Yoder-Short: Rizpah’s protest

Nov 19, 2018 by

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“Woman’s Pro­test Exposes Cruel Political Ploy.” This could be a headline for the present day or for the story of Rizpah.

Jane Yoder-Short


We don’t hear much about Rizpah. Her perplexing narrative is found in 2 Sam. 21:1-14. In this story, King David’s integrity is debatable. David appears to be politically calculating as he cleverly fortifies his power.

Israel is in the third year of a famine. This famine is viewed as a punishment from God. David supposedly inquires of the Lord and conveniently discovers that the famine is connected to the bloodguilt brought by Saul’s treatment and killing of Gibeonites. We find no recorded corroboration that this bloodshed happened.

David consults the Gibeonites, seeking to make amends. The Gibeon­ites don’t want money. They conveniently settle for the blood of seven descendants of Saul. This gives David license for violence against the house of Saul.

David picks the two sons of Saul’s concubine Rizpah and the five sons of Saul’s daughter Merab. He spares the nonthreatening crippled son of Jonathan.

The seven descendants are impaled on the mountain before God. The same God who takes no delight in blood sacrifice but desires the sacrifice of a “broken and contrite heart” (Psalm 51).

David allegedly saves the nation from famine while ridding himself of seven of Saul’s descendants. Seven threats to his throne.

David might have pulled off these seven deaths smoothly if not for Rizpah. A mere concubine, a powerless mother, Rizpah couldn’t stop the killings, but she could publicly mourn. She could keep reminding people of her and Merab’s slaughtered sons.

Rizpah gets a sackcloth and spreads it on a rock. There she stays from the beginning of barley harvest until the time of fall rains, from April until October.

During the day she protects the bodies from birds. At night she protects them from wild animals. Rizpah’s presence exposes David’s calculating political ploy.

When someone tells David about Rizpah, he comes to his senses. He collects the bones of Saul and Jonathan and the seven descendants and gives them a proper burial.

Rizpah was caught in the political struggle between Saul’s household and David. She refused to accept the king’s hype that God required the bloodshed of her sons in order to make retribution.

We can imagine King David’s supporters wishing Rizpah would end her protest. She was a political inconvenience, a reminder of violence gone too far.

Mothers and their children are still caught in political battles. Rizpah reminds us to notice the mourning mothers of our world.

The mothers of young black youth shot by police officers in the name of safety.

The mothers of immigrant children held in detention centers under the banner of American greatness.

The refugee mothers holding starv-ing children caught between global factions and quickly erased as collateral damage.

It’s easy to get caught up listening to manipulative political voices. Rizpah refused to listen to the king’s propaganda, the king’s claims of political necessity and greatness. Instead she heard the voices of the victims and drew attention to their plight.

We can become confused by competing voices. Political hype can muddle the voices of victims. Rizpah reminds us we are not powerless. Hope comes as we side with the victims while keeping our own sackcloth handy.

Jane Yoder-Short attends West Union Mennonite Church in Parnell, Iowa.

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