Sanctified Art Image by Lauren Wright Pittman @sanctifiedart
Prayer of Illumination: God of unending surprises, this life is a tapestry of moments woven together, and we long to be weavers of love. Today we gather and pray that you unravel our bias. Unravel our assumptions. Unravel whatever it is that keeps us from you. And as we do, clear space in our hearts for your Word. We are listening, we are praying, amen.
Friends, before we begin, I’m wondering if you have ever heard of the name Rizpah? Her name means “hot stone,” and though her words of outrage are not even in our Biblical cannon, her actions speak loud and clear. But I’m willing to bet that unless you are a pro at obscure Biblical trivia, you are not too familiar with Rizpah’s story. The lectionary doesn’t delve in Rizpah’s background and odds are you most certainly did not hear of Rizpah growing up in children’s Sunday school. I confess and forewarn you the story of Rizpah is a hard one to stomach and perhaps after hearing the text, you may have some idea as to why most pastors don’t line up to preach Rizpah’s story of grief and gut-wrenching heartache.
I’ll confess that I was tempted several times to skip her story in “Unraveled” series and move to something less horrific. But Rizpah compelled me to share her story, to acknowledge her actions, to be challenged by her. So friends today, I challenge you to hear Rizpah’s story. I challenge us all to sit with Rizpah’s honest despair and unapologetic public grief.
But perhaps we are getting too far ahead of ourselves. Because this story is one of the lesser knowns in the Biblical text, here’s a bit of background which might be helpful before we come to our scripture reading for this morning. A nation is in utter chaos. Divided in two. Leaders are rising, falling, and chasing after power no matter what it cost the people and killing the innocent. Destruction, devastation, vengeance, and assassinations run rampant. A king has come to power, a man after God’s own heart, but still a man and honestly, a hot mess of scandal. He has engaged in corrupt political power moves, adultery, incest, and murder. He inherited a messy kingdom. The former king Saul’s mistakes and lack of keeping promises has come back to haunt the land. Rains cease, crops die, people suffer, and famine comes.
Scripture: 2 Samuel 3:7, 21:1-14 Common English Bible
7 Now Saul had a secondary wife named Rizpah, Aiah’s daughter. Ishbosheth[b] said to Abner, “Why have you had sex with my father’s secondary wife?”
21 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.” 2 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.)
3 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?”
4 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?”[a] David asked. “I’ll do it for you.”
5 “Okay then,” they said to the king. “That man who opposed and oppressed[b] us, who planned to destroy us, keeping us from having a place to live anywhere in Israel— 6 hand over seven of his sons to us, and we will hang them before the Lord at Gibeon[c] on the Lord’s mountain.”
“I will hand them over,” the king said.
7 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. 8 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,[d] whom she birthed for Adriel, Barzillai’s son, who was from Meholah, 9 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.
10 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. 11 When David was told what Aiah’s daughter Rizpah, Saul’s secondary wife, had done, 12 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. 13 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. 14 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.
Public Grief that Inspires Action. Friends, we can grieve many things. I think the story of Rizpah is a very public display of inconsolable grief, not only for the loss of life, but for the injustices of the world. Friends, what injustices do you grieve today? How might Rizpah’s story speak to us this day? I invite us to explore such questions.
One injustice which really irks me is when voices are silenced by society which deems their voices as unimportant. Women in Biblical times did not have say. Friends, my guess is it is not a mere coincidence that Rizpah’s words are lost from text. She is living in a corrupt system where women are forced to respond willingly to a man’s political power move on the chess board, with no voice, no power, no right. She is mentioned early on in 2 Samuel, only because she was raped by Abner, Saul’s nephew. Rizpah is one of Saul’s lower-status wives or concubine. This meant her children were not eligible to become rulers. They were only “sort of” royalty and treated as such. Maybe in David’s mind, it made sense to give up Rizpah’s son for this very reason.
But how could handing over seven men to be violently killed end a famine in God’s eyes? These seven men were victims of being in the wrong bloodline and were handed over just to appease a broken political promise. Bodies impaled and left to rot. Injustice. Rizpah, however, is compelled to act. She climbs up the mountain, and protects her boys.
Theologian Dr. Wilda C. Gafney puts it this way, “Rizpah watches the corpses of her sons (and the others) stiffen, soften, swell, and sink into stench of the decay. Apparently she is denied permission to bury her dead. Denial of proper funerary rites was a common means of cursing and punishing an enemy and their people in and beyond death in the ancient Near East. Rizpah fights the winged, clawed, toothed scavengers night and day. She is there as many as six months; sleeping, eating, toileting, protecting, and bearing witness to injustice.”
Not only does Rizpah protect her two children, but she protects and fights for all of the boy’s lifeless bodies. She steps in as their surrogate mother. She doesn’t sit by and say, that’s not MY child, or that’s not MY community; no Rizpah looks at the beaten and broken bodies and remembers the humanity of the boys. Rizpah places the honor and protection of those lives taken too soon and too unjustly before her own safety. She shows persistent strength. However, being extremely vulnerable, not only to the elements, but opening the sacred piece of your soul where deep grieving takes place and making a tent in mourning cloths, grieving in a very public setting, was risky for Rizpah. But the injustice done to those boys’ bodies unraveled her in way that she couldn’t just sit at home and mourn. Imagine if Rizpah would have grieved quietly in solitude, would the famine have EVER ended? Her actions demand justice despite her being tired, hungry, lonely, and despite the kingdom already moving on.
At the 2018 Evolving Faith Conference, writer Austin Channing Brown preached perhaps one of the more beautifully challenging sermons I’ve heard. Austin speaks from a place of pain from witnessing so many injustices in world. She says, “I imagine Rizpah may have had an abundance of energy when she first climbed that mountain. But now she’s tired and lonely. And her body hurts and her hearts hurts and the Kingdom has moved on. I don’t know how she did it. But here’s what I think. I think she looked at those bodies and remembered their humanity. I think she remembered the way they used to play at her feet. I think she remembered their first words. And the first time they learned to clap their hands. You see, Rizpah refuses to be taken in by the message of dehumanization. Everyone else looked around at those decomposing bodies are were disgusted. But Rizpah refused to let religious notions of piety become the catalyst for her own inhumanity.”
So for about six months, Rizpah stood her ground. Long after the community forgot, long after everyone moved on to the next thing, Rizpah guarded the broken bodies. Day after day, I imagine the people watched her, and you can bet the people talked. Maybe they were sympathetic at first but over time, perhaps they became more and more cruel. “That Rizpah has lost it,” they whisper. King David did eventually have his understanding of the causes and cure for famine unraveled. Rizpah’s public grief finally unraveled to justice and a proper burial for her boys. It was then, and only then, that God ended the famine and restored the land.
The injustice of Rizpah’s story continues to haunt me. Rizpah’s story is a call to open our eyes and to notice. To notice injustice, to notice suffering of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Her story is a call to not walk past the injustices of the world and the modern day Rizpah’s crying out and demanding a change. Rather to notice them, to sit with them, to listen, and to be moved to action by the Rizpah’s of our world. A call to come alongside and work together as followers of Christ to move towards the day when justice will roll down like cascading waters to move towards a day when all Rizpah’s are given voice and know they are welcomed at God’s table.
A few other injustices that irk me are loss of innocent lives and systematic racism that plagues society. Rizpah represents every women who lost her children too young because of civil and social injustice. Women like Mamie Till-Mobley who placed her fourteen year old, African American son in an open casket to show the world the racial violence of his murder. Or the countless other mothers who bury their babies too young because injustice or war. All that remains is for Rizpah is to preserve the dignity of their memory and live on to bear witness and call to account the rulers of the world. In her sermon on Rizpah, Austin Channing Brown states, “Your anger points to what is wrong and what could be made right. Your anger is not destructive, it is instructive.” She goes on to say, “I call you Rizpah, for you who have the courage to be angry and the love required to pursue justice. To step into lost causes, to speak truth to power. I call you Rizpah.”
In her blog, “Church for the Starving Artists,” Jan Edmiston recently observed, “prayerful marching in the streets will not make things right. Book groups will not make things right. But the hope is that someone will be moved, someone will wake up, and someone will realize that it’s our responsibility as followers to Jesus to do more than wish the ugliness in our world away.”
Christians are not called to an easy path, where we are to go through life un-touched by problems, and with the luxury to not choose a side when injustice is prevalent or act solely with performative actions which at best offer Band-Aids for injustice. Instead, we are called to, “do justice….now…to love mercy….now….to walk humbly with God….now.” This is what God requires of us when we encounter Rizpahs mourning loss of life and mourning loss of justice. And friends, God weeps alongside the Rizpahs of our world….the question is will we? May it be so. Amen.