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The Sad Saga of King Saul’s Concubine

Rizpah Protecting the Bodies of Her Sons From a Bird

I often hear the expression (used rather glibly, I must say) “God told me.” The words are typically the preamble to a description of some strongly held conviction. But the expression leaves me uncomfortable.

For starters, just how did God tell the person? Was there a booming voice from heaven that all in the room heard? Was there an actual voice, but audible only to the person? Or was it just a strong conviction—a moment of clarity—that came at a crucial point in the person’s mental wrestling?

It seems to me that we should be absolutely sure that our thoughts are truly of divine origin before we attach God’s name to them. There’s a commandment that prohibits taking the name of the Lord “in vain”—in other words, connecting the name of God to something that doesn’t merit it.

It’s one thing to say, “I feel,” “I think,” “I believe,” “My study of the Bible has convinced me,” or “I’m convicted.” It’s quite another to say, “God told me.” I’m not saying God doesn’t literally speak to people. I’m simply stating that such a claim should only be made when all other explanations have been ruled out. It’s a bit like an atomic bomb—a very powerful expression that should be used with the utmost reserve.

As I read the scriptures, I wonder if the people in the Bible were just as unclear on the use and misuse of the “God told me” expression as we are now. Maybe even more so. “God told” people a lot of things back then, it seems. And judging just from the context and the ethics of the advice given, I think it is possible that God was credited with some things that came from other sources.

Full disclosure, I “plagiarized” the preceding paragraphs from an article about Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, and Ishmael that I wrote more than a decade ago for Spectrum on March 8, 2010. However, the words seemed to be an appropriate lead-in to the following thoughts about King David’s perceived encounter with the voice of God. With that introduction and explanation, let’s now consider the sad saga of King Saul’s concubine.  

In 2 Samuel chapter 21, we read the heart-rending portrayal of a woman named Rizpah, a concubine of King Saul. Despite bearing Saul sons, she was a low-grade consort who never achieved the status of wife—not even the status of one wife among many wives. Her already low rank no doubt plummeted in the wake of Saul’s protracted mental demise, his battlefield suicide, and the ascension to the throne by his nemesis, David.

Israel was in the midst of an unrelenting three-year famine. King David, trying to discern what—or who—was to blame, “sought the face of the Lord.” Not surprisingly, God told him that it was his predecessor’s fault. 

I say “not surprisingly” because, to this day, predecessors are easy targets when it comes to the blame game. I can’t help but wonder if this message “from God” wasn’t actually David’s own inner voice, reflecting his own prejudices and animosities. 

God allegedly told David that Saul’s brutality toward the Gibeonites caused the famine. But for reasons unexplained and atypical, God offered no suggestions whatsoever about how to correct the situation and halt the famine. Nor did David ask for God’s suggestions. Instead, David summoned the Gibeonites, reminded them of what Saul did to their clan and asked what would appease them

One might have expected the Gibeonites to ask for monetary reparations, land grants, or tax exemptions. But no. “They answered the king, ‘As for the man who destroyed us and plotted against us so that we have been decimated. . . let seven of his male descendants be given to us to be killed and their bodies exposed before the Lord at Gibeah of Saul. . . .’”

In that eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth, dog-eat-dog environment, vengeance was valued over gold. And for David, killing off Saul’s heirs may have seemed to be an attractive preemptive strike against potential competition for Israel’s throne. After all, Saul had been king before David, and some might have considered Saul’s heirs to have a more legitimate claim to the throne than David and his heirs. 

Here we encounter Rizpah, Saul’s concubine.

With the full support of the government (i.e., King David), Rizpah’s two sons and the five sons of Saul’s daughter Merab were rounded up and publicly executed by the Gibeonites—who then “exposed their bodies on a hill before the Lord.” 

Just a brief aside here to clarify the relationship between the players in this saga: Saul had promised his elder daughter, Merab, to David to be his wife—but reneged and had given her to another man instead. David had later married Merab’s younger sister, Michal. Thus, Merab’s five sons who were slaughtered in this story were David’s nephews. And Rizpah’s two sons, who were also killed, were the half-brothers to David’s wife Michal, and thus David’s brothers-in-law.

As if the wanton killing of these seven men wasn’t bad enough, their corpses were intentionally used to create a public spectacle on the hillside, left to be decimated by weather and wildlife.

But Rizpah deeply loved her two sons. Although she was not able to keep them from being killed or remove their dead bodies from the humiliation and ignominy of public display, she was able protect them from hungry birds and marauding beasts. So she did what she could. 

“Rizpah . . . 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 touch them by day or the wild animals by night.” 

It was a solitary vigil by a lonely, brokenhearted woman.

King David and the Gibeonite clan had meant for the executions and the rotting corpses to make a clear statement. But their plan hadn’t taken the boys’ mother into account. Rizpah’s actions in defense of her slain sons impressed onlookers. Passersby couldn’t help but be touched by the tragic sight of this devastated mother’s devotion to her deceased sons.

I suggest that Rizpah’s tenacity completely altered the equation. A punishment designed to induce fear and loathing instead produced sympathy and understanding. The spectacle had become too barbaric, even for members of a barbaric culture.

Word of Rizpah’s actions filtered back to David, who, despite being a mighty man of war, may have had second thoughts about his incited barbarity. The venture hadn't turned out as he’d envisioned. In fact, it had worked against him. Perhaps moved by concern for his public image, maybe moved by remorse, or possibly moved by both, he took action to alter the optics of the situation.

The Bible says, “When David was told what . . . Rizpah, Saul’s concubine, had done, he went and took the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan from the citizens of Jabesh Gilead. (They had stolen their bodies from the public square at Beth Shan, where the Philistines had hung them after they struck Saul down on Gilboa.) David brought the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan from there, and the bones of those who had been killed and exposed [by the Gibeonites] were gathered up.” 

Although it was late in coming, Saul, Jonathan, and Saul’s recently murdered sons and grandsons were finally accorded a modicum of the human dignity that everyone deserves. End of story. 

Well, not quite. 

The story’s chronicler casually concludes, “After that, God answered prayer in behalf of the land.” The verse implies that God was appeased by the Gibeonites’ brutal murders and bodily desecrations of seven men whose sole identified fault was their genetic connection to Saul—a birthright in which they’d had no choice. 

“With what shall I come before the Lord?” asks the prophet Micah. In this case, it seems that what God sought was seven slaughtered young men. I’m not comfortable with that portrayal of God. Something is being lost in translation—to use that word in its broadest sense.

In Ezekiel 18:20 we read, “The one who sins is the one who will die. . . . The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child.” 

I recognize that Ezekiel didn’t appear on the scene until long after Rizpah and her sons. But I find it impossible to believe that the God who doesn’t change (Malachi 3:6) would suddenly decide to punish the sons and grandsons of King Saul for a brutal crime committed by their father/grandfather. The actions and attitudes attributed to God don’t jibe with what I have read elsewhere and what my heart tells me about God.

In fact, I find it impossible to believe that a God of mercy would impose a famine on the entire nation of Israel as specific punishment for the brutal crimes perpetrated by an already-dead King Saul. Equally, I find it impossible to believe that a God of love and mercy would keep the famine going until seven men had been brutally killed and desecrated in the most barbaric manner. 

Was it the human sacrifices/retribution that caused God to change his mind and call a halt to the famine? Was it witnessing Rizpah's brokenhearted vigil that finally convinced God that enough was enough?

As someone who is trying to make sense of a story that contains dramatically discordant elements within itself—not to mention the discord with things taught about God elsewhere in scripture—I choose to believe that God’s actual role either wasn’t what the storyteller has described or, at the very least, was substantially more nuanced than the storyteller implies. 

From my perspective, this Bible story, along with quite a few others, tells us a lot more about the culture of the time—and how that culture perceived God’s role in human affairs—than the true nature of God and the role he actually played. 


James Coffin spent 36 years as a pastor and editor in both the United States and Australia. After retirement from denominational employment, he served for 11 years as the executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.

Title image: Georges Becker, Rizpah Protecting the Bodies of Her Sons (c. 1873), New York Public Library Digital Collections.

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