Rizpah: A Bible Woman Who Wanted | CBE International

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Rizpah: A Bible Woman Who Wanted

On July 29, 2015

Earlier this month, Rachel Asproth wrote an excellent article entitled, “Women Who Want: A Reflection on the World Cup.” In it, she discussed another article that appeared recently in the Huffington Post by Autumn Whitefield-Madrano. Below is a quote from the original article, “The Beauty in Watching Women Want”:

What moves me is the players' faces, and watching women want. It's not hard to find images of women in the public act of doing beyond what's been allotted by tired stereotypes. We see women legislating, creating, speaking, protesting—images that weren't available just a couple of generations ago. But we still don't often see women in the act of wanting. And we need to see this, because when you're in the act of wanting something badly enough, there isn't room for self-consciousness” [emphasis mine].

This quote reminds me of Bible women. Often, we are startled when we read their stories—precisely because they do not appear self-conscious. When they felt called to pursue God, they did so with fierce dedication. Significantly, that passionate spirit of want was traditionally (and continues to be today) associated with Bible men.

One of my favorite examples of Bible women who wanted is Rizpah, whose narrative is wonderfully analyzed by Robin Gallagher Branch in her book, Jeroboam’s Wife: The Enduring Contribution of the Old Testament’s Least-Known Women. Her story, found in 2 Samuel 21:1-14, is straightforward enough. Late in David’s reign, the nation of Israel suffered a three-year drought and famine. David inquired of the Lord, who informed him that the fault lay with the house of David’s predecessor, Saul. During his reign, Saul had unjustly slain some of the Gibeonites—and their blood had to be avenged. David summoned some of the Gibeonites and asked what they would require to satisfy the bloodguilt. They demanded seven sons from the house of Saul, and David handed them over. The Gibeonites put them to death and left their bodies to the mercy of the elements—a violation of Israelite burial practices. 

Rizpah, a former concubine of Saul and mother of two of the slain, kept watch over her kinsmen. She refused to let their bodies become food for scavenging animals. Her determined, lonely vigil evidently provoked the conscience of David. He sent for the remains of Saul and his son, Jonathan, both slain in battle and hurriedly buried outside of Israel. The nation was allowed, at last, a period of mourning for their dead king, and all the bodies of Saul’s house were given a proper burial in the family tomb. God had compassion on the Israelites and once again sent the rain. 

In this reading of the text, our sympathies lie with David. He was put in a very difficult position—and was forced to carry out a distasteful order. Later, he did the right thing, showing proper respect for his former enemies. There is another way of reading the story, however.

Who benefited from the death of Saul’s descendants? In a different reading of the story, David found a convenient way to wipe out the rival claimants to his throne. Therefore, the story becomes not an illustration of the piety and obedience of David, but a graphic picture of the way a very earthly king attempted to secure his own power.

We must ask more questions, then. Was David a ruthless warrior or did he truly believe God sanctioned the killing of the Saulides? The latter interpretation would not be out of place. One has only to look at the history of Christendom to see that God’s people have tragically believed that God sanctioned the killing of the “other,” including fellow Christians. “Significantly, the narrator refrains from commenting on either of these two possible readings” (59).

In her book, Branch applauds the unfathomable courage of Rizpah. To Branch, Rizpah is an activist, silently shaming the king for not burying Saul and his sons. The ancient rabbis gave her great honor. They “offer Rizpah unequivocal praise and credit her with great kindness towards the dead” (53). Indeed, “One rabbinic tradition holds that this famine occurred because Saul’s remains had not been buried with the honor due a king. This argument… indirectly acknowledges Rizpah’s role in alleviating the famine and ending the national crisis” (50). Scripture seems to support this interpretation, because it says:

And Rizpah the daughter of Aiah took sackcloth and spread it for herself on the rock, from the beginning of harvest until it rained on them from the sky [emphasis mine]; and she allowed neither the birds of the sky to rest on them by day nor the beasts of the field by night (2 Samuel 21:10 NASB).

Her heroism came at a tremendous personal cost. As a member of the disgraced house of Saul, she might have faced the threat of violence herself, or even death for defying the king. Branch writes, “Arguably, because of her known affiliation with and allegiance to the defeated house of Saul, it is a rebellious action” (49). In this famine-stricken land, who would have brought her food and water? Who would have defied the will of a powerful king to support her? The biblical text is silent, strongly implying that no one did—not other members of Saul’s house, and not other Israelites. Branch adds, “Instead, the narrative points toward a grieving woman’s isolation and loneliness… as her vigil continues, it becomes the ancient equivalent of a stare-down contest with David. Who will blink first?” (53).

Rizpah endured all of that, because she wanted justice, and she sincerely believed that Yahweh wanted it too. Branch points out that, “…in preventing the beasts and the birds from devouring the remains, [Rizpah] demonstrates her contempt for the Canaanite practice of letting bodies rot in the open” (60). The rabbis again support her in this. In their tradition, David acknowledged that Rizpah had shown more hesed (loving-kindness or mercy) than he had. 

It is a startling reversal. The “man after God’s own heart” confessed that a woman, probably destitute with her only male protector dead, demonstrated more of God’s nature than the anointed king. Rizpah, or more accurately, God working through her, won that contest. Her “…actions shout across the nation! Her silent yet defiant protest compels the king to action” (53).

Rizpah understood and embodied the values that God wants us all to live out:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8 NRSV).

She did so with a fierce determination and a longing to follow God, no matter the cost. She was a woman who wanted, both God’s justice for her family and his blessing for her people. And in the end, God honored her wanting. May her story—of courage and a spirit of sincere want—encourage us all today.

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