In 2Sam 21:1-14, Rizpah, one of King Saul’s wives, watches over the bodies of seven executed men, including two of her sons. They had all been impaled on tall poles by King David and left to decay for months. Rizpah protects the corpses of her sons and the other men and stays there the whole time, going well beyond any ordinary act of mourning. Although a seemingly minor character, Rizpah’s resilience and dedication—her silent yet public protest of their executions and neglect of their corpses—eventually results in David finally giving a proper burial to Saul, Saul’s son Jonathon, and the seven other sons of Saul who had been put to death. By doing this, Rizpah may serve as a role model for those who stand up for injustices.
Who is Rizpah?
Rizpah was the daughter of Aiah (2Sam 3:7). We don’t know much about Aiah, but he must have held some prominence for his daughter to have been given to the king. In 2Sam 3, Rizpah is described as a “concubine” of Saul. The Hebrew term used here, pilegesh, could mean a secondary wife, but in its most basic usage, it simply referred to a girl or woman who was sexually owned by a powerful man (see Susanne Scholz, “Concubine”). Rizpah was, in other words, enslaved by Saul. The first mention we have of Rizpah, however, comes after Saul’s death, when Abner, one of David’s allies, appears to have used Rizpah as a sexual pawn in order to take the throne from the house of Saul (2Sam 3:7). That Abner thinks having sex with Rizpah would serve as a coup suggests that she held some status in the Israelite court. Ishbaal, one of Saul’s sons, complains about Rizpah’s treatment but backs down when Abner becomes angry. The fact that the narrator fails to mention Rizpah’s agency, feelings, consent, or desires illustrates her subordination to the central “players” in the royal court.
Why does Rizpah stand watch over these corpses?
In 2Sam 21, Rizpah gains agency. She protects the bodies of her sons and their companions from wild animals and in doing so draws attention to the actions of the king who dishonored them first through execution and again through abandoning their carcasses. The beginning of the passage states that the people are suffering from a three-year famine. David goes to the Lord to discover the origin of this famine. The Lord informs him that it was due to “bloodguilt” from Saul’s earlier execution of the Gibeonites. Saul and David’s forces had battled at Gibeon, which was Northwest of Jerusalem (2Sam 2:12-32, 2Sam 20:8-13). Aside from the parenthetical in v. 2, there is no other biblical record of Saul having killed Gibeonites, though a tradition in which the Israelites made an oath to God not to kill the Gibeonites provides essential context (Josh 9:19). David summons the Gibeonites, and they tell him that they will not harm anyone in Israel as long as David kills the sons of Saul. David agrees. Though the Lord identified the bloodguilt as the reason for the famine, that theological explanation paired with the Gibeonites’ demand for Saul’s sons may appear as a convenient justification for David to eliminate the sons of Saul as rivals to his throne.
Rizpah’s bold and lengthy presence with the corpses draws attention to the human cost of David’s resolution to the bloodguilt, and it could point to duplicity on his part. In the end, David provides honorable burials. At that point the narrator comments that the famine finally did end: “God heeded supplications for the land” (2Sam 21:14). Here we must wonder about the role attributed to God in resolving a famine by committing brutal executions.
Although Rizpah only appears in two verses of this story (10–11), her actions occur over a series of several months and have significant effects. These royal men and their wars driven by “bloodguilt” victimized Rizpah as well as her sons and Saul’s other sons, but her presence becomes a silent protest against the executions. Perhaps she was even protesting more broadly about the injustices of David’s reign, such as his neglect of Saul and Jonathan’s bones. Rizpah’s moral persistence may have provoked David to a change of heart towards Saul and his bloodline. We may see her in those who stand up against wrongdoing, and whose presence becomes a voice for persons who cannot speak for themselves.