows a man hanging by the neck from a tree. Liquid coming from the mouth suggests that the man was alive when hanged. The mural was painted long after the Book of Mormon’s close, but it does suggest that hanging was a known form of execution in the New World.

It is significant that the Deuteronomic law specifies that the hanged person “is accursed of God.” Cutting down the tree suggests that the New World retained this aspect of being “cursed.” The tree symbolically shared the ignominy of the hanged person.

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 5