Sunday, July 3, 2022

Unraveled: Rizpah Mourns Her Sons

Now Saul had a secondary wife named Rizpah, Aiah’s daughter. Ishbosheth said to Abner, “Why have you had sex with my father’s secondary wife?” 

There was a famine for three years in a row during David’s rule. David asked the Lord about this, and the Lord said, “It is caused by Saul and his household, who are guilty of bloodshed because he killed the people of Gibeon.” So the king called for the Gibeonites and spoke to them.

(Now the Gibeonites weren’t Israelites but were survivors of the Amorites. The Israelites had sworn a solemn pledge to spare them, but Saul tried to eliminate them in his enthusiasm for the people of Israel and Judah.)

David said to the Gibeonites, “What can I do for you? How can I fix matters so you can benefit from the Lord’s inheritance?”

The Gibeonites said to him, “We don’t want any silver or gold from Saul or his family, and it isn’t our right to have anyone in Israel killed.”

“What do you want?” David asked. “I’ll do it for you.”

“Okay then,” they said to the king. “That man who opposed and oppressed us, who planned to destroy us, keeping us from having a place to live anywhere in Israel— hand over seven of his sons to us, and we will hang them before the Lord at Gibeon on the Lord’s mountain.”

“I will hand them over,” the king said.

But the king spared Mephibosheth, Jonathan’s son and Saul’s grandson, because of the Lord’s solemn pledge that was between them—between David and Saul’s son Jonathan. So the king took the two sons of Aiah’s daughter Rizpah, Armoni and Mephibosheth, whom she had birthed for Saul; and the five sons of Saul’s daughter Merab, whom she birthed for Adriel, Barzillai’s son, who was from Meholah, and he handed them over to the Gibeonites. They hanged them on the mountain before the Lord. The seven of them died at the same time. They were executed in the first days of the harvest, at the beginning of the barley harvest.

Aiah’s daughter Rizpah took funeral clothing and spread it out by herself on a rock. She stayed there from the beginning of the harvest until the rains poured down on the bodies from the sky, and she wouldn’t let any birds of prey land on the bodies during the day or let wild animals come at nighttime. When David was told what Aiah’s daughter Rizpah, Saul’s secondary wife, had done, he went and retrieved the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan from the citizens of Jabesh-gilead, who had stolen the bones from the public square in Beth-shan, where the Philistines had hanged them on the day the Philistines killed Saul at Gilboa. David brought the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan from there and collected the bones of the men who had been hanged by the Gibeonites. The bones of Saul and his son Jonathan were then buried in Zela, in Benjaminite territory, in the tomb of Saul’s father Kish. Once everything the king had commanded was done, God responded to prayers for the land. --2 Samuel 3:7; 21:1-14

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

I want to begin this morning with an acknowledgment. This is a hard and horrible story. It is the story of Rizpah - a woman, a wife, and a mother - whose two sons, along with five other men, sons of another woman, wife and mother, are executed by the state. Their bodies and lives given as blood-sacrifices. 

It is a hard and horrible story, this story of Rizpah, particularly for us on this day, as we prepare to celebrate Independence Day in our nation. But, perhaps, this year, it is a timely story, difficult as it may be. A reminder of what real freedom and true patriotism is.

To fully understand the context of this story, we need to back up just a bit. We are in the days of the early monarchy in Israel. Saul, Israel’s first king, has become disfavored by God, who has anointed David to replace him. Throughout much of the first book of Samuel, they are at war with each other - King Saul fighting to hold onto his reign against David, one who had been beloved by him, who had even married Saul’s daughter. This is a war between a father and a son-in-law. By the end of first Samuel, Saul is dead. Killed in battle. So, too, is Jonathan, his son - David’s best friend. This family fight has been devastating, resulting in a kind of hunger for blood on all sides. 

We first hear of Rizpah in chapter three, the first verse of today’s reading. We learn that she is Saul’s concubine, most likely considered a second tier wife of Saul. Like Hagar and Abraham. 

As the story continues a famine has struck the land. David seeks an answer from God about the reason for this famine. He hears that it is because of a covenant broken by Saul - a covenant made with Israel and the Gideonites, remnants of the Canaanite people, whom Israel had promised not to harm. Saul, in his zeal to preserve his throne, has killed many of them. David, now Israel’s king, is dealing with the consequences of this broken promise. 

He goes to the Gideonites. (Notice that God does not tell him to go to the Gideonites.) David asks what kind of blood-sacrifice they will require to end the famine. They tell him that neither gold nor silver will compensate for these unjust deaths. They also tell David that they cannot legally ask for anyone in Israel to be killed to compensate. So, David gives them what they cannot do. He hands over seven of Saul’s sons to be executed. 

But, he does not hand over sons from Saul’s first tier wife. Instead he takes two sons from Rizpah, Saul’s concubine. And five sons from Merab, Saul’s daughter. Thus, Saul’s grandsons. He gives them over to the Gideonites and all seven are executed. 

Do you notice that after this happens, after this blood sacrifice is complete, God does not end the famine? Is it possible this was not God’s desire That this was not how God envisioned Israel might be freed from famine? 

It’s important to note that, if we read this text carefully, nowhere does God tell David to do what he does, even though the text hints at this as justification. I’ve mentioned using a hermeneutic of suspicion before. This is a framework for reading scripture that challenges any notion that any violence or harm or atrocity that is done in God's name is actually demanded by God. The hermeneutic of suspicion challenges these notions with an understanding that, rather than God making such demands, it is, as transcribed by human narrators, the human desire for power and control that actually underlies those atrocities in Scripture. 

David does not ask God what to do. And God does not - here - tell David to hand over these sons and grandsons of Saul. In fact, one could argue - and many theologians do - that this was intentionally done by David - not to end the famine, but to ensure his reign and to eliminate any potential threat or claim to the throne by any of Saul’s remaining heirs.  

Whatever the motivation, however, the end result is that the sons of Rizpah and Merab are executed. Even worse, their bodies are left to hang in the public square, to rot, and to be eaten by animals. Like garbage.

None of God’s children are garbage. And Rispah’s devotion to her sons will not allow them to be dishonored in this way. She pitches a tent by their bodies. And from the beginning of harvest until the rains begin, she fights with scavengers night and day.  For six months she is there - sleeping, eating, toileting, protecting, bearing witness. Bearing public witness to the atrocity that has befallen her sons. 

How many women have we seen bear this same public witness in our lifetimes? Immediately, the mother of Emmet Till comes to mind. Or the mother of Matthew Sheppard. What about the mothers of the children killed the very next year at Columbine, some 23 years ago? Or the first and second graders gunned down at Sandy Hook? Or the mothers of the high school students at Stoneman Douglas? Or what of the mothers of all those whose lynchings are commemorated at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, AL? Or the mothers of those killed in the racially-motivated shooting in Buffalo? Or what of the mothers of the third and fourth graders in Uvalde, TX? Or the mothers of the five immigrant children left to suffocate to death in a refrigerator truck in the outskirts of San Antonio? All because leaders of our country fail (or refuse) to act. Over and over and in this country - in our world - mothers, like Rizpah, bear public witness to the results of our human lust for power and money. Like Rizpah, the unraveling of their lives and their families leads to public grief that leads to activism. Activism that calls out our government. That calls out our leaders. That calls us out.

That, my friends, is true patriotism. Holding us all to account - to repent. Just as David was finally called to repentance and then to act - to bury, not only the bodies of the sons of Rizpah and Merab, but also the bodies of Saul and Jonathan, which he had left behind. Buried together in the royal tomb of Saul's family. Once he did, it was then that God ended the famine.

There are few clergy who have preached on this story. And for good reason. But there is one clergy woman who has preached on this story. Womanist theologian Wilma Gafney writes this

Some of you may be asking, “Where is God in Rizpah’s story?” God was right there with Rizpah weeping a mother’s tears. God was with her sons exhaling their last tortured breaths on crosses not of their own making. God was with the hungry and thirsty earth and her desperate dying creatures. God was with the Gibeonites in their righteous rage and grief. God was even with David though perhaps not in the way the authors would always have us think. Wherever you look, God is there. Wherever you see yourself in this story, God is there. Present, accompanying, never abandoning us to our sorrow and grief and the worst the world can do or the worst that we do.

She continues: 

Whether Rizpah’s gospel is good news for you depends on where and with whom you stand. Where do you stand church? Where do you stand when the victims of sexual violence are in the church and so are the perpetrators? Where do you stand when the justice system works for you but not your neighbor or her sons? Do you stand with the legally lynched and corruptly crucified? Where do you stand? Where do you stand when some folk are declared disposable because what side of the man-made border imposed on stolen land they come from? Where do you stand when women are being forced into Iron Age reproductive slavery like Hagar and Bilhah and Zilpah, denied the right to make decisions about their bodies, their reproductive health. Where do you stand when folk are calling the truth a lie and a lie the truth? Where do you stand?

I know where Jesus would stand. He stood with the women with bad sexual reputations, the women who were used by men and left [behind in shame….] He stood against a crooked and corrupt government without concern for the cost. He stood with the dying and the dead…He stood in such solidarity with the dying that he died himself. And in his dying he destroyed death and took away its power. Petty kings and would-be kings might say “death.” But Jesus says “Life!” He cried out “Life” from the grave. And when he came back to stand again with the living and the dying, Jesus chose a woman very much like Rizpah to be the first preacher of his gospel and the apostle to the apostles. Jesus stands with us in life and in death - his and ours - as Rizpah stood with her sons in their bloody vicious deaths. 

Where do you stand church? Don’t tell me. Show me.... Amen.

Preached July 3, 2022, at Grace & Glory Lutheran, Goshen, with Third Lutheran, Louisville.
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: 2 Samuel 3:7, 21:1-14; Psalm 86:8-17

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