Our story for today (or really, from a few weeks ago – apologies to the twelve of you who read this for getting so far behind!) is the story of Rizpah. It’s a story I had never heard before a few weeks ago when John Bell told the story at a youth conference. You can hear John’s take on this story, along with other great women from the Bible, here. His Week 2 Thursday sermon is the one you want.

Rizpah is a fierce mother, not to mention an all around gutsy woman. Her story is in 2 Samuel 21, and is worth a quick read. The thumbnail sketch is that David, for a mix of political and misunderstood religious reasons, kills Rizpah’s two sons and five of her nephews. Refusing to let their memory die, Rizpah watches over their bodies. Her public mourning gets David’s attention and eventually changes his course of action. Thoughts are after the jump.

Today we have another scene from David’s life as the king. There’s a famine in the land, and David wants to know why. What evil has been done?

We tend to reject the idea that God uses natural disasters as a blunt punishment for a whole society.

But, that doesn’t mean there’s not a connection between ethics and environment. The Bible testifies over and over again that a society’s righteousness has a direct relationship with the health of the land. When a society is healthy and just, the land flourishes. When society falls apart, the land suffers.

There is something amiss in Israel. The rain has not fallen in three years.

David comes to believe that the famine is the result of a blood debt owed to the Gibeonites. There was a long-standing truce with the Gibeonites. Saul broke that truce. And now David and his people are paying the price.

So David goes to the Gibeonites to ask how it can be made right.

They hem and haw somewhat, but finally say, what would make this right is for seven of Saul’s descendants to be killed. So they take two of Saul’s sons, whose mother was a concubine named Rizpah, and five of Saul’s grandsons, and David and the Gibeonites impale them on a mountain, and then pray for the rain to come. It sounds an awful lot like human sacrifice.

Into this messy story strides a woman named Rizpah. Rizpah. Rizpah, daughter of Aiah. This is a name worth remembering.

Rizpah didn’t have any real power. All she had was her grief.

She couldn’t lash out in violence. She didn’t have the power to call for yet more bloodshed.

But these are her boys, and she is a fierce mother who will not abandon them. She will not be silent. She will not forget.

And in her refusal to forget, in her refusal to be comforted for this unacceptable loss, she is the most faithful person in this story.

It is so easy to feel powerless in the face of senseless violence. I think David felt powerless in the face of the famine. That’s why he started casting around, trying to figure out who he could kill to make this right. We all felt a measure of that powerlessness this week as we watched the news coming out of Colorado. When loved ones are taken from us too soon, when violence intrudes on our daily lives, when we step back and take in the scope of suffering from war, it is so easy to be overwhelmed by our powerlessness, and to become convinced that this is simply the way the world works.

What can we possibly do in the face of violence like we saw in Colorado? What can we do when war drags on and on and on?

It is tempting to do one of two things. We either throw our hands up in despair and block out the world, dull our minds in the face of so much sadness. Or we try to fight fire with fire, and we arm ourselves and promise to get them before they get us. We follow these two courses of action socially, politically, nationally, but we also are prone to them personally. We retreat and disengage, or we lash out in anger and bitterness.

But Rizpah offers a third way. She points to a way of life in the midst of death.

She grieves. She goes to her sons and she grieves—for them, for her nephews, for the high, high cost that these games of power have exacted. She grieves.

We don’t take grief very seriously in our culture. We tend to treat it like an embarrassing inconvenience.

But Rizpah reminds us that there is power in grieving. There is power in pausing to lift up our hurt to God. There is power in giving honor to the life lost. There is meaning in acknowledging the pain. There is power in grieving.

Rizpah’s grief catches David’s attention. He hears of her. And it’s as if he suddenly comes to his senses.

These men are no longer nameless, expendable enemies. They are real people. He takes down their bodies and gives them a proper burial. He even goes to find the remains of his old enemy Saul, who had been buried without honor in a foreign land. He brings Saul back and lays him to rest.

Rizpah’s grief testified to the truth—we are all children of God, set on this earth to love and care for each other. When that fabric of love is torn, there is holy power in lifting our hearts and voices in lament.

This was Rizpah’s witness. This was the power of her grief. It made David turn from the ethics of an eye for an eye, and choose instead a course of forgiveness. He laid his enemies to rest. He joined Rizpah in her grief for the years of war, for the lives lost, for the uncountable cost.

The story brings to mind passages that are throughout our Bible, like Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” and Micah 6 which asks, “With what shall I come before the Lord?… shall I come before the Lord with burnt offerings?” and then answers, “God has shown you, O mortal, what is good. What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”

Or maybe we remember psalm 51 we read last week, which said, “You O Lord, do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

This is a theme that runs through our scriptures. God does not ask us to settle the score. God does not ask us to make sacrifices of animals, much less of people. God does not ask us to meet violence with violence or hatred with hate. In God’s arithmetic might does not make right.

No. Not at all. Because we follow the One who came not to overpower the world, but to love the world, emptying himself, pouring himself out in love, walking with us, eating with us, weeping with us, and bearing for us the brokenness, and hurt, and shame, even to the point of death.

This self-giving love is the way of life—real life.

This is the way that Rizpah sought. It is the way that she helped David to remember. In the end, David did not offer sacrifices to God, but, with Rizpah, he offered a broken heart.

And then, at long last, the rain came.

by Sarah W. Wiles
July 22, 2012
Bethany Presbyterian Church
Tacoma, WA
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2 Responses to Rizpah

  1. Linda Gaines says:

    I listened to this and it was even more meaningful. thank you for the way you put words together to inspire us about God’s Word to us.

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