David, Rizpah, and the Sons of Saul

2 Samuel 21 is an example of the beauty and complexity of the Old Testament – and a reminder of why Christians should still read it.

Rizpah keeps watch in the tranquil night over the decaying bodies of her sons - painting by Joseph Turner

Rizpah keeps watch in the tranquil night over the decaying bodies of her sons – painting by Joseph Turner

I’ve been simultaneously reading the Psalms, Luke, and 2 Samuel. And, recently, I found myself flipping back to 2 Samuel feeling a little defeated. I was unsure of what I was really getting from reading through Old Testament histories, other than just knowing what’s in the book that I claim to follow.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy 2 Samuel – on the contrary, the book is lit. 1 Samuel is probably more well-known, what with David vs Goliath, David vs Saul, and David’s ascension to the throne of Israel, but 2 Samuel goes full of Game of Thrones as we follow more of David’s military exploits, his destructive affair with Bathsheba, his son Absalom’s rebellion, and more. General Joab’s repeated appearances in the book are enough on their own to make it compelling, and he’s far from being the only memorable character.[1]

So it’s not that I don’t find the accounts interesting or affecting, because things like the loyalty of David’s men, Hushai’s subterfuge, and David mourning over the death of Absalom are all moving or memorable for one reason or another.

But, to get back to what I was saying – just recently, as I was flipping back to 2 Samuel with the feeling that I was doing little more than reading stories, I came to 2 Samuel 21, which has given me more pause than any other scripture recently, and reminded me of why I should read the Old Testament. You may want to read the first 14 verses.

Basically, there’s a famine in Israel and David asks God what’s wrong. God answers that the famine is happening because of the way Saul, years before, wrongly attacked the Gibeonites. So David goes to the Gibeonites and asks what they want to settle the old score, and they make the bold demand of executing seven descendants of Saul. David complies, and the seven are hanged (which could mean by a rope, or it could mean impaling or crucifixion (yuck)). The bodies are not buried immediately, as would normally be custom, and are left to rot (perhaps until the rains came and the famine ended). Rizpah, one of Saul’s concubines and mother of two of the executed men, sits in sackcloth by the bodies of the seven and day and night fends off birds and beasts who would come seeking carrion. David is moved by this action, and he goes and gets the bones of Saul and Jonathan, and, together with the bodies of the seven, he has them all buried properly, together.

Then, and only then, does the author tell us that “God responded to the plea for the land.”

There’s any number of ways you can focus in on this text, and what I assume many readers will do first is consider the vengeance and punishment. This seems like a harsh decision from David, who turns over seven (probably) innocent men to atone for the sins of their father, something that seems in conflict with the book of Deuteronomy as well as some of David’s past actions. Taking this a step further, we might attribute this blood-debt-human-sacrifice thing to God, which seems to be another example of the OT God being kinda vengeful and terrifying. However you focus this particular lens, this aspect of the text becomes a commentary on sin, atonement, and God’s righteous wrath, which is pretty run-of-the-mill when it comes to the violent passages of the OT.

But then why all the fuss about Rizpah and the proper burial? And why does the author wait until after the burial to say that God ended the famine?

There’s a tendency among readers, Christians and non-Christians alike, to either over-simplify or over-complicate the Old Testament. Given the situation, it can help us come to grips with the mass amounts of violence, the sins of our heroes, and all of the WTF stories. You might have to breeze past or carefully maneuver through things like Elisha’s she-bears and the medium at Endor in order to avoid coming away from the OT discouraged and confused. But simplifying or complicating our readings can distort or displace the messages that might be found in a more…oh, we’ll say, “theatrical” approach.

So, in this story, when does God appear?

  1. At the beginning, when God tells David why the famine is happening, but doesn’t tell him what exactly he needs to do.
  2. Throughout the story, as David and the Gibeonites mention carrying this atonement out “before the LORD.”
  3. At the end, when God ends the famine after David has properly buried the seven, Saul, and Jonathan.

The author makes the two explicit references to God saying or doing something at the beginning and the end, which makes me think that, after defining the problem Israel has in the beginning of the story, God does not see the problem as solved until the very end. This could mean that God didn’t need an execution to satisfy his wrath in the first place. Maybe there was something else that happened that really led to God ending the famine.

So let’s, in a sense, take God out of the middle part of this story and replay with what we have to work with, as well as free of complicated symbolism and allusions:

David goes to the Gibeonites and asks them what they want. We know from the famous Gibeonite Deception that the Gibeonites were not your average -ites, and here they have a not-so-average demand. They demand a steep price – that sons should die for their father’s crime. David, apparently without directly consulting God, agrees.

Imagine now what this looks like for David, the Gibeonites, and the seven. David loved Saul and Jonathan, and has made certain to show mercy to Saul’s grandson Mephiboseth. Now, in order to end a famine, he feels he must hand over seven innocent sons of Saul. The Gibeonites aren’t seeing this as God’s prescription – they’re sensing an opportunity to satisfy a desire for overdue vengeance. And the seven? They are, quite unexpectedly, informed that they are to be executed for something they didn’t do. And so the three parties meet up at a mountain, and the seven relatives die next to each other.

That’s a pretty gut-wrenching scene, yes? You can almost see David and some of the Gibeonites turning away as brothers and half-brothers die a gruesome death together.

God isn’t so squeamish as we are, but still God does not appear – the famine has, apparently, not ended.

The Gibeonites don’t give the seven a proper burial. Perhaps they are waiting for the famine to subside before they do so, or maybe they’re just adding an insult to the house of Saul on top of their vengeance. As David and the Gibeonites go home, probably satisfied that their business has concluded and the famine will end, the stage is cleared for Rizpah, whose actions led me to think so much about this story.

Rizpah bore two sons to Saul as his concubine, and they have just been executed. It’s possible she was there when it happened. When everyone else leaves and the bodies of her sons and five others lay rotting, she stays. She stays and mourns, fending off not only the birds that come by during the day, but the “beasts of the field” at night. Beasts of the field? This woman is not only mourning the loss of her two sons, but she’s fending off beasts of the field? At night?

This doesn’t have to be in the Bible to be moving. That’s a beautiful expression of a mother’s devotion and a horrific consequence of humanity’s violence, with or without fitting into the framework of scripture. And this is what you might miss in the Old Testament if you breeze through it or pedal too hard – the pain and beauty that resonates with readers as humans. The Bible is, at its most basic, a story, and stories should be felt in the same way that we might feel a novel or a poem or a film. Don’t miss this.

I’m not the only one who was affected by Rizpah’s devotion – it moved King David to action as well. David went home after making his deal with the Gibeonites, but he heard about what Rizpah was doing. His response was to go get the bones of Saul and Jonathan, which had been buried in haste to stop the Philistines from desecrating them. Once he has these, he has the remains of Saul, Jonathan, and the seven sons of Saul taken to a proper burial ground and put to rest. It’s an act of kindness to Rizpah, a posthumous nod to his dear friend Jonathan and his master Saul, and probably a weight off of his mind.

And then God ends the famine.

Maybe God did require that Israelites die to atone for Saul’s sin and bring about the end of the famine. And maybe this story, like many others, calls us to account for this in our view of God and corresponding doctrines of sin and atonement. But, in this case, that would actually be imputing our narrative onto the scripture, because this passage doesn’t say that God called for this action. What it does say is that God acted (implying that Saul’s debt was paid) after David buried the bones.

So what does this tell us about God? It could suggest any number of things – God holds life sacred, God is more concerned with loving hearts than with robotic obedience, God is merciful even in vengeance.

But I think looking at the story this way tell us much more about us – and isn’t understanding God, the Bible, and theology fundamentally connected to understanding ourselves and how we fit into these beliefs? We can gain these insights by examining what humans do between God’s actions in the story.

Doesn’t this story teach us that we can be cruel, vindictive, and unjust? Doesn’t it show how savage our own ideas of vengeance can be? Isn’t there something here about the sacredness of motherhood? Shouldn’t it teach us about the beauty of human life and the evil of desecration? Can’t it move us to reflect on loyalty, family, brotherhood, and honor?

Perhaps, above all, this is a reminder to heed Micah’s words to “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.” God doesn’t appear pleased when the vengeance has been satiated – rather, in this story, God appears pleased when Rizpah and David are just, merciful, and humble.

By taking a step back and taking this story as a story, by actively watching it rather than passively reading it, we can avoid the usual pitfalls of OT reading. And you won’t always find that approach in commentaries.

Reading the Old Testament is hard work. Thankfully, the meticulous study of theologians and scholars is good and helpful while illuminating many mysteries and raising further important questions. But sometimes, when we read, we make the difficulty of the OT into a burden that we’d rather avoid, either because it is challenging reading, boring, or disturbing. Sometimes it messes with our idea of God, and other times it is unclear how it should teach us anything about God or being a Christian.

The solution to these common problems might not necessarily be as complicated as you think.

Read it. Wrestle with it. Let it play out in front of you and move you.

Its complexities will unfold into great and terrible beauties and truths – sometimes in the most unexpected places.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

– Peter


1 Seriously, Joab is a colorful, crazy, brutal, bad-ass general. My favorite Joab scene is when David is mourning the loss of his son Absalom (whom Joab killed, btw), and Joab gives him a good-ol-fashioned “What’s the matter with you?” (like Robert De Niro in Goodfellasbecause David’s mourning makes it look like he doesn’t care about his soldiers who were killed in the war with Absalom.

2 thoughts on “David, Rizpah, and the Sons of Saul

  1. Pingback: “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee…” | *SOUNDINGS

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