Rizpah brings Rain
Written by Martin Ellgar 2006
This story is a cry wanting to be heard. It surfaces late in the book of Samuel, between the end of the civil war where King David reunited Israel with Judah, and David’s song of praise to God (2 Sam. 22). Peace needed to abound in his kingdom before the song of praise could be justified. This story surfaces in the middle of the remaining big issues that need resolving. One was a last minute rebellion by Sheba son of Bicri. David’s men soon dealt with that (2 Sam. 20), and continued to conquer the last of the neighbouring giant Philistines (2 Sam. 21: 15-22). In the midst of conquering trouble makers and giants this story of the Gibeonites appears and needs to be told and resolved before singing words of celebration.
The text is about many things, one of which is murder and the cry for justice. The text and its location in the book of Samuel appears as if there has been a struggle over time for it to be heard. The story has its beginnings not in the reign of King David, but back through the reign of King Saul, and further back through the period of the Judges to the time when Joshua led Israel (Joshua 9). The cry for justice is reminiscent of the shedding of Abel’s blood, murdered by his brother Cain. Abel’s blood cries out from the ground to God for justice (Genesis 4: 10). In a sense, the blood of the murdered Gibeonites also cries out from the ground to God to appeal for justice. God has heard their cries and taken on their cause. He brings it to the attention of David by initiating a famine in the land (v.1).
The story is bigger than the issue of the decimated Gibeonites. Within the text is another story waiting to be told by God before the chorus of praise begins. It’s a story of what God has done and promised for all people by way of his actions towards the Gibeonites. It’s a story that includes us all to this promise, a story in which we too can join in the chorus of praise to God.
There are three main characters that feature in the story, God, King David, and a grieving mother named Rizpah. All three characters reveal themselves in a way that challenges our current thinking towards them, and in turn to our own place in life.
Text and Commentary
v.1. During the reign of David, there was famine for three successive years; so David sought the face of the Lord. The Lord said, “It is on account of Saul and his blood-stained house; it is because he put the Gibeonites to death.”
Three successive years of famine is a long time. The land would have looked decimated. Famine is like genocide upon the land, it clears away its blessing. In a way, the land shared in the decimation and suffering of a people who had experienced genocide. The land became the visible advocate for the suffering Gibeonites to bring their plight before King David.
On seeing the devastated land, David responded to the famine correctly by seeking the face of the Lord. But why did David wait so long until things were so bleak in the land before seeking answers from God? The Lord responded by saying that the famine was because Saul committed genocide amongst the Gibeonites. God was calling on King David to make amends on behalf of a former king of Israel who had caused the hideous atrocity of genocide. The Gibeonites that remained continued to suffer from their destruction during the reign of David.
v.2. The King summoned the Gibeonites and spoke to them. (Now the Gibeonites were not a part of Israel but were survivors of the Amorites; the Israelites had sworn to spare them, but Saul in his zeal for Israel and Judah had tried to annihilate them.)
The Gibeonites were not originally a part of Israel and were one of the targeted groups of local people to be pushed out from their homeland so that Israel could in turn occupy that land which God had promised them. Saul in his zeal for Israel and Judah had tried to fulfil that promise by continuing to exterminate the local inhabitants where possible. Saul’s zeal was not for God but for Israel and Judah. Because of his misplaced zeal, God had taken on the cause of the Gibeonites showing concern for their welfare as if they were part of Israel.
Earlier in the history of Israel, Joshua battled and conquered many of the local people to make room for Israel, but promised before God to spare the Gibeonites (Joshua 9: 15). Not long afterwards the city of the Gibeonites came under attack by resentful neighbouring kings. Joshua and the people of Israel came to their rescue. At that time, God also entered the battle scene. God’s participation with Israel was to ensure a victory, but more importantly to publicly reveal His care for a foreign people in relation to Israel.
Later in the history of Israel, the Gibeonites were counted amongst the people of Israel as they returned from their exile in Babylon (Nehemiah 7: 25). They were counted as part of Israel. Together, Israel and the Gibeonites rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem under the leadership of Nehemiah.
The text in brackets appears as an editorial inclusion. Perhaps, it was meant to be merely a note of explanation. But it could be projected as a voice of excuse. Therefore, it could be an attempt partly to cover the shame of a former king, a shame that Israel would also share in. Saul’s zeal to occupy the ‘promised’ land by any means was very much a shared zeal with Israel as they willingly followed their king into battle. To make an excuse is a clumsy way of covering shame and avoiding the problem. Now then, God through the means of the famine and his endeavour to support the Gibeonites was confronting Israel to re-examine their zeal for conquest of the land, to re-examine their relationships with foreigners who share the same land, and to re-examine the will of God for all people.
v.3. David asked the Gibeonites, “What shall I do for you? How shall I make amends so that you will bless the Lord’s inheritance?”
King David summoned the Gibeonites to come into his presence at the palace. Instead of going himself with all humility to the one who had been wronged, the King’s action was that of summoning an insignificant servant into his presence. The Gibeonites had been decimated by the former king, ignored by the present king, displaced from their home and land, and now they were summoned before King David not knowing whether further evil would be done to them. God has called David to make amends, and yet he continues to be insensitive to their plight. He asked the Gibeonites, how he could make amends so that their former land could be restored for the sake of Israel and not for them.
v.4. The Gibeonites answered him, “We have no right to demand silver or gold from Saul or his family, nor do we have the right to put anyone in Israel to death.”
The Gibeonites spoke the truth; they had no right to demand compensation according to the Law of Moses. But God had insisted through the act of the famine that the suffering dealt to them would be amended. By now the Gibeonites would have assessed the situation that they found themselves in and were beginning to give signals to David towards a resolution. They needed to overcome a legal matter and yet still be able to communicate their desires to David. Their reply to him could have been carefully couched in words with the right emphasis. In translation, a play on the word ‘we’ in its context can suggest a transfer of responsibility of an action to someone else. In this way, they suggest that someone in power could give it to them as a gift. That would help explain David’s response and the following outcome of compensation.
“What do you want me to do for you?” David asked.
David continues this language game, and by so doing ignores the Law of Moses. His reply suggests that he could give, if he knew their desires. The emphasis has shifted from the inappropriateness of the Gibeonites to demand compensation to David giving them a gift so that the outcome would still be the same.
v.5. They answered the King. “As for the man who destroyed us and plotted against us so that we have been decimated and have no place anywhere in Israel,
They do not mention the name of their enemy before the king. In their anger and hatred of him, he was only described, as the man who destroyed us. In their reply to the king they reveal their anger, suffering, but also lament their loss of land and a place in Israel. Their lament for a place in Israel was overlooked by David as a way to achieve reconciliation for their suffering.
v.6. let seven of his male descendants be given to us to be killed and exposed before the Lord at Gibeah of Saul; the Lord’s chosen one.”
Unfortunately, the Gibeonites in the midst of their suffering were intent on avenging the loss of their people by choosing to decimate the remainder of Saul’s family. They asked the king for the remainder of Saul’s male descendants, sons and grandsons so that they could be put to death. The cry for death only added to the existing decimation, the destruction of the land, the decimation of the Gibeonites, and now the destruction of Saul’s family. The place of execution was at Gibeah of Saul. It was Saul’s home town, a place of family and friends, and loyal supporters. It was his power base from which he had ruled all Israel. This became the place where the Gibeonites vented their anger and suffering by killing the princes of Saul before his ‘face’. That is, by killing them in the stronghold of their enemy the Gibeonites would have received a sense of victory and satisfaction over their enemy.
So the king said, “I will give them to you.”
A quick, brief reply came from the king. It guaranteed the request for death that the Gibeonites were seeking. The request for the death of the remaining sons and grandsons of Saul appears to have suited David very well. Firstly, by fulfilling their request David hoped that God would restore the land. Secondly, the temptation was there for David to be rid of any future threat or revolt from Saul’s descendants to his own kingdom.
David’s reply displayed his weakness. He felt insecure as a king by deceitfully trading the lives of seven people in the hope of gaining a measure of security for himself and his kingdom. His greatest weakness was that he did not call upon God for help but trusted in his own strength and wisdom. The entire outcome was a human decision. It was influenced by anger, revenge, and self needs. The outcome was death. The first verse in the text indicates that God initiated the famine because of death in the land. Therefore, more death would not have been God’s way to make amends for the Gibeonites. Lives were unnecessarily wasted because David did not turn to God for help.
v.7. The king spared Mephibosheth son of Jonathan, the son of Saul, because of the oath before the Lord between David and Jonathan son of Saul.
v.8. But the king took Armoni and Mephibosheth, the two sons of Aiah’s daughter Rizpah, whom she had borne to Saul, together with the five sons of Saul’s daughter Merab, whom she had borne to Adriel son of Barzillai the Meholathite.
The seven descendants of Saul that were taken were identified in detail as if in preparation for something great. In a similar way the tribes of Israel were identified and listed on the plains of Moab before crossing the Jordan into the promised land of Canaan. Also, later in the history of Israel a list was created of those exiles who were first returning to Israel. These genealogical records provide connections for the living to their past in order to help them enter the future. It makes important connections for people to their place of origin, to the land, and to the god of their ancestors. It makes the connection of belonging. In stark contrast the decimated Gibeonites have lost their genealogical connections and therefore the sense of belonging and even a hope for the future.
v.9. He handed them over to the Gibeonites, who killed and exposed them on a hill before the Lord. All seven of them fell together; they were put to death during the first days of the harvest, just as the barley harvest was beginning.
They were killed. Their death was not the solution to the problem, and so the story takes a turn towards the beginning of another solution. The barley harvest signifies much more than the time of death. It was used as a metaphor for the slaying of Saul’s descendants. The slain were described through the metaphor as the first seven stalks of barley that the sickle fells at the beginning of the barley harvest. The harvest metaphor continues to help explain the actions of the main characters and the final outcome that is acceptable to God. The phrase, ‘just as the barley harvest was beginning’ is reminiscent in the story of Ruth and Naomi (Ruth 1: 22). It signifies, as it does in the story of Ruth, a new season, a season of recovery, and the beginning of new life.
v.10. Rizpah daughter of Aiah took sackcloth and spread it out for herself on a rock. From the beginning of the harvest till the rain poured down from the heavens on the bodies, she did not let the birds of the air touch them by day or the wild animals by night.
The faithfulness of Rizpah, daughter of Aiah parallels with the faithfulness of Ruth the daughter in-law of Naomi. Rizpah struggles day and night through the season of the harvest to protect the bodies of the one’s she loved. Rizpah spreads her sackcloth of mourning and thereby publicly announces her loss and grief, and wails in protest at the needless death of her children and the other descendants of Saul. Like a faithful servant guarding the valuable grain on the threshing floor against thieves and robbers, so Rizpah guards her loved ones from further decimation by birds and wild animals.
‘Till the rain poured down from the heavens on the bodies,’ is an assembly of words describing the mourning of God with Rizpah. The text specifically directs the reader to picture the rain as tears from heaven falling on the bodies rather than on the land as one would expect. God and Rizpah suffer and mourn together as their tears pour over the bodies in grief. This public action of mourning by God with Rizpah acknowledges her righteousness and protest to the loss of life.
King David in stark contrast to the faithfulness of Rizpah failed to protect the ‘grain’ in his care. That is, he failed to show love and care towards the Gibeonites when they came into his realm of care, and wrongly gave over the descendants of Saul to be slaughtered when they were also in his realm of care.
v.11. When David was told what Aiah’s daughter Rizpah, Saul’s concubine, had done,
v.12. he went and took the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan from the citizens of Jabesh Gilead. (They had taken them secretly form the public square at Beth Shan, where the Philistines had hung them after they struck Saul down on Gilboa.)
v.13. David brought the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan from there, and the bones of those who had been killed and exposed were gathered up.
v.14. They buried the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan in the tomb of Saul’s father Kish, at Zela in Benjamin, and did everything the king commanded.
David and Jonathan, son of Saul, were best friends. David also respected Saul as king because he was anointed by God. Yet, he dishonoured both of them in their death by not giving them a proper burial. David had abandoned them in a political attack to subdue and humiliate the power base of Saul in order to discourage any future uprising against himself and his kingdom.
When David was told what Rizpah had done, he was put to shame. Rizpah’s faithful actions showed up his own failings and unfaithfulness. Where David failed in dealing with the Gibeonites, Rizpah became God’s agent for change and salvation.
In due course, the very thing that made David a great king before God despite his human failings was his humility to accept reproach and instruction. Rizpah had shown what David ought to have done in the first place. Firstly, David should have acknowledged with sincerity the loss and grieving of the Gibeonites. Secondly, he should have attended to their real needs. That is, to allocate them a place in Israel so that they could resume their sense of belonging and in this way receives hope for their future. This could have been achieved without further bloodshed if only David had sought God’s guidance in all things.
Without hesitation David collected the dead for a proper burial. David showed through his actions that he had repented and turned back to God. His action of restoring the dead to their proper place was also a retreat from subduing and humiliating Saul’s power base and surrendering his life and kingdom into the trust and care of God.
The dead had now been restored. They had received a proper burial, they have been returned to the land, to their ancestors, and to their family. They had been restored to where they belonged. Through the proper burial they had been honoured and acknowledged as a member of the family of Israel. The Gibeonites were considered as dead amongst the people of Israel, because of their decimation. Although it is not said in the text, it can be accepted through faith that God’s will for restoration also extended to the Gibeonites. Confirmation of this is seen later in the history of Israel where the Gibeonites were counted in a sensus, as part of Israel (Nehemiah 7: 25).
After that, God answered prayer in behalf of the land.
The servants did everything that the king commanded. When David, a servant of God did everything that God expected of him, then God answered prayer and ended the famine on the land. David was restored back to God, and continued to trust in him. Once David trusted in God, he was able to make proper amends by restoring the dead to their proper place. After that, God answered prayer and restored the land and all the people on it.
From a historical perspective the story of the text seems simple and straight forward. It begins with God bringing a famine to the land in order to bring to David’s attention the plight of the Gibeonites. David asked the Gibeonites what they wanted in order to make amends for the tragedy imposed upon them by Saul. They asked for the lives of seven of Saul’s male descendants. David handed them over to be killed. After David buried the dead including the bones of Saul and Jonathan, God answered prayer and ended the famine on the land. David appears to be the hero in the story, listening to and obeying God as a good servant who brings about a satisfactory conclusion.
From another perspective it is not David who is the hero of the story. From a deeper level of meditation on the text the story plot and characters unfold in a more revealing and interesting way. The decimated Gibeonites were considered as good as dead. They were not alone in their decimation. During that time David’s faith and his relationship with God wasn’t what it used to be. David feared for his life and his kingdom. He relied on his own strength and mind to achieve what he needed, which in this case only led to further tragic loss of life. Therefore in this context of decimation, David’s relationship with God could be paralleled with that of the Gibeonites, as good as dead. David’s lack of trust and faith in God could be equated in this text as a decimated life, a person who needed restoration of true life. God acted to restore the life of the Gibeonites and the life of David.
Rizpah should be considered rightly as the real hero in the story. She was a grieving mother who had lost her two sons by David’s decision to have them killed for the sake of the Gibeonites. She was God’s agent towards change. Rizpah’s actions revealed her faithfulness in fulfilling what was good and right. It contrasted with David’s actions and his unfaithfulness. Rizpah put David to shame, and moved him to repentance. David showed through his later actions that he had turned back to God by collecting the bones of the dead and burying them in their proper place.
There are many things that can be said about this text. There are two that come to the fore. Firstly, God had taken a serious interest in a foreign people in relation to Israel. He considered their tragedy and endeavoured to improve their welfare. In the end the Gibeonites were counted amongst the people of Israel, who are themselves called the chosen people of God. God has moved so that the Gibeonites were included as an ‘adopted son’ in the family of God’s chosen people.
From a Christian perspective this theme of inclusion continues where God endeavours to bring all people into his family. God sent his Son, Jesus to fulfil that promise of salvation. Through the life of Jesus, he revealed the love and will of God towards all people. The death and resurrection of Jesus ensured that all people have been restored back into the family of God which is their proper place of belonging. The resurrection of Jesus was a visible assurance that all people indeed have had their sins forgiven. In a similar way the restoration of the land was a visible assurance that God had forgiven David, the people of Israel, and the Gibeonites all their sins. The restoration of the land was also the seal of approval from God to the final solution to the initial problem. In the context of the text, God’s way to restoration of life is to care for one another, and to share each other’s burdens.
Secondly, without God in our life there is no real life. People can struggle through life at times making poor and costly decisions. Fear and anxiety can lead to faulty thinking and costly mistakes. Real life begins when people begin to trust in God, and turn to him for guidance in all things. In the end David turned to God again and that was when the healing began. Amen.