A Corpse Left Hanging Overnight Is a “Cursing of God”
Deuteronomy 21 requires the body of an executed criminal to be displayed after his execution, apparently as a kind of public demonstration of what happens to such criminals:
דברים כא:כב וְכִי יִהְיֶה בְאִישׁ חֵטְא מִשְׁפַּט מָוֶת וְהוּמָת וְתָלִיתָ אֹתוֹ עַל עֵץ.
Deut 21:22 If a man is guilty of a capital offense and is put to death, and you hang (or “impale”) him on a tree.
To be clear, the execution here is not by hanging—the person is not killed by suffocation or by breaking his neck with a rope. Instead, this is a description of what should be done with the corpse after the execution. The term “impaled” is a possible translation of the biblical text; impaling is what we find in the ancient Near Eastern practices, as reflected in Assyrian, Egyptian, and Persian texts and images.
Nevertheless, this is not how the rabbis understood it (m. Sanhedrin 6:9, Kaufmann ed.):
כיצד תולין אתו? משקעין את הקורה בארץ והעץ יוצא ממנה ומקיף שתי ידיו זו לזו ותולה אתו. רבי יוסה או[מר]: קורה מטה על הכותל ותולה בה כדרך שהטבחין תולין.
How do they hang him? They sink a beam into the ground, and a piece of wood sticks out from it, and they wrap one hand around the other and hang him. R. Yossi says: “A beam is laid upon a wall and he is hanged upon it the way butchers hang [their meat].”
Deuteronomy continues by noting that this hanging should last only a short time:
דברים כא:כג לֹא תָלִין נִבְלָתוֹ עַל הָעֵץ כִּי קָבוֹר תִּקְבְּרֶנּוּ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא כִּי קִלְלַת אֱלֹהִים תָּלוּי וְלֹא תְטַמֵּא אֶת אַדְמָתְךָ אֲשֶׁר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה.
Deut 21:23 you must not let his corpse remain on the tree overnight, but must bury him the same day. For a hanged body is the cursing of God: you shall not defile the land that YHWH your God is giving you to possess.
We can see this law in action in the story of what Joshua does to the five southern Canaanite kings whom he captures:
יהושע י:כו וַיַּכֵּם יְהוֹשֻׁעַ אַחֲרֵי כֵן וַיְמִיתֵם וַיִּתְלֵם עַל חֲמִשָּׁה עֵצִים וַיִּהְיוּ תְּלוּיִם עַל הָעֵצִים עַד הָעָרֶב. י:כז וַיְהִי לְעֵת בּוֹא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ צִוָּה יְהוֹשֻׁעַ וַיֹּרִידוּם מֵעַל הָעֵצִים וַיַּשְׁלִכֻם אֶל הַמְּעָרָה...
Josh 10:26 After that, Joshua had them put to death and [their bodies] hanged (or “impaled”) on five stakes, and they remained hanged (or “impaled”) on the stakes until evening. 10:27 At sunset Joshua ordered them taken down from the poles and thrown into the cave…
Deuteronomy takes for granted the requirement to bury a dead body, and adds that the displaying of a corpse is a problem. Why then is the person’s corpse hanged at all, and what is the meaning of קִלְלַת אֱלֹהִים תָּלוּי, which I have intentionally translated in a clumsy fashion: “a hanged body is the cursing of God”?
Jewish interpreters have suggested several possibilities; below we will look at eight.
1) LXX, Paul: A Curse from God on the Body
Like the English phrase “the cursing of God,” the Hebrew phrase קללת אלוהים is ambiguous; it can mean “a curse to God” or “a curse from God.” According to the latter understanding of the syntax, the verse is saying that leaving a person hanging would bring about God’s curse.
The Greek-Jewish translation in the Septuagint understands that the body itself is cursed: “for anyone who is hanged on a tree is cursed by God” (ὅτι κεκατηραμένος ὑπὸ θεοῦ πᾶς κρεμάμενος ἐπὶ ξύλου). Paul of Tarsus, whose main Bible was some form of the Septuagint, made use of this idea as part of a complicated explanation of the theological need for the crucifixion. In his Epistle to the Galatians, he argues that no one can rely on the “works of the law” (i.e., on mitzvot) to be saved, and only Jesus’ crucifixion effects salvation:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree” (Galatians 3:13).
In other words, by allowing himself to be crucified, Jesus absorbed God’s curse for all other people as a way of protecting humanity. Paul interprets “tree” as “cross” and “hanging” as “crucifixion.” Syntactically speaking, for Paul, as for the Septuagint, the curse in the verse comes from God.
Unsurprisingly, this translation remains standard in Christian circles. The Vulgate, the Latin translation produced by the church father Jerome (347–420 C.E.) that serves as the Bible of the Catholic Church, renders the verse, quia maledictus a Deo est qui pendet in ligno, “for accursed of God is one who hangs on a tree.” The classic English translation, the King James Version, similarly translates the phrase, “for he that is hanged is accursed of God,” while the more modern and academic New Revised Standard Version translates, “for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.”
2) Ibn Ezra, Nahmanides: A Curse from God on the Land
In medieval times, some Jewish commentators adopted this understanding of the syntax, though, of course, they didn’t connect it to Jesus and the crucifixion, or even to the body directly. Instead, they saw the hanging of a body as the cause of God cursing the land. For example, Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1167) writes:
ועל דרך הפשט: כי אלהים פועל, והקללה תבוא לכל מקום קרוב מהתלוי.
The peshat explanation is that God is the source of the curse, which will come upon any place close to the hanged man.
Nahmanides (Ramban, Rabbi Moses ben Nahman; 1194–1270), using the same understanding of the syntax, explicitly connects the clause כי קללת אלוהים תלוי to the next clause, ולא תטמא את אדמתך—you shall not defile the land:
ועל דרך הפשט יאמר: כי יהיה באיש חטא גדול שראוי להמיתו עליו, ולתלותו על עץ לגודל חטאו, אף על פי כן לא תלין נבלתו על העץ, כי הארור מכל האדם והמקולל בהם הוא התלוי, אין בכל המיתות מיתה מנוולת ובזויה כמוה. ואין ראוי שנטמא הארץ ותהיה קללת האלהים בארץ הקדושה.
But the peshat explanation is: Even if a person has committed so heinous a crime that he deserves capital punishment, and to be hanged on a tree due to the severity of his crime, nevertheless do not leave his body hanging on a tree, for someone who is hanged is more accursed and degraded than anyone else. No method of putting a person to death is as humiliating and shameful. It would be shameful to make our holy land impure by bringing God’s curse upon it.
Following Nahmanides’ interpretation, on the peshat level the concern about the curse from God is to protect the land of Israel, not to protect the wrongdoer’s dignity. The twentieth century scholar Gerhard von Rad explained the verse similarly: “The corpse of a hanged man is a threat to the cultic purity of the land, and thus might interfere with its yield.”
3) Mishnah: Who Is Hanged? A Person Who Cursed God
The more common understanding of the syntax in Jewish sources is that the curse is not from God but of God. Nevertheless, how a hanged body is connected to a curse of God is debated. The Mishnah, for instance, offers a counterintuitive reading (m. Sanhedrin 6:9):
כלומר מפני מה זה תלוי? מפני שקילל את השם ונמצא שם שמים מתחלל.
Meaning, why is this person’s body hanged? Because he cursed God, thereby causing the name of heaven to be desecrated.
In this interpretation, כִּי קִלְלַת אֱלֹהִים תָּלוּי should be translated “hanged is the person who cursed God.” This, however, cannot be the peshat meaning of the phrase since, in the verse, this explanation follows the instruction not to leave his body hanging.
Thus, the phrase must be providing a reason for restricting the duration of the hanging, not a reason for performing the hanging in the first place. Nevertheless, this homiletical reading is one of the bases for the assumption in rabbinic literature that only a specific subgroup of sinners is punished posthumously with the public hanging of their bodies.
4) Bekhor Shor—Don’t Remind People about the Cursing of God
Rabbi Joseph Bekhor Shor (late 12th century), following the Mishnah’s assumption that the hanged person is one who cursed God, understands this as the very reason why the body cannot be left hanging:
אני אומר לך לא תלין שום נתלה, שמא יאמרו הרואים: זה מגדף היה, והרים יד במלך, וזהו גנאי למלך. משל לאדם שבא וסטר את המלך על פניו ותלש שערו וזקנו. אף על פי שתלאו המלך, גנאי הוא למלך שיפרסמו ויאמרו שזה אדם סטר המלך
I [God] say, “Don’t leave any person hanging, lest onlookers say, ‘This man was a blasphemer; he rebelled against God’.” This [public reminder of the fact that the wrongdoer cursed God] leads to the disgrace of God. A parable: A man slapped the king in the face and pulled out the hair of his head and beard. Even though the king had him hanged, it would [further] disgrace the king if news of the crime were to be publicized and people [who saw the body displayed] were to say, “This man is the one who slapped the king.”
In other words, hanging a person for the crime of cursing God is counterproductive. It ultimately leads to further disgrace of God, by reminding people that it is possible to curse God.
5) R. Meir—Seeing the Body Hurts God
The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 6:10) records an interpretation attributed to Rabbi Meir (2nd century), implying that God is hurt when seeing the body hanging:
אמר ר' מאיר: בזמן שאדם מצטער שכינה מה הלשון אומרת: "קלעיני מראשי קלעיני מזרועי?"
R. Meir said: “When a person is suffering, what does God say: “My head is qala; my arm is qala.”
The word קלעיני—or קלאני or קלני, depending on the text—is clearly meant as a wordplay with “curse” ק.ל.ל, but the precise meaning is unclear. Perhaps the most attractive explanation is that of Rav Tzemah Gaon (ninth century) who interprets it as קלוני—my disgrace. The phrase would then mean something like, “My head is disgraced; my limbs are disgraced.”
In any case, the anthropomorphic language means that God suffers when a human being, even an evil human being, suffers or is disgraced. Thus, R. Meir’s point is that looking at the body is painful to God in some way, and thus it must be taken down quickly.
6) R. Meir Again: When a Person is Hanged, People Curse God
Another interpretation, also attributed to Rabbi Meir, found in both the Tosefta and in the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 46b), offers a theologically audacious explanation:
תניא א"ר מאיר משל למה הדבר דומה? לשני אחין תומין שהיו בעיר אחת, אחד מינהו למלך ואחד יצא לליסטיא. צוה המלך ותלאוהו. כל הרואה אותו אומר: המלך תלוי! צוה המלך והורידוהו.
It was taught: Rabbi Meir offered the following parable: To what may this case be compared? To [a story about] two twin brothers who lived in the same city. One became king; the other became a highwayman. The king commanded that he (the highwayman) be hanged. All onlookers who saw this said, “Look, the king has been hanged!” So the king commanded that he (his hanged brother) be taken down.
Rashi (R. Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105) explains that the two twin brothers are God and humans who were created in the image of God. Killing a human or mutilating a body that was created in God’s image is an affront to God.
Inspired by Rabbi Meir’s parable, Elie Wiesel (1928–2016) used it in a wrenching passage in his book, Night. After the Nazis hang a young Jewish boy and leave his dangling body on display, a voice inside the narrator says, “Where is He [= God]? Here He is – He is hanging here, on this gallows.”
Our verse then conveys the same message as Genesis 9:6:
בראשית ט:ו שֹׁפֵךְ דַּם הָאָדָם בָּאָדָם דָּמוֹ יִשָּׁפֵךְ כִּי בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים עָשָׂה אֶת הָאָדָם.
Gen 9:6 Whoever sheds the blood of man by man shall his blood be shed; for in His image did God make man.
This explanation offers an uplifting message about respect for human beings—even for the worst offenders—and the order of the clauses also works better: “Do not leave him hanged; bury him the same day, since leaving a person hanged publicly leads to the cursing of (or “is an affront to”) God.” This is the translation preferred by the NJPS Tanakh: “For an impaled body is an affront to God.”
7) Rashbam, Shadal: אלוהים in This Verse Does Not Mean God
Rashbam (Rabbi Samuel ben Meir; c. 1080–c. 1160) sees the syntax the same way as the previous interpretation. Nevertheless, based on the idea that ʾelohim in the Bible sometimes refers to judges rather than only to God, he understands קללת אלהים in this verse not as cursing God but as cursing judges, a prohibition he understands to appear in Exodus:
שמות כב:כז אֱלֹהִים לֹא תְקַלֵּל וְנָשִׂיא בְעַמְּךָ לֹא תָאֹר.
Exod 22:27 You shall not revile ʾelohim, nor put a curse upon a chieftain among your people.
Thus, Rashbam comments on our verse:
כשרואין בני אדם את התלוי רגילין לקלל את הדיינין או קרובים של הרוג או שאר בני אדם לפי שפעמים על עבירה מועטת הוא נהרג כמו מקושש, והקב"ה אמר [אלהים] לא תקלל, לפי שרגילין בני אדם לקללם
Commonly, when people—either the relatives of a hanged person or others—see a person hanging, they curse the judges, because sometimes a person is executed for a minor infraction, like the gatherer of wood [on the Sabbath (Num 15:32–36)]. God has commanded us not to curse the judges, because people commonly do curse them.
Shadal (Samuel David Luzzatto; 1800-1865) expands on Rashbam’s idea that the honor of the court is at issue:
הריגת החוטא עושה רושם ברואים, וכל העם ישמעו וייראו ולא יזידון עוד אבל ההתאכזרות על הגוף המת אינו מועיל כלום, אבל הוא מזיק, ואם יונח הנהרג תלוי על העץ למאכל לעוף השמים, זה לא יועיל להרחיק את האדם מן העברה, רק יביא ברואיו הרגשת חמלה ורחמים, ויבאו לקלל את השופטים והמשפט האלהי. כן דעת רשב״ם והוא הנכון
Putting a sinner to death makes an impression on those who see it. So it says (Deut 19:20), “Others will hear and be afraid, and such evil things will not again be done in your midst.” But cruel treatment of the body of the dead person serves no purpose. In fact, it is harmful. Leaving the body of the executed person hanging on a tree to be eaten by the birds does not cause others to refrain from sinning. It only leads to feelings of compassion and pity [for the person executed]. People then curse the judges and the divine justice system. This is Rashbam’s explanation and it is correct.
In this approach, God doesn’t enter the picture at all. The point is that cruel treatment of an executed prisoner’s body makes people suspicious of the entire justice system.
8) Vilna Gaon: A God-Level Curse
A final interpretation worth noting is that of Rabbi Elijah (the Gaon) of Vilna (1720–1797), who argues that the word ʾelohim is neither the one cursing nor the object of the curse, but rather functions as a superlative particle describing a severe kind of curse:
כי קללת אלהים תלוי. אלהים הוא להפליג הדבר כמו הררי אל שלהבת יה וכן כאן פירושו בזיון גדול מופלג מאד והוא בזיון התליה כי קללה הוא לשון בזיון בכל מקום.
The word אלוהים magnifies [the severity of] the matter. Similarly [the word אל in the phrase] הררי אל (Psalms 36:7) [i.e. high mountains,] or [the word יה in the phrase] שלהבת יה (Song 8:6) i.e. a blazing fire]. Similarly, here [קללת אלוהים means that] the disgrace of hanging is great and severe. קללה means “disgrace” wherever it appears.
Just like יה and אל are not always divine names, but can function as a marker of the superlative, here what looks like a divine name, אלוהים, has that same function, and קללת אלוהים means a severe curse or a severe disgrace.
A Humanistic Message
However the phrase is interpreted, the law is clear: Even the worst offenders deserve a quick and decent burial. Virtually all the interpretations see a humanistic message in the verse—that cruelty to another human being after death is against the values of the Torah.
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August 25, 2020
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Prof. Rabbi Marty Lockshin is Professor Emeritus at York University and lives in Jerusalem. He received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University and his rabbinic ordination in Israel while studying in Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav Kook. Among Lockshin’s publications is his four-volume translation and annotation of Rashbam’s commentary on the Torah.
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