Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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2 Samuel 3:7, 21:1-14Now Saul had a concubine whose name was Rizpah daughter of Aiah. And Ishbaal said to Abner, ‘Why have you gone in to my father’s concubine?’
Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year; and David inquired of the Lord. The Lord said, ‘There is blood-guilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death.’ So the king called the Gibeonites and spoke to them. (Now the Gibeonites were not of the people of Israel, but of the remnant of the Amorites; although the people of Israel had sworn to spare them, Saul had tried to wipe them out in his zeal for the people of Israel and Judah.) David said to the Gibeonites, ‘What shall I do for you? How shall I make expiation, that you may bless the heritage of the Lord?’ The Gibeonites said to him, ‘It is not a matter of silver or gold between us and Saul or his house; neither is it for us to put anyone to death in Israel.’ He said, ‘What do you say that I should do for you?’ They said to the king, ‘The man who consumed us and planned to destroy us, so that we should have no place in all the territory of Israel— let seven of his sons be handed over to us, and we will impale them before the Lord at Gibeon on the mountain of the Lord.’ The king said, ‘I will hand them over.’
But the king spared Mephibosheth, the son of Saul’s son Jonathan, because of the oath of the Lord that was between them, between David and Jonathan son of Saul. The king took the two sons of Rizpah daughter of Aiah, whom she bore to Saul, Armoni and Mephibosheth; and the five sons of Merab daughter of Saul, whom she bore to Adriel son of Barzillai the Meholathite; he gave them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they impaled them on the mountain before the Lord. The seven of them perished together. They were put to death in the first days of harvest, at the beginning of the barley harvest.
Then Rizpah the daughter of Aiah took sackcloth, and spread it on a rock for herself, from the beginning of harvest until rain fell on them from the heavens; she did not allow the birds of the air to come on the bodies by day, or the wild animals by night. When David was told what Rizpah daughter of Aiah, the concubine of Saul, had done, David went and took the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan from the people of Jabesh-gilead, who had stolen them from the public square of Beth-shan, where the Philistines had hung them up, on the day the Philistines killed Saul on Gilboa. He brought up from there the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan; and they gathered the bones of those who had been impaled. They buried the bones of Saul and of his son Jonathan in the land of Benjamin in Zela, in the tomb of his father Kish; they did all that the king commanded. After that, God heeded supplications for the land.
Sometimes Your Plans Are Wrong: 2 Sam. 3:7, 21:1-14
I don’t know any kings or concubines. Those parts of this sad and terrible story are unfamiliar to my daily life. This story in itself is not a regular part of the reading schedule I follow in my preaching. Following that reading schedule, it would be so easy to never even come upon the story of Rizpah, the brave woman who watches over the bodies of her dead children. I might even hazard a guess that, even those of you who have decades of Christian faith under your belt... who have heard hundreds of sermons, there’s a good chance that you haven’t heard one about her either. Some things in this story are familiar though, even if you don’t know the details. A powerful man is trying to fix a problem. He misunderstands the nature of the problem. His plan for fixing the problem involves sacrificing someone else’s lives and children. His plan doesn’t fix the problem. But, he realizes what he has done didn’t help. He takes steps to make amends. It doesn’t fix the damage he’s done, but it gets his people closer to the life God hopes for them. As our church has working on our plans for the next steps of our common life in the midst of COVID-19, this story of plans that do harm feels timely. How do we care for the Rizpahs in our midst, instead of demanding the unimaginable from them?
We don’t know a lot about Rizpah. We do know that she is attached to King Saul. The New Revised Standard Version refers to her as a concubine, though Dr. Wil Gafney thinks it’s better to translate it as secondary wife. It’s not that Saul didn’t have concubines. It’s just that Rizpah wasn’t one. Kings, because of their power and privilege, had access to women in lots of ways. Only some of those ways, the kings entered into a level of legal responsibility with some of the women. These women were the wives, who could be of lower or higher status. Rizpah was a wife of lower status, secondary to Ahinoam, Saul’s primary wife. We learn more about Ahinoam’s children in other stories. Her son Jonathan loved David deeply. When Jonathan died, David wept for him, saying his love surpassed the love of a woman. Her daughter Merab was initially engaged to David, though married off to someone else. Merab’s sons are among the dead that Rizpah tends in her grief. Ahinoam’s other daughter Michal was in an emotionally complicated marriage to David. We know little about Rizpah’s children other than that her two sons are killed. They weren’t entitled to the same privileges as the children of primary wives.
We actually only know two stories about Rizpah, this one, and another, where Saul’s nephew, Abner, is accused of assaulting her. The wives, primary and secondary, as well as the concubines and slaves, were always at risk of attack from men who sought to overthrow their husbands/people who owned them. If you staked you claim on the throne, you might also stake your claim on the wives of the man you want to replace. Rizpah found herself in the middle of an argument between two men, David and Abner, who both wanted the throne. Abner might have used her to try to get it.
Today’s reading is actually the second story where she is a primary figure, though the first one where we get to see her acting on her own behalf. In the first story, she is acted upon. She doesn't even have lines of dialogue. In our reading, she acts. And, at the very least, it changes the plans of the one who betrayed her. This story takes place soon enough after David is able to unite Israel under his kingship that he might be worried about his ability to keep the country united in the face of a tragedy, like a famine that lasted three years. David asks God what was going on and why the country would be so afflicted? David hears back that Saul, his father-in-law, and former king who died in battle, and Saul’s whole lineage carried guilt because of their mistreatment of a neighboring country, the Gibeonites. The story tells us that though they were covered under a treaty, Saul sought to wipe them out.
Initially, it seems like David is making a good choice. He is going to the people who were wronged and asking them how to make amends. Amend-making is no small thing, especially on the national level. Even if David is only going to them out of a sense of self-preservation, it’s still good practice. But, the Gibeonites ask too much and David does not have the wisdom to deny them. They ask for the lives of seven of Saul’s heirs. Remember, Saul’s sons are David’s brothers-in-law and his grandsons are David’s nephews. This is David’s family, too. And, unimaginably, David says yes.
David doesn’t hand over Jonathan’s son. Jonathan is also already dead, having died in battle. David loved him too much to sacrifice his son. He does take Jonathan’s half-brothers, Rizpah’s sons, and Jonathan’s nephews, Merab’s five sons, and hands them over to the Gibeonites. If I could rewrite a portion of the Bible, this is a place where I would be tempted to start. I want David to argue on behalf of Saul’s family. I want him to say that the sacrifice is cruel and cannot be paid. Or, I want him to check in with God, one more time, and for God to say, no. I don’t need seven more deaths to fix things. That’s not what this is about. I want David to realize that just because he started on one plan, that doesn't mean that he has to keep following it, especially when the plan is leading him in such an awful direction. It’s like that Pete Seeger song: knee deep in the Big Muddy and the big fool said to push on. David pushed on. People died because of it.
I don’t want Rizpah to have to be the only one who tends to the bodies of the dead. That seems like cruelty heaped on cruelty. If nothing else, she shows us what it means to do right by your people, even if the face of the powerful people that were willing to sacrifice them. It reminds me of those nurses who have been standing up in protest and saying the names of other nurses who have died of COVID-19, often because they didn’t have the proper protective equipment when caring for their patients. Or, the images I’ve seen of gay activists in the 80’s who wouldn’t let their friends and partners’ deaths be forgotten because the government wasn’t yet serious about addressing the AIDS epidemic. Somebody had to make sure that everybody else knew this wasn’t right. Somebody had to tend to the ones who had died.
Dr. Gafney tells us that Rizpah kept watch over her sons and nephews for six months, from April or May, at the spring harvest, until the fall rains, what would have been September or October. Maybe it takes David six months to pay attention to her. Maybe he decides to wait to see if his terrible bargain will work. Whatever the reason, he finally realizes that this was not right and the ones who were killed deserved a proper burial. He retrieved Saul and Jonathan’s bones, that had also not been properly interred in a story early in 2nd Samuel, and gathered up the remains of the sons and grandsons and buries them. Notice, scriptures says this it is not the deaths that bring health back to the land. It is the burials. God ends the famine when David takes steps to make amends.
What do we do with this story today? Hopefully, we work to identify the Rizpahs in our midst, those who already carry a burden of violence, and we refuse to submit them, and the Merabs, to more suffering. We refuse to consider their lives and their children’s lives as acceptable losses for the greater good. Secondly, we pay attention to the ways that our plans, which may start out as great, veer into violence and callousness. David couldn’t control the Gibeonites’ malice but he could control how he responded to it. He did not have to give them what they wanted. We have to say no when we are asked to sacrifice someone else, even when yes is the easier answer.
And, when we do wrong, we must work to make amends. I think of the Maine Wabanaki State Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That’s another story about children sacrificed for someone else’s good. When you listen to the testimonies, you hear Rizpah and Rizpah’s children. The on-going work in our state is showing us how to pay respect and acknowledge what was lost. This process has definitely begun some holy work in this land, though it is far from over. In our Unraveled journal, Lauren Wright Pittman offers up these words that seem like wise counsel going forward: “When we see someone unraveling in inexplicable grief, may this sight unravel us from the ways we are entangled with injustice.” I pray that we can be unraveled for the good and we no longer need Rizpah to keep watch on the mountain in order to get us to pay attention.
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.