“Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne. Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown, standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.”James Russell Lowell
Tucked away in an obscure collection of texts in 2 Samuel 21 is a story occasionally cited to suggest that God’s avenging anger needs appeasement. Nestled within this depiction of atonement is the ancient notion of bloodguilt, while a lesser known story is easily overlooked, lacking the attention it deserves. It tells of a woman burdened with grief and searing pain because her two sons have been torn from her. Rizpah is her name. The story has not gone unnoticed, however, by many a brave mother gripped by despair and grief at the death of a child. Such women, left powerless and bereft, receive little mercy. Poets too have found practical applications for this small story. Tennyson’s “Rizpah,” for example, is a metaphor for historical injustice.
Rizpah’s circumstances are bleak. Her place in society has been determined by her household. She had been a concubine of the now-deceased King Saul, whose political dynasty had deteriorated (2 Samuel 3:7–8). As a concubine, she has inferior status and remains under the control of the patriarchal structure. Widowed and facing political rivalry, she is left with little protection. King David attempts to rectify the wrongs of his predecessor, who had incurred bloodguilt and caused a severe famine, by sentencing Rizpah’s two sons to death and handing them over to the Gibeonites. Theologically constructed, the land of Israel holds them accountable for the crimes of Saul.
Perhaps I should pause for a moment to say a brief word about famines, pandemics, and historical plagues. Jacques Ellul has written about judgments which have been, and will come, judgments that “would have had to be but for the redeeming and forgiving power of the intercession of the immolated Lamb” (Apocalypse: The Book of Revelation, 1977, p. 146). Judgments do not come directly from the Lord as arbitrary imposed retribution but have come—and will continue to come—as a result of evil. God has orchestrated the world in such a way that the sins of the past cannot go unnoticed (Isaiah 26:21).
After a direct appeal is made to the victims’ descendants, Rizpah’s two sons are among the seven selected to be killed in an act of appeasement. Such an act to remove culpability is consistent with the social constructs of the ancient world. Sermons rarely address Rizpah’s story, except to occasionally garner support for a logic of punitive atonement, as it’s a story of cultural and corporate bloodguilt. Rizpah’s extraordinary sacrificial actions for her children, however, which appear in David’s memoir, also play an important and effective role in the tale.
In Rizpah, we find a bereaved mother torn by the violent execution of her sons and the denial of a normal burial for them. In tears, she gathers her tokens of mourning and embarks on a journey to the hill of the Lord to defend the bodies of her sons, protecting them day and night. In silent protest and unspeakable grief, she vigilantly watches in a quest for justice. Her protest aligns with Old Testament injunctions not to punish in excess. As part of Saul’s household, she must accept the custom of corporate responsibility. In the execution of the seven descendants of Saul justice was said to be done, but she seems to believe that David’s actions do not aim to resolve the famine but to appease the Gibeonites for the way his enemy predecessor had treated them. She considers leaving the bodies of her loved ones exposed on a hill to be eaten by wild beasts to be an unjust punishment, a distorted justice that threatens to defile the land (Deuteronomy 21:12, 23; 24:16).
Rizpah suffers the greatest loss a mother could ever endure, so I can only imagine her pain and grief as she watches over her sons’ bodies and those of their half-brothers, hanging as decaying flesh through those long, hot summer months—punished for the crimes of Saul. Unwavering and unflinching, she stands vigil for many months, fighting off winged scavengers by day and wild predators by night. Appropriately, Rizpah’s name means “live coal.” Despite the dark forces and stench of death, she remains a glowing ember of hope shining on the hill. She stands near the condemned and exposed corpses, protecting them from becoming accursed and desecrated in ultimate retribution (2 Kings 9:36; Jeremiah 34:20). In her voiceless defiance, she does not allow this insult—a fate considered by some scholars to be worse than capital punishment. Looking to limit retribution, Rizpah is an example of courage and faith, as she desperately holds to her ideals and counters injustice (Deuteronomy 21:23). Was God pleased with Rizpah for seeking to reduce the harshness of the punishment with an act of mercy? What is the story telling us about punishment and mercy?
Our understanding of justice matters. The harsh punishment does not come from the hand of God and neither does He condone it. In the actions of Rizpah we see compassion taking shape in the greatest moment of her pain. Rizpah’s selfless act eventually attracts David’s attention, and her faithfulness and loyalty urge him to honor mercy. He orders a respectful reburial for the house of Saul and duly honors her family’s legacy. He also provides respectful burials for the seven sons he had offered to the Gibeonites, and the household of Saul is finally laid to rest, an outcome that Rizpah had been powerless to achieve on her own. Finally she achieves a little bit of justice. Her brave actions of compassion bring reconciliation on a much broader scale than David’s attempts to appease the Gibeonites. Though Rizpah has no culpability, she seeks a world of fairness and mercy.
According to Yitzhaq Feder, this passage conveys the transition from appeasement for bloodguilt to addressing and undoing wrongs (Blood Expiation in Hittite and Biblical Ritual: Origins, Context, and Meaning, 2011, pp.178, 253). Like a fish swimming upstream, we see where God is heading. His greater desire is to have mercy triumph over judgment as a means of delivering man from sin. The revelation of God seems to be with Rizpah crying over her children. Certainly, even God Himself is like a mother who mourns the loss of his children (Isaiah 66:3).
If we read the story through Rizpah’s eyes, we might anticipate breaking away from a retaliatory spirit or detect the seed of a transition to a new reality from which theological discourse will emerge. We may find plenty of retribution in the bible, but we also find a God who seeks to limit retribution. One implication of the story is that hatred and vengeance does not have the last word. There is an aspect of establishing what is right before God while interpreting justice in a more merciful manner. God hates the old practice of blood revenge, the act of avenging a previous murder. To some degree, God permits the culture of bloodguilt while upholding and even commanding accountability. Crime and punishment in the Old Testament conveys a lesson of accountability, of having to answer for the sins of the past without blind revenge and ultimate retribution. God allows the ancient customs of the world with careful restrictions (i.e. cities of refuge), much like He allows other practices while seeking to establish a justice that makes a difference. The spilled blood of Able screaming in the background as God protects Cain from retaliation is a case in point.
King David does not take notice of Rizpah’s protest until her noble act of bravery in defending the lifeless bodies of her sons is undeniably apparent to everyone in the community. Here we find a theological reflection. The story does not portray justice until David sees things through Rizpah’s eyes. It then evokes pity and respect for the mission of hope pursued by a tenacious woman who faithfully stands by her family to achieve just and honorable closure. Rizpah’s actions shine through this narrative with God’s dazzling beauty, like a glowing ember amid a darkened past and horrid present. Her actions help prevent further damage by denouncing an injustice. Rizpah’s faithfulness confronts blind versions of retribution—punitive actions that are alleged to be necessary for justice to be served. God does not require David to succumb to the practices of appeasement to end the plague but rather to acknowledge accountability through faithfully answering for the crimes of the past. God ends the famine only after David listens to the voice of Rizpah (2 Samuel 21:14).
Far from an arcane theory about irrelevant matters, atonement for past sins lies at the heart of living in union with God and others. God’s self-giving love for His condemned children is the live ember that exposes the dark ways of injustice that surround us. Rizpah’s faithfulness judged the vengeful systems of justice that are often confused with blind retribution. Justice is often equated with enforced punishment based upon human constructs. By resolving Saul’s bloodguilt with the victims of near genocide, David seeks to rectify the situation without consulting God. While we may apply terms like “justice” to punishing perpetrators of wrong, we cannot forget that it is Rizpah’s tenacity and cry for fairness that actually generates peace. Through her actions, Rizpah saves all the people in the land.
Does God watch these actions? Is God there with Rizpah as she embraces the withered bodies of her lifeless sons?
While the Bible affirms the terminology of compensation and substitution, the cross is the place where reconciliation happens. Inflicting harsh treatment in society is partly due to theories that assume God’s is vindictive. Rizpah’s narrative recalls the mountain of God, where God’s name is evoked. Rizpah’s struggle against hatred and arbitrary vengeance participates in what God is doing. While God has the last word about delayed injustice, like Rizpah, we are called to engage in acts of justice. A Jewish commentary describes Rizpah’s sackcloth laid on a rock as a sign that the land has repented. What does God do with past sins that affect our land? In our culture, sin once manifested in the treatment of slaves. What is the Christians’ role in dealing with the guilt of previous generations? Can any principles be gleaned from the story of Rizpah? She contemplates this while sitting on the rock with the sackcloth. Her sacrificial vigil confirms that God is in the business of remedying and reconciling all things. It’s a daring challenge to be defined by the sins of others in the past. Rizpah has nothing to do with the historical bloodguilt of Saul’s military endeavors, but she engages in a missional vigil. She does not act in the interests of David, who has also become a man of blood, nor in the interests of the Gibeonites, who’s subterfuge gained a treaty in the past. So, whose interests should we seek? Not our own, nor perhaps even those of America, but God’s.
Rizpah’s story portrays God’s mercies as wrapped in the present, even if we don’t realize them. Her desperate plea in light of past sin and the burden she bears is vindicated by God, who brought the rain only after she secures justice in a more merciful manner: then “God was entreated for the land” (21:14). Rather than forsaking Rizpah’s sons, David is moved to actively reconcile, and this is when God acts. The rain is a result of mercy, not retribution (Matthew 5:45). When we join a mission honoring mercy like Rizpah’s, we will know what it’s like to participate in ways that look like Jesus. Her story supports reparations for wrongs done to others on a national level, but it’s also about seeking mercy and acts of charity.
In moments of delayed justice, God does not rush in with judgment nor hurry to make things right, but He is always present in those like Rizpah who know He is there and participate in the fellowship of His suffering. The death of Jesus implies better things than does the blood of those crying out for vengeance (Hebrews 12:24). He is the one executed and hung on a tree by those who draw warrant from the Old Testament. “[B]y our law He ought to die,” they said, “one man for the sake of the nation,” yet the one who fell under the “curse of the law” (Galatians 3:13) is the one who faithfully reconciles and calls others to greater justice and mercy. If we think God was angry and ready to punish the world until His Son was taken as a blood sacrifice to appease His wrath, then we have not understood atonement. Rizbah refused to believe in an vengeful and arbitrary God. So, climb that mountain with Rizpah and stand on the rock with Jesus’ courage and faithfulness and provide a beacon of hope for the victims of injustice.
Craig Ashton Jr.