The Impaled Criminal
In the ancient world, vicious criminals or enemies were impaled for all to see, either as a warning to future criminals and enemies, or as a celebration of victory.
Israel's first king, Sha'ul's body was hung up on the walls of Bet Shan for a lengthy period of time, until it was rescued by the inhabitants of Yavesh Gilad and given a dignified burial (See I Shmuel 31:9-13).
Yoseph told Pharaoh's baker that he would be left impaled for such an extended period of time that: "the birds will eat your flesh off you" (Bereshit 40:19).
Indeed it was common for the impaled to be left unburied as it was considered the ultimate punishment, guaranteeing no after-life.
Nevertheless, in this week's parsha, the Torah limits the length of time a person may be left hanging unburied:
You shall not leave his body on the pole overnight. Rather, you shall bury him on that day, for he that is hanged is a reproach of Elohim, and you shall not defile your land, which the Lord, your God, is giving you as an inheritance" (Devarim 21:23).
Indeed, Yehoshua was careful to obey this law:
"The king of Ai he hanged on a tree until the eventide; and at the going down of the sun Joshua commanded, and they took his carcass down from the tree" (Yehoshua 8:29)
The Torah brings two reasons as to why the body must be buried by nightfall:
"for he that is hanged is a reproach of Elohim"
"you shall not defile your land"
What do these two ideas mean?
We have deliberately left the word: "Elohim" untranslated, for there are two ways we can understand it.
According to Rashi, it means: "God". As humans are created in the image of God, leaving a carcass hanging is an insult to God. Therefore, even though the person was a criminal or an enemy, he must still be treated with respect and be buried by nightfall.
However, according to the Sephorno, Elohim here refers to the person's godly image, or his spirit. Leaving an unburied corpse is an insult to his spirit, which remains alive even aftehis body has expired. This spirit can also be dangerous to the community if the body is not buried, deferring the spirit from moving on.
The body defiling the land can also be understood in two ways:
One could easily argue that leaving an unburied corpse is not just insult to the person and God, it also signifies a moral defiling of the land or the people.
Nevertheless, one could also understand these words literally. When a corpse is left unburied, animals and birds, as was evident with Pharaoh's baker, eat the corpse. The body also decomposes. This means that the body will end up being spread across the land. Since a dead body is the most defiling tuma there is, the land will literally become defiled, as dead body parts, even in the form of small pieces of bone and dust, will be spread over it.
Treating a dead body with respect, is not just a moral imperative and an example of Israel being a light unto the nations, it is also a halachik imperative, ensuring that Israel remains a holy people.