Elon, North Carolina
Today, we come to a Bible story that you have never heard before. Even if you have been in church for thirty years, you probably have never heard of it. It is in one of the strangest chapters in the Bible.
It is also an inspiring chapter. It is a chapter that contains one of the greatest women of the Bible and yet most Christians have probably never heard of this woman. Her name was Rizpah.
There are not too many sermons preached on Rizpah today, although feminist scholars love this chapter. Social activists love this chapter. There have been tons of books and articles written on this woman.
What she did is described in only one verse (II Samuel 21:10). It would be easy to skip over this one verse but that would be a huge tragedy.
Rizpah is an incredible example of love, courage and heroism. She is a model for women today. She is the mother who made a difference. She is the mother who turned her grief into action. She turned tragedy into triumph.
A Raging Famine
During the reign of David, there was a 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. (II Samuel 21:1 NIV)
This chapter may seem to go against everything that you have been taught in church. It may completely change your view of God. This chapter does not fit the view that most Christians have of God.
The chapter begins with a natural disaster. It begins with a famine. A famine is a food shortage. Food becomes scarce. That sounds like supply chain problems today. Famines are usually caused by droughts but could be caused by other things as well.
This famine came from God. It was divinely sent. That is strange. Does God cause famines? Does He do it today? Does He ever cause poverty? Does He ever cause hunger?
In most churches, we are told that God does not do that. He is a God of love. In this chapter, God sent a famine on His own people, not on the pagans. The Jews had a famine. It came from God and it was a result of sin.
What is even stranger is that this famine was NOT a result of their sin. It was the result of King Saul’s sin, and he was not even alive. He was dead.
Now, David and the whole nation was experiencing a famine. People were hungry. They were starving. They were suffering because of something that someone else did thirty years earlier. Someone else sinned and the whole nation suffered. That does not seem fair.
The nation was in trouble because of the sins of the leader. God brought judgment on the whole nation, because of Saul’s sin. What does that remind you of? Adam sinned in the garden and all of us suffer today because of what he did.
Not only did they experience a famine, they experienced it for a long time. It is one thing to go through some hard times. It is one thing to experience a little famine. It is another thing when the famine goes on and on. This one went on year after year. It went on for three whole years. David decided to pray about it and got an answer. The food shortage was due to sin.
Saul committed a national sin. He was the leader of a nation. He was the king. Saul committed a national atrocity against the Gibeonites. This was a major atrocity. It was done by God’s own people. There was never any repentance. In fact, no one even acknowledged doing anything wrong.
Life Lessons from a Famine
Three lessons or applications immediately arise out of this first verse.
1) There is such a thing as national sin
There is individual sin and there is such a thing as national sin. If there is something as a national sin, it raises the question, what is our national sin as a nation? We have so many. Every nation has some national sin. What is America’s national sin or sin?
2) There is such a thing as national judgment
When sin is not dealt with or repented, God brings judgment. We do not hear that preached too much these days in churches. Here we learn that God judges nations, as well as people. Some national disasters are divine judgments.
God judges sinful people. He judges sinful nations. He judges entire nations based on how they treat people, how they treat the least of these. He judges them based on how they treat ethnic minorities (Gibeonites).
Israel suffered a famine because of sin. The nation was in trouble because of the sin of its leaders. Even though something happened a long time ago, God still remembered. He never forgot. It makes you wonder how God will judge Russia for what is doing to Ukraine.
Has God ever judged America for its sins? Has God ever judged America because of the sins of its leaders and elected representatives? It is a scary thought. Some of the problems we experience as a nation may be a result of judgment.
3) When God judges a nation, it needs to turn to God for answers
We need to do what David did. He inquired of the Lord and God gave him an answer (II Samuel 21:1). The leaders need to do this. Unfortunately, most of our elected leaders are not know for their spirituality. Many of them do not know God. They may be religious. They may attend church, but they have never been born again.
A Promise Broken
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. (II Samuel 21:2 NIV)
Saul’s sin was murder, mass murder. He tried to commit genocide. He committed a national atrocity against the Gibeonites. They were not Jews. No one liked them. They were like the dregs of society. They were at the bottom. Saul killed some of them and thought he was doing a good deed. He was getting rid of undesirables.
Saul not only committed murder, he broke a promise. Joshua made a covenant with the Gibeonites four hundred years earlier. He was supposed to destroy them, but they tricked him, and he made a covenant with them. He promised to preserve them. He made them slaves but promised not to kill them.
You need to be careful about keeping your word. You need to be careful about breaking a covenant. God expects us to keep our promises. Saul broke Joshua’s covenant. He expects nations to keep their promises, as many have pointed out
Saul decided to get rid of them and he did it out of zeal. It was a misguided zeal. It was an unbiblical zeal. Here is the irony. Gold Saul to kill some people.
You can read about it in I Samuel 15. He told him to kill the Amalekites. He didn’t do it. Then he goes and kills some people that he was not supposed to kill. They were easy to kill. They were weak and powerless. They were an easy target.
Did David do anything wrong in this crisis? At first, he does the right thing. He prays. He waited three years, but he finally prayed. Many of us go to God as a last resort but he did pray.
David prayed and he wanted to do the right thing. A terrible injustice took place, and he wanted to fix it. He wants to make it right. So far, so good. Then, he makes several critical mistakes.
MISTAKE ONE: He turned to the Gibeonites and asks them what he should do to make it right. He could have asked God but instead, he asked the Gibeonites. He asked the pagans. He asked the Canaanites.
David asked the Gibeonites, “What shall I do for you? How shall I make atonement so that you will bless the Lord’s inheritance?” 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.” “What do you want me to do for you?” David asked.
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, 6 let seven of his male descendants be given to us to be killed AND their bodies exposed before the Lord at Gibeah of Saul—the Lord’s chosen one.”
So the king said, “I will give them to you.” 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. (II Samuel 21:3-7 NIV).
David asked the Gibeonites what he should do. He lets them name the penalty. He let the Canaanites judge the Israelites. They wanted seven dead bodies. David was probably expecting some kind of reparation, but they didn’t want money. They want blood. They wanted revenge.
They wanted seven bodies but not just seven random bodies. They wanted seven of Saul’s direct descendants killed. Why seven? We don’t know but Jewish tradition says it is because Saul killed seven of their sons (so the Talmud).
Saul killed seven sons of the Gibeonites. Now seven of his relatives must be killed in retaliation and he gave them over to them to be killed but spares Mephibosheth. Why? He wanted to keep the promise that he made to his dad Jonathon.
MISTAKE TWO: He violated Scripture. David directly disobeyed Scripture. He violated two biblical laws. Remember God said that the king in Israel was supposed to study the law. He was supposed to be a Bible student.
When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the Levitical priests. 19It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees 20and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites and turn from the law to the right or to the left. (Deuteronomy 17:18-20)
What laws did King David violate? They are both found in the Book of Deuteronomy.
The first law David violated is Deuteronomy 24:16. “Parents are NOT to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin” (NIV).
This is a very different view than that of the ancient world. The Gibeonites wanted life for life. “The Babylonian law code of Hammurabi prescribed that if a builder built a house that collapsed, causing the death of the homeowner’s son, the builder’s son was to be put to death.”
God said that His people were not to follow that logic and yet in this case, these seven boys paid the price for their father’s sinful actions. They paid for his sin. This was a direct violation of Scripture.
There is no evidence that these seven sons were the ones who committed this particular crime. We know Mephibosheth did not do it. He almost died and he was crippled. He could not have done it. He was crippled as a child. These sons were too young to have participated in this crime.
God did say that Saul had a bloody house (II Samuel 21:1) but that did not mean that everyone in his family, his wife and all of his kids, were ax murderers. His military would have carried out the orders. His government was bloody. These seven men had done nothing wrong.
The second law David violated is Deuteronomy 21:23. “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall NOT remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him THE SAME DAY, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance (ESV).
A Horrible Crime
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. 9 He handed them over to the Gibeonites, who killed them and EXPOSED their bodies 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.
It is hard enough to lose one son. Here, one mother lost two of her sons. Another mother lost five of her sons all on the same day. We are given the names of two of Rizpah’s sons. We are not told the name of the other five sons.
Parallels With Jesus’ Death
This is a terrible tragedy. The whole nation suffered because of a sin they did not commit and now seven men die because of someone else’s sin.
In many ways what happened to these seven men is similar to what happened to Jesus. The parallels are interesting.
1. Both were innocent of the charge
2. Both suffered unjustly
3. Both died because of someone else’s sins
4. Both had public executions
5. Both died on a hill
6. Both were executed by Gentiles (Gibeonites, Roman soldiers)
7. Both were hung or crucified (died on a pole or tree)
8. Both were considered cursed by God (Deuteronomy 21:23)
9. Both had moms watched their sons die.
10. Both were taken care of women after they died
11. Both were buried in a borrow rich man’s tomb
12. Both deaths accomplished something good
This brings us to one of the greatest women in the Bible. Her name is Rizpah. Most people do not know her name. She is not famous but what she did was incredible. If David was a man after God’s own heart, Rizpah was a woman after God’s own heart.
Who was she? We know four things about her. She was the daughter of Aiah. Aiah was her father. She was the concubine of King Saul. Saul had one wife (Ahinoam) and one concubine (Rizpah). I Samuel mentions his wife (I Samuel 14:50). II Samuel mentions his concubine (II Samuel 3:7; 21:11). She was also the mother of two sons. She was also a woman who experienced great pain
Many women have experienced great pain. Many mothers have experienced pain. The Virgin Mary was told that a sword would pierce her soul (Luke 2:35). Rizpah experienced great pain. He experienced great sorrow. She experienced tragedy. She experienced trauma.
She lost Saul. Saul died in battle. King Saul was not just killed. He was beheaded. His head was cut off. He was not just killed. He was disgraced. Later, she lost her two sons and they were not even allowed to be buried.
Her husband was disgraced and dishonored and now her sons were disgraced and dishonored. She is now a childless widow, which was also her income in those days.
She also may have been experienced sexual assaulted or exploited. If the allegations against Abner were true (II Samuel 3:7), she was a victim of violence. Now, she is living through a famine.
In many ways she was completely powerless. She could not stop anyone from killing her kids. They were not little kids, but they were still her children.
She had no voice. She says nothing in this chapter, but she speaks by her actions. What she did moved kings. What she did, helped stop a nationwide famine. Rizpah is the mother who made a difference.
The famine did not stop when these men died. It stopped after they were buried. That only happened because of what one woman did. This woman not only gave honor to her son’s dead bodies, she helped end a famine. After these men were buried, God answered prayers to stop the famine (II Samuel 21:14).
Three Life Lessons from Rizpah
1) Don’t put your needs ahead of the needs of others
This woman was selfless. She put the needs of her kids ahead of her own needs. She did not want their dead bodies to be desecrated and eaten by birds. She puts herself in harm’s way, guarding her kid’s bodies day and night. She even takes care of another woman’s five dead children. That is a lesson for mother today. It is a lesson for all of us.
She faced all kinds of problems. She is guarding, not just one but seven dead bodies and she did it all by herself. There was no one to help her. You can imagine how theses decomposing bodies smelled in the heat of the Middle East.
She is outside exposed to all kinds of wild animals, beating off the wolves and coyotes, but is not afraid. That took a lot of courage. Many of us are afraid of a mouse.
She is probably hungry, especially when there is not a lot of food available in the first place. She is not able to take a bath. She did not get too much sleep outside. She makes a bed on a rock, but her needs were not as important as the needs of her kids.
2) Don’t give up when you take a stand for justice
She stands up for justice for her sons. They died unjustly and they were not properly buried. She could not stop them from being killed but she could do something about giving them a proper burial.
She took a stand but it was a nonviolent stand. She did not attack the king. She did not go out and protest in the street or at the palace where the king lived. She just mourned. She grieved publicly but she did more than that.
She stood vigil over their dead bodies for months. She was there about six months. She is the mother who never gave up. She was persistent until she got justice for her dead sons.
3) Don’t let personal tragedy cause you to lose hope
All of us have experienced tragedy, grief or pain. Some much more than others. It is very easy for many people to be so depressed and so consumed by sorrow or grief that they cannot get past their pain.
Rizpah did not do that. She did not just stay home and grieve. She went out and did something. The Bible says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” We all have a tendency to be overcome by evil. Rizpah turned tragedy into triumph and is a lesson for us all.
 Buttry, Sharon A.; Buttry, Daniel L.. Daughters of Rizpah: Nonviolence and the Transformation of Trauma. Cascade Books. Kindle Edition.