A while back, I read first and second Samuel and started a blog series about the strong women who appear as blips in the stories of David and Saul. You can read the first post here, and the second post here.
While these women can easily become background elements as we follow the main narrative, I think they show admirable wisdom and strength. More importantly, many of the women in Saul and David’s lives are victims of their selfishness, anger, lust, or foolishness that we gloss over as we search for the two kings’ virtues. In acknowledging the realities of who David and Saul are, it’s crucial that we allow ourselves to see the good and the bad, the glory and cruelty that truly build their identities as deeply flawed men still somehow loved by God.
Today’s heroine can be found in 2 Samuel 21. In this chapter, David is well into his reign as king. The big Bathsheba and Absalom controversies have passed, though the latter fairly recently, and Israel is in the grips of a persistent famine. After three years of food shortages, David seeks answers from God and God tells him that Saul’s sins against the Gibeonites have caused the famine.
When the people of Israel first entered the land they were commanded to inhabit, they made an agreement with a native people called the Gibeonites, promising that they would not kill them as they had other peoples. Many years later, Saul ignored the promise made by his ancestors and attacked the Gibeonites. Then, many more years later, this sin somehow caused the famine that David’s people were suffering under.
David doesn’t want a famine, it’s not good for anybody, so he asks the Gibeonites how to make things right. They demand seven of Saul’s male descendants, who they plan to execute and shame by exposing them to the elements, refusing them a proper burial, and letting the birds of the sky and the beasts of the land pick their bones clean. David agrees.
So Rizpah, one of Saul’s concubines, loses two sons. Merab, one of Saul’s daughters, loses five sons. Together, they are executed and their bodies left unburied and exposed.
Rizpah, however, will not allow her sons to die without honor. In her suffering and grief, she camps out beside the seven men’s bodies for the duration of the harvest season and fends of birds and wild animals. She exposes herself to the elements and defends her sons against the savage violence of nature and the calculated cruelty of two kings the only way she knows how. A woman who was a concubine to the king, who was forced to leave that life behind after his death, leaves whatever home she had managed to make in order to pour out a last offering of commitment and love to her sons and the men who died alongside them. Overcoming any fear she felt of vultures, lions, and wild dogs, Rizpah defended her sons. Moving beyond any fear of the new king, the Gibeonites, or strangers in the night, Rizpah bestows on her sons the only honor and comfort she can.
What a woman, what a brave and unimaginably strong mother. What an incredible human being.
In Rizpah we see strength born in a place of desperation, gross injustice, and pain. Through her actions, we see that some small honor can come from extraordinary love even when we are forced to pay the penalty for the sins of someone else. When we bear the weight of another’s wrongdoing, we may be crushed in the process, but we can still care for those we love. So I admire Rizpah and I wish I could be even half as strong.
Eventually, David hears of Rizpah’s bravery. Then he gathers the long-ago stolen bones of Saul and his son Jonathan, along with the remains of the seven executed men and lays them to rest in a proper, dignified tomb. Only then, after an act of forgiveness and nod towards justice, does God lift the famine from the land of Israel.