Biblical narratives about women have not always received the full attention of biblical interpreters. Women’s roles appear to be less pronounced in Scripture, which, in turn, has led some to consider them less significant. We know more about Abraham and his life, doubts, struggles, and victories than we know about Sarah, his wife, whose claim to fame is based on the fact that she was Abraham’s wife and the mother of Isaac. David is a familiar name for any Bible reader. His exploits and actions fill entire biblical books; his literary works enrich our Old Testament hymnal. Yet we catch only snippets of the full lives lived by the women in his life, including Michal, Ahinoam, Abigail, and Bathsheba.
Some contemporary feminist scholars have tried to refocus biblical narratives by offering readings of the lives of Scripture’s female characters that are often more marked by a commitment to feminist ideology than by a careful reading of the biblical text. Other scholars have rather tried to affirm a commitment to the Bible as inspired Scripture (and not just a collection of ancient texts) while, at the same time, engaging the biblical text with careful and sensitive attention paid to the words and roles of the women who also were part of God’s astonishing acts in history.
This reading of Rizpah, a concubine of King Saul who is mentioned only twice in the Bible (in 2 Samuel 3:6-11 and 21:1-14), follows in the footsteps of this latter group of interpreters.1
We meet Rizpah during the reign of David, Israel’s second king. She becomes the focal point at two crucial moments in King David’s life. Rizpah lived in turbulent times of civil-war-like conditions. Following the tragic death of Saul and his sons on Mount Gilboa (1 Sam. 31:1-6), David was anointed king over Judah in Hebron (2 Sam. 2:1-7), while Ishbosheth, one of Saul’s remaining sons, was crowned king over Israel (2 Sam. 2:8-11). We read of constant conflict between Judah and Israel in the next chapters of the second book of Samuel. But there was even more internal conflict in the Israelite camp, as the angry exchange between Abner, Israel’s general and the real power behind the throne, and Ishbosheth seems to indicate. Second Samuel 3:7 contains the first explicit reference to Rizpah—and it appears in the context of conflict between two powerful men: “And Saul had a concubine, whose name was Rizpah, the daughter of Aiah. So Ishbosheth said to Abner, ‘Why have you gone in to my father’s concubine?’ ” Note that Ishbosheth doesn’t even mention Rizpah by name. For him she is just “my father’s concubine.” Rizpah is not seen as a person with a name, feelings, and a history. She is not the mother of Ishbosheth’s half brothers (2 Sam. 21:8), but a pawn in a royal gamble.
Let’s clarify some misconceptions about concubines. Concubines were not slaves (or even “sex slaves”). They were secondary wives of a ruler, even though their children were considered part of the royal household. Concubines are often named as mothers in biblical genealogies (Gen. 22:23, 24; Judges 8:31; 1 Chron. 2:46, 48). When Absalom tried to usurp the throne from his father, David, he chose to publicly sleep with his father’s concubines (2 Sam. 16:21, 22)—thus demonstrating his successful power grab.2 If Ishbosheth’s accusation was correct and Abner had slept with Rizpah, it’s quite possible that this illustrates the general’s royal ambitions. The biblical author doesn’t offer us any verification of the accusation, even though Abner’s angry reaction may suggest that Ishbosheth’s accusation was without any basis (2 Sam. 3:8-10).
Rizpah’s second appearance on the stage of biblical history happens several decades after her first appearance. David is now the king of a much larger Israel—even though the fractures are beginning to show. Following his own covenant Waterloo involving Bathsheba and Uriah, David’s house is threatened from within (as with the rebellion of his favorite son, Absalom, [2 Sam. 15]) and from the outside (see 2 Sam. 20). The land is suffering from a famine, and David, receiving divine guidance, is told that there is “bloodguilt” (2 Sam. 21:1, ESV)3 on the house of Saul, because of Saul’s breach of the divine covenant with the Gibeonites (see Joshua 9). When approaching the Gibeonites, David is told that only the representative death of seven descendants of Saul would take away the curse resting upon the land. Sparing the son of David’s friend Jonathan (and thus maintaining his side of the covenantal promise made to Jonathan [1 Sam. 20:12-17, 42]), David takes the two sons of Rizpah as well as five of the sons of Saul’s daughter Merab and hands them over to the Gibeonites, who execute them and don’t offer them a burial (2 Sam. 21:1-9).
Listen to the biblical text: “Now Rizpah the daughter of Aiah took sackcloth and spread it for herself on the rock, from the beginning of harvest until the late rains poured on them from heaven. And she did not allow the birds of the air to rest on them by day nor the beasts of the field by night” (2 Sam. 21:10). This story is challenging on many levels for Western readers. Collective guilt and punishment, absolute power (of a king) determining life and death, and the sacredness of covenants made in the name of the Lord are difficult topics for modern readers.
David’s action transformed Rizpah, already a widow, into a childless mother. Death in Israel, as in many other cultures, required closure and a resting place for the deceased, preferably in an ancestral lot. For Saul and his family, however, there was no closure—except for Rizpah’s inconspicuous action. The biblical author describes her sitting day and night next to the corpses, protecting them from scavengers. Her quiet witness finally reaches David, who in turn acts in a way that furthers nation building. David seems to recognize that new beginnings do not always require prompt and decisive action (something that he has mastered throughout his life), but may also involve forgiveness and closure—even for an enemy. It’s important to recognize that the famine doesn’t end after the death of Saul’s seven descendants, but rather when the remains of Saul and his descendants finally reach their ancestral resting place (2 Sam. 21:14).
Rizpah’s story is a “quiet” story that is marked, not by major action (or doing), but rather by being. Rizpah never seems to say anything in the two places in Scripture where she appears. Quiet, seemingly passive, and definitely underrepresented and underrated, she, nevertheless, is able to change the fate of dynasties and move a nation toward reconciliation and a new beginning.
Faced with the shame of public execution and the lack of burial for members of her family, Rizpah chooses to stick around. She protects the corpses of the executed members of her family against desecration and destruction. She guards them for approximately six months (during the entire harvest period), and we cannot really understand the hardship of her six-month vigil.4 There is no DoorDash food delivery service in Israel at that time—Rizpah has to fend for herself.
All the time Rizpah doesn’t utter a word. She is very different from the vocal (and eloquent) Abigail, whose discourse changes the heart of an angry warrior (1 Sam. 25). But someone in David’s court is talking—and it comes to the king’s attention. David is told about the loyalty and courage of a widow holding on to the last shred of her family honor—the bodies of her executed sons.
Moved by Rizpah’s quiet but
powerful witness, David acts, and national reconciliation can begin. The bodies of Saul, Jonathan, Saul’s other sons, and the seven executed members of his larger family are finally moved to their ancestral resting place, to the land of Kish, Saul’s father. The rabbis tell us that the bones were moved in procession through the territories of Israel,5 suggesting a larger and public importance of this act of reconciliation.
Rizpah’s quiet witness reminds me of the fact that change is not always controlled by powerful people but rather by people who allow God’s power to work in and through them—small people, tall people, old people, young people, important people, and seemingly unimportant people. I wonder how much of a Rizpah (and her attitudes and commitments) can be found in me? Am I willing to do the mop-up operations with no hope of any recognition, just because I believe it should be done? How much of a power person have I become in an increasingly power-hungry society? While Rizpah did not always have a choice, when she did and made her choice, it truly counted for eternity.
Gerald A. Klingbeil serves as an associate editor of Adventist Review.