Bible Stories We Don’t Tell Our Kids: Rizpah
So, unlike many of my nerdy friends growing up, I did not read superhero comic books.
No, church kid that I was, I read Bible comic books instead.
Hey, listen — if you are still harboring any illusions that your pastor is any kind of cool, I hope I just put them firmly to rest. These were real, actual comic books about the heroes of the Bible: Peter walking on water, Paul getting shipwrecked, Elijah calling down fire. And I loved them all of them
But my favorite hero in my collection of Bible comic books was David. For one, David had a great character arc:
- He started as a humble shepherd boy.
- He then goes before Goliath and takes the giant down with just a sling.
- But then the king, Saul, becomes jealous of David and David goes on the run.
- But through it all David’s best friend — i.e. sidekick — Jonathan protects him.
- Then David comes back and becomes king himself and unites the entire kingdom of Israel.
- But David was also a great character because he wasn’t perfect. The comics covered the Bathsheba story. I remember my 9-year-old-self staring hard at that panel of David staring at a naked Bathsheba, who much to my disappointment was more than appropriately covered in the panel by a plant or something. I mean, it was a Christian comic book, after all.
So David commits adultery and then murder to cover it up. But David also repents, God forgives him, and he goes on to be Israel’s greatest king. That was where the comic book ended.
As far as my 9-year-old self knew, David lived happily ever after. And that was okay, because I was just a 9-year-old kid.
But no one in this room right now is 9 years old anymore, and the series we are starting today is called “Stories We Don’t Tell Our Kids.” We did this series last June and you all loved it so much we’re doing it again.
And we can keep doing it for years, because there are that many Bible stories we don’t tell our kids, because the stories aren’t exactly PG, or even PG-13, and our kids aren’t ready for them. That’s okay, they’re kids.
The problem is, sometimes we adults never get around to reading these stories, either.
We keep reading our childhood favorites, the comic book stories.
Which means we never dig deeper into these much harder stories.
Which means we never get to ask much harder questions.
Which often means that our faith hasn’t fought its way out of its cocoon yet and is still stunted as a caterpillar.
But today, we get to fix that problem, specifically as it comes to my favorite Bible superhero, David.
See, the David story gets messy after his repentance.
David and Bathsheba’s child dies, and David’s kingdom falls into chaos. There are a number of invasions and rebellions David has to put down, including a rebellion by one of David’s own sons, which ends in a battle where 20,000 soldiers die and David’s son gets stuck in a tree and stabbed to death.
It’s all very not-PG13.
But after all that, we get another, very interesting, yet very puzzling, story.
I’m going to set up this story by quoting Austin Channing Brown, whose sermon on this text inspired mine. Here’s how she sets it up:
She says, “Then, just when it seems like things might calm down, a famine strikes, the rains have stopped, the land is dry. It’s been three long years and something has to give.”
So King David goes before God: “Why is this happening?” he asks.
God responds, “Because of a broken promise.”
According to God, a covenant made decades ago was recently broken by the former king, Saul. And now a famine has resulted.
So David gets off his knees, goes to the offended party, and asks, “How can we make this right? I’ll do anything you ask to make restitution.”
“Great,” they say. “We don’t want money, or treasures, weapons, anything material. What we want is to execute seven of Saul’s descendants.”
Now I’m not gonna lie to you, friends. It seems awfully convenient that the answer to ending the famine just happens to be retribution against the family who could be convinced of their own right to the throne. But never mind coincidences, right?
Austin is right; it is a bit convenient, but that’s how the story goes.
It means David has a choice: let the famine continue, or give up seven of Saul’s descendants, who have done nothing wrong, over to the offended party, a group called the Gibeonites, to be executed.
Scripture doesn’t tell us if David thought it over at all, whether he was fine killing these potential rivals to the throne or if he hated the choice he made.
Regardless, David decides that seven lives are worth sacrificing to end the famine.
So David takes the sons of Rizpah, Saul’s wife, and the sons of Merab, Saul’s daughter, and David gives them to the Gibeonites, who kill all seven boys and leave their bodies on a mountaintop.
Now, up to this point, this is a story that we may not like, but we understand. David is king, there’s a famine, he asks God how to fix it, and God tells him to make peace with the Gibeonites. Making peace requires the unfortunate death of Saul’s sons and grandsons.
Their death is distasteful, but it’s necessary, it’s for the greater good, it’s even sanctioned by God.
Rizpah, remember, was Saul’s wife and the mother of two of the seven boys who were killed.
And Rizpah, you have to understand, has already suffered because of Israel’s wars and politics.
Rizpah was Saul’s secondary wife, which meant she had a lower status than a primary wife. That meant that her children were legitimate but not entitled to an inheritance.
They remained rivals to the throne, so they were targets, but they didn’t have the benefits of Saul’s resources.
And the same was true of Rizpah. Already, the former commander of Saul’s armies had sexually assaulted Rizpah in an attempt to secure his own standing.
In the words of scholar Dr. Wilda Gafney, “Rizpah was a casualty to the messy, bloody business of kingmaking.”
And now Rizpah’s children are taken by David, given to the Gibeonites, and killed to end a famine.
But while Rizpah did nothing when she was assaulted, the murder of her children is too much. Now, Rizpah takes action. She goes into Gibeonite territory, to the mountaintop where her sons’ and her nephews’ bodies still lay, and she stays there.
Again, Austin Channing Brown describes the situation best:
“For days, Rizpah determines that she will not let bird or beast feast on the bodies of these boys.
“But days turn to weeks and weeks to months. Rigor mortis sets in the first day the bodies were hung. The stiffness of their bodies is in stark contrast to the active lives they led only weeks ago.
“The bodies have decomposed before her eyes. The faces are drawn and discolored.
“She has kept the beasts away, but can’t fight the insects that are making the bodies their home.
“Bodily fluids leak, pooling into a rancid puddle just feet from where she lays. The stench from all seven has been overwhelming. But still she stays.
“Her body is weary, her emotional state wanes with each day, she misses her boys. But still she stays.
“The vultures and beasts can smell the bodies, too. They swoop and call, they crawl and pounce. They came for an easy meal, only to meet a fierce competitor in Rizpah. She waves sticks and throws stones. She screams and stares them down. She is dirty and she is scared and she is putting her own life at risk. But still she stays — and fights.”
Rizpah stays on that mountain with the bodies of her sons and her nephews from the spring harvest until the fall rains, as many as six months.
Her actions do nothing to bring the boys back, she knows they won’t.
It’s actually not clear what Rizpah’s goal is here.
Did she want people to talk, keep the memory of her boys in their minds?
Did she hope her actions would change something?
Or did she just not want the bodies of her boys eaten by animals on that mountain?
Whatever Rizpah was hoping for, that hope kept her up there, month after month after month.
Until, one day, out of the blue, King David arrives.
King David, who turned the boys over in the first place, hears about Rizpah. And, like before, we don’t know David’s mind. How many days did David sit on this throne wondering about this woman? We don’t know. What finally convinced David that something had to be done here? We don’t know.
All we know is that David goes into Gibeonite territory, climbs Rizpah’s mountain, and has the bones of the boys taken down and buried in their family tomb.
And when that is done the Bible tells us that God heeded supplication of the land, and the famine ended.
Did you catch that ending?
Originally, all David was told was that to end the famine he just had to make peace with the Gibeonites
And David makes the hard call, he hands the descendants of Saul over, and the Gibeonites kill them, but the famine didn’t end then.
The famine only ended months later once the bodies Ripzah’s boys were finally buried.
This is a David story we don’t tell our kids.
Partly because, it’s not really a David story.
It’s a story about a woman, a mother, a lesser wife, “a casualty of kingmaking,” one who suffered more than we can possibly imagine and who finally said, “enough.”
It’s a story about a woman who doesn’t go on a rampage, doesn’t yell or scream at anyone, except the vultures.
It’s a story about a woman who simply stands and refuses to let the bodies of her boys be eaten.
For six months.
It’s a Rizpah story.
It’s also a story about a famine.
A famine that was broken, not when God’s instructions were followed, not when the Gibeonites were appeased, not when the boys were killed. A famine that was broken only when the cost was finally counted.
See, we tell children to do the right thing and not do the wrong thing and that’s it. And that’s appropriate for them. But we aren’t children anymore.
And as adults, especially as adults who are trying to be faithful and do the right thing, we have to acknowledge that even when we are trying to do good, even when we are doing what we think we have to do to end the famines of our world, our actions come with costs.
We move our mother or father into a nursing home, but at the cost of their independence.
We restructure a business so it can succeed, but at the cost of laying off loyal workers.
We stop in-person worship to keep people safe, but at the cost of people feeling lonely and isolated at home.
Our decisions, even our good decisions, always come at a cost.
That is why Rizpah stands on her mountain, not saying a word, but standing as a reminder that all of us, even those of us who are trying to do good things, must count the cost of our actions.
Not because we should have done anything differently, though that may be true.
Not because we need to repent of anything, though that may be true.
But rather because the rains will not come until we count the cost of what we’ve done
Like the cost of 19 children shot to death in Texas.
Like the cost of 10 people of color gunned down in Buffalo.
Like the cost thousands of displaced refugees out of Afghanistan.
Like the cost of 1 million American lives lost to COVID-19.
And I know that you and I, like David, don’t want to dwell too much on all that.
You and I, like David, would rather make a hard decision, take action, and move on.
Especially when the numbers of the dead start to climb, when the faces of the victims begin to blur together, when the news stories of the latest tragedy fade to the background only to be replaced by a new one, you and I don’t want to keep counting.
Who wants to be sad all the time?
But this story isn’t about you, or me.
It’s not a David story, it’s not a you story, it’s not a me story; it’s a Rizpah story.
And there are Rizpahs in our world, men and women standing on their mountains, weeping over all that they have lost, fighting vultures and beetles but refusing to give in.
We are in their story.
And their story doesn’t end until they have had their losses acknowledged and atoned for.
Until we, the people of God, go to them and say, “It was wrong. Whatever rationales we had, whatever necessities there were, whatever choices we were forced to make, whether we would still have done what we did or not, it was still wrong that they died.”
Rizpah demands we count the cost.
But Rizpah also offers us hope. See, that famine lasted years, so long that the people started to wonder if it would ever break.
And our famines have lasted years.
School shootings, acts of racism, political and ideological division, a pandemic, our famines seem like they will never end, like they are unshakable facts of our lives.
But Rizpah, the real superhero, promises that our famines can end, and that they will end.
Rizpah promises that peace will arrive, that harmony will be achieved, that forces of evil and sin and death which seem so very strong and so very permanent will finally meet their end and that the clouds will finally break and that the rains will finally come.
We will drink fresh water again — once we’ve counted the cost.