Rizpah’s story is told in 2 Samuel 3:7 and 21:1-14. She is introduced there as Saul’s concubine. Traditionally, a concubine was a woman involved sexually with a man yet unmarried to him, generally due to a lower socio-economic status. Kings often had many concubines—Solomon is said to have had 300 (1 Kings 11:3)!
While these women were provided for, many entered the union at the risk of a potentially perilous life. Here, I’m reminded of David’s concubines in 2 Samuel 16:20-22 and 20:3. In his revolt against his father, Absalom sleeps with ten of David’s concubines. These women are later placed under guard in a home where they live, isolated from society, until their deaths. Did some have children? Were they allowed to see them? Some, if not all, would have been young—how many years do they endure house arrest before their final demise? This story testifies to the possible dangers of service in a king’s court.
Rizpah would agree. She is first introduced to us in 2 Samuel 3:7 as an object of political intrigue. After the death of Saul, Israel temporarily divides between David and Saul’s Son, Ish-bosheth. It would seem however that Ish-bosheth served more as a figurehead with true power resting in the hands of Abner, the commander of Saul’s army. At some point, Ish-bosheth accuses Abner of sleeping with Rizpah.
The writer neither denies nor affirms the accusation but the seriousness of the allegation is felt. For, as seen with Absalom, to sleep with a king’s wife/concubine was to make a direct claim for the throne. Here, Rizpah becomes a crucial pawn in a chancy political game—one that ends with the deaths of both Abner and Ish-bosheth (2 Samuel 3-5). Later, Rizpah’s connection to Saul will find her gazing on the lifeless bodies of her own sons.
Armoni and Mephibosheth (not to be mistaken with Jonathan’s son in 2 Samuel 9:1-14), were sons of Saul by Rizpah. They, along with five of Saul’s grandsons, are hanged as payment in Saul’s murder of the Gibeonites (2 Samuel 21:1-14). The story is told like this: after being crowned king over all of Israel, David is faced with a severe famine. He seeks the LORD for a reason and is told of Saul’s bloodguilt in the slaughter of the Gibeonites.
Now the Gibeonites were an infamous Canaanite tribe that deceived Joshua and Israel into a peace agreement back in Joshua 9:1-27. The two nations established a covenant that forever enslaved Gibeon to Israel yet forbid the killing of these Amorite slaves. It appears however that Saul, perhaps in his crazed zeal to safeguard his crown, had killed many of the Gibeonites. As recompense, the Gibeonites request seven of Saul’s sons. And Rizpah’s two—along with the others—are given to Gibeon to be hanged on a mountain before the LORD (2 Samuel 21:8-9).
According to Deuteronomy 21:22-23, a hanged man was to be buried on the same day of his death, he was not to remain exposed overnight. The Gibeonites—and David—ignore this law for some reason and the seven men are left dangling, not just overnight but, presumably for months. The Scripture tells us that Rizpah, bereaved of her children, takes sackcloth for herself and spreads it on a rock near the dead bodies; “from the beginning of harvest until the rain [falls] upon them from the heaven…she [doesn’t] allow the birds of the air to come upon them by day, or the beast of the field by night” (2 Samuel 21:10).
Just imagine! A woman of court, once accustomed to comforts, makes a home for herself on a rock and for days, weeks, or even months, suffers the putrid stench of seven decaying men; she battles the persistence of plundering birds and beasts by day and by night; she stands sleeplessly over the bodies of her family that they might not suffer the final disgrace of being carrion for scavengers (Deuteronomy 28:26).
When David hears of Rizpah’s courage, he is moved—whether by shame or inspiration—to bury the men as required by the Law of God. He takes the bones of Saul and Jonathan and buries them with the bones of the seven killed by Gibeon in the tomb of Kish their father. After this, God responds to the plea for the land. (2 Samuel 21:11-14).
The story of one concubine, packed with so many twists and grievous turns! As I read Rizpah’s account, I’m reminded of God’s warning to Israel concerning their demand for a King (2 Samuel 8:1-9). God had redeemed His people from slavery by His mighty hand and had established them in the land of His promise. He was their King. But the people insisted on a king of their own making. God grants their request, but not without warning: the king you seek will enslave you for the sake of his own passions. He will take your sons and your daughters and your land and you will cry out (2 Samuel 8:10-18).
We ought to hear the echo of this warning in Rizpah’s cry; we should see it in the swaying bodies of her sons and the ominous approach of vultures. We watch and listen and are reminded of a Greater King, a Better King on a higher throne.
Unlike King David who takes the sons of Saul, this King takes His own sinless Son and hangs Him on a hill for the atonement of sin. The Son dies (and is raised) for the sins of His bride (Romans 4:25). He doesn’t imprison her for her offenses but redeems her by His own blood. He clothes her with His own righteousness and is determined that she should live with Him forever. “He will wipe away every tear from [her] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things [will pass] away” (Revelation 21:4). My sister, look not today to the “kings” of your own making but to your righteous Bridegroom—a Greater King, a Better King on a higher throne.
*Thanks for reading! This post is part of my Mothers in the Bible Series; we are looking for glimpses of the gospel in the lives of biblical women--from Eve to Mary, the mother of Christ. Click here to see other writings. And please let me know your thoughts!