The story of Rizpah in the Bible is one of the absolutely gory and heartbreaking sagas in all of Scripture.
Rizpah was a woman of a different kind. Hers is a story of the pain of loss and grief.
This is a real and raw story about injustice, loss, and grief that cannot be consoled.
Who was Rizpah in the Bible?
Rizpah was the daughter of Aiah, a descendant of one of Esau’s wives (1 Chronicles 1:40).
Rizpah was a concubine of King Saul who bore two sons to him.
She is most known for the vigil she held over the dead bodies of her sons who were handed over by king David to the Gibeonites to be killed.
These events unfold after King Saul is killed in battle and Rizpah becomes a widow.
This post will explore the very moving story of her vigil.
Bible verses about Rizpah in the Bible
Rizpah is mentioned twice in the Bible. Here are the Scriptures where you will find her:
- 2 Samuel 3:7
- 2 Samuel 21:1-14
Facts about Rizpah in the Bible
But first, before we get into the details of Rizpah’s story, a few details about her and the very sad ordeal she had to endure.
Meaning of Rizpah
In the Bible, the name Rizpah means pavement or a hot stone or coal.
How long did Rizpah guard the bodies
What makes Rizpah’s story so unusual is the answer to this question.
Rizpah guarded the bodies of her sons for approximately six months.
She was out in the elements from the spring harvest (March/April) until the fall rains (September/October).
Background to the story of Rizpah in the Bible
Saul had long died in battle. King David now reigned powerfully.
A three year drought made David concerned so he went to God in prayer. God revealed to him that the drought was punishment for something that Saul did.
As Joshua plowed through various territories to claim the land that God had given to the Israelites, they met the Gibeonites.
These people realized that they were in danger of being killed so they pretended to be foreigners and entered a treaty with Joshua.
The deal was that Joshua wouldn’t wipe them out in exchange for their forever submission to Israelite servitude. (See Joshua 9).
While Saul was king he broke this covenant. He attacked the Gibeonites and clearly there was loss of lives.
In an effort to make this right, David asked the Gibeonites what they wanted. Their request was considered within reason in those days.
The Gibeonites asked for seven of Saul’s descendants to be handed over to them since he was the one who wronged them.
And this is where Rizpah entered the story.
Of the seven men whom David handed over, two of them were Rizpah’s sons by Saul.
Their names were: Armoni and Mephibosheth.
The other 5 men were grandsons of Saul by his daughter Michal.
The Gibeonites hanged all seven men. This was an execution.
As if that were not enough, the bodies were not buried. They were left to hang out there in the open.
With the bodies left out in the open for vermin and buzzards to pick at them, Rizpah held a vigil. Day and night, she camped out in that place, guarding what was left of her boys.
Soon, David heard what she had been doing. When all that was left of them were bones, David took them and had a public burial.
The rains came and the drought and famine broke after almost 4 years.
Characteristics of Rizpah in the Bible
Rizpah’s story is just as shocking as that of Jael in the Bible.
The things that these women did differed wildly from many other women in Scripture.
What made them able to stand out so much?
Rizpah has uncommon courage and strength
Rizpah had the kind of bravery and fortitude that’s definitely uncommon.
How many women could stand to watch their sons get murdered unjustly and then willingly turn around and watch nature take its course with the their bodies.
When her son’s were executed, their bodies were left hanging from a cross. The Bible commonly refers to it as a tree.
Rizpah watched the bodies of her children go through all the stages of decay as they were suspended from that tree.
The stiffening. Blackening. Bloating. Exploding. Skin falling off. Being consumed by worms and vermin.
She camped out around the seven crosses. Through day and night. Through the rise and fall of temperatures.
Rizpah stood guard until only bones were left.
Rizpah in the Bible was a warrior
Rizpah wasn’t just sitting out in the open watching those seven bodies disintegrate.
Her vigil was filled with activity.
You see, the main purpose for her vigil was to prevent birds and wild animals from scavenging the rotting flesh of her son’s and their nephews.
During her vigil, she fights off birds of prey and wild beasts. This meant that even if she took any naps, she always had one eye open.
It takes a woman with a real fighting spirit to do this.
Rizpah in the Bible was a woman of quiet resistance
There are many sides to Rizpah’s vigil.
Her vigil was a statement of resistance. You see there was a law concerning the bodies of those who killed on a tree.
If someone guilty of a capital offense is put to death and their body is exposed on a pole, you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse. You must not desecrate the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance. Deuteronomy 21:22-23
Think of how quickly they took the body of Jesus down before the Sabbath and placed in a tomb.
The bodies being left out in the open was a sign of the vengeance of the Gibeonites.
David allowed the bodies of these seven men to hang in the open for months to please the Gibeonites. That decision had nothing to do with God.
Rizpah wanted everyone to know that this horrible thing that was done in Israel was unjust and wicked and against the laws set by God.
It wasn’t right.
This story reminds of Emmett Till and the decision his mother made to have an open casket funeral to show the emaciated and decaying body of her 14 year old son who was unjustly killed by two adult white men.
When children face injustice, it’s the mother’s who are left to stick up for the silenced voices of their children who have been prematurely taken from them.
Rizpah felt powerless and helpless but she fought the best way she could
Rizpah was a widow. She had nobody to fight for except her son’s.
But, she couldn’t stop the King David from taking her sons.
She couldn’t stop the Gibeonites from killing her boys.
But she could prevent birds from consuming their rotting flesh. And she could stop wild animals from having their way with the bodies.
Rizpah wanted to protect what was left of her sons – their memories.
Which takes me to my next point.
Rizpah tried to protect the dignity of her sons in death and their memories to those who live
Rizpah never forgot who she was or who her boys were.
They were royalty.
Sons of kings.
They didn’t deserve to have birds have their way with them.
They deserved a royal, dignified burial. And her vigil testified to the fact that she was never going to allow their last story be that of wild animals dragging their bones away
Rizpah in the Bible was persevering
Rizpah’s vigil is so unusual that it forced people to pay attention.
Not just that.
It attracted the attention, shame, and compassion of king David. He is stirred up and forced to do something.
Rizpah had to wait to be acknowledged by someone in power.
She was now not only a widow, but the widow of a dead king who had no heir on the thrown.
She couldn’t call the shots or demand a burial.
God shows up in David’s compassion to relieve and release Rizpah.
God gives her visible signs that it’s now ok to attempt to move on, to turn a page
Because she persevered, God allowed Rizpah to get some closure.
Lessons from Rizpah in the Bible
The trouble we face could be a ripple effect of other people’s decisions
Rizpah’s sons were actually not guilty but they paid the price of their father’s sin.
Saul had broken the promise made by Joshua and God doesn’t take kindly to broken oaths.
Saul’s actions caused the relationship with the Gibeonites to be fractured. He left a slew of grieving families behind.
In those days, trusting surrounding nations was absolutely necessary for peace.
Their death by hanging was somewhat of a sacrifice that atoned for what Saul did.
Since Saul was no longer alive to pay for his own sin, so his children and wife suffered.
Do you feel like you reaping the consequences of the bad decisions that your parents or spouse made?
Then you are in company with Rizpah.
There are no words of comfort to offer when the consequence is the loss of a loved one.
Only God can answer our questions about why the innocent continue to suffer for the wicked.
All we can do is hold on to the hope we have in Christ.
That one day, all of this suffering will be a thing of the past.
Rizpah in the Bible teaches us that God takes promises seriously
As a result of Saul breaking an oath, Israel faced a three year drought.
It isn’t only a principle in physics. It’s also a law of life: for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction.
Breaking oaths is a serious matter, especially when it comes to God.
If you make a vow to the Lord your God, do not be slow to pay it, for the Lord your God will certainly demand it of you and you will be guilty of sin. But if you refrain from making a vow, you will not be guilty. Whatever your lips utter you must be sure to do, because you made your vow freely to the Lord your God with your own mouth. Deuteronomy 23:21-23 NIV
When we go back on our word, isn’t happy with that. Jesus reinforced the principle.
But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let [n]your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one. Matthew 5:34-37 NIV
In your daily dealing with others, think about the promises you make.
If you are not up to being faithful to your words, don’t make promises you can’t keep.
It’s better not to make a promise. Breaking a promise can have a domino effect and you never know where and when the last domino will fall.
Rizpah teaches us that it’s OK to not be ok
We lived in a highly photoshopped world. Everyone wants to present the best version of themselves.
Oftentimes, it’s not the real version of what’s truly going on in their lives.
The sadness. The loneliness. The emptiness. The pain. The grief.
But Rizpah didn’t live in such a world.
Rizpah grieved visibly.
For months, she lived her grief out loud. She never pretended that all was well.
And you what?
That’s perfectly OK.
Because sometimes all isn’t well with our souls. And it’s OK to just stay with that for a little bit.
We don’t always have to hide what we feel to make everyone else comfortable.
Own your pain. Even publicly.
When you stand for what’s right, you challenge others to do the same
Rizpah’s vigil accomplished much.
As she stood guard around seven rotting bodies, her behavior was a witness.
When David heard of her vigil, he decided to give these Israelite men a proper burial.
Plus, David also went for the bones of Saul and Jonathan who had been displayed by the Philistines.
Now, the entire house of Saul could be buried with the dignity of the royalty they lived with and fought for.
Although David and Saul didn’t get along, this was the right thing to do.
Don’t do what is expected of you. Human flesh will fail.
But God is proud when we deny ourselves, our sinful nature and allow Christ to act through us.
Treating others well is necessary for our survival
We don’t have to look too far to find selfish people. Folks who are all about themselves.
They will step on you and walk all over you and use you and ignore you to get to where they are going.
But Rizpah’s story has a lesson. By standing up, Rizpah saved a nation.
After David hands over Saul’s family members to be killed by the Gibeonites, he goes home.
While Rizpah is having her vigil, David has moved on with his life. He’s completely unconcerned with her grief.
He is even less concerned about the injustice of the lack of proper burial rites for the formerly royal family.
But Rizpah’s perseverance forced him to pay attention.
It is not until he buried the bodies that the rains come and the famine ends.
The entire land of Israel was facing death by starvation because of the ignorance of the king and the mistreatment of Rizpah and the seven deceased members of Saul’s family.
Treat people like people. It’s more important for your survival than you think.
Persevere through rough times
If you take nothing else from the story of Rizpah, take this:
…no matter how difficult it is while you work towards a goal, don’t stop pushing.
Rizpah held a vigil around those seven dead men, not because she was wishing them back to life.
Not so. She already accepted that this was the end for them.
But, she needed them to be buried properly.
For almost a whole year, she camped out outdoors under a sackcloth tent.
She gave up the comfort and privacy of a home to ensure she was doing everything in her power to secure what she was fighting for.
Sometimes in life, when you are fully convinced of the direction you need to go in, when you are certain of the right the thing to do, when God has put in your heart a burning desire to accomplish something, you might just have to do what Rizpah did…
Do something radical. Something that will push the boundaries of your own faith.
Something that will make people sit up and pay attention and advocate for help on your behalf.
Give up comfort so you can battle for that one thing you are working towards.
You might need to get a cheaper apartment.
Fast and pray all night.
Forgo hanging out with friends for a while.
Opening a new account and save every extra cent.
You will know what you need to do so you can keep persevering.
Leave a legacy that reminds people not only of your pain but also of your triumph
Because of Rizpah’s radical actions, she influenced history. Her tenacity gave birth to new religious practices which have been sustained till today.
Rizpah is the foremother of shmirah, the Jewish custom of guarding the dead between time of death and time of burial.
As you live your life, ask yourself: What do I want to be remembered for?
Think about your legacy.
Rizpah had one pivotal moment in history to make her mark.
And so will you.
What will you do with it? Will you back down? Or will you change history?
How will your legacy read?
What is the Rizpah principle?
Rizpah represents the many mothers whose sons have been unjustly slaughtered by agents of the states in countries all over the world.
If we go way back in Bible history and move to the present, the list is heartbreaking…
From the mother’s whose babies were thrown into the Nile around the time of Moses birth…
To the babies slaughtered by Herod around the time of the birth of Jesus….
To Mary the mother of Jesus watching her innocent son beaten and crucified …..
To millions of black bodies mamed and slaughtered and worked to death through the slave trade….
To the millions of Jewish boys and men gased, starved and killed during the Holocaust….
To boys made into soldiers in various African Civil wars…
To Emmett Till in 1955…
To George Floyd in 2020…
Throughout history, mothers have been crying and weeping and holding vigils for their boy babies taken from them prematurely by the hands of injustice fiercely supported by the powerful.
But Rizpah is one biblical example that injustice requires a response.
Even if silent, it needs to be radical, bold, attention-grabbing, consistent and enduring.
For those who do the work of standing with and fighting for the marginalized and underrepresented, they certainly have been blessed with the Rizpah anointing.
Conclusion on Rizpah in the Bible
Rizpah is definitely one of those characters you just can’t forget once you have learned about her.
Her story is absolutely heartbreaking but it closes with a victory.
God shows up to comfort her broken heart and to answer her deepest heart’s desire.
She wasn’t too proud to give up comfort for a desperate need and God responded to her relentless, persevering, faith.
And God will do the same for you.