Q: #303. Why were dead bodies left unburied or hung on display in the Bible?
By: Steve Shirley
A: Leaving a dead body unburied, or on public display was a sign of disrespect, and a way to dishonor and defile the person who was dead.
In pagan cultures, when a person was killed, sometimes their body was "hung on a tree" or a wall as a sign of disrespect, and also to serve as a warning to others to obey the ruler or government. An example of this is the chief baker of Pharaoh who was killed and then "hung on a tree" where the birds ate away at his flesh (Gen 40:18-21). The bodies of King Saul, and three of his sons, were hung on a wall (1 Sam 31:9-10) after the Philistines defeated Israel in war. Seven other sons of Saul were later killed and hung by the Gibeonites to pay for their fathers sins against them (2 Sam 21:6-14). In the New Testament, the Roman government would hang people alive and naked on a cross. This was a sign of disrespect, and left the person open to public disgrace and ridicule. When they later died, their bodies would often be left on the cross to serve as a warning to obey. They would decay and be eaten by birds.
God allowed dead bodies to "hang on a tree" for the day (He even ordered it at least once: Num 25:4), however, He required that a body be buried before sunset (Deut 21:22-23). Joshua applied this law with the king of Ai (Josh 8:29) and later with 5 other kings (Josh 10:22-27).
Sometimes, a body was simply left out in the open, unburied. This generally happened as a result of failing to obey God. God prophesied this would happen several of times (Deut 28:25-26)(Jer 7:33)(Jer 16:4,6)(Jer 19:7)(Jer 34:20), and it later did (i.e. see: Ps 79:1-3). This also happened to several people such as King Jehoiakim (Jer 22:18-19)(Jer 36:30), and Jezebel, whose body ended up being eaten by dogs (except for her skull, feet, and the palms of her hands) (2 Kin 9:36-37).
During the Tribulation, the dead bodies of the "Two Witnesses" will be left on the street and people will throw a party (Rev 11:8-10)! (God will raise them back to life after 3 and a half days: Rev 11:11!)
Another way of showing disrespect was to burn a person's body. For example, Joshua and the Israelites stoned Achan and his family, and then burned their bodies for disobedience to God (Josh 7:25). Josiah dug up the bones of the idolatrous priests and burned them on their altar (2 Kin 23:16), but left the bones of the prophet of God buried as a sign of respect (2 Kin 23:17-18). He then had all of the living priests killed on the altars and burned human bones upon them (2 Kin 23:20). Levitical law called for burning if a man married a woman and her mother (all 3 were to be burned) (Lev 20:14), or if the daughter of a priest committed harlotry (Lev 21:9). Fire is also a sign of God's judgment in the past (Gen 19:24)(Ex 9:23-24)(Lev 10:2)(Num 11:1)(Num 16:35), present [Hell] (Mt 13:42,50)(Mk 9:43-48)(Jude 1:7), and future [Lake Of Fire] (Mt 25:41)(Rev 19:20)(Rev 20:10,14-15).
Because ALL men fail to keep God's law, we are "cursed" (Gal 3:10)(Deut 27:26). (Gal 3:13) says, "Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us." Verse 13 continues, saying, "cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree" (Also see: Deut 21:23). Jesus suffered the disgrace and humiliation of being "hung on a tree" (symbolizing the cross) to give His life for the payment of our sins. He became a "curse" for us. Please accept His payment here.