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Leading Question: Is it possible for a woman to rouse a king’s conscience?

Key Passages:

  • 2 Samuel 3:6-12, A concubine of Saul, David’s enemy
  • 2 Samuel 21:1-14, Rizpah reminds David of his duty to deceased royalty

Note: The story of Rizpah can be best understood within the full context of the story in which she provides the capstone. Here is the English Standard Version of 2 Samuel 21:1-14:

David Avenges the Gibeonites

1 Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year. And David sought the face of the LORD. And the LORD said, “There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death.” 2 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 sought to strike them down in his zeal for the people of Israel and Judah [See Joshua 9]. 3 And David said to the Gibeonites, “What shall I do for you? And how shall I make atonement, that you may bless the heritage of the LORD?” 4 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 any man to death in Israel.” And he said, “What do you say that I shall do for you?” 5 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, 6 let seven of his sons be given to us, so that we may hang them before the LORD at Gibeah of Saul, the chosen of the LORD.” And the king said, “I will give them.”

7 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 the son of Saul. 8 The king took the two sons of Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, whom she bore to Saul, Armoni and Mephibosheth; and the five sons of Merab the daughter of Saul, whom she bore to Adriel the son of Barzillai the Meholathite; 9 and he gave them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they hanged them on the mountain before the LORD, and the seven of them perished together. They were put to death in the first days of harvest, at the beginning of barley harvest.

10 Then Rizpah the daughter of Aiah took sackcloth and spread it for herself on the rock, from the beginning of harvest until rain fell upon them from the heavens. And she did not allow the birds of the air to come upon them by day, or the beasts of the field by night. 11 When David was told what Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, the concubine of Saul, had done, 12 David went and took the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan from the men of Jabesh-gilead, who had stolen them from the public square of Beth-shan, where the Philistines had hanged them, on the day the Philistines killed Saul on Gilboa. 13 And he brought up from there the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan; and they gathered the bones of those who were hanged. 14 And they buried the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan in the land of Benjamin in Zela, in the tomb of Kish his father. And they did all that the king commanded. And after that God responded to the plea for the land.

 

Rizpah’s own story here is in danger of being overwhelmed by horrifying aspects of the larger story in which she is only a “background” character. A helpful first step is to have the class simply read through the story and list the features of the story that seem strange, or even terribly wrong and unjust by our standards, but which were unflinchingly accepted by those who recorded the story and passed it on to us in Scripture.

The author of the study guide [Alden Thompson] has added as an appendix to this lesson, chapter 6 from his book, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?: “The Worst Story in the Old Testament: Judges 19-21.” That story of the dismembered concubine reflects some of the same troublesome customs that simply are taken for granted in this story of bloodguilt for Saul, the one in which Rizpah appears – perhaps the second worst story in the Old Testament? It is worth noting that Ellen White has left no substantive comments on either of these stories. Indeed, it is an uncanny experience to trace through the “Scripture Index” of the 1962 Comprehensive Index to the Writings of Ellen G. White in search of comments on this story. How many? None. There are numerous passages cited for every other chapter in 1 and 2 Samuel. But the Index completely skips 2 Samuel 21.

The Index also includes only one reference to Judges 19-21. But even that one is “cheating” just a bit, for it is a reference to Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 537 [in the chapter entitled “The Annual Feasts”]. The Index lists Judges 21:19. Yet Patriarchs and Prophets itself does not cite the passage. The editors of the Index include it because the chapter is dealing with the “Annual Festivals.” The biblical passages states: “The yearly festival of the LORD is taking place at Shiloh….” The story in Judges 21 goes on to tell how the wifeless Benjaminites were instructed to go to the annual festival (and dance!). There each wifeless man was to snatch a virgin for himself; the Israelites promised to calm any agitated feelings from fathers and brothers because at least no one had broken their oath. In Patriarchs and Prophets the reader would never guess what actually happened at that annual festival.

In this study guide, the lesson for October 23 which focuses on Jonathan’s story, comments on the issue of oaths because it is crucial in the relationship between David and Jonathan. Here, in the story of Rizpah, the question of oaths is even more crucial. Yet Jesus never mentions the story nor does any New Testament writer. Ellen White never mentions it. Should we? Why not just take the story out of our Bibles?

The approach that Who’s Afraid? suggests to this story and to other troublesome passages in the Bible could be described by the phrase “radical divine accommodation.” In other words, this story shows how God radically accommodated his message to his people in order to reach them within their cultural framework. Thus God would begin the slow process of winning them to the ways of Yahweh and leading them to the better way which ultimately would be seen in the revelation of God Incarnate in Jesus Christ.

To the author’s knowledge, only one passage in the writings of Ellen White explicitly adopts this approach. It is a comment on the cities of refuge (see Numbers 35:19-29), a “radical accommodation” to the practice of blood vengeance. Here is that all-important quotation from Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 515. It has no parallels in the earlier versions of the “Conflict of the Ages” series (1890 and following), i.e. Spiritual Gifts (1858 and following), and Spirit of Prophecy (1870 and following). The key sentences are bolded:

The appointment of these cities had been commanded by Moses, “that the slayer may flee thither, which killeth any person at unawares. And they shall be unto you cities for refuge,” he said, “that the manslayer die not, until he stand before the congregation in judgment.” [Num 35:11-12] This merciful provision was rendered necessary by the ancient custom of private vengeance, by which the punishment of the murderer devolved on the nearest relative or the next heir of the deceased. In cases where guilt was clearly evident, it was not necessary to wait for a trial by the magistrates. The avenger might pursue the criminal anywhere, and put him to death wherever he should be found. The Lord did not see fit to abolish this custom at that time; but he made provision to insure the safety of those who should take life unintentionally. (Patriarchs and Prophets, 515)

 

In this study guide the suggestion is that the class address the larger issue of “cultural accommodation” as a necessary prelude to the more personal story of Rizpah. The features of the story that are most likely to be troublesome are listed below. It is worth noting that David Wright, Professor of Church History at the University of Edinburgh, and the one responsible for helping the author find a publisher for Who’s Afraid? (Paternoster, UK), observed that InterVarsity Press UK, perhaps the best known evangelical press in Britain, would never touch the book (in the 1980s) because the note of accommodation was far too strong.

Typically, the phrase that has characterized the approach to the Bible by devout conservative believers is, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” Such an approach does not encourage the further exploration of troublesome features in the Bible. A better motto would perhaps be, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that doesn’t settle it at all!”

So let’s ask the questions and explore some answers. Reference can be made to chapter 6 in Who’s Afraid?, linked to this lesson as an Appendix.

How many things in this story would we consider to be “wrong” by our standards?

  1. Corporate punishment instead of individual punishment. Old Testament scholars use the phrase “corporate personality” to describe how the Old Testament “corporate” view dominated the individual so that the personal acts of an individual affected the family and the nation.Note: Those who are reluctant to recognize the role of the “corporate” in the Old Testament often point to this law which would seem to prohibit it:

    Deuteronomy 24:16: “Parents shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their parents; only for their own crimes may persons be put to death” (NRSV).

    What is clear from the Old Testament is that laws often point to an ideal. The deeply embedded practices which seem to fly in the face of the ideal – a result of the deadly impact of sin – cannot be immediately changed. Some laws state the ideal; some represent a half-way house, as suggested by Ellen White’s comment on the cities of refuge cited above (PP 515). But the practices as described in the actual narratives in the Old Testament tell us what the people were really like that God was trying to win.

  2. Unbending oaths. Most Christians would not maintain the binding nature of an oath if it touched the lives of innocent people. That was not the practice in the Old Testament. Oaths were binding, though there were ways of avoiding them, as in the story of the dismembered concubine (see Judges 21) and in the story of Jonathan (see 1 Samuel 14).
  3. Violent death penalties. In the ten commandments there are no explicit penalties. But in the additional laws given to Moses, the death penalty was designated for each of the ten commandments except the 10th (coveting). Even breaking the Sabbath was punishable by stoning (e.g. Numbers 15:32-36).
  4. Proper burial for the Lord’s anointed. This is not so much a problem as a crucial observation: God would not heal the land until David did what he knew he should do to provide an honorable burial for Saul and his family. Saul had been an “anointed” one whom David had refused to touch while Saul was alive. But David did not give him an honorable burial – until Rizpah faithfully called his attention to his “sin.” And yes, “sin” would not be too strong a word to use here.

Faithful Rizpah. How could a lowly concubine of a deceased king (Saul), whose sons had just been handed over to the Gibeonites by King David to be offered as human sacrifices, be so bold, so brave, and so faithful to protect the bones of her family members until the King David had taken notice and addressed the tragic oversight? Does God’s refusal to end the famine until Rizpah’s act had been duly honored, show how much respect God could show for a woman who faithful stands by her ideals and by her family? Are there practical applications for our day?

Next, an appendix to lesson #9. Follow the link to this appendix, which is:

Alden Thompson, “The Worst Story in the Old Testament: Judges 19-21” [chapter 6], Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? (Paternoster, 1988; Zondervan 1989; Pacesetters, 2003).

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