Each year as we celebrate Women’s History Month, we should be keenly aware of the intersection between this celebration and the Lenten experience. If ever the women’s narratives of Scripture were pushed to the fore, it is within the 40 day period which the Church calls Lent. The women of the Cross, anointing Jesus’ head for burial, keeping a vigil at his bruised feet, securing a proper tomb for their Savior, and receiving and proclaiming the Good News of the Resurrection, is a constant reminder of the empowering presence of women, as God used feminine courage and spiritual energy to transform the world.
Yet, even as we look with awe at the wonder of womanly fearlessness and determination, we cannot ignore the profound terror and trauma of Lenten experience. The “Cross and the Lynching Tree,” as coined by the great African-American theologian, James H. Cone, cannot be ignored and it cannot be erased. The Lenten experience, with its ultimate triumph and victory, is also a narrative of terror, as well. Its attachment can be found in the laments of the Negro spirituals, which reminds us that suffering and loss are as much a part of life’s realities, as the victory of the Cross: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble – were you there when they crucified my Lord?
YES! THE WOMEN WERE THERE, AND ONE AMONGST THEM WAS MARY, THE MOTHER OF JESUS
Our abiding hope is that the Cross event is once and done; but if we are honest, tragically, we must admit that the violence of the Cross is still with us. Man’s inhumanity towards man is a brutal constant within history, whether we are reading the biblical texts or reading history books.
For our consideration in the month of March, we are directed to an Old Testament woman named Rizpah, whose story echoes the tragic to triumphant experience of women throughout history, forced to face and overcome the unspeakable hauntings of loss and violence. Rizpah’s story reminds us that uncommon courage is a gift from God, and as Dr. Maya Angelou once wrote: “Each time a woman stands up for herself without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.”
And now, THE WORD from Our Sponsor…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………
(2 Samuel, chapter 3: 6-10; chapter 2l: 1-7, 9-14)
The chronicles of King David are a cautionary tale for the biblical reader – here is “a man after God’s own heart,” who is presented in Scripture as a complex paradox. The story of Rizpah points us to the irony of a king who desperately sought after God; but, also suffered from the very human maladies of self-centeredness, ego, pride, and lust. King David’s life reminds us of the perplexing nature of our divided souls.
As we enter into the story of Rizpah, described in 2 Samuel, we first encounter her in a disturbing circumstance between between Saul’s son, Ishbosheth and Abner, special advisor to Saul. King Saul’s son accuses Abner of sleeping with Rizpah, a concubine* of the king. While Abner never denies this accusation, he responds with the indignation of a powerful influencer of royalty. Abner uses the circumstance to inform Ishbosheth that he will no longer be a loyal advisor to King Saul, but instead, transfer his fidelity to David, the man who would be king. Rizpah’s voice is never heard in the story, as is similar with so many narratives about women in Scripture. We will never know her side of this sordid tale.
Described as “a concubine” of King Saul, we are immediately informed that Rizpah is not a primary wife. Scholarship is divided here because the word “concubine” takes on several meanings depending upon whom we are reading. In some scholastic circles, the assumption is “concubine” indicates a secondary wife (similar to the Hannah-Penninah circumstance). Other scholars posit the term means a consort or companion, to which a king or male enjoyed sexual privileges and often produced children in the relationship. Either way, Rizpah enjoyed the protection of King Saul’s royal power and prestige, until his death on the battlefield.
The last time Rizpah is mentioned in the bible is in the expansive narrative of chapter 21. This perplexing story starts with God telling David the famine in the land that lasted three years, was the result of Saul’s misguided zeal for attempting to wipe out the Gibeonites. King David, who had the herculean assignment of ridding Israel of Saul’s many mistakes and defeats, forges an uneasy alliance with the Gibeonites, that ultimately involves state-sanctioned terror and violence. In an attempt to rid himself of fighting enemies on every front, King David agrees to turn over Rizpah’s two sons by King Saul, and the five grandsons of Saul (daughter Merab’s sons) to the Gibeonites. With vigilante justice in mind, the Gibeonites tell King David exactly what they will do: “So let seven of Saul’s sons be handed over to us, and we will execute them before the Lord at Gibeon, on the mountain of the Lord.”
With political expediency in mind, King David agrees, and the Gibeonites execute the sons of Saul on “the mountain of the Lord.” Rizpah, a woman who has lost all male agency she once enjoyed, is now a single mother grappling with the terror of her new circumstances. The idea of locating ourselves with Rizpah is a horrifying one; yet, as African-American women, we know the painful reality of sons and daughters being executed by zealous state-sanctioned vigilantes. The emergence of Rizpah’s terror is a tragic truth for us, as well.
As Rizpah struggles in the loss of her sons, she is presented with two choices: to grieve in silence or to fight back. Rizpah courageously chooses to fight the brutal injustice of her sons’ death. “Rizpah does for her sons in death what she cannot do for them in life; that is, protect them from predators. Here, we witness a grieving mother taking up silent vigil over their corpses left on a hill. She could not stop David from taking her sons, could not stop the Gibeonites from killing them. So, she does what she can.” (“Rizpah: Turning Tragedy into Triumph” – faithward.org)
With civil, non-violent resistance, Rizpah climbs “the mountain of the Lord” and tents there for the entire harvest season (six months). The narrative is very descriptive, giving the exact portrayal of Rizpah’s vigil over her sons in vivid detail. We can easily visualize this grieving mother, who refuses to budge; fighting off the predators at night and the harsh elements of the mountain, as well. Like her predecessor, Jael, Rizpah is at war. Rizpah is one woman with one intention: to bring justice to the mountain of the Lord for her sons.
With our sanctified imaginations, we can assume Rizpah let her presence on the mountain be known to Israel and Gibeon. What color was the sackcloth Rizpah dragged up the mountain with her? Was it red? Was it purple? Was it yellow or blue? Did Rizpah wrap herself in this mourning cloth and raise her fists in silent protest for Israel and Gibeon to see? Did she wave the sackcloth in the mornings to embarrass the Davidic administration, while using it as a weapon during the night, to fend against the wild predators who lurked in the dark?
These questions may never be answered; but here is what we do know: RIZPAH WOULD NOT BE MOVED! There was no middle ground for this mother, and failure was not an option. We do understand the fierce determination, bravery, and war-like resiliency of Rizpah, who fought day by day until she so embarrassed King David that he climbed the mountain himself to bring down the sons of Saul and Rizpah, to provide them with a dignified and deserved Israeli burial.
How did Rizpah do this alone? When, if ever, did Rizpah’s lament of grieve become a victory song: “Ain’t nobody gonna turn me around, turn me around, turn me around. Ain’t nobody gonna turn me around…….marchin’ up to freedom land! This is one of the primary questions arising from the narrative. Additionally, how do we reconcile the theodicy in the text? Was the “mountain of the Lord” a Gibeonite stronghold for terrorism and execution, or was the “mountain of the Lord” the abiding and comforting presence for a grieving mother, galvanized by the Holy Spirit, seeking justice for her sons?
The answer to these questions are in the conclusion of the narrative. “He [King David] 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…..After that, God heeded supplications for the land.”
The God of justice, extended to Rizpah, even in the tragic loss of her beloved sons, an abiding presence on the mountain, which was not the vengeful intent and expectations of the Gibeonites; but instead the radical love and compassion of a God who, likened to the cross of Jesus, never really leaves or forsakes us, AND is with us, even in our deepest grief. As Elie Wiesel, a survivor of the Holocaust writes in his classic book, “Night,” of a child who is hanged by the Nazis for collaborating with the Jews: “Where is God now? And I heard a voice within me answer him: “Where is He? Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows….”
The story of Rizpah, undoubtedly a “text of terror” is also a text of triumph, as well. At its finest, Rizpah’s story informs us evil may be persistent on this side of heaven; HOWEVER, we know, believe and serve, an all-powerful, just God, who continues to fight on our behalf and ultimately wins!
QUESTIONS FOR OUR DISCUSSION & CONSIDERATION
The issue of theodicy (why does evil exist and where is God in the presence of evil) is a most perplexing issue for those who believe in all- powerful and all- knowing God. How do you personally explain theodicy to yourself and others?
The Gibeonites obviously felt justified in executing the sons of Saul, with the assistance of King David. Does their suggestion that God approved this terror remind you of current or historical events? Explain.
In your opinion, what is Rizpah’s most enduring and admirable quality? Explain.
Holy and righteous God, when evil darkens our world, grant us Your light.
When despair numbs our souls, grant us Your abiding hope.
When doubt overtakes us, grant us the constancy of faith. When nothing seems certain, give us an abiding trust in You.
When we lose our way, O God, please be our Guide, that we may find serenity and peace in Your presence and purpose
in doing Your will.
We give You all the praise and glory which Your name is due, in the blessed name of our Savior, Jesus.
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