The Woman Who Guarded Her Dead
Scripture References—2 Samuel 3:7; 21:8-14
Name Meaning—“A hot, or baking stone.” Rizpah certainly exhibited a white-heat passion in the protection of her murdered sons.
Family Connections—She was a daughter of Aiah, or Ajah, the Horite (Genesis 36:24; 1 Chronicles 1:40; 2 Samuel 3:7). Saul took her as a concubine and she bore him, Armoni and Mephibosheth. Ishbosheth, another son of Saul by a different woman, accused Abner, a cousin, of incest with Rizpah, and enraged by such an accusation Abner transferred his allegiance from Saul to David (2 Samuel 3:7-21).
Among all the heart-moving episodes in the Bible, none is so compelling and touching as the story of Rizpah and her care of the dead. This narrative is probably responsible for the great poem of Tennyson, Rizpah, a verse of which reads—
Flesh of my flesh was gone,
But bone of my bone was left—
I stole them all from the lawyer—
and will you call it a theft?
My baby, my bones, that had sucked me,
the bones that had laughed and had cried
Theirs? O no! they are mine—
not theirs—they had moved in my side.
Donald Davidson reminds us that, “Beauty is often to be found in the most unexpected places, and here we find the blackness of that pre-Christian night pierced by a pure white shaft of sacrifice and love.” It may prove profitable to present a threefold portrait of this most courageous woman.
She Was a Victim of Vengeance
Like millions of women through the centuries, Rizpah, caught up in the holocaust of national strife and war, found herself bereft of husband and children and was left to fight a battle against loneliness and poverty. The background of Rizpah’s empty heart and home is plainly stated. Saul, who became conspicuous for his pride and self-will, broke an oath that had been made with the Gibeonites by Joshua. Although the idolatrous Gibeonites had deceived Joshua, yet the treaty with them had been made, and an oath not to destroy them by the sword was sealed in the Lord’s name. But when Saul came to power he set about the obliteration of Israel’s enemies, and treating the Gibeonites as a heathen settlement in a holy land, endeavored to annihilate them. As soon as Saul met his death on Mount Gilboa, the Gibeonites sought for redress for the profanation of the oath given by Joshua.
A severe famine lasting for three years overtook the land of Israel, and David was divinely informed that the famine was in consequence of Saul’s slaughter of the oath-protected Gibeonites. They demanded by way of compensation that the seven sons of Saul should be hung up “before the Lord” in expiation for what had been done there. It thus came about that innocent children had to bear heavy punishment for the sin of their father. The five sons of Saul by Merab, who were cared for by Michal after her sister’s death (see href="/id/39333943-3233-3845-2D39-3136312D3331">Michal), and Saul’s two sons by Rizpah were taken and hanged upon a hilltop for all to see. Thus vengeance, a divine prerogative (Romans 3:5; 12:19), was taken out of God’s hands, and executed by revengeful men in God’s name upon seven innocent men. They were cruelly slaughtered, not to appease divine wrath, but to satisfy a human thirst for vengeance. History affirms that innocent people suffer for the sins of their rulers.
She Was a Defender of the Dead
The next glimpse of Rizpah offers a sharp contrast to the brutal revenge and slaughter that broke her motherly heart. What an effective illustration she gave of a mother’s love being as strong as death! What a ghastly scene that must have been during barley harvest with those seven blood-covered bodies hanging on the respective trees, and noble Rizpah protecting them from the vultures waiting to gorge themselves on the corpses! Through the days and weeks she watched those broken bodies gradually blacken, decay and wither, and never relaxed her vigil. She had no power to prevent the gruesome murder of her two sons, but none could stay her from the act of mercy in caring for their mangled bodies on the gallows-tree. Leaving those bodies to hang unburied testified to the vengeance being of man and not of God, for the law demanded that anyone hanged on a tree must be buried before sunset of the same day.
Rizpah continued watching the mouldering bodies of the dead standing out stark against the sky. Her beautiful, sacrificial motherhood wrestled through anxious days and more anxious nights with the foul stench of those rotting corpses filling her nostrils. Here is an episode unmatched in literature. As a widow who feared God, perhaps her tender care of the dead implied an instinctive sense of resurrection. Rizpah spread sackcloth on the rock. Sackcloth is not only associated with mourning for the dead (Genesis 37:34; 2 Samuel 3:31), but also with the public expression of humiliation and penitence in view of some misfortune, present or impending (1 Kings 21:27; Nehemiah 9:1, etc.). Was Rizpah’s use of the sackcloth a sign that the land had repented of its sin? At any rate, she defended the dead till the rain came—a token that God had withdrawn His judgment. Water out of the heavens, reviving the famine-stricken land, was recognized as the sign of God’s mercy, and that the painful watch in sackcloth on the dead was over. “Refrain thine eyes from tears—thy work shall be rewarded—they shall come again from the land of the enemy.”
Rizpah’s long vigil was over. She had clung at all costs with desperate, sacrificial tenacity to guard the lifeless remains of Saul’s seven sons (Song of Solomon 8:6; Isaiah 49:15), now she was at liberty to bury their withered corpses. David heard of her motherly devotion and long vigil. Remembering that the uncared-for bones of Saul and Jonathan were still exposed in the streets of Beth-shan he commanded that they should be recovered and mingled with the precious bones which Rizpah had guarded, and buried in the family grave at Zelah. “God was intreated for the land,” and Rizpah’s desire for proper respect for her dead was fulfilled.
She Typified the Gloom of Golgotha
Different writers have drawn attention to the similarities between Rizpah as she stood by those seven trees on the hillside, and Mary who stood by the tree upon which her Son was hanged. In that “hill before the Lord” (2 Samuel 21:9), we have a shadow of Golgotha. Seven innocent men were hanged, or as the Latin Version puts it, crucified, to make atonement for the sin of others. They bore the curse of a broken oath, for “cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree,” and those trees on that hill of Gibeah were the shadow of the one bearing the one great expiatory Sacrifice. By His death upon the tree, God’s Son satisfied His Father’s justice and righteousness, and provided a perfect salvation for a sinning race.
There is a striking way in which Rizpah the mother of two sons, and Mary Magdalene, the devoted follower of Christ, resemble each other. Rizpah could not forget the sons of her love, and in her sacrificial vigil of her dead expressed the secret instinct of faith in the hope of resurrection. In like manner, Mary sat over against the sepulcher watching the place where her dear Lord was buried. While not mindful of His predicted Resurrection (Psalm 16:9, 10), she was at His grave early the next morning to embalm His body, and would have been prepared to guard it as Rizpah had defended her dead, but that body was no longer in the tomb. Christ was alive forevermore, and Mary was privileged to become the first witness to this cardinal truth of Christianity. Rizpah saw her dead buried out of her sight (Genesis 23:4), as we have, but the Crucified One, “dead and buried” did not remain out of sight. He rose again, and provided, for all those redeemed by His blood, a glorious resurrection.