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.
2 Samuel 21:10-15 (NRSV)
“It is an outraged God who rails against the injustices inflicted upon the poor and the powerless. It is the voice of God who knows the victims – the poor, the orphan, the widow, the stranger, demeaned, impoverished, voiceless, powerless; and who knows that they were the victims of the rich and powerful who pervert all justice and equity.”
Allan Boesak, leading figure in the church struggle against the apartheid in South Africa.
Muere el sol en los montes
Con la luz que agoniza,
Pues la vida en su prisa,
Nos conduce a morir.
The sun dies in the mountains
With its light fading,
Because life in its haste,
Leads us to death.
Dios Nunca Muere, performed by Susana Harp
A number of years ago I learned about the story of Rizpah, a compelling story that we don’t hear much about.
Scripture tells us that she was the mother of two sons, Armoni and Mephibosheth, whose father was Saul. Her two sons along with five others were put to death in a public execution with the sole purpose of national security. King David needed to mend relations with the Gibeonites to keep peace and have the famine ended. According to Allan Boesak, when national security, trade, or diplomatic relations are at stake governments respond in what he calls “political realism,” and the resulting collateral damage is inevitable.
David handed over the seven sons of Saul to the Gibeonites to demonstrate and justify power and control. The passage narrates that the seven sons were taken up to a hill and executed, their bodies left in crosses without given a proper burial and very much against the Deuteronomic law. David moved on and ignored the human tragedy, for him these were not bodies but a political move.
Yet, Rizpah who’s eyes didn’t see crosses but the bodies of her beloved sons, and the other five (sons of Merab). She then would go every day up to the hill and cover the bodies with a sackcloth, running from cross to cross, and from body to body, in order to protect them from being ripped apart by animals and preyed by birds. What a horrific image!
It may seem that Rizpah was a victim, a victim of the state and her community, however, she never victimized herself. Instead she demonstrated love, sacrificial resistance, public grief, and radical solidarity by also protecting the sons of Merab. In both her lower status and active approach to “waiting,” Rizpah not only became a disruption to the king, but challenged the patriarchy, and the idolatry displayed by the palace. Months later, David eventually opened his eyes and arranged for proper burial.
As the United States is nearing 300,000 deaths due to COVID-19, I reflect on those images from early on the pandemic, of thousands of bodies being buried, with no one to protect or cover them because family members were not allowed to be near them. A tragedy.
As we wait during this Advent season, how are we actively waiting; how are we disrupting those systems and structures that keep us blinded?
Evelmyn Ivens is a PhD student in Theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Chicago, IL. She’s interested in exploring simple cultural practices through a theological framework, contextual theologies, and the interconnection between civic engagement, faith, and justice. She tweets at @eivenspo.