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The Story of Rizpah

Updated: Oct 7, 2022

Sensitizing the Conscience of Society (2 Sam. 21:1-14)

by Yohan Abeynaike

Photo: Wikidata

The story of Rizpah is one of the most obscure stories in the Bible. But for many years I have found her story to be compelling. It is not a nice or uplifting story but a real one. And as Sri Lanka struggles in many ways today, Rizpah’s story continues to challenge and inspire.

The story begins with a famine – a famine that had gone on for 3 years. But it was only at the end of the 3 years that King David decides to seek God’s counsel. The agricultural economy of Israel would have collapsed, there would have been scarcity and much hardship but King David, the man after God’s own heart, had failed to seek God’s wisdom. Delayed actions from political leaders leading to catastrophes in society is nothing new!

Cycles of Violence

When David finally inquired from God, God tells him that the famine had come because of David’s predecessor’s (King Saul) actions against the Gibeonites. The Gibeonites tell David that King Saul had tried to violently annihilate them. Before we go further, it is important to look at the history of interaction between the Israelites and the Gibeonites.

When Joshua and the Israelites were entering the Promised Land, the Gibeonites were one of the tribes of the Amorites who were the inhabitants of the land. But when the Gibeonites saw that the Israelites were easily overpowering the cities around them they devised a clever plan to deceive Joshua and trick him into signing a peace treaty with them (Jos 9:1-15). Later on, when the deception was discovered, the people of Israel ‘grumbled against their leaders’ (Josh 9:18) as they couldn’t take over the Gibeonite land because of the shortsighted decision making of their leaders. As a compromise Joshua had subjected the Gibeonites to a form of slavery by making them wood cutters and water carriers for the Israelite community. Many years later, King Saul had seemingly used this historic mistake to stir up the Israelites against the Gibeonites. The Gibeonites describe Saul as acting in ‘zeal for Israel and Judah’ (2 Sam. 21:2) – a ‘patriotic’ act that would have been quite popular with the people. So, when David asks the Gibeonites how their grievances could be addressed, they ask for 7 male members from Saul’s household to be handed over to them to be killed.

What we have here is historic actions which has lent itself to cycles of violence and retribution across many generations. You have the Gibeonite deception, you have Joshua subjecting the Gibeonites to slavery to account for his own mistake, you have Saul exploiting those feelings in patriotic fervor and you have the Gibeonites in return calling for their pound of flesh. Treachery, systematic violence, misplaced patriotism mixed together propagating violence from generation to generation.

Sri Lanka is a country with a similar history. Casteism, colonialism, ethnic tensions, urban and rural class divisions, gender disparities, corruption and nepotism continue to devastate our country today. The famine in Israel was God’s way of bringing to the attention of the community leaders, issues in their society that needed to be addressed. Those issues could not be ignored any longer. Considering our plight today, I wonder whether God is calling us to do the same in our country.

When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers

So, we come now to the story of Rizpah. Who was Rizpah? Rizpah was one of the concubines of King Saul and she had borne 2 sons to him. After the death of Saul, his son Ish-Bosheth had tried to take over the kingship. The commander of Saul’s army, Abner, had initially supported Ish-Bosheth but later, they had drifted apart. In the ensuing power battle between Ish-Bosheth and Abner, Ish-Bosheth accuses Abner of having an affair with the king’s concubine, Rizpah – a charge that Abner denies (2 Sam. 3:6-7). Whatever the truth of the matter, Rizpah is used as a pawn in their power battle and her reputation would have been tarnished. And now, as the Gibeonites sought revenge for Saul’s actions, Rizpah’s 2 sons are taken and handed over to be killed. What a great tragedy. She had no power, no status, her reputation was shattered and she was helpless as her 2 sons were snatched away from her and killed. Do we not experience these same feelings today? We often feel helpless, voiceless, powerless and hopeless. Decisions that directly affect our lives our taken elsewhere, we have very little say in those matters but we all suffer the consequences of those decisions. Rizpah would have had no say in the deal that King David had made with the Gibeonites. But her life was devastated as a result of those backroom political deals.

The acted lament

The feeling of helplessness can often lead to paralysis. We often say things like “What can we do?” or “What is the use of doing anything? Nothing is going to change”. Sometimes we try to justify what is happening to us by saying things like “Oh, this is our fate” or “God has done this so what can we do?”. But Rizpah doesn’t resort to that kind of response. Instead, she puts on sackcloth and begins a vigil in front of her dead children’s bodies. In her cultural context, leaving dead bodies exposed to the mercy of the elements was seen as a great curse or humiliation of a person. Rizpah is determined that her children are not going to suffer that fate even though they are dead. She stays with them day and night fighting off the birds and wild animals who were coming for their dead bodies. What a tragic but moving picture of a mother’s love, courage and determination. Rizpah did not have the power or authority to take down the bodies and give them a proper burial. But her presence at the side of the bodies was her way of showing that they still mattered. They were not a statistic or collateral damage but real human beings who were loved and mourned by the people who were close to them.

Rizpah engages in this silent vigil from the beginning of the harvest till the rains came, i.e. about 5 months. During a famine, the harvesting period would have been the most joyful time for the community as it provided some respite from their suffering. But seeing Rizpah, dressed in sackcloth, fighting the animals day and night to protect her sons’ bodies would have been understood as a defiant public lament in that community. Rizpah doesn’t speak a single word in the story. But her public actions exposed a wrong that had been done which needed to be accounted for. Her sons’ deaths could not be forgotten. Her grief could not be ignored.

David – the bitter king?

When news about her silent vigil reached King David he realizes that an injustice had been done to her. But perhaps David realizes something even deeper about himself. The house of King Saul and the house of King David had been in conflict for several years. While initially David had tried his best to respect Saul as God’s anointed, I wonder whether over the years, that respect had waned. When the Gibeonites requested the lives of Saul’s descendants as payback, there was no push back from David. Perhaps, he might have secretly felt relieved that the descendants of Saul would no longer be a threat to his rule. But now, as David watched the vigil of Saul’s concubine Rizpah, he is deeply affected. He decides to give Rizpah’s sons a proper burial. But David is also reminded of something that he had long forgotten. His predecessor King Saul and his beloved friend Jonathan had been killed in battle but they were never given a proper burial. Perhaps David’s bitterness and rivalry had clouded his judgment. And so, after many years, he arranges for Saul and Jonathan to also be given a proper burial in their family tomb. And the story ends with this line – “After that, God answered prayer on behalf of the land” (2 Sam. 21:14).

Learning the lessons

Rizpah didn’t have too much within her control. She didn’t have power, her reputation had been tarnished and her loved ones had been taken and killed. But Rizpah was a woman of great courage who refused to let her circumstances define her. Her public lament is very significant. It is significant, firstly, as a form of expression, articulating her grief and her need to be heard and not forgotten. In that sense, her lament would have been cathartic, a form of healing. But Rizpah’s lament is more than that. By her very public actions she is sensitizing the conscience of her community. Her actions reveal the violent nature of her community and the need for the community to acknowledge its true character. The whole community, from the king down to the person on the street, needed healing. Notice that she doesn’t cry out for vengeance against the Gibeonites as her husband had done. She recognizes that the cycle of violence can end only when one party chooses not to retaliate in a violent manner. However, choosing not to retaliate violently is not the same thing as ignoring the evil that was done to her. Her actions showed that the evil needed to be acknowledged but the response did not have to be like for like.

Each time I read Rizpah’s story I wonder whether the Sri Lankan Church is called to follow her example. Being a religious minority is not easy. We are often tempted to limit our discipleship and witness to the walls of our church building. To follow Rizpah, however, would involve being honest about ourselves and our nation publicly. It would mean that we become bold and persevering in our actions. It would require us to risk being humiliated or misunderstood. In this context, it is easy for us to choose and justify a safe privatized faith. But God shows us here that he cares deeply about the injustices that are done to communities (like the Gibeonites) and to individuals (like Rizpah). The Gospel teaches us that being truthful about ourselves is the necessary first step towards healing. Perhaps God is waiting for his Church to rise and creatively expose and confess where we have erred as a community and not let things continue as usual. God is faithful to use every little act of ours to further his purposes. Maybe that is the way we must prepare for the day when “the kingdom of the world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ and he will reign for ever and ever” (Rev. 11:15).

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