“I did something no mother should ever have to do: I sat with the dead bodies of my beloved sons for five months.
Oh, that the soldiers would have killed me instead of them! But it was not to be. My boys were dragged away and publicly executed under the orders of that treacherous King David. Their crumpled bodies were then abandoned, nailed to stakes some fifteen feet off the ground, offered up to terrorists of the earth and sky: vultures, ravens and hyenas. Carnivores, all.
Passersby mocked me as the crazy one. But I did not care. I spread out sackcloth—the cloth of repentance—and settled in to protect their remains. Human and animals be damned! As long as my boys lacked a proper burial, I would stay. Women friends brought me bread and water; with them I would not have survived….
But I was not without love—in fact, I was there because of love. I had known it in the arms of the boy’s father, Saul. I was his concubine, his royal concubine. He had married his wife for politics, but he loved me. And now he was dead. I knew down to the soles of my feet that my sons’ execution was nothing more than a grab for power.
I looked again at the bodies of my sons. I will not leave while you still need me, and will stay with you until you are at peace. Even then, I will look for you until the sun rises no more.”
One of the bravest and most politically active women in the Bible, Rizpah’s story is found in 2 Samuel 21:1-14. And now, 3000 years later, as our society reels from mass shootings, wars, and various political scandals, her story is a powerful witness–especially in this Lenten season. (Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days; Rizpah was there for five months!) Both emerged victorious over the forces of evil; both endured great suffering; both practiced sacrificial love. Her haunting narrative is one of the saddest and most complex stories in the Bible. Sadly, it is one that very few people know.
(Because no actual words of Rizpah’s are recorded in the Bible, mine words appear in italics above, based on the details of bibical narrative, as noted above.)
Rizpah was King Saul’s “royal” concubine. Although Saul may had other concubines (a step below an official wife”), she is the only one on record. Although the Bible does not say so, the Bible seems to infer a special relationship between Saul and Rizpah, one that would involve both power and affection, and most probably, love.
Rizpah and Saul have two sons: Armani and Mephibosheth. The Bible does not specify their ages, but they appear to be in their late teens or early twenties when they are killed.
The first king of Israel–their father Saul–fights various bloodthirsty armies—the Ammonites, the Gibeonites, the Philistines, the Amelikites and others. Unlike some single-minded, “kill/conquer all” warriors, Saul seems to have both a hard and soft side. He kills as many people as he deems necessary, but occasionally lets some of his enemies live.
Surprisingly, God appears to be unhappy when Saul does not completely annihilate the enemy. In punishment, God inflicts Saul with a demon, and Saul begins to suffer the effects of what appears to be mental illness. He dies on the battlefield, falling on his own sword so that he will not be killed by the enemy.
Like Saul, Israel suffers. Year after year, a famine takes away both the harvest and the spirit of the people. Finally, David, who has been hand-picked by God to assume the crown, asks God why the famine will not relent.
God informs David that “there is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death.”
David then approaches the Gibeonites,* asking, “What shall I do for you? How can I compensate you so that you will bless God’s legacy and people?”
And the Gibeonites reply: “The man who tried to get rid of us, who schemed to get wipe us off the map of Israel—let his sons be handed over to us to be executed.”
And the horrible deed is done. David hands over Rizpah’s boys, and also collects five of Saul’s grandsons from Merab, Saul’s daughter. The young men are hung as a group at the beginning of the barley harvest…and then their bodies are abandoned—until Rizpah takes matters into her own hands.
She shows up. She lays down sackcloth—a sign of mourning and repentance. Certainly she was in grief; some scholars believe she was repenting for Israel’s sins as well.
Day after burning day and night after cold night, she stands by the bodies of her sons, refusing to leave them until they receive a proper burial. When King David realizes, after five months, that she will not leave, he takes action. Not only does he collect the bodies of the seven young men, but he also retrieves the remains of Saul and his son Jonathan from the Philistines. He has their bodies buried in the land of Benjamin, the place of Saul’s origin.
We do not know what happened to Rizpah following the burial of her sons, or even if she was able to witness the burial. As women did not travel freely in those days, she probably only had the knowledge that their bodies no longer hung open to the elements.
Certainly she would have shed more tears. But she did so knowing that she had done all she could to protect and care for her children from conception to burial. Her persistence reset the moral compass for Israel as she called King David — the most powerful and acclaimed king in Israel’s history — to account.
This is a complex story, one of the most complicated in the Bible. Questions it raises make us cringe, on all sorts of levels, thousands of years after the event. And the fact that it involves a woman who is so faithful to her sons, even in the midst of what seems to be global retribution from God, is remarkable.
If we pass by Rizpah’s story, as most Bible readers do, we lose the story of an exceptional woman, a survivor, and more. In the midst of what could have been crippling despair, she takes an action—one that most of us would not be able to stomach.
Even though her beloved sons were gone, she did not lose herself in the grip of despair. She stayed connected with life; she fought the good fight. She enacted change from pain and is a most worthy model to those mothers who have lost their beloved children to those who suffer now when their loved ones have been massacred in school shootings or killed by drunk drivers or lost to the perils of drug addiction.
May we not forget Rizpah, nor her powerful actions. Her moral action changed the heart of a king and the soul of a nation. May we understand her story fully, and may it never fail to inspire us.
“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not “get over” the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same nor would you want to.” Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
Photo: Scott Gunn