II Samuel 21
October 23, 2016
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
In my series on “Ask the Pastor,” I received a request that said, “I’d like to hear more about the women of the Bible.” In most of the stories that you learned in Sunday School, the leading characters were men and women appeared only in the supporting roles of wives and daughters. This is partly because the Bible was written for and by a patriarchal society and of course, was passed down through the generations by a patriarchal church. It is normal for us as human beings to look for people similar to ourselves in the stories we read, and so when most of the people preaching on the Bible were men, it was natural for them to highlight the stories in which they saw themselves. It is only in the last couple of decades as more women have entered the pulpit and biblical academia that attention has turned to the women characters in the Bible. There are, in fact, many women in the Bible: Sarah, Rebekkah, and Rachel, the mothers who give birth to Israel; Miriam who saves her little brother’s life so that Moses can grow to become the liberator of the Israelites; Deborah, one of the Judges, Ruth and Naomi, examples of deep fidelity, Esther who prevents a massacre of the Jews, and of course in the New Testament, it is the women who first receive the news of Jesus’ resurrection and Chloe, Pheobe, and Priscilla are among the recognized leaders in the early church.
Fresh readings of these women’s stories highlights the influence that many of them had on the course of events in the Biblical accounts, but it also reveals that the manner in which they affected events was often fundamentally different from the way in which the men shaped biblical history. In a patriarchal society, most women had little political or economic power, and the men were the decision makers for the household. Consequently, the heroines of the Bible who wished to right injustices, or steer their family and communities in a faithful direction, couldn’t always do it in a direct manner. Sometimes they had to resort to deceit, tricking their stubborn husbands into making decisions that the women believed were in accordance with God’s call. Sometimes they used their womanly charm to persuade their men to listen to them. And sometimes they exhibited such persistence in their pursuit of truth that the men were shamed into altering their behavior.
This last method describes the story of Rizpah from II Samuel. Rizpah had been one of the concubines of Saul, the first King of Israel. Saul and the heir to the throne, his son, Jonathan, were killed in a battle with the Philistines, and by popular acclamation, David became the King of Israel. Because David had been good friends with Jonathan, he at first allowed all of Saul’s family to continue to live peaceably in the land. Eventually, however, he became concerned that Saul’s sons might challenge his right to the crown and so when the neighboring Gibeonites requested that reparations be made for wars they had endured under Saul, David took advantage of the situation. David told the Israelites that the drought they were experiencing was due to God’s anger over what Saul had done to the Gibeonites and that God had demanded the sacrifice of Saul’s sons to appease the Gibeonites and end the drought.
Many years ago, I wrote a piece about Rizpah, her grief over the execution of her son’s, and her vigil of protest at the injustice of David’s actions. In this piece, I tried to use a rabbinic method of expanding the narrative, adding details to the story, which highlight the meaning of the original text. I’d like to read that piece again today so that we can turn our attention to one of the most moving stories in the Old Testament, a story that belongs to a woman.
A vulture drifted on the hot thermals rising above the cliffs as if eyeing the bones on the stone below. Rizpah tracked its flight cautiously. After five months of summer heat, she doubted that there was any flesh on the skeletons left to attract the bird but she would not let her guard down yet. Even had she wanted to, five months of watching had written wariness into her very sinews; she had become as alert as the deer with whom she shared this bit of wilderness, her body tensing at the silhouette of the carrion bird against the sun or the rustle of brush that might signal the approach of a hyena. For too many weeks in those early days she had beat back the scavengers. During the daylight hours, it was the crows, the vultures, and the eagles which dropped from the sky like rain upon the corpses and her hours had been filled with the sound of beating wings and shouts from her own hoarse throat as she scattered the birds again and again. But as horrible as the days had been, when the sun dipped below the horizon the real nightmare began. The brush became alive with unseen danger lurking at the periphery of her sentinel fire. She learned to sleep in a doze so that she could leap up at the slightest sound and thrust a torch before her with a yell, never knowing what beast’s eyes might be revealed by her torchlight. Usually wild dogs loomed out of the shadows but occasionally her torch disclosed the snarling face of a mountain lion, stopping her heart momentarily as she prayed that the creature would not decide that it preferred living flesh to dead. Those first weeks, as the heat of the plains slowly mummified the corpses filling her nostrils and the wilderness about her with the scent of death, she felt half-dead herself, teetering on the boundary of Sheol, and was tempted to lay down beside the dead bodies she protected and become one with them.
But she had endured, often through sheer stubbornness that refused to give up the last vestige of family honor that she was bestowing through her vigil. And gradually, the flesh of the corpses withered, the bones bleached, and the temptations to the scavengers dried up as well. Though relieved finally of the constant attacks, she knew that even dried bones could still lure a desperate animal and so she maintained her watch scanning the heavens daily with her eyes, casting about in the night with her ears. She had even caught herself once sniffing the wind as if her poor nose might be able to warn her of danger as it warned the creatures about her, and she shook her head at her unconscious act wondering if her vigil had stolen her very humanity away; if she would ever be able to return to the home that she had once loved. Even if she did some day return, she thought, what was there for her at home now? What love would she find in an empty house? What security could there be for her as a childless widow who could not even find comfort in the respect accorded the dead? Home? If home was where love was, then her home was here now sitting on the heat drenched rocks among the bones of her sons.
The vulture veered off to her right and disappeared behind the mountain peak. Rizpah brushed a fly away from her face and relaxed for a moment. Though she had fewer scavengers to worry about these days, she often wondered if those early weeks of constant battle against nature weren’t preferable to the empty days she faced now when the long idle hours allowed the demons of the past to crowd into her memory. A lion can be beat back by a torch but she had yet to learn the secret of beating back the horrible memories of the day that had brought her to this place. Even now as the vulture faded into the horizon, the kitchen of her former home rose up in her mind’s eye and she was once again re-living the scene that would torment her forever.
She had been boiling lamb for the evening stew, a generous kettleful because she knew that her two sons would be ravenous after a day in the fields. As she sprinkled herbs into the broth, the young woman Merab had burst into the kitchen weeping hysterically.
“He’s taken them! They’re going to kill them! Oh Rizpah, how will I live without them?” Merab collapsed on the floor sobbing.
“What are you talking about?” Rizpah demanded. “Taken who? Kill who?”
“He’s taken our sons, Rizpah,” Merab cried. “He’s given them to the Gibeonites. They are going to execute them tomorrow.”
Rizpah’s heart froze. She still didn’t understand all of Merab’s babbling but Rizpah had been part of the royal family long enough to know that political expediency frequently resulted in the spilling of royal blood. Rizpah had been a concubine of King Saul, and after his execution at the hands of the Philistines, she had been taken into the household of Saul’s general Abner who himself was killed when war broke out between Saul’s descendants and David. Twice the murderous politics of the kingdom had wrenched apart her life and now those politics were about to destroy it.
She pulled Merab up from the floor and held her until her crying abated enough that the younger woman was able to speak.
“King David sent out the order this morning,” Merab told her. “He said that God had spoken to him in the night; that God had told him that the famine which has been plaguing the country is due to an unresolved debt with the Gibeonites.”
Rizpah shook her head in bewilderment. “The Gibeonites? What does Israel have to do with the Gibeonites?”
Merab, her voice more controlled now, explained, “King David claims that my father Saul did something to the Gibeonites while Saul was King that has never been set right. He said that God told him that the famine will not end until things are put right with the Gibeonites.”
“I don’t remember Saul doing anything to the Gibeonites,” Rizpah said. “What does David say he did?”
“He doesn’t,” Merab replied. “David won’t say what Saul did; he just says that God has given him this message and that our country will not be safe until we settle Saul’s debt. And, oh, Rizpah…”
Merab broke down again into tears but Rizpah waited, not out of patience but out of fear for what she knew she would hear next. Finally Merab chokingly said, “King David went to the Gibeonites and convinced them that they should be avenged for Saul’s act, and they decided that the only thing that would set things right was the death of all of Saul’s heirs… our sons! The guards took them away this morning and they will be executed tomorrow on the mountain of the Gibeonites.”
All of the bitterness of her past grief rose suddenly in Rizpah’s heart and to Merab’s surprise, Rizpah burst out in anger. “God’s oracle? How convenient for David that God should decide that Saul’s sons and grandsons are a threat to the country!”
Merab was so startled she momentarily forgot her grief. “What do you mean convenient? It is God who is demanding this, not David. Rizpah, it is my father and your husband, Saul who brought this horrible guilt upon our house.”
“And who heard this command of God?” Rizpah continued. “Was there anyone else to hear God command David to take our sons? Have we ever before this day heard the Gibeonites claim blood justice? Don’t you think that it seems just a little too convenient that David’s greatest political threat – Saul’s descendants – will suddenly disappear in the interest of Israel’s security? I have watched men wrangle over power since the day your father took me into his house and I have seen how it corrupts hearts, destroys lives, and endangers the very people these so-called leaders have sworn to protect. There is no scent of God in this business, Merab, only the scent of power.”
And then Rizpah’s fury dissolved into abysmal grief at the fate of her sons, pawns in the game of nations and kings.
They had taken Merab’s five sons and Rizpah’s two sons to the mountain of the Gibeonites that very day. Of all of Saul’s remaining male descendants, only Mephibosheth would remain, safe from execution because he was the son of Jonathon whose friendship David would not violate even for the sake of his throne. Rizpah had followed the guards to the mountain. Though she was not allowed to speak to her sons again, she could glimpse them occasionally through the regiment of soldiers surrounding the procession and she would not deny herself the opportunity to fill her mind with every last memory of their faces. Merab had remained at home, unable to bear the thought of watching her sons die, and Rizpah was thankful that the younger woman was spared the sight of the seven men impaled on stakes and then denied even the honor of burial but left instead to be shamefully devoured by scavengers.
Rizpah had not consciously intended to maintain a vigil over their bodies – at first, she had stayed because her grief left her helpless to move. As the Gibeonite soldiers and the Israelite guards trekked down the mountainside, their business complete, Rizpah keened her grief to the silent skies until exhaustion overcame her and she slept uneasily on the stones. When the first vultures appeared, the flapping of their broad wings fanned her face and she awakened to the sight of a bird pecking at the clothes of her younger son. Enraged with grief, she flung herself at the vulture and the startled birds scattered quickly to the trees to study this unusual threat. Rizpah cursed them, cursed David, cursed her life, cursed her world, even her God. If David had truly heard God speak such a horrific command, she wanted no part of such a God. In those early days of heartache, Rizpah’s vigil was a vigil of blind grief giving purpose to a life that was suddenly cheated of any other.
Soon, however, as she scavenged herself for food among the withered berry bushes of the mountain, she realized that the famine was not abating. The drought continued relentlessly across the land, and if God had in fact, commanded the death of her sons as a requisite for ending the famine, it was not working. Had David purposely misled the people as her first grief induced cynicism had suspected? Or had David perhaps been himself frightened by the long famine, anxious about his people’s dread of the future? Had he, in his own desire to bring security to his people, misled himself? Rizpah, who had dwelt within the house of a King herself, knew that it is a difficult thing for a ruler to sit idly by while fear erodes the hearts of his people and maybe David had felt compelled to act. Maybe he had needed to be seen by his people as doing something, needed to feel as if he had the power to battle against fear itself even if to do so he had had to create an enemy to conquer. Gradually, Rizpah’s hatred of David seeped out of her body like the sweat which poured down her brow and she could only weep at the fears of humanity which gnaw away at our souls and lead us to do desperate things.
It was then that her true vigil began. Rizpah would bring honor back to her family. She would thrust her small self against all of the despair of the human heart and singlehandedly stand against death and decay. If she spent out the rest of her days on the mountain alone with the bones of her children, she would by her unwavering steadfast presence create a monument to the blessing of human love. For five months through unrelenting heat, Rizpah battled those that would eat away at all that we hold dear, confronting the beasts in that wilderness with unexpected courage and enduring through the stubborn persistence of her deep love.
Rizpah shook herself out of her reverie. A movement on the path below had caught her eye. The vulture had long since disappeared and it was too hot for any animal to be prowling; besides no wild creature would kick up the dust that was filling the path below. As she stood to watch, she could hear the beat of horse’s hooves, several horses perhaps, approaching at a steady clip. Who would be interested in visiting her lonely spot? she wondered. But the vigil of five months had taught her patience and so she waited watching the dust cloud grow larger until finally she was able to discern the shape of a man on horseback climbing the last mile of the path.
Only then did a slight widening of her eyes betray her shock. The man was King David.
The King waved to his guards and said something she couldn’t hear but she assumed he had ordered them to stay behind since they turned their mounts around and took up watch, scanning the path below them. David trotted forward and dismounted before Rizpah.
“You are Rizpah, mother of Saul’s sons,” he said as if waiting for her to confirm her identity though they both knew that there would be no others on this mountain to confuse her with.
“Yes,” she replied, as wary as she was only minutes ago with the vulture overhead.
“The people have told me about you,” he continued. “They have said that you keep vigil for your sons and for the sons of Merab and that you will not leave as long as their bones remain dishonored.”
“Yes,” she said again, not sure what more to say and not able to trust her voice that had spoken to no other person for five months.
David paused and bowed his head ever so slightly, and then, in a soft voice, in a voice not of kings but in the voice of an ordinary man struggling to comprehend the responsibilities and the failures of his life, he said, “I have come to take your sons home.”
David buried the bones of Rizpah’s sons the next day, alongside the bones of Merab’s sons, and the bones of Saul and Jonathon which had been retrieved from the land of Jabesh-Gilead. Saul’s family was once again honored in the land and Rizpah’s vigil was ended.
And as the last shovelful of earth was smoothed over the graves of Rizpah’s sons, the skies opened up and rain poured forth from the heavens, bringing life once again to the land of Israel.