Do you ever read biblical stories and think – ‘How can this be what God wants?’ Is every story in Scripture what God wanted to happen or are some of them there because they are so awful that they’re meant to be deterrents? Could some of them be examples of how people – even the heroes of our faith dishonoured God? Sometimes biblical heroes don’t smell so rosy and little people come out looking better than them. This one of those times.
Rizpah’s story is a sorry one. It’s like something you’d read in a terrible ‘true stories’ magazine and wonder if a story that tragic could possibly be real, or if someone with an overactive imagination has come up with the most pitiful story they could concoct. Even reading the text makes me wince. What this woman went through! Where is God in all this? How might a story this tragic inspire us?
From 2 Sam.3.1-10
‘There was a long war between the house of Saul and the house of David; David grew stronger and stronger, while the house of Saul became weaker and weaker... while there was war Abner was making himself strong in the house of Saul.
Now Saul had a concubine whose name was Rizpah daughter of Aiah, and Ishbaal (Saul’s son & heir) said to Abner, ‘Why have you gone in to my father’s concubine?’ The words of Ishbaal made Abner very angry; he said, “Am I a dog’s head for Judah? Today I keep showing loyalty to the house of your father Saul ...and have not given you into the hand of David; and yet you charge me with a crime concerning this woman... just what the Lord swore to David, that will I accomplish for him, to transfer the kingdom from the house of Saul, and set up the throne of David over Israel.”’
King Saul’s disobedience resulted in God stripping him of his royal inheritance and anointing David as king instead. By the time of this episode David was king of Judah, although the rest of Israel was still loyal to the house of (now dead) Saul. There had been a long-running feud between the two houses and it looked likely that David was about to become king of all Israel. Abner had gradually been gaining power in the Saul camp and Saul’s son (threatened by him) made a shocking accusation - that Abner was having sex with one of Saul’s concubines – Rizpah. This was basically an accusation that he was trying to usurp the throne by taking (one of) the former king’s women, and whether it was true or not it provoked Abner to defect to David, a key moment in David’s victory over the house of Saul.
Rizpah herself apparently says nothing – (though I bet she had a few choice things to say – she’s being accused of a sort of adultery after all!) But whatever she does think clearly isn’t considered significant enough to make it into the text. Let’s not kid ourselves, this woman is a pawn. Sure, a royal pawn, a queen in all but name, but queen to a dead, insane king and now accused of immorality with a top official- this is a potentially life threatening rumour!
Before we think she is the only victim in this story it’s worth a little look at another woman who appears. David agrees to Abner joining his team if he bring Saul’s daughter – David’s first wife Michal - with him. After David fled from Saul this princess was given to another man as his wife. David has a whole collection of wives by this time, but as a point of principle he wants Michal back. She is snatched from the sobbing arms of her second husband who is clearly distraught, but powerless to hold onto his wife. (2 Sam 3.13-16)
So, what do you make of this?
There are no legal options, no divorce lawyers, no way to say ‘no’. They are pawns, plain and simple. This is not a happy time to be a woman in history – even if you are rich, even if you are married, even if you are chaste and loyal that’s no protection! Powerful men get what they want - Full stop.
Rizpah vanishes from the text for 17 chapters and appears again in another sorry episode.
2 Sam 21.8-18
‘ King David took the two sons of Rizpah daughter of Aiah, whom she bore to Saul, Armoni and Mephiboseth, and five sons of Merab daughter of Saul...he gave them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they impaled them on the mountain before the Lord. The seven of them perished together. They were put to death in the first days of harvest, at the beginning of the barley harvest.
Then Rizpah the daughter of Aiah took sackcloth, and spread it on a rock for herself, and from the beginning of harvest until rain fell on them from the heavens; she did not allow the birds of the air to come on the bodies by day, or the wild animals by night. When David was told what Rizpah daughter of Aiah, the concubine of Saul, had done, David went and took the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan from the people of Jabesh Gilead, who had stolen them from the public square of Beth-shan, where the Philistines had hung them up...and they gathered the bones of those that had been impaled. They buried the bones...in the tomb of Saul’s father Kish...After that God heeded supplications for the Land.’
This time her two sons, along with five other of Saul’s descendants are being ‘impaled before God’ – YES, you read that right! As retribution for an attempted genocide waged by their father against a group called the Gibeonites. God has caused a drought because of this injustice and David gives the Gibeonites revenge by handing over seven of Saul’s sons. This is a horrible story.
Executions are by stoning. Torture is never condoned. Where does impaled fit? Add to that, that their bodies are left out in the open for the carrion and wild animals to eat! That absolutely contravenes the law. God is VERY clear that human bodies, even those of enemies must be treated with dignity, must be buried properly.
A criminal’s sons impaled before him. IMPALED!!!! That’s not in His Law . Even if he did think there needed to be executions for justice to take place, this is definitely NOT God’s way. This is Gibeonite revenge, and David allows it. Yes, David, God’s anointed, allows this travesty of justice. He had the power to bring about justice the right way and he abdicated responsibility. He lets people do whatever they feel like – regardless of God’s law.
Rizpah the political pawn; Rizpah the accused; Rizpah the powerless; Rizpah the widow whose sons have just been taken from her and brutally executed. Rizpah goes to the place of this atrocity and camps out to protect the bodies of her sons from the wildlife that would devour them. A royal concubine, she chases off birds with sticks. She beats away animals with stones – she utterly humiliates herself, puts herself at great physical risk – from animals, robbers, the Gibeonites, anyone really! Why? To protect the decomposing bodies of her boys. They might be men, but they are her boys and no one else is protecting them – no one else even has the honour to bury their sorry, broken bodies. No one else is outraged, no one else cares enough to help. It’s just her. From the day of their death until the rains came she guards them in the dark, in the heat of the day, just her, alone.
David is shamed into action, into doing the right thing.
David, who should have done better in the first place, buries not only the bodies of these seven but goes to rescue the dishonoured bodies of Saul and his son Jonathan which the Philistines have been displaying as spoils of war. David recognises how slack he has been. How he has dishonoured both men and God and buries the bodies of the dead.
It’s reminiscent of the American Civil rights movement. Black (and white) men and women who marched through streets of racist America, who were attacked with police dogs, water canons, electric cattle prods, who were abused by baying mobs but who kept going. Who shamed the American government into changing its laws. Or Ghandi whose non-violent civil disobedience shamed the British into granting independence for India. The world has seen groups whose personal sacrifice and willingness to be humiliated have shamed the powerful into action. Rizpah is a forerunner. Jesus did the same – allowed himself to be humiliated in the face of injustice for a much greater good. Rizpah may not have been motivated by a desire for political change, she was motivated by a mother’s love for her boys, but none the less, Rizpah shamed David. She was more honourable than him – and he knew it!
It strikes me that it often does cost to do what we know is the right thing; To speak up rather than keep silent, to act alone rather than follow the crowd, to take a stand on something that matters to us, to God, to challenge injustice when we see it, to defend those who have been exploited. Even if we look stupid, even if people think we are nuts, even if it seems that the little actions we take are like throwing stones to defend a dead body!
God honoured Rizpah. He made sure David heard. He knew that David would be ashamed of his action. He got her sons and her husband a decent burial, honour in death. She could not have done it – but God honoured her choice to take a stand when no one else did. He was with her in it. He also promises to be with us when we do the right thing. Even if no one else joins us, He will be there at work in ways we can’t see or understand, but there none the less.
Rizpah. - A sorry story, but an inspirational woman. We should talk about her more!
© Ruth Perrin 2009. Last revised on 10 August 2009
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Cloud of Witnesses is a series of Bible studies on the men and women of scripture. You'll find everyone from Gideon and Andrew through to Tamar and Tabitha.
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Ruth Perrin, the author, is on staff at King's Church Durham and holds an MA in Theology and Ministry.
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