The Gospel According to Rizpah

A sermon from Dr. Wil Gafney (right), October 17, 2021) on 2 Samuel 21:1-14; Psalm 58; Revelation 6:9-11; Luke 6:43-45

*Re-posted from Dr. Gafney’s website. Click here to watch or listen to the video.

Yesterday, we talked about the women’s stories in scripture that we do and do not hear taught and preached. Sometimes we don’t hear stories of women because their pieces are scattered like breadcrumbs throughout the scriptures and it takes a major archaeological excavation to gather all of those pieces together and far too many preachers say, “ain’t nobody got time for that.” Well, I got time today.

Let us pray: May the preached word draw you deeper into the written word and kindle in you the matchless love of the incarnate word. Amen.

Before the mothers of the Black Lives Matter movement, there was Rizpah. Before the mothers of women and men and children swinging in the southern breeze as strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees, there was Rizpah. Before the mothers of the Maafa, the African-Atlantic holocaust, there was Rizpah.

There was Rizpah. There was Rizpah standing over the decaying bodies of her disarticulated sons. But before she was there, she was somewhere else, somewhere where she caught the eye of a king, a king who already had a queen. The text tells us nothing about how they met or what it was he saw in her let alone what if anything she saw in him, whether she wanted him or, her circumstances made the choice for her. Rizpah is the only other woman in Saul’s life named in the text.

What we do know is that he could have made her a full wife and did not. He could have had as many wives and as many high status wives as he chose or could afford whether he was king or not. Saul could have made Rizpah a full status wife like Queen Mother Ahinoam, the mother of his children. But Saul made Rizpah a low status wife; her children would be legitimate but she and they would be entitled to nothing, no inheritance. She and others like her would be reduced further in translations that made her out to be a concubine, a glorified sex slave, but they are wrong. This weekend we are asking who is translating the scriptures we have learned to receive as words from God. Whose fingerprints and ideologies are on and in the sacred texts you read, proclaim and have proclaimed to you?

Rizpah was somebody. She was the daughter of Aiah. We don’t know who Aiah was, whether they were mother or father or ancestor or even her hometown. But we do know that Rizpah had people. She mattered to somebody and, those who told her story remembered that she was someone from somewhere and preserved this one small fact of her identity. The status afforded her as the wife of a king was preceded by the dignity she already had as a child of God, as a person, as a woman, as somebody’s child from somebody’s home town. Rizpah was somebody. But her personhood and bodily integrity and, that of her precious babies would be discarded on the rubbish heap leavings of those bent on power and domination at any cost. She and her sons would pay that cost.

Saul and his first royal wife already have two daughters and two sons credited to them before Rizpah steps into the sacred story; they would go on to have at least two more sons. A romantic reading of Rizpah’s story might draw the conclusion that Saul was infatuated with her, captivated by her, pursued her because of her beauty and desirability. A critical reading would note that the writers and editors of the scriptures only bring women and children into the story when they have a tale to tell. A closer reading might find that Rizpah was not alone. Nathan’s rebuke of David the royal rapist (2 Samuel 12:8) includes the reminder that God had given him “his master’s wives” and later (2 Samuel 20:3), David incarcerated an unknown number of low status wives in what the text calls “a living widowhood.” We don’t know whether we should count her among that number or not.

No matter how once desirable, royal women and their wombs represented a particular kind of threat when kings and their crowns toppled and fell. The mysteries of human reproduction were even more mysterious in the Iron Age. A new king had to be sure there were no prospective baby kings in the wombs of royal women. Especially in the case when the new king was not the son of the old king; for it was always possible that someone would seize a royal woman and infant and proclaim the baby the true king and then rule on behalf of and instead of the royal baby. Therefore the royal women of a former king were often held in isolation so that no one could impregnate them and pass the baby off as a royal child. The children of a former king, particularly the boy children, were lucky if they were merely incarcerated with their mothers. All too often they were simply executed.

Rizpah comes into the text as a royal widow. The text allows no space for her grief, for her to process her new uncertainty and vulnerability. David is technically the new king but Saul’s uncle is ruling through Ahinoam and Saul’s youngest son. It is there (earlier in 1 Samuel 3:7) in the midst of the two year tug of war for the throne that Rizpah’s name is first mentioned at all. Then without naming her, the young puppet king calls his granduncle to account for raping her and he doesn’t deny it.

Rizpah is a widow, a single mother and, a survivor of sexual assault when David takes the only thing she has left, the only thing that gave her joy in her life, her children, her baby boys. David had her children lynched with all of Saul’s surviving children and grandchildren. Perhaps you’re asking at this point, “Dear God, how can a woman bear so much?” Ask any black woman. Ask any black trans woman. Ask any of my enslaved ancestral foremothers. I have only ever heard Rizpah preached by black women and as a black woman for good reason. We see our story in her story. Yet the witness and wisdom of womanism is that black women’s stories hold gospel for all who will sit and listen.

And, because black women hold no monopoly on suffering and sorrow, on surviving sexual violence or the state sponsored execution of our children, we could see Rizpah in the faces of Native mothers with missing indigenous daughters left intentionally between jurisdictional cracks that allow non-Natives to come onto reservations and abduct, rape and kill Native women without fear of prosecution from either side of the border. Rizpah could be a trafficked Latina, forced to pay for her passage with her body in addition to her every last penny, her children lost, discarded or trafficked by a coyote. Rizpah may very well have sisters in struggle and sorrow in this congregation.

A text without context is a pretext so now with that very necessary context let us turn to the text that is ours this morning. Though, seemingly, no amount of context can easily make sense of what happens next. And as we grapple with this Iron Age theology, we must decide for ourselves whether God is limited to the theological imaginations of those who are telling this God-story. To put it bluntly and perhaps scandalously, is God in the text the true God, is it the whole God? Is it perhaps, a glimpse of God distorted by the angle of perception? Or is there a God, perfect from every angle and every viewpoint, who transcends the text and its theological poverty?

In the text there is a three year famine the author says is caused by the blood Saul spilled for which there has been no atonement. Saul is dead and gone and the thirsty earth is paying the price for his crimes. Isn’t that always the way? Our children will pay for our failure to address climate change. The man who shed blood as David and every other monarch would shed blood had already received his earthly and eternal reward yet, earth and her creatures were dying of hunger and thirst because of his actions. Saul was not alive to answer for his crimes and so we are to believe that God plagued the land and the people scratching out a living upon it with desperate hunger and thirst for three years in which crops and cattle failed, rivers and brooks would’ve dried up with breastmilk and, the youngest and the oldest would’ve died of hunger and dehydration. This is the theology of the text. Is it yours? Are you able to read and accept the worldview of our scriptural ancestors without limiting God to it? 

Meanwhile David and whoever else was living on royal rations would have gotten what their bodies needed before and beyond anyone else. Almost as an aside, we are told that God did not speak to David for all of that three years. No matter how much and how hard he prayed. Some of us will find ourselves at this point of the story. Some of us cried out to God over the last four years and it was as though the doors of heaven had been bolted and locked. Then in the text, we are told that when God did deign to speak, they said, “There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death.” Now the Gibeonites had an ancient treaty with Israel. Saul disregarded that treaty like some contemporary leaders we could name and focused on his own idea of who should be permitted to live within his borders based on their ethnic identity. And so Saul began to slaughter the Gibeonites. Now their survivors come at David’s request to discuss reparations.

David does not ask God what to do. There is an opportunity for healing here but David is a violent and bloodthirsty man, all he can see is all he knows. He draws on his own limited and bloody violent well of experience. The Gibeonites are angry and hurting and David gives them what they want, seven of Saul’s descendants, knowing more blood will be shed. Conveniently it will be the blood of those who could potentially threaten his claim to the throne. So David gave the Gibeonites the five sons of Merab, Saul’s firstborn and oldest daughter. And he gives them Armoni and Mephibbaal called Mephibosheth, the sons of Rizpah. But he uses royal executive privilege to spare the grandson of his beloved Jonathan. Black folk know something about unequal justice based on who you know and who you’re related to. And not just black folk. Poor folk. Brown folk.

Having given up on God, David’s question to the Gibeonites is, “What can I give you all that you might bless the land?” He has come to the conclusion that the Gibeonites can get a prayer through where he cannot. At some level he understands that God pays particular attention to the prayers of those who have been wronged. But his theology is all messed up because he thinks that blood satiated post-vengeance prayer is what it will take to end the drought and famine. He kills all of those young men without getting their blood on his hands directly. And then he leaves them out to rot like garbage.

But none of God’s children are garbage. None of God’s black children are garbage. None of God’s trans children are garbage. None of God’s black trans children are garbage. None of God’s gay children are garbage. None of God’s incarcerated children are garbage not even David is garbage, even when he does garbage things. (Although catch me on another day and I might not be that charitable.)

Rizpah would stand by the crucified bodies of her sons — that is one way to understand the method of their murder — as another mother would stand by the crucified body of her son 1000 years later. Rizpah could do nothing about their rotting degrading flesh but she could keep them from being pecked at and nibbled at and torn apart by the wild animals who were starving during the famine like everyone else. There would be no fruit for the crows to pluck. But there would be fruit:

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

The rain came but it was not enough to heal the land. For all that was wrong with David on his worst days, he had it in him to repent, perhaps his only redeeming characteristic. But David wasn’t in the mood for repentance. He didn’t reckon that he had done anything wrong. But, he lived in a house with a woman who like Rizpah had had her body violated, by him. A woman who had had to bury her first born. And in my sanctified imagination, I hear Bathsheba telling David, “Nothing you do is going to go right until you do right by that woman and those babies.” The text says David was told about Rizpah protecting the bodies of her children but doesn’t tell us who told him. After that conversation, David had them laid to rest and then and only then did God heal the land.

What is God’s word to us through Rizpah? Privilege and power will not place your prayers any closer to God’s ears than the tears of a mother robbed of her children. Rizpah’s gospel is that God is with the weak and vulnerable. To be vulnerable in this not quite post-trumpian world is to live on the knife’s edge between life and death. It is to see our precious trans children sacrificed for the bigotry of others. It is to be told repeatedly in word and deed that black lives do not matter as the life is choked out of us, as we are shot in the back, as we are dragged out of our vehicles by our hair when our paralyzed legs are unable to comply with the demands of racist police.

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 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.

Rizpah’s gospel asks us to decide whether we will continue to pursue eye for an eye politics or seek the face of God for a new paradigm. Rizpah’s gospel calls us to stand with women and others sexually exploited by powerful men, to stand with young men sacrificed on the altars of injustice and to stand with the earth that hungers and thirsts due to famines and droughts brought about by human greed and callous indifference.

I looked for the words of Rizpah since the scriptures rob her of her voice. So I choose to hear her in Psalm 58 speaking to David:

1              Truly, do you speak what is right, you mighty?
               Do you judge the children of earth rightly?
2              Indeed, in your heart you work iniquity;
               your hands spread violence across the land.
3             The wicked wander from the womb;
               they err from their birth, speaking lies.
4              Venom like the venom of a serpent!
               Like the deaf adder that closes its ear,
5              so that it does not hear the voice of charmers
               or the spell speaking of the wise.
6              God, smash the teeth in their mouths;
               shatter the fangs of the young lions, Dread God!
7              Let them wash away like water that wanders off;
               let her arrows fly that they be cut down.
8              Like a snail that melts as it moves;
               like the stillbirth of a woman that never sees the sun.
9              Before thorns know what it is to be a bramble,
               whether green or kindled, let God sweep them away!
10            The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done;
               they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.
11            Then shall the woman-born say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous;
               truly there are divine judgements on earth.”

The gospel of Rizpah is a judgement on theologies that equate favor with wealth and might. It is a truth telling gospel. It tells the truth that sometimes the faithful will die unjustly while the unrighteous live on. It tells the hard truth that not everyone will receive justice in this world. And when read with Revelation 6, Rizpah’s gospel tells the story of the martyred whose blood cries out from under the very altars of God before her throne from whence her justice will be sure and true.

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 then left with nothing but the label “whore” for their trouble. He stood against a crooked and corrupt government and didn’t care what it would cost him. He stood with the dying and the dead. He stood in solidarity and then he allowed himself to be condemned. 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. Show me your fruit. Good fruit. Bad fruit. Strange fruit. Amen.

Myers Park Baptist Church, Charlotte, NC

Dr. Wil Gafney is a Biblical scholar in Hebrew and Hebrew Bible: special interest in translation textual plurality, (Septuagint, Dead Seas Scrolls, Samaritan Pentateuch, Aleppo Codex, Leningrad Codex); feminist, womanist and post-colonial biblical interpretation; prophets and prophecy in the Ancient Near East and ancient Israel Episcopal priest, product of the Black Church, author, blogger, preacher, teacher, lecturer, public speaker.

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