God speaks to us this morning through an obscure Old Testament story of revenge and retribution.
As the curtain rises on chapter 21 of 2 Samuel, the hunger pains of a three-year famine stir King David to ask God why there’s no food on the table. According to the Lord, the grain bins are empty, the cupboards are bare, and stomachs are growling because the now-dead King Saul wiped out a people known as the Gibeonites.
So, King David, now running the royal show, approaches the Gibeonites and asks what he can do to set things right. But there’d be no easy fix. In the eyes of the Gibeonites, the breech is far too wide to repair with something as simple as forking over some cash from David’s royal treasury.
Settling the score demands retribution – eyes for eyes, teeth for teeth: Seven of Saul’s descendants must be handed over for ritual slaughter that’s part human sacrifice and part sanctioned execution.
King David agrees to the Gibeonite ultimatum; the seven men are executed, and the Gibeonites leave the bodies to rot atop a mountain.
Against that bloody backdrop, a woman named Rizpah enters the scene.
She’s among the many widows of the dethroned and deceased Saul, and the text gives voice to the vulnerability and fragility of her situation as a lower-class wife of a dead king. Her woes intensify when two of her sons are among the seven condemned souls handed over to the Gibeonites.
English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson writes of Rizpah’s anguish: “The night has crept into my heart and began to darken my eyes.”
That was Rizpah’s experience – there’s no denying it, and this morning, we’re going to look deep into the red, swollen eyes of this mother as she holds vigil on the hill where the Gibeonites toss the corpses of her boys.
Despite a law that calls for burial before sunset, there they are.
And there she is.
Can you see her?
Sitting on her sackcloth rug of grief and mourning like a sentinel on watch, all day and all night, from the barley harvests of April to the rainy season of October, lest a claw or a paw be laid upon the sweet faces of her precious sons who once nestled to her breast.
Can you see her?
Her brown skin baking in the searing heat; her once jet-black hair now graying from stress and matted by endless nights of wind and rain. Convulsed with anguish. Pounding her chest in heartache. Suffering the humiliation of watching nature peck away at her sons’ lifeless flesh.
Can you see her?
Can you see her as she flaps and shouts, driving away vultures and ravens, shooing off wolves and coyotes? At night, the glowing eyes of savage beasts haunt her living nightmare, and she’s afraid to close her eyes lest in her sleep the scavengers circling overhead and prowling nearby swoop in and pounce down.
Please see Rizpaw, as you listen for the Word of the Lord:
Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year, and David inquired of the LORD. The LORD said, “There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death.”
So, the king called the Gibeonites and spoke to them. Now, the Gibeonites were not of the people of Israel, but of the remnant of the Amorites. Although the people of Israel had sworn to spare them, Saul had tried to wipe them out in his zeal for the people of Israel and Judah.
David said to the Gibeonites, “What shall I do for you? How shall I make expiation, that you may bless the heritage of the LORD?”
The Gibeonites said to him, “It is not a matter of silver or gold between us and Saul or his house; neither is it for us to put anyone to death in Israel.”
David said, “What do you say that I should do for you?”
They said to the king, “The man who consumed us and planned to destroy us, so that we should have no place in all the territory of Israel – let seven of his sons be handed over to us, and we will impale them before the LORD at Gibeon on the mountain of the LORD.”
The king said, “I will hand them over.”
But the king spared Mephibosheth, the son of Saul’s son Jonathan, because of the oath of the LORD that was between them, between David and Jonathan son of Saul. The king took the two sons of Rizpah, daughter of Aiah, whom she bore to Saul, Armoni and Mephibosheth, and the five sons of Merab, daughter of Saul, whom she bore to Adriel, son of Barzillai the Meholathite.
He gave them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they impaled them on the mountain before the LORD. The seven of them perished together. They were put to death in the first days of harvest, at the beginning of barley harvest.
Then Rizpah, the daughter of Aiah, took sackcloth and spread it on a rock for herself, from the beginning of harvest until rain fell on them from the heavens. She did not allow the birds of the air to come on the bodies by day, or the wild animals by night.
When David was told what Rizpah, daughter of Aiah, the concubine of Saul, had done, David went and took the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan from the people of Jabesh-gilead, who had stolen them from the public square of Beth-shan, where the Philistines had hung them up, on the day the Philistines killed Saul on Gilboa.
He brought up from there the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan, and they gathered the bones of those who had been impaled.They buried the bones of Saul and of his son Jonathan in the land of Benjamin in Zela, in the tomb of his father Kish. They did all that the king commanded. After that, God heeded supplications for the land. (2 Samuel 21:1-14 NRSV)
On a hot summer night in August of 1955, two white men kidnapped a 14-year-old African-American boy from the house where he was staying with relatives in Mississippi.
The helpless boy, Emmett Till, was dragged to a barn, stripped naked, pistol-whipped, and shot in the head. His mutilated corpse was dumped in the Tallahatchie River.
When Emmett Till’s bloated, unrecognizable body was returned to his mother in Chicago, she saw firsthand the barbarous extent of the white men’s brutality, and she rebuffed suggestions to bury him quietly. She insisted on holding a very public funeral with very open casket.
“I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby,” Mamie Till reportedly said at the time.
And the grossly disfigured body of Emmett Till, put on display for the entire world to see, would shame a nation to game-changing action on civil rights.
Shame is an incredibly powerful weapon.
When it’s used to simply humiliate and degrade another, shaming is hurtful and destructive. It can inflict lifelong wounds that never fully heal. That’s why we no longer make offenders wear scarlet letters or put them in public stocks.
On the other hand, when it’s used for more noble or possibly even divine purposes, shaming holds people and organizations responsible for their poor, sometimes faithless behavior. Feelings of shame sound a shrill red alert that one’s actions are falling short of expectations. Thus, on both personal and corporate levels, shame drives change and motivates responsibility.
In our lesson, Rizpah’s seven-month vigil over the bodies of her murdered sons shames King David to responsible action. Rizpah unleashes a silent-but-nevertheless-loud cry for justice that resonates with countless mothers – Mamie Till among them – who watched their children sacrificed to brutality while the government enabled and the community ignored. Rizpah stands strong with every mother who sees her sons killed before their time by state-sanctioned violence in times of both declared war and supposed peace.
The only option at Rizpah’s disposal is to preserve the dignity of her murdered sons’ lives by bearing witness to the tragic injustice of their deaths and by calling the rich and powerful to account for their actions.
Even as these mothers – Rizpah and Mamie Till – bear tearful witness to the memory of their loved ones, the Lord calls you and me bear witness by “being with” them.
The Lord calls you and me to stand alongside the Rizpahs and Mamie Tills as they struggle with the pain of loss and the unraveling of their lives that forever changes the world as they know it.
In essence, we are called to abide with the traumatized in the most uncomfortable of spaces, where you and I provide a holy presence of loving empathy, in a time when there are no easy answers or simple fixes.
As the apostle Paul puts it, our call from God is to bear one another’s burdens.
As Jesus puts it, we perform acts of healing love for “the least of these.”
You and I do that sacred work in the shadow of the cross, where yet another mother watched in horror as her son died in agony by the hand of the state.
Our sacred work in the shadow of the cross demands more than offering thoughts and prayers, more than sharing a trendy cliché of anemic hope.
Our sacred work in the shadow of the cross demands offering the traumatized a forum for healing conversation that allows them to bear witness to their experience – and to trust that their experience is quite real, even if our own experience is quite different.
If trauma is the “storm that does not go away,” as another suggests, then you and I must serve as lifeboats of redemption and healing, powered by the Holy Spirit and rooted in the loving example of Christ.
When you see injustice, climb the mountain of God and defend those who cannot defend themselves.
When you see someone unraveled by the inexplicable grief of injustice, let that uncomfortable sight unravel your entanglement with injustice.
If you’re feeling shame, be assured that the Spirit of God in Christ will fix what’s broken in you and in our world.
That call to action feels overwhelming, I know.
The needs of the world are so great, and you are so small. Whatever feeble gesture you might make seems futile. How can you do anything of value when faced with such great need? The temptation is to do nothing.
But in those moments of doubt, be spurred to action by Rizpah, a woman with very little who changed her world simply by doing what she could with what she had.
Can you see her?
Sitting on her sackcloth?
Convulsed with anguish?
Pounding her chest?
Suffering the humiliation of it all?
Flapping and shouting at the hungry creatures of the night?
In the end, God lifted a famine from the land. And right about now, the grain bins of our nation seem pretty empty, the cupboards of hearts and minds look might bare, and plenty of stomachs are growling with hunger for some grace and peace. In our prayers, there’s a hearty appetite for some relief.
Your simple gesture of simply doing something might just be the nourishing answer to someone’s prayer for justice.
May it be so, for Christ’s sake!
Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant VanderVelden shared this message from the story of Rizpah during worship on Sunday, August 9, 2020. It is the third sermon of his series “Unraveled: Seeking God When Our Plans Fall Apart.” Commentary and reflection by Wilda C. Gafney, Lisle Gwinn Garrity, Paula Gooder, David Legge, Micah L. McCreary, and Terry Ann Smith inform the message. (Artwork: Lauren Wright Pittman, Rizpah, SanctifiedArt.org)