“Unraveled: (How) Can We Right a Wrong?”
(Week 3 of Summer Series)
Rev’d. Tanya N. Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
28 June, 2020
2 Samuel 3:1, 6-7; 21:1-14
The first thing to be said about this story is that there is no easy way to tell it. When the Bible presents me with stories like this one, instead of turning away and assuming it’s too disturbing to deal with and doesn’t have anything worthwhile to offer, I’ve learned to ask the question, “Where is the Good News in this? Where can I see evidence of God’s abiding love and presence?” Because that’s what helps me to recognize God’s enduring presence in parallel situations today, in the unraveling realities that some of us would prefer to avoid or escape in the 21st century.
So, then. As we continue on the theme of life’s “unraveled” moments, today’s story is a tale of how the callous use of power wreaks havoc on other lives. But God finds a way, even through the anguish of a multiply-wronged woman, to accomplish something redemptive. The whole of 2 Samuel is episode after episode about how human pride, lust for power, and resulting warfare (from familial to international) unravels the lives not only of the self-centered, but also of selfless and innocent characters as well. And, for generations after them! It’s a story about how those in power can be oblivious to their casual cruelty, and how they can remain sheltered from the desolation they cause in others’ lives—especially in the lives of those pushed to the margins, who lack access to power or material or privilege—because that’s how power systems so often work in this world. History is littered with stories about people who appear ignorant of the pain and anguish they inflict as they blithely treat certain lives as though they are less fully human, less worthy of honor and dignity than their own. Either that, or they simply don’t care, which is even more disturbing when we consider that many of them are people who have professed to have faith in God, and say they ascribe to God’s desires for human life. Like Saul. Or Abner. Or David.
The story entreats us to reflect on the nature of power: who possess power and who doesn’t? And, as each individual employs whatever power is at their disposal, how does that impact others in their sphere of influence?
We’re introduced to Rizpah in the third chapter of 2 Samuel, where we learn that she was a concubine to King Saul. Which is to say, a second-class quasi-“wife.” Which is, according to many historians, not actually even a wife. Rather, they were, somewhat crassly, women whose job was to bear children, heirs, for the express purpose of “enhancing the family’s workforce and wealth, and to satisfy the man’s sexual desires.” Concubines were endowed with rights and protections by Hebrew law, but by no means equal in status to a wife. They were viewed as possessions valued for what their bodies could produce. Still, according to the Encyclopedia Judaica, “To lie with a concubine of the monarch was tantamount to usurpation of the throne” … which is surely why Ish-Bosheth called Abner on it.
Arguably, at the outset, Rizpah has little or no meaningful power whatsoever. She’s part of a social system and structure that has determined that her primary value resides in how many offspring she produces. As the story moves along, she appears to become a political pawn—not necessarily intentionally by any of the men who have far more worldly power than she does, but nonetheless her life and all that is valuable to her is disregarded by virtue of their whims, proving her relative powerlessness. The first whim was when Saul chose her for a concubine, participating in a social system that inherently treated certain lives as commodities. A second was deciding to dispense with the covenant between Israel and Gibeon; had he not made that choice, the widow Rizpah would never have seen her beloved children become blood sacrifices.
Next, although some commentators say that Rizpah was raped, and others suggest it was merely a rumor that Abner had slept with her, the text itself doesn’t make it clear. (It could have been a consensual relationship, though the power dynamics make that inherently complicated, don’t they?) Either way, the text “gives voice to Rizpah’s vulnerability and the tenuousness of her situation as a lower wife of a dead king.” Furthermore, because it was understood that taking a monarch’s concubine was tantamount to usurpation of the throne, and because Abner was clearly into power and control, it’s fair to wonder what he might have been thinking. He certainly never denied having had the affair with Rizpah, nor was there any indication that he loved or respected her. Instead, as soon as Ish-Bosheth calls him out on it, Abner gets incensed and begins arranging to deprive Saul’s son of the throne, and to deliver it instead to David.
After he’s in control of the reunited kingdom, David wonders why the nation has been plagued by a three-year famine. The answer he discerns, which he believes comes from the LORD, is that the famine is a punishment for Saul’s killing of the Gibeonites in violation of their covenant. So, David approaches the Gibeonites and asks what he can do to make things right with them. How can he right the wrong done by the since-deceased Saul, so that their land could enjoy relief from the famine and actually flourish once again?
As we know, the response was that the people of Gibeon wanted seven male heirs of Saul to die. David recognizes the expediency in this, and agrees. Seven was considered a sacred number of completion, so presumably there’s some symbolism in this pertaining to drawing a line under the whole wretched affair. And this is how the widow Rizpah’s “woes [were] intensified as her sons, together with five of Saul’s grandsons, [were] ritually slaughtered in a shocking episode that is part human sacrifice and part state-sanctioned execution.”
The Gibeonites’ execution of the seven sons of Saul is violent, and profoundly troubling—especially as it gets presented in this piece of holy scripture. Because, under the guise of reconciliation and retributive justice, it’s hard not to be appalled by the callous abuse of power and the manipulation of religious symbols.
But surprisingly, the violent nature of the narrative is interrupted by the actions of a traumatized but determined mother in mourning. Rizpah has discovered and claimed the power she has: she does for her sons in death what she couldn’t do for them in life: she protects them from predators. This grieving mother took up a silent vigil over the corpses left exposed on a hill. She couldn’t stop David from taking her sons, nor the Gibeonites from killing them—but she does what she can.
Wil Gafney, in her book Womanist Midrash, paints a vivid portrait of Rizpah’s vigil: “Rizpah bat Aiah watches the corpses of her sons stiffen, soften, swell, and sink into the stench of decay … fights with winged, clawed, and toothed scavengers night and day. She is there from the spring harvest until the fall rains, as many as six months . . . sleeping, eating, toileting, protecting, and bearing witness” (p. 200–201).
In response to the various ways her life had painfully unraveled, Rizpah’s vigil over the dead bodies of those seven sons is a demonstration of profound power. What’s compelling about this power is that it wasn’t intended to enhance or promote the one demonstrating it; it’s a spiritual power borne of a mother’s grief and trauma over the elusiveness of real justice. Because, of course, Rizpah—this widow, now sonless mother, as vulnerable and far down the pecking order as it was possible to be in that society—was in no position to confront the king nor the Gibeonites in order to exact the justice that the deaths of her sons demanded.
“And yet,” write Terry Ann Smith and Micah McCreary, “despite appearances of powerlessness, her truth (and the justice it demands) shames the most powerful person of her day, King David, to act on behalf of the dead. In a narrative twist of fate, her vigil becomes both a lament and remembrance that draws public attention and recourse.”
What those of us who read and reflect on the story understand is that lynching Rizpah’s and Merab’s sons—an effort toward revenge and retributive justice—is not what healed the land or the people. In verse 14, we read that it was only after David retrieved and gave a proper burial to the remains of the slain, it was only when he truly listened and responded with compassion and humanity in response to the multiply-aggrieved woman, that “God answered prayer in behalf of the land” (2 Samuel 21:11, 14) and the famine lifted.
Although most societies prefer that people “keep it together” and don’t fray at the edges, sometimes coming undone may just be the tool God works with to accomplish redemption, or reconciliation. Rizpah’s public display, her unabashed unraveling in response to the callous and unjust powers of this world, moved David to unravel a bit himself. At least, he loosened up enough to momentarily disentangle himself from his pride and expediency in order to do the right thing.
Rizpah’s story is not an aberration of the Old Testament. As Terry Ann Smith and Micah L. McCreary point out in a Bible study they wrote on this passage, “On a hot summer night in August of 1955, 14-year-old African American Emmett Till was removed from his relatives’ home in Mississippi by two white men. He was taken to a barn, stripped naked, pistol-whipped, shot in the head, and his lifeless body dumped in the Tallahatchie River. Emmett Till’s body was returned to his mother in Chicago and upon witnessing the extent of the brutality enacted on the bloated unrecognizable corpse of her son, she refused attempts to bury him quietly. Insisting on an open casket ceremony, she is reported to have said, ‘I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby.’ The disfigured body of Emmett Till on display to the entire world would shame a nation and usher in the Civil Rights Movement.”
Friends, we are all seeing and hearing the cries for justice today that resonate with Rizpah’s personal vigil. The number has only continued to grow, of mothers like Rizpah and Mamie Till-Mobley. Mothers and others who are publicly unraveling, wailing and protesting, because they’ve lost their children and loved ones—many of them “sacrificed to state-sanctioned brutality and the political and socio-economic exigencies of our society.” As I hear and understand what so many in the aggrieved communities are saying, it feels like the power structures and systems in place are indifferent to their grief, constantly making excuses for the injustices they continue to suffer. Instead of curiosity or a demonstration of living by the golden rule from those whom they feel continue to marginalize them, many of the aggrieved hear dismissive responses that demonstrate more defensiveness and self-righteousness than compassion.
Today’s lesson from 2 Samuel demonstrates that even three thousand years ago, human beings were dealing with the same issues we’re grappling with today. We still seem to believe that justice is accomplished, that wrongs are somehow put right, by exacting revenge and retribution (“an eye for an eye” and all that) rather than by seeking restoration through reconciliation. But the gospel teaches us that God’s justice is all about reconciliation. And reconciliation doesn’t happen until deep and genuine listening happens. The kind of listening that demonstrates compassion—a genuine feeling with the other. Reconciliation and restoration takes time, patience, perseverance, and grace.
For Rizpah, it was a matter of holding vigil—speaking her truth by bearing witness to those who were wronged, fending off predators in their death where she could not in their life. For more than half a year, day and night, she persevered. And that’s where the Good News resides: because the power and presence of God is what pitched tent with her there on that rock. God grieved with her and attended to her in her struggle, while she did what she could. And finally, the powerful King David took notice. He listened to her life story, took note of her devoted attention, saw that it all spoke of a power greater than his own, and he could not help but amend his ways.
God alone has the wisdom and grace to heal the wrongs of history—our own wrongs, and those of the whole world. As followers of Jesus Christ, I believe we are called to bear witness to the One who abides with each suffering individual, by being present to those who struggle with the pain of loss, whose lives are unraveling or have fallen apart. As Smith and McCreary put it, “In essence, we are called to abide with the traumatized in the most uncomfortable of spaces, providing the ministry of presence where there are no right answers and there are no simple fixes. This is not only the work of the shepherd or the work of pastoral care; but it is the work of the church and those who have been called to Christian service. When viewed from this perspective, it becomes not just one woman’s triumph, but a triumph for us all. In the words of Christ, ‘when you have done this for the least of these, you have done it for me’ (Matt. 25:40).”
May God grant us wisdom, courage, grace, and power to be the bearers of compassion to a world beset by grief and pain. Amen.
 Terry Ann Smith and Micah L. McCreary, https://www.faithward.org/rizpah-turning-tragedy-into-triumph/
 Terry Ann Smith and Micah L. McCreary, https://www.faithward.org/rizpah-turning-tragedy-into-triumph/