You must bury it that day. This is a snippet of a verse that deals with a murderer who has been legally strung up to die. We are commanded in this snippet to bury the corpse that very day.
The impact of this verse on Jewish Law is broad and deep. We do not merely seek to bury in this one, outlier case. Instead, we learn that if we must bury a murderer the very same day, then surely that means we are supposed to bury every person in the day they die. So Torah Jews do not delay burial; funerals are held as quickly as possible, delayed only a little in order to allow family to get there. In Jerusalem there is not even that much delay; in our holiest city, an unburied body is considered entirely unacceptable for even moments longer than necessary.
But what is amazing about this verse is that it does not mean “being buried during the day.” The phrase for “that day,” bayom hahoo, is first found in a telling that does not even refer to daylight!
When the sun set and it was very dark, there appeared a smoking oven, and a flaming torch which passed between those pieces. In that day G-d made a covenant with Abram.
Which suggests that “in that day” really refers to a biblical day: “And it was evening and it was morning, the first day.” So if someone were to die after the sun sets and it becomes dark, then there would be 23 hours or so before a person would have to be buried!
There is another set of meanings to in that day. It is the logical response to a specific action.
And Pharaoh continued, “The people of the land are already so numerous, and you would have them cease from their labors!” That same day Pharaoh charged the taskmasters and overseers of the people…
The Torah seems to be telling us not only that the body should be buried in that same day (indeed, any dead body), but also the use of in that day means that it must be buried because it was hung on a tree. As discussed earlier, dead bodies on a tree create a short circuit
This connects to earlier installments on this topic, as to the short-circuit that is created when we hang a neveilah, a wasted life, on a living tree. In that day.
But this still does not directly answer the question! What is the problem with leaving a dead body for more than one biblical day (evening and morning)? The problem is explained in Genesis: G-d judges the world at the end of each day.
And God saw that this was good. And there was evening and there was morning, a third day.
Once something is judged or assessed, then it has formed its own, more substantive and concrete reality! So burial before that assessment takes place, allows it to be a fleeting, instead of an enduring, event. And so now we know why the verse tells us that the body must be buried in that day. The fleeting event must not be allowed to become an enduring one.
There are parallels to this concept in the Torah: if a woman utters a vow, for example, her husband or father can negate the vow if he does so promptly. If her father restrains her on the day he finds out, none of her vows or self-imposed obligations shall stand. But if he waits, the vow stands. Much like the dead man hanging on a tree!
[Note that this is part of a series explicating a single verse: Deuteronomy 21:23. All work was done in collaboration with @susanquinn, @kidcoder, @blessedblackmith and @eliyahumasinter. The full series can be found on creativejudaism.org]