Rizpah: The (Not So) Silent Prophet

There is a story folded into the narrative of 2 Samuel that’s easy to miss on a quick read. It is also tempting to ignore as it contains a number of rather troubling elements.

But it tells of a time when king David began to act more like the kings of the ancient Near East rather than how a king of Israel should. It tells of a female prophet, one rolled over by power, bloodshed, and systemic oppression. It’s a heartbreaking story, one that’s meant to unsettle the reader. It shouldn’t be skipped over.

King Saul’s Second Wife

2 Samuel introduces us to the person of Rizpah in the third chapter. She is a silent character every time she appears in the scriptures. But we can learn a lot about her through the actions that others take at her expense.

Consider 2 Samuel 3:6-13 –

“During the war between the house of Saul and the house of David, Abner kept acquiring more power in the house of Saul. Now Saul had a concubine whose name was Rizpah daughter of Aiah, and Ish-bosheth questioned Abner, “Why did you sleep with my father’s concubine?”

Abner was very angry about Ish-bosheth’s accusation. “Am I a dog’s head who belongs to Judah?” he asked. “All this time I’ve been loyal to the family of your father Saul, to his brothers, and to his friends and haven’t betrayed you to David, but now you accuse me of wrongdoing with this woman! May God punish Abner and do so severely if I don’t do for David what the Lord swore to him: to transfer the kingdom from the house of Saul and establish the throne of David over Israel and Judah from Dan to Beer-sheba.” Ish-bosheth did not dare respond to Abner because he was afraid of him.”

We see in 2 Samuel 3:7 that Rizpah was king Saul’s “concubine.” This doesn’t paint a completely accurate picture. We don’t have a word for pilegesh (פִּלֶ֔גֶשׁ) in English which is why it’s often translated as such. But its better to understand Rizpah not merely as one of Saul’s sexual partners but as a second wife of a lower status than Ahinoam. She didn’t have the power or sway of Saul’s first wife, but she did have legitimacy. And while her children wouldn’t have been able to qualify as heirs to Saul’s inheritance, her sons would have still been considered legally bound to Saul’s lineage.[1] This is why Ish-Bosheth’s accusation in the above text had such a bite.

At this point in the Samuel narrative, king Saul is dead. King David has assumed command of Judah. But the monarchy isn’t united under David quite yet, and a power vacuum in the north has caused a civil war with many players vying for dominance.

Ish-Bosheth, son of Saul and Ahinoam, had been appointed king of Saul’s dynasty in a previous chapter. But his rule had been rocky. And one of the ways that ancient Near Eastern warlords would often attempt to usurp hierarchy and claim thrones for themselves was through sex. That is, if a man was to sleep with, or rape, the wife of a former king, that man could potentially set himself up as a political claimant to the dead king’s throne. And if a man was to sleep with a dead king’s second wife, it might secure a place for him in the new king’s high court.[2]

This is what Ish-Bosheth has accused Abner of doing.

But pay careful attention to his response. Because Abner never actually denies raping Rizpah. He only denies his desire for Saul’s throne. And in his rage (brought on by being caught?), he declares his intentions to defect to king David’s Judah. And this, of course, is exactly what he does.

But what about Rizpah? Rizpah’s body had become an unwilling battleground within Israel’s civil war. She had become a victim of the bloody business of kingmaking, and a casualty of those using a system of power to their own evil advantage.

This won’t be the only time.

Strange Fruit at Israel’s Harvest

Rizpah’s story picks up again in 2 Samuel 21.

David is now an old man. He has been king of Israel for a while. But as 2 Samuel 21:1 informs us, the nation isn’t well. There has been a famine that’s lasted for three years. Wanting to know why this has been, David inquires of the LORD and he is given this answer: “It is due to Saul and his bloody family, because he killed the Gibeonites.

The Gibeonites were a protected people group that weren’t Israelites, but lived within the walls of Israel. A hasty oath had been made to them under Joshua which granted them such protection during a war with the Canaanites in Joshua 9:4-6. But these foreigners lived as woodcutters and water carriers in the land from the time of the conquest to the time of king Saul. We are not told the reason why Saul broke this oath and allowed their slaughter, just that doing so had brought famine upon God’s people.

David wished to bring about an end to this, so he went to the Gibeonite leaders who were left in Israel and asked them how he could help atone for Saul’s sins. They answer him with the following: “Let seven of his male descendants be handed over to us so we may hang them in the presence of the LORD…” (2 Samuel 21:6). The king complies with this request by handing over five of Saul’s grandsons bore to Merab, as well as Armoni and Mephibosheth, the two sons of Rizpah. These seven sons were then hung on the first day of the barley harvest in the presence of the LORD.

However, immediately after this takes place, we are told that Rizpah spreads sackcloth out for herself on the rocks where the bodies of her dead sons lie. Day and night, she fights off wild animals who wish to feast on their seven decomposing corpses. She lets nothing touch them from the beginning of the harvest season until the season of rain.  

What purpose did the death of these seven sons serve?

A close reading of the text shows us that God did not actually require of David to do what the Gibeonites asked of him. The LORD revealed the reason for the calamity to the king, but does not prescribe a way to fix it. Maybe David was naïve. Or more likely, maybe he was taking an opportunity to remove political rivals.[3] Again, though, we do learn that his actions weren’t the right ones because the famine still persists even after their deaths. And more, allowing these bodies to remain unburied was actually in violation of Torah. Deuteronomy 21:22-23 states that anyone executed by hanging should not be left to hang overnight. They must be immediately buried as not doing so is to defile the land. So, king David not only unjustly assumed that more bloodshed was the answer to a violent act, he allowed God’s law to be broken in doing so.   

And in the midst of it all, Rizpah is caught in the crosshairs. She is once again trampled over by the beast of kingmaking and the consolidation of power. She watches her kids’ bodies bloat, stiffen, rot, and decay. At the beginning of harvest season, the fruit of her womb is forced off the vine, lynched, and forgotten by those who committed the crime.

But Rizpah doesn’t forget. In her heartbreak, this mother stands guard over her dead children for five long months (2 Samuel 21:10). Her vigil was as a testimony to the injustice of the king.

Eventually, word of what Rizpah was doing spread far enough to reach David’s ears. And it seems as if king David then realizes his grave mistake. He orders that the bones of all the dead be collected up and buried them in Saul’s family tomb.

After only this did God bring an end to the famine and listen to His people’s prayers (2 Samuel 21:14).

What are We to Make of This?

Abner ran roughshod over innocent human life in hopes to climb the ladder of power. David used innocent human bodies as currency in his kingmaking endeavors. And I’m sure that if Ish-Bosheth were to press Abner for further justification, he might have claimed that sexual assault was a normal action taken by many. He may have even tried to argue that having a place in Saul’s court would be good for the nation. It’s surely the case that David understood his handing over of Saul’s sons to the Gibeonites for execution as a communal good. He thought that their blood would cure Israel’s famine problem. But can bloodshed really be covered up by more bloodshed?

From the story of Rizpah, we are reminded that God always puts people over positive results.

Churches that keep pastors or leaders in their positions even after credible sexual abuse accusations have been leveled against them make the same grave mistake king David did. No matter how well a preacher can craft a sermon, or how effective someone might be at making converts, God always puts the wellbeing of people over positive-looking results.  

We are also reminded that we have a responsibility to bear witness to ways in which the vulnerable in our communities might be taken advantage of. We must not forget that the God of the Bible is one that identifies with the most vulnerable (Proverbs 19:17, Matthew 25:40-45) and demands that we treat all with dignity, even those who we understand to be enemies. More than this, we have a responsibility to listen to those without voices so that we might hear that which we haven’t yet. King David thought his actions were good until confronted with the report of Rizpah’s vigil.

May we have the courage to repent and change our ways if we are confronted by similar.

[1] Wilda C. Gafney, Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 199.

[2] Wilda C. Gafney, Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 199-200.

[3] Walter Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1990), 338.

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