I was reading the Bible when I came upon this story about a woman that I thought was really hard to understand. Of course, besides being a complicated story, it's also harder to understand, because no one ever talks about it! I'm going to do my best to present this story to you. The story is found in 2 Samuel 21:1-14.
21 During the reign of David, there was a famine for three successive years; so David sought the face of the Lord. The Lord said, “It is on account of Saul and his blood-stained house; it is because he put the Gibeonites to death.”2 The king summoned the Gibeonites and spoke to them. (Now the Gibeonites were not a part of Israel but were survivors of the Amorites; the Israelites had sworn to spare them, but Saul in his zeal for Israel and Judah had tried to annihilate them.)3 David asked the Gibeonites, “What shall I do for you? How shall I make atonement so that you will bless the Lord’s inheritance?”4 The Gibeonites answered him, “We have no right to demand silver or gold from Saul or his family, nor do we have the right to put anyone in Israel to death.”“What do you want me to do for you?” David asked.5 They answered the king, “As for the man who destroyed us and plotted against us so that we have been decimated and have no place anywhere in Israel, 6 let seven of his male descendants be given to us to be killed and their bodies exposed before the Lord at Gibeah of Saul—the Lord’s chosen one.”So the king said, “I will give them to you.”7 The king spared Mephibosheth son of Jonathan, the son of Saul, because of the oath before the Lord between David and Jonathan son of Saul. 8 But the king took Armoni and Mephibosheth, the two sons of Aiah’s daughter Rizpah, whom she had borne to Saul, together with the five sons of Saul’s daughter Merab,[a] whom she had borne to Adriel son of Barzillai the Meholathite. 9 He handed them over to the Gibeonites, who killed them and exposed their bodies on a hill before the Lord. All seven of them fell together; they were put to death during the first days of the harvest, just as the barley harvest was beginning.10 Rizpah daughter of Aiah took sackcloth and spread it out for herself on a rock. From the beginning of the harvest till the rain poured down from the heavens on the bodies, she did not let the birds touch them by day or the wild animals by night.11 When David was told what Aiah’s daughter Rizpah, Saul’s concubine, had done, 12 he went and took the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan from the citizens of Jabesh Gilead. (They had stolen their bodies from the public square at Beth Shan, where the Philistines had hung them after they struck Saul down on Gilboa.) 13 David brought the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan from there, and the bones of those who had been killed and exposed were gathered up.14 They buried the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan in the tomb of Saul’s father Kish, at Zela in Benjamin, and did everything the king commanded. After that, God answered prayer in behalf of the land.
First, a summary, to help me understand it as much as help you. When Saul was alive, he killed some of the Gibeonites, which he wasn't supposed to do. David is now in power and is trying to do things right. He asks the remaining Gibeonite leaders what he should to make it up to them and he is told that they should be allowed to kill seven of Saul's descendants and let them lie exposed. Two of Rizpah's sons and five of Merab's are chosen to be killed. Here's where the story gets interesting. Rizpah spreads sackcloth out on a rock and she does not let any of the wild animals scavenge on the dead men's bodies. When David heard about this, he retrieved the bones of Saul and Jonathan, which had been stolen, and the bones of the seven men. The bones of Saul and Jonathan were buried, the king got what he wanted, and God answered their prayer and ended their famine.
It seems to me that Rizpah is here to remind David of what is important. He needs to honor the past king (Saul) and especially his sacred relationship with Jonathan. Rizpah reminds him of this by honoring the bodies of Saul's children better than David is honoring Saul. David hears of her actions and probably feels a little shamed himself, I'm guessing. This passage is also important, because it gives some humanity to Saul's concubine. It is all too easy when reading these passages in the Old Testament to disregard women, especially since 2 Samuel is mostly about David rising to the throne. It is also easy to disregard a character like Rizpah, because she is a concubine. This is a story about a concubine, a typically disrespected woman, who shows men how to show respect. I love it when the Bible tells stories that give a voice to the typically voiceless-what I don't like is when our culture chooses to only tell the stories that are easy and that help to keep those that are in power, in power. When was the last time you heard a sermon on Rahab (a prostitute) or Rizpah? Not very often. We tend to mostly emphasize the stories about women giving birth, probably because that is how women have typically gotten their worth validated. That's sad. Rizpah is a concubine and she has worth. She is more than a sex toy, but is a smart, sensitive woman who has things to teach the men in charge.
She was also probably grieving terribly. As I said, it was through a woman's offspring that she was granted her worth and her two sons were just killed. She was grieving for her sons and for herself. Her act was not just about teaching David a lesson, but about preserving her own worth and dignity. It is the real human story about a mother's grief that needs to be told and yet seldom is. You know, it occurs that at least in the Protestant tradition, we hardly ever talk about the many stories in the Bible about mother's grief, but they are important stories to tell. Life isn't always roses. It is okay to take time to pause and reflect on the grief that the men in the Bible caused. Just like today, there is a lot of issues that deserve our grief and it is often true that we must take time to grieve before we can act.
(picture from the blog, Dwelling in the Word)
Preach it, Sister!
Hi K.C. Jones,
I am glad you isolated the underlying messages of this story. To me that message was women deserve honor and respect like men. Rizpah was brave enough to go against what others told her and made it her responsibility to protect these men's remains. Although her act was eventually respected, she herself was not openly acknowledged or honored in front of the community.
I used to read the Bible a lot, and overlooked Rizpah's act to protect her dignity. But I do recall Rahab's secret allegiance that saved her life.
Thank you for sharing this story it was very empowering to learn about the women of the Bible.