Remembering Rizpah

Sometimes the call to action can feel overwhelming. The needs of the world are so great and we are so small that our attempts to respond feel futile. How can we do anything of value when faced with such great need? The temptation is to do nothing. But in those times we can remind ourselves of the story of Rizpah, a woman with very little, who changed her world simply by doing what she could. Tucked away at the end of 2 Samuel, the story is one of the hidden gems of the Hebrew scriptures. But the passage tells a story of such courage, gentleness, and transformation that it is hard not to be affected by it.

The story, found in 2 Samuel 21:1-14, begins with famine. The country has been wracked with deprivation and hunger for three long years; eventually David asks God the reason for it. God answers that it is due to "bloodguilt" on the house of Saul, who earlier attempted to wipe out the Gibeonites from the land. David responds by asking the Gibeonites what he can do to make up for this oppression. The Gibeonites say that the situation has gone too far for a fine or the death of one person; retribution can only be made by handing over seven of Saul’s descendants to be killed. David allows this, and their bodies are left on the mountain.

At this point we meet Rizpah. She was the concubine of Saul, and it is two of her sons who are killed by the Gibeonites. The other five men are the sons of Merab, daughter of Saul. Rizpah’s response to the death of her family members was to mourn day and night, refusing to allow wild animals to come close to the bodies for about six months. When David heard about her actions, he eventually buried not just these bodies but also the bodies of Saul and Jonathan, which had been left hanging by the Philistines after they killed them, and which later had been stolen by the inhabitants of Jabesh-Gilead. When David buried these bodies, the famine lifted from the land.

It is hardly surprising that this story is so unpopular. It seems a classic Hebrew scripture story of blood and guts that should be left where it is—consigned to the obscure bit of 2 Samuel in which it is placed. Certain scholars interpret this story as a case of "retributive justice," where justice is served by allowing those who suffered to wreak a similar type of revenge upon their enemies. But the famine is not lifted when retributive justice takes place (if that were the case, it would have ended when the bodies were first left on the mountain); instead, it is lifted when David buries the bodies of Saul, Jonathan, and the others. This action bears witness to something eminently more profound.

Asking and Listening. Over and over in this story we encounter the effects of not asking God for help and not listening carefully to God’s response. David asks God why the famine is happening but then asks the Gibeonites, not God, what to do about it. It is not the action David chooses that lifts the famine from the land but the action he is spurred into by Rizpah that solves the problem. If ever there was a story that counsels prayerful listening to the will of God, this is it. In this short passage we see illustrated the devastating effect, over hundreds of years, of acting before praying.

It is unclear precisely how the descendants of Saul died. The Hebrew word, translated in the NRSV as "impaled," means to tear apart. The Greek translation of this implies the bodies were spread out on a rock and left there to die. This is where the NRSV gets the idea of impaling. But it may be that the Hebrew is closer to what happened, as the bodies have to be "gathered" for burial at the end of the story, implying that they are scattered over the top of the mountain. However they died, there can be no doubt that it was terrible.

It is clear throughout the Hebrew scriptures that the lack of burial is a terrible punishment. A "good death" can happen if the person dies at old age, leaves sons, and is buried well. These men were killed before their time, were from two successive generations, and were left unburied on a mountaintop. The requirements of justice for one group of people led to deep injustice for another group.

The Cycle of Revenge. The story illustrates the evils of living life by the principles of retribution and revenge. Saul’s vengeance on the Gibeonites arose out of a trick that they played on Joshua hundreds of years before (see Joshua 9). This revenge was in turn avenged by the Gibeonites during David’s reign. The scene is set for centuries, if not millennia, of revenge and counter-revenge—age-old patterns that are all too familiar to us today.

We can see this spirit of revenge woven throughout the story. When the Gibeonites approach David for restitution, David asks them what he can do to atone for the wrong done to them. The word used (kpr) is the same one found in the Hebrew name for the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). The word is religious in tone, though David’s act of atonement is far from religious. Indeed, as well as meaning "atone," the word can also mean "cover over." The fact that David’s attempted restitution is divorced from any religious practice suggests that his real question to the Gibeonites was a political one: How shall I cover up what has happened?

The Gibeonites’ response is hard and uncompromising: Nothing short of multiple deaths will satisfy them. They reject any softer recompense, such as a fine or the death of one person. Here we can see the demands of revenge spiralling out of control. If only multiple deaths will satisfy the Gibeonites, what would the descendants of Saul require for their loss? We never find out the cost of the escalation of violence, because it does not occur. Rizpah breaks the cycle.

Doing What She Could. The factor that caused this cycle to break did not come from someone with power but from someone with none. The wife of a deposed ruler has little access to the corridors of power; a concubine of such a ruler has even less. But Rizpah did the only thing she could in such circumstances: She poured out her love and grief for her dead relatives by mourning for them publicly.

This was no small feat. Rizpah sat on top of the mountain where the bodies of her relatives lay "from the beginning of harvest until rain fell on them from the heavens" (21:10)—about six months. While she mourned, Rizpah warded off the vultures and wild beasts, preventing them from eating the bodies. This was a long, hard, courageous vigil. Such action was far from easy, as David himself would have known from his days of being a shepherd.

Eventually David heard about Rizpah’s actions. It is hard to know what affected him so much. It might have been her outpouring of love and grief, it might have been her courage in driving away the wild animals, the length of her lonely vigil on the mountain, or a combination of these. What is clear, however, is that David was deeply shamed by Rizpah’s response. He recognized the genuineness of her emotion and her expression of it, and changed as a result. He ordered the removal of the bodies from the mountain and gave them the dignity of a proper burial.

One of the most moving aspects of this passage is given almost in passing. When David ordered the burial of the bodies of Saul’s descendants, he also ordered the burial of the bodies of Saul and Jonathan, which had been left hanging in Beth-shan by the Philistines. This small detail tells us a great deal about the kind of person David had become since becoming king. Jonathan and David had bound themselves to each other formally with a covenant, and yet David had allowed his friend’s body to be dishonored by refusing him a proper burial. Once David had been Jonathan’s best friend; now he allowed Jonathan’s body to go unburied and his death unmourned. Rizpah’s action made David wake up and see what kind of person he had become.

Remember Rizpah. This short, neglected story has much to teach us about acting and listening. It is impossible to know whether Rizpah expected to achieve anything by her actions. It may simply have been an expression of love and grief. Whatever her intentions, their effect cannot be denied. By acting courageously out of genuine love, Rizpah changed the policy of a mighty ruler and prevented the escalation of violence and revenge. Rizpah did what she could in impossible circumstances and transformed a situation driven by hatred. Her demonstration of love reminded David of the love he once had for his best friend and encouraged him to act, not in the interests of power as he had been doing, but in the interests of love.

Some say this passage presents David in a bad light. I could not disagree more. Here, David appears in the best possible light. As with many people who achieve great power, David has his head turned by this power and begins to do all he can to maintain it. This is a natural reaction. What is not natural is that David is able to hear the gentle reprimand of love and to act accordingly. True greatness does not lie in always being right, but in recognizing when we are wrong—and changing.

The story of Rizpah is a startling, inspirational, and transforming story. To those without power, it speaks of doing what we can, of acting with love and of holding on with courage to our task. To those with power, it speaks of the danger of losing sight of God’s calling, of being prepared to hear challenges from those with no power, and of the importance of recognizing when we are wrong. Many of us have power in some situations and none in others. Where this is the case, the story becomes doubly important. Perhaps our motto in both types of situations should be "Remember Rizpah."

Paula Gooder was a freelance writer and lecturer and a tutor in biblical studies at the Queens Ecumenical Theological Foundation in Birmingham, England, when this article appeared.

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