Bible References: 2 Samuel 3:6-11; 2 Samuel 21:1-14.
Heart of the Story: The Gibeonites killed Rizpah’s sons, Armoni and Mephibosheth, and left their bodies exposed on a hill. Their mother spread sackcloth on a rock near their bodies. From the beginning of the barley harvest till rains poured on the bodies, Rizpah kept the birds and wild animals off her sons’ bodies.
Rizpah was Saul’s concubine but apparently had some status because her father Aiah is named in the Bible. Saul fathered Rizpah’s two sons, Armoni and Mthibosheth. After Saul died, Rizpah and her sons remained in the royal court of Ish-Bosheth, Saul’s son. Abner was the commander of Ish-Bosheth’s army and the power behind the royal throne. During the war between David and Saul’s house, Abner strengthened his own position and began to pose a threat to Ish-Bosheth’s rule.
Ish-Bosheth accused Abner of sleeping with Rizpah. If the accusation was true, then Abner conspired to seize the kingship from Ish-Boseth. In Old Testament Israel, significance was attached to having sexual relations with widow’s and concubine’s of a king (2 Samuel 12:6, 16:21; 2 Kings 2:22). Vehemently, Abner denied Ish-Bosheth’s accusation; however, Ish-Bosheth did not take back his words or apologize for them. The result was that Abner worked to turn the Israelite kingdom over to David.
During the early years of David reign, Israel experienced a three-year famine because of the lack of rain. God told David that the famine was the result of Saul killing and almost decimating the Gibeonites, a non-Israelite clan who signed a peace treaty with Israel 400 years earlier. David asked some remaining Gibeonites what amends he could make so that they would bless Israel. The Gibeonites requested seven of Saul’s descendants to kill and expose before the Lord. David turned over to the Gibeonites five sons of Saul’s daughter, Merab, and two sons of Saul’s concubine, Rizpah. The Gibeonites murdered and exposed the bodies of the seven men at Gibeah, the home town of the both the Gibeonites and of Saul and his ancestors.
Rizpah was in a terrible position. By this time, her father Aiah was probably dead. The father of her sons was dead and now her sons were murdered. What was she to do? Who was left to provide for her? Rizpah’s next action was a surprise to all who noted it. She took sackcloth and spread it out on a rock near her son’s bodies. Sackcloth is coarse lose cloth used in mourning and for begging. She sat on the cloth and by day kept birds and by night wild animals off her son’s bodies. Rizpah remained at the site of her son’s exposed bodies from the time they were killed until rain poured down from heaven on their bodies. This length of time could have been 8-9 months. In Israel, the barley harvest is in April while heavy, pouring fall rains can be as late as November-December.
When David learned what Rizpah did, he gathered the bones of the seven men murdered at Gibeah and those of Saul and Jonathan and buried them in Saul’s father’s tomb at Zela in Benjamin. By his action King David demonstrated a final deep respect for Saul, his sons, and his grandsons.
Both Rizpah and her sons Armoni and Mephibosheth were pawns in this Bible story. The Bible gives no information that either son sinned in a way that would cause them to be murdered. Their offense was that they were sons of Saul. Although Rizpah’s loyal actions play a part in David’s decision to bury Saul and his off string, apparently David made no provision for Rizpah who had no living sons. In ancient Israel, often widows without sons sold themselves into slavery or became prostitutes in order to have food to eat.
Rizpah loved her sons to the point that she exposed herself to the heat of the summer sun in Israel to protect their bodies. Smelling the decayed bodies day after day and night after night must have been excruciatingly painful. Probably she was grateful to King David for giving them a consequential burial. In this story, she and her sons are the sympathetic figures while Ish-Bosheth, Abner, and David acted questionably.
Copyright: Carolyn A. Roth, 12/13.