Rizpah: Vigilant Sentinel

A brief character sketch of Rizpah can be ascertained from the two episodes in which her name appears (II Sam. 3 & 16). Neither passage suggests any period in her life is pleasant. Any attempt to understand her must take into account the era in which she lives. Saul takes her as a concubine and she is thereby drafted into the king’s harem. Concubines are considered possessions rather than persons. She bears Saul two sons named Armoni and Mephibosheth.

It is important to note Jonathan also has a son named Mephibosheth (II Sam. 9). While David goes to great lengths to protect the son of Jonathan, he must sacrifice the son of Rizpah (II Sam. 21:8).

David is king over the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Ishbosheth, another of Saul’s sons by a different woman, briefly reigns over the Northern Kingdom of Israel. He accuses Abner, one of his father’s generals, of sleeping with Rizpah (II Sam. 3:7). Even though Saul is dead, to sleep with a former king’s concubine is tantamount to claiming the throne (II Sam. 16:20 & I Kgs. 2:22). It is not known if Abner is actually intimate with Rizpah, but he is accused of it. It is possible Rizpah is totally unaware of the allegation, becoming a pawn in the power game between Ishbosheth and Abner. Although this is probably a false accusation, Ishbosheth seeks to eliminate Abner who is quickly growing in prominence and power. He is therefore seen as a threat to the throne.

Abner adamantly denies this implication and affirms his unwavering loyalty to the family of Saul. He is so angered over this he and the eleven tribes leave the Northern Kingdom to join David in the Southern Kingdom (II Sam. 3:7-21). Abner’s defection and the impact of three years of famine are key factors which play a part in the ultimate demise of the Northern Kingdom.

The other passage regarding Rizpah concerns an unrelated matter (II Sam 21). The background is as follows:

~ The three-year famine in Israel is now over.
~ David asks Jehovah to reveal why He allowed it to happen (II Sam. 21:1).
~ God verifies the famine is a sign of His disfavor because His covenant with the Gibeonites was broken a few years earlier by Saul.
~ Saul’s violence against this nation violates God’s promise made to them through Joshua (Josh. 9:3-20).
~ Soon after Saul dies on Mount Gilboa, the Gibeonites seek justice.
~ The defeated Gibeonites go to King David and demand vindication.
~ David asks what it will take to satisfy them.
~ They require that Saul’s sons bear the punishment for his attack on the Gibeonites.
~ Two of the seven men selected for execution are the sons of Saul and Rizpah. The other five were grandsons of Saul by another woman.
~ The Gibeonites want these killings to take place in Gibeah, Saul’s native homeland, in order to further defame Saul’s legacy.
~Although they might have claimed monetary compensation (Num. 35:33), they prefer blood over “silver or gold.”
~ They say this to be done “unto Jehovah” to show that justice has been accomplished – that atonement has been made.
~ Under the terms of the covenant, David is forced to comply.
~ These seven men become victims of Gibeonite vengeance.

These executions have great symbolism, for any son or grandson of Saul might potentially contend for the throne. Their deaths help reduce the possibility that anyone as infamous as Saul could ever attain regal power.

Rizpah has lost Saul and now two of her sons. After a king dies, his concubines usually retain regal status. She comes from the palace to the desert and exchanges soft clothing for rough sackcloth. This material is always associated with mourning and sorrow (Gen. 37:34 & II Sam. 3:31).

Left unguarded, corpses will inevitably be scavenged by birds and vermin. The laws of Israel requires the body of an impaled criminal be removed before sunset (Deut. 21). However, these are left to rot as trophies of Gibeonite vengeance. One can only imagine the foul stench of seven rotting bodies. She is powerless to take them down herself for proper burial.

This noble woman suffers because of Saul’s transgressions, not her own. Although Rizpah cannot spare these seven the horror of a public execution, she shares their shame and infamy. She has no power to prevent the death of these men, but she stands by their bodies as long as possible to ensure no further dishonor comes upon them. Although they hang there for six months, she never forsakes them. Rizpah denies herself comfort, patiently and determinately enduring tremendous hardship. Despite her grief, she neither succumbs to despondency nor wavers in her resolve. The name “Rizpah” today is synonymous with deep seated devotion despite intense suffering.

Her bravery in this situation is also noteworthy. She is not concerned for her own safety, for the Gibeonites could have executed her as well. In awe and admiration of her maternal dedication, they allow her to continue her vigil.

The noble Rizpah perseveres despite horrific obstacles. She stands guard from April until October, enduring the heat of the days and the chill of the nights. We can picture this noble woman wrestling with sleep in order to keep vermin and wildlife at bay. Her cries and gestures drive away dogs, vultures, and other scavengers. It is probable that she is frequently mocked during this time.

Ultimately her vigilance comes to the attention of King David. She is rewarded for her fortitude, fidelity, endurance, and perseverance. He recalls that the remains of Jonathan and Saul are still unburied. The king orders the bodies of all nine be honorably interred in the royal family burial grounds in Zelah.

A number of analogies and lessons evolve from this story:

~ Rizpah stands as a tremendous example of maternal affection. To the Gibeonites, these men are criminals, but to her they are children.
~ She asks no compensation for her efforts. Love can only be understood by the action it prompts.
~While Saul was an infamous king who brings dishonor to the nation, Rizpah is almost unknown and brings honor to the nation.
~ Rizpah represents millions of grieving women who will not allow the heartaches of their past control their future.
~ If the of love of a mother can be this strong…..how strong is the love of God?
~ Faithful women were also in attendance when Jesus is crucified (Mt. 27:55).
~ They were hung on a hill for all to see (II Sam. 21:9). The Son of God hung on Calvary’s hill in public view.
~ Every analogy has its limitations. These seven men are unwilling victims, suffering for Saul’s transgressions. Jesus’ sacrifice was voluntary, suffering for the sins of the world.

Maxim of the Moment

He who speaks ill of his wife dishonors himself.