Deuteronomy 21:22–23 (CSB)
22 “If anyone is found guilty of an offense deserving the death penalty and is executed, and you hang his body on a tree, 23 you are not to leave his corpse on the tree overnight but are to bury him that day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse. You must not defile the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.
This two verse passage is not only very brief, but is, I find, a bit confusing as to what it is conveying. I will simply make some observations and see what might be gleaned.
- Apparently hanging is not mandatory, but is an option to follow any death penalty. Presumably, hanging itself could be administered as the penalty. But the point is, hanging, even postmortem, was apparently a practice. It is not addressed here, but we could guess that it would be a practice for some sort of social conditioning, to discourage others from following the same path.
- What is special about a body remaining hanging through the night? There is nothing here to suggest whether this is a practical rule (ex. to avoid any variety of issues a hanging corpse might pose physically), or a spiritual one, (ex. to avoid some sort of callousness or even a twisted enjoyment of such actions). Either way, God had placed a hard time limit for a body to remain hung, and to have the body handled appropriately.
- Was someone hung “especially” cursed? Why does Moses point out that “anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse”? I think we might be reading too much into this statement as the omission of any other form of punishment meaning those who had committed those sins were not under God’s curse for some reason. I think this is more a reminder that the person who was hung was under God’s curse, not some sort of exclusionary state due to the form of punishment or postmortem display. Further, perhaps it is intended to reassure the Israelites that God’s “got this”, and we don’t, and shouldn’t, try to exact some sort of additional, over-and-above, form of punishment, and instead should move on with the burial after the prescribed limit.
- Finally, what exactly does the second part of Deut. 21:23 refer to? The natural reading, at least in this translation, suggests that to leave a hung corpse hanging past the prescribed time would be a defiling act. But could this final command not also act as a more encompassing one? Could it not also be applicable to all times and situations, and a general command for the Israelites to avoid putting themselves in the situations, to avoid sinning, especially in a way that would have them be the recipient of capital punishment, and hanging?
Lord, thank you for guidance, even when it seems cloudy and confusing. We might not always be able to determine all the details, but we always get the main point: love you! If we seek you, your ways, and your spirit, then we automatically avoid sin, avoid turning from you, and avoid the punishment that comes from those acts. Please forgive my chasing after everything that is not from and of you. I pray that we would focus on you alone. Amen.