A concubine of a moody King. A widowed pawn in the middle of a bloody power struggle. A sacrifice to appease the anger of affronted allies.
The brief glimpses the Bible records of the life of Rizpah could make a horror movie, but Rizpah’s story never stood out to me until listening to this hauntingly sad song from Jamie Soles.
Looking back at the two brief passages (2 Samuel 3 & 21) that tell about her, my heart aches. But her life was more than just a series of tragedies. Rizpah was a fiercely devoted mother who obeyed God’s law when no one else had the guts to. Through her example, justice was finally served and a three-year-long famine finally ended.
Rizpah, daughter of Aiah, was the concubine of Saul, the first king of Israel. At first King Saul’s reign was peaceful but it grew more and more rocky until he committed suicide in a disastrous defeat by the Philistines. Three of his heirs died in the battle with him. (Because Rizpah was a concubine, not a wife, her sons were not heirs to the throne.)
After the death of Saul and his three oldest heirs, civil war raged between followers of Saul’s remaining heir, Ish-bosheth, and David, God’s annointed.
Years passed. Then Ish-bosheth caught wind of a scandal: rumor had it that his commander Abner had slept with Rizpah. This was a huge deal because if you were the wife or concubine of a dead king, sleeping with you was tantamount to declaring your intent to usurp the throne.
It’s not clear whether Abner raped Rizpah or if she hoped an alliance with Abner might help her and her sons survive the treacherous political waters. Whether she had any choice in it or not, Ish-bosheth confronted Abner about Rizpah, Abner stormed out, defaulted to David’s side, and was promptly murdered (behind David’s back) by David’s commander Joab.
After Abner’s death, Ish-bosheth’s kingdom crumbled, the civil war ended, and David was pronounced King.
Then famine struck. For three long years the land lay barren. When King David sought the Lord for the reason, the Lord said it was because King Saul had killed the Gibeonites, whom the Israelites had sworn not to kill (Joshua 9).
The Gibeonites demanded revenge in the form of seven of Saul’s surviving sons or grandsons. Both of Rizpah’s sons were taken from her and given to the Gibeonites, who hung them on the mountain of Gibeah and left their dead bodies for the birds.
Rizpah was powerless to stop the murder of her sons. She was powerless to enforce the Law (Deut. 21:22-23) which said their bodies had to be taken down before nightfall. All she could do was mourn and keep the wild animals from desecrating their bodies.
So Rizpah began what may be the most horrific vigil in history. Day and night Rizpah stood watch over the decaying bodies of her sons and beat off birds by day and beasts by night.
Her sons were hanged at the beginning of barley harvest. Rizpah continued her vigil for five long months till the first rains fell and washed the stench from her gaunt, sleep-deprived frame and mingled with the tears of her grieving mother’s heart.
When news of what Rizpah had done reached David, her story seems to have pricked his conscience to action. He gathered the unburied bones of King Saul, his sons who died with him, and the sons whom Rizpah guarded, and finally buried them. Only then did the Lord answer the pleas of the people for the famine to end.
(Nothing else is mentioned about Rizpah in the Bible. I can only hope her life didn’t end completely bleak.)
Over three thousand years later, Rizpah’s tragic story keeps running through my mind. Her heroic, heart-wrenching vigil keeps battering my complacent modern Christianity.6
Why couldn’t she just pray the “prayer of Jabez” or something? I ask myself in sarcastic anger. You know, couldn’t she just ask for peace, prosperity, and happiness and avoid all this terrible tragedy?
But like Ruth, Esther, Mary, and the rest of the Biblical heroines, the brief painting of Rizpah’s life leaves a much bigger legacy than just the pursuit of happiness. Rizpah was a faithful mother even in the face of horrific unhappiness. She was humbly committed to doing the right thing in the face of ginormous odds and great personal sacrifice.
So even over the long passage of years, her life shines forth as a witness to us, to “take up our cross” and follow Jesus faithfully, even in the shadow of death.
And though the shadow of death hung over her life, her faithfulness in the face of death blessed the whole land. Through her witness, Saul and his sons were finally buried and then the famine ended.