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Do Two Wrongs Make a Right? Rizpah’s Story

At the heart of a story about keeping and breaking covenants, revenge, and ritual execution is the poignant action of a heartbroken, noble mother. That Rizpah and her two sons are named (whereas the five grandsons also slaughtered are not) suggests that who she is and what she does is of utmost importance to the story as a whole.

The story line is this: a famine rages throughout Israel for three years. So David inquires of Yahweh, who responds that bloodguilt rests upon Saul and his house because he put the Gibeonites to death. David then asks the Gibeonites how they might be avenged. After some discussion, they ask for seven of Saul’s sons so that they can put them to death before the Lord. Seeking to spare Jonathan’s house in honor of his their covenant, David takes the two sons of Rizpah and five sons of Merob and hands them over to the Gibeonites who put them to a gruesome death. This is where Rizpah actively enters the story. Taking sackcloth, she stretches it out for herself in some way involving a rock. She does not allow either birds by day or wild animals by night to descend on the bodies of her sons and the sons of Saul’s daughter. Starting this action at the beginning of the barley harvest, she keeps her relentless vigil until the rains descend that announce the end of the famine. Word reaches David of her behavior, and David responds by gathering the bones of Saul and Jonathan and then the bones of those recently put to death and by burying them in the ancestral tomb of Saul’s father Kish. The narrator ends the story with the words: “After that, God heeded supplications for the land” (2 Sam. 21:16c, NRSV).

The text of 2 Samuel 21 that contains her story is difficult in every way.

  • Textually problematical, it requires some picking and choosing to make sense of it. For example, was Rizpah Saul’s legal second wife or was she Saul’s concubine? [1] Who was the mother of the five grandsons—Michal, David’s first wife and youngest daughter of Saul, or Merob, Saul’s oldest daughter? [2]

  • Translating the text even where textually sound is also difficult. How were the sons of Saul put to death? Were they impaled, thrust down, or crucified? [3] Whatever the action implied by the verb used, the method of execution was gruesome.

  • But in a vastly more significant way, the story is difficult theologically. According to Deuteronomy 24:16, a son was not to be punished for the sins of his father, an injunction turned into a theological truth about God by Ezekiel (18:20). Yet the most obvious reading of 2 Samuel 21 is that the death of Saul’s sons (or grandsons) for Saul’s sin against the Gibeonites was at least expiatory; some would suggest it pacified God in some way. What are we to make of the ritual execution of Saul’s descendants? If, as David suggests to the Gibeonites, they are an act of kpr (atonement), then are they actually a human sacrifice? And what are the implications for God sending a famine for something done about thirty years or more prior when the culprit is already dead by his own hand? [4]

In some ways, the story centers around covenants or treaties, one made between Israel and the Gibeonites in Joshua 9, another between Jonathan and David in 1 Sam. 20, and still another between Saul and David in 1 Samuel 24. David’s choice of victims reflects at least the covenant between him and Jonathan, if not also the one between him and Saul. Perhaps Rizpah would have understood the treaty with the Gibeonites, in which the latter duped the Israelites into thinking that they were from a faraway land. She would have known that violation of such a covenant was punishable by God. Throughout the ancient Near East, broken treaties were punished by death and exposure. [5] Yet she only would have discerned this at some distance, since treaties were typically made by men.

So Rizpah would likely accept the fact that her husband violated a treaty with the Gibeonites for which her sons were to be punished by death. Accept, but unable to deal personally to the results. Her sons’ deaths were to mark the end of the drought—but how did she understand this?

Punishment in the Bible was sometimes understood to “turn away” Yahweh’s wrath. [6] It thus was considered “expiatory.” This is the sense that David gives to it, when he asks the Gibeonites: “What shall I do for you? How shall I make expiation, that you may bless the heritage of the Lord?” (2 Sam. 21:3, NRSV). To David the goal is to alleviate the land of Israel from the famine. But instead of asking Yahweh how He wants that done, he asks the Gibeonites what they want.

The Gibeonites seem restrained in their responses, as if reluctant to encourage retribution against Saul’s house. David presses the issue until they ask for the lives of seven of Saul’s sons. [7] To David, these deaths would assuage their wrath and thus expiate the sin of Saul. As the Bible mentions, the Gibeonites were Amorites, a term often in the Bible without specificity in regard to ethnicity. [8] Their request—to execute the sons of Saul “before the Lord at Gibeon on the mountain of the Lord” (v. 6, NRSV)—suggests that, in polytheistic fashion, they had added Yahweh to their pantheon of gods and believed that the famine did indeed stem from the violated treaty with them. The cruel death of Saul’s offspring would not only compare favorably to the kind of punishment expected of treaty violations, but would serve as ritual executions of expiate the sin of Saul and win Yahweh’s favor. [9] The Gibeonites expect it to end the famine; David expects this also—despite injunctions against child sacrifice and the punishment of sons for their fathers’ sins. [10]

Does Rizpah expect that these deaths will end the famine? Perhaps she does or perhaps she does not care. What she knows is that the bodies of her precious sons will lie in the blazing sun, with animals eating their remains and vultures picking up the tiny bits of flesh the animals leave behind. To suffer exposure (that is, lie unburied) was the worst of punishments; it was to be forever cursed and never to “go home” again. [11] Rizpah is ready to act as soon as her sons’ bodies fall together with their nephews on the mountain. Without explanation, this woman—without a voice, [12] without the ability to protest the decision of David and the Gibeonites—brings her own offering to Yahweh. Armed with sackcloth, the Israelite symbol of mourning and repentance, she stretches the cloth out “to the Rock.”

Most translators, knowing that the two Hebrew prepositions “to” and “on” are sometimes used interchangeably, translate these words, as the NRSV does, “spread it on a rock.” But taken literally, the Hebrew reads literally, “stretched it to the rock.” [13] The Masoretes made note of this in a hermeneutical device that ties this verse to two others in the Hebrew Bible: Isaiah 30:29 and 51:1. In both these texts the “Rock” is clearly a reference to Yahweh. Stanley D. Walters has done an analysis of these two passages and has found several “resonances with the story of Rizpah”. [14] Their main thrusts have to do with judgment and restoration, elements found in the story of 2 Samuel 21.

While we cannot be sure that Rizpah stretches her sackcloth “to the Rock” (i.e., Yahweh), the parallels with the Isaiah passages allow for the possibility for a double meaning, since “the Rock” as an epithet of Yahweh is fairly old. [15] If she is reaching out to Yahweh, her gesture symbolizes both her grief and possibly repentance. The rains have not yet come, and she watches over the bodies of the executed Saulites day and night to protect them against predators. Since her vigil starts at the beginning of the barley harvest and extends to the first rains that fall, we must conclude that Rizpah carries out her vigil for some time, even if the rain that comes is unexpectedly early. [16]

The question that the story raises is obvious: if the death of Saul’s sons and grandsons was required for expiation of his guilt and Yahweh was awaiting their death to end the draught, why did the rains not come immediately? Why did Rizpah not have to stretch out her sackcloth in the pouring rain?

Did David himself wonder this? When he hears of Rizpah’s action, he immediately goes to Jabesh-Gilead to get the remains of Saul and Jonathan, and then, collecting the bodies of the recently slain men, he has them all buried properly in the tomb of Kish, Saul’s father. Rizpah’s vigil has clearly ended with that act—yet the story suggests that it ended with the termination of the drought—“until rain fell on them from the heavens” (v. 10b, NRSV). Are we to think that the rain began to fall as soon as David came to move their bodies?

The narrator must have these questions in mind, for he concludes the story—just after David properly buries the bodies—with these words: “After that, God heeded supplications for the land” (v. 14c, NRSV). In a sense, by burying the bodies, David symbolically undoes, in a limited way, their execution, because leaving the bodies exposed was part of the punishment for breaking a treaty.

Like a number of other stories in the Hebrew Bible, this story contains point and counterpoint. The point made seems to be that of ritual execution bordering on human sacrifice to repair a broken covenant made before God. But why offer the sacrifice? Do two wrongs make a right? Does this ritual slaughter of sons who are forced to suffer for their father’s sin make things right? And so Rizpah carries out symbolically the response that should be made. Whether or not she realizes what she is doing, her actions (as the narrator conveys them) speak of a counterpoint—repentance, not sacrifice. It hauntingly reflects something David himself says, for he prays it in his famous repentance prayer: “For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps. 51:16, 17, NRSV).

It is Rizpah, not David, who does what God requires. Her mother’s heart is broken; her spirit is crushed. She stretches her sackcloth to the Rock. She intends to guard the bodies of her sons until …

The rains still do not fall. Rizpah continues to wait and watch over the bodies. Finally, her sons reach their ancestral home. And the rains fall. Not sacrifice, not ritual execution, not expiation, but a mother’s sorrow, her silent vigil, and an undoing of the execution, lead to a healing of the land.


(1) In the MT, her status is that of a pilegesh (see v. 11); a few manuscripts including the LXXM have the words “Saul’s concubine” added to verse 8. P. Kyle McCarter, Jr. (II Samuel: A New Translation with Introduction, Notes and Commentary [Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, 1984], 439) rightfully sees this as a gloss. J. Cheryl Exum (“Rizpah,” Word & World 17 [1997]: 261) points out that a pilegesh “refers to a legal wife of secondary rank,” though it has often been translated as “concubine.”

(2) The MT reads mykl whereas MTMSS with LXXLN have mrb. McCarter, II Samuel, 439

(3) NRSV reads “impaled.” McCarter (II Samuel, 436, 442) favors crucifixion. For a list of interpretations suggested by others, see Exum, “Rizpah,” 263.

(4) This and other questions of ambiguity are raised by Bruce C. Birch, “1 and 2 Samuel,” in The New Interpreters Bible in Twelve Volumes, ed. Bruce C. Birch, et al (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1998), 1358.

(5) F. C. Fensham, “The Treaty between Israel and the Gibeonites,” Biblical Archaeologist 27 (1964): 96-100. Cited in McCarter, II Samuel, 442.

(6) See, for example, the “impaling” of the chiefs “in the sun before the Lord” in Num. 25:1-5, NRSV.

(7) As Birch, “1 and 2 Samuel,” 1358, notes: “The Gibeonites are pictured as reticent in this entire matter. They do not call for vengeance, but are approached by David.”

(8) See George E. Mendenhall, “Amorites,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. I, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1992), 201.

(9) The concept of “ritual execution” has been proposed by Birch, “1 and 2 Samuel,” 1358.

(10) See Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5; Deut. 18:10; 24:16.

(11) See Elizabeth Bloch-Smith, “Burials,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. I, 785.

(12) Exum, “Rizpah,” 264.

(13) The verb nth is used in the sense of pitching a tent. See Stanley D. Walters, “‘To the Rock’ [2 Samuel 21:10],” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 70 [2008]: 461.

(14) “To the Rock,” 455.

(15) See Deut. 32:4, 15, 30, 37.

(16) Rains usually did not fall after the beginning of the barley harvest until November. The descendants of Saul were put to death in the month of Ziv [April-May]. So some scholars, such as McCarter, believe the rains to be likely “an unseasonable, late spring or summer rain” (II Samuel, 442).

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