Her name means: “A Hot Stone” or “Coal”
Her character: Saul’s concubine Rizpah was the mother of Armoni and Mephibosheth. Though a woman with few rights and little power, she displayed great courage and loyalty after the death of her sons.
Her sorrow: That her only sons were executed and their bodies dishonored because of their father’s crime.
Her joy: That the bodies of her sons were finally given an honorable burial.
Key Scriptures: 2 Samuel 21:8-14
One day a rabbi stood on a hill overlooking a certain city. The rabbi watched in horror as a band of Cossacks on horseback suddenly attacked the town, killing innocent men, women, and children. Some of the slaughtered were his own disciples. Looking up to heaven, the rabbi exclaimed: “Oh, if only I were God.” An astonished student, standing nearby, asked, “But, Master, if you were God, what would you do differently?” The rabbi replied: “If I were God I would do nothing differently. If I were God, I would understand.”
One day a woman named Rizpah was standing on a hill in Israel, watching the execution of seven men. Her grief was sharp, for among the dead were her own two sons. Executed for their father’s crime, their bodies were left to rot on the hillside, despite a law requiring burial by sunset. Perhaps, like the rabbi, Rizpah wished she were God, even for a moment. Maybe then she would understand the “why” of what she had just witnessed.
It is not hard to imagine Rizpah’s suffering. To watch as her body convulses in sorrow. To see her pound a fist against her breast to beat away the grief. When will she turn away from the gruesome spectacle? we wonder. But instead of fleeing the scene of her sorrow, she faces it, drawing close to bloodied bodies she once had cradled in her arms. Then she spreads sackcloth on a rock and sits down, refusing to move except to beat off birds of prey by day and jackals by night. Her vigil would last for several months—from mid-April to early October. Rizpah would not bury her grief as long as the bodies of her sons remained unburied.
Joshua had promised to live in peace with the Gibeonites, but Saul had murdered many of them during his reign, attempting to annihilate them. As a result of Saul’s oath-breaking, Israel suffered a famine for three years running. In retribution, the Gibeonites had asked David for seven of Saul’s male offspring. David surrendered Saul’s two sons by Rizpah and five grandsons by Saul’s daughter Merab. Blood was spilt for blood.
Scripture doesn’t say whether Rizpah’s sons shared their father’s guilt. But like all mothers whose children have perished by violence—those in Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, Iraq, Afghanistan, our own inner cities, and even our suburbs—Rizpah must have understood the terrible link between sin and death. One person’s sin is a cancer that spreads. By refusing to hide her grief, by living out her anguish in public, Rizpah gave meaning to her sons’ deaths, making the entire nation face the evil of what had happened.
Finally, the rains came. Finally, the king’s heart was touched. Hearing of Rizpah’s loyalty and courage, David ordered the remains of the executed to be buried. He even ordered Saul’s and his son Jonathan’s bones to be reclaimed and buried.
Scripture doesn’t say that God ordered David to hand the men over to the Gibeonites in the first place, or even that the famine ended when they were executed. Instead, as Virginia Stem Owens points out in her book Daughters of Eve, the Bible indicates that God answered prayers on behalf of the land after the dead were given a decent burial. David’s act in honor of the dead may have signaled an end to Israel’s divisions. Finally, the land could be healed and the Israelites could reunite under David’s leadership.
Rizpah made the people look at the cost of sin. Like many women in ancient cultures, she had few rights and little power. But her persistent courage gave meaning to her sons’ deaths and helped a nation deal with the sin of its leader. Her story is tragic; her response, memorable. Perhaps because of her, other mothers in Israel were spared a similar grief, at least for a time.
Rizpah’s consistency and tenacity is a lesson for all who are inclined to give up when the going gets tough. Out of love and a need to do what was right, she stuck out bad weather, cold, fatigue, and wild animals to protect her dead sons. Finally, someone in authority took notice and did something. Her faithfulness was rewarded, and she could rest. God promises the same to us. He asks us only to be faithful and to leave the rest up to him. Whatever the situation—harsh parents, unloving spouses, rebellious children, financial difficulties, sickness, or death—God knows and will uphold and provide in his time.
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