Studying the lives of women in the Bible has led me to appreciate their strength in the midst of suffering. Life was not easy for women in ancient times. Their lives were fragile, precarious, and at risk so much of the time. Many women, like Sarah, Rebecca and Elisabeth faced barrenness and the social rejection and stigma that that came with. Some were married to cruel or wicked husbands, like Abigail. Widows faced poverty, desperation, even starvation. And these were the women who were “lucky” enough to be married! Some women were low-born women not considered high-ranking enough to be considered for marriage, consequently, they became concubines. What we know of women who became concubines, like Hagar, Bilhah and Zilpah, they did not enter into these situations by choice. They were servants (slaves) and this was sometime that was decided for them.
We would, of course, prefer not to think about such women, to forget they exist and only consider the “noble”, higher-born, or more privileged women in our estimations. But the Bible includes such women for reasons beyond what we can understand. The Bible attaches no shame, no guilt, and no condemnation on concubines. The writers of Scripture did not erase them (or unwed mothers like Mary and prostitutes like Rahab and Mary Magdelene) from the narrative.They were women of their time, subject to a cruel system beyond their control. Take the story of the woman in the book of Judges, a concubine who ran away from her master and was forcibly taken back from her fathers’ house, only to be raped to death by an entire town. She then had her body desecrated, butchered, and paraded before the entire nation. Trying to find something redeeming in these accounts is rather a challenge!
Rizpah was one such woman. While she lived, she was the sexual servant or concubine of Saul. She was subject to him, yet was not considered worthy of becoming his wife and queen.
We know from Scripture that Saul was an unstable and mad king – insecure, jealous, raging, She was in a vulnerable women, subject to such a man. We can make a conjecture from the character of Saul as depicted in Scripture that Rizpah probably did not have an easy life. It is very likely that she was abused and mistreated in some way or the other while he lived.
Beyond the grave, however, the actions of King Saul were to reap the most devastating effects. Rizpah had two sons, we do not know their names. We can imagine for a woman in her position, her children would of immense importance to her. We find out from the Biblical narrative just how much.
The account of what happened to Rizpah’s sons is written in 1 Samuel 21:1-14. But let’s view the story from Rizpah’s perspective. One day, her sons are taken from her by order of the king. Out of the blue, they are given over to the Gibeonites and hanged. They had not committed any crimes. We do not know if anyone explained to them or Rizpah why they were being executed, despite having done no wrong.
On a larger scale, justice was being served. Saul’s actions were repaid by his offspring. Yet, on a personal scale, this was so unjust. Rizpah had her sons taken from her and killed.
Her love for her sons, and her shock at their untimely deaths must have been . She mourned their bodies, shielding their corpses day and night like a woman gone mad with grief, as if she had nothing to live for (and it is probable she didn’t).
What did Rizpah have left? What little position she had as the palace concubine was not gone. Saul’s line was destroyed, his dynasty replaced. It is likely she was shunned for her association with the house of Saul and lived in a precarious position as it was.
And he delivered them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they hanged them in the hill before the LORD: and they fell all seven together, and were put to death in the days of harvest, in the first days, in the beginning of barley harvest. And Rizpah the daughter of Aiah took sackcloth, and spread it for her upon the rock, from the beginning of harvest until water dropped upon them out of heaven, and suffered neither the birds of the air to rest on them by day, nor the beasts of the field by night.
(2 Samuel 21:9-10)
Her actions, however, were brought to the attention of the king. Something in what she did, what her position was, must have touched David’s heart. Without her dedication, her sons would probably have rotted to death in the open field, devoured by animals.
And it was told David what Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, the concubine of Saul, had done. And David went and took the bones of Saul and the bones of Jonathan his son from the men of Jabeshgilead, which had stolen them from the street of Bethshan, where the Philistines had hanged them, when the Philistines had slain Saul in Gilboa: And he brought up from thence the bones of Saul and the bones of Jonathan his son; and they gathered the bones of them that were hanged. And the bones of Saul and Jonathan his son buried they in the country of Benjamin in Zelah, in the sepulchre of Kish his father: and they performed all that the king commanded. And after that God was intreated for the land.
(2 Samuel 21:11-14)
It said that “David went and took”, as if he personally saw the matter done. He also took the effort to bury them on their ancestral land, almost as if to make amends and definitely to show respect to the bodies.
And it was only after Saul and his offspring were buried in this was that “God was intreated for the land”.
So you see, Rizpah played a role in bringing an end to the famine, in restoring the land. Her sorrow touched the heart of the king. While it is an incredibly tragic story, it is sobering and also a reminder of the extent of a mother’s love.
Something we can learn from this is to have a heart of mercy. Instead of being prejudiced and resentful against Rizpah for all the wrongs done by the house of Saul, David perhaps saw her as a person, a mother. When his actions hurt someone, even inadvertently, he took care to set things right as well, despite the face that his hands were also tied in this situation.