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Rizpah’s “story” — written by Susan Murphy and edited by Rev. Sheri Curry, was told at the beginning of service:
Saul was the first king of Israel – a religious man and the people’s choice. The second king was David – God’s appointed. Between the two reigns was a lingering civil war. During this time of hostility, wilderness, and famine, it seemed as if the people had forgotten how to be human – how to be the community God called them to be.
I am Rizpah, a concubine of King Saul, and mother of two of his sons –
Armoni and Mephibosheth (Muh-fib’-oh-sheth)
In the war between the House of Saul and the House of David, Saul was killed and David is king.
In the intervening years of civil war, the people of Israel had grown accustomed to hatred, vengeance, and death. The earth was sick with blood.
Yet, the war was nothing compared to our personal wilderness. The rains had not come for 3 years. Each day we lowered our jars a little further down into the wells. The crops were dying. Our skin cracked and peeled like the dry earth that spiders across the land. Soon the wells would be as dry as the parched earth.
It was a widely held belief in Israel that the famine was caused by bloodguilt on Saul. The Gibeonite people accused Saul of genocide, “Give us the heirs of Saul”, they cried, “the God of Israel will be pleased with our sacrifice, and will send the rain!”
King David listened to their request and handed over 7 of Saul’s heirs to be impaled on the mountain top. Two of them were my beautiful sons. The bodies of the dead were left there exposed to the elements. It was the consequence of war. It was political necessity. It was religious legitimacy. It was vengeance. No one else even seemed to notice the violence, they just watched the skies for rain that did not come.
My heart was as parched as the land. And though I was powerless to stop the sacrifice of my sons, my soul could not rest. In my grief I took sackcloth and spread it on a rock next to the gallows. For 5 months, from the beginning of the harvest until the rains fell from heaven, I did not allow the birds of the air to come on their bodies by day, nor the wild animals by night.
Alone on that weary rock, I gave honor to my sons and to those who died at the hands of vengeance and superstition.
I am told that there were whispers in the tents of the village below about a woman who kept vigil over the bodies of the dead. At first a curious few began to hike the mountain trails to get a glimpse of this “WOMAN ON THE MOUNTAIN’ as they called me.
One evening, I noticed that a partially filled jug of water had been left near my rock. I felt gratitude… I kept vigil. A few days later, a well-worn but useful blanket appeared. Hope stirred in me. I kept my vigil.
Later a small pillow fashioned of goat hair was quietly left for me near the place of death. I knew I was not alone. Soon, almost daily, scant offerings of figs, dates, fish, and even twigs for the fire found their way to my hallowed side of the mountain. Always I kept my vigil.
During those 5 months, no one ever spoke or broke the sanctity of my wilderness….but hearts were changing.
Narrator:They say that at night, from the safety of their tents, the people of the village could hear Rizpah’s cries of lament to a God of mercy and compassion, not a God of power and vengeance. Eventually, King David heard of her courage and compassion, and his heart, too, was moved. He went to Jabesh where the unclaimed bones of Saul were buried. He exhumed the remains, and as a symbol of reconciliation, returned Saul to his homeland, where he was buried, along with the bodies of his 7 heirs, in the tomb of Kish, Saul’s father. Once Saul was returned to his ancestors, famine gave way to rain, and goodness returned to the earth.
2 Samuel 21:10-13 & Luke 4:1-13
The symbolism for the next 6 weeks of Lent is right here on our chancel – this water pump, surrounded by a beautiful wood structure designed to mimic a well, a deep well, from which you would draw life-giving water. It is the purpose of this Lenten season, after all, is that we take time to replenish ourselves, not only by resting, but by going deeper, wrestling with our own adversary. Lent is supposed to mirror the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness, facing identity challenges from the devil.
It doesn’t have to be bread, power and safety, of course. The temptations can be for anything, because the real issue is the temptation itself. We tend to think of temptation as something we are directed towards, something as concrete as ice cream or as abstract as a lie to save face. But temptation is just as often what we walk away from – like our trust in God, or our identity as beloved children of God.
The story of Rizpah comes to us as an example of such temptation, though it might not be readily apparent. Maybe this is the first time you have ever heard this story, as it is relegated to only two paragraphs in 2ndSamuel, and Rizpah, though mentioned by name, never says a word in the story. In fact, for some of what was presented earlier, we had to depend on what is called “midrash” – stories that are written outside of scripture to help fill in the gaps, or to wonder what happened beyond the written words we have in the Bible.
Sometimes we have to look really, really hard for the signs of God’s action, even in the stories in which we’re toldwhat God is doing. We are told, after all, that all of the brutality in this story is a response to God’s drought…the cut-off of rain as a punishment for some political slight, the “bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death,” when he was supposed to honor a treaty and spare them. David, the king after Saul, seeks to reconcile Israel to the Gibeonites and end God’s drought punishment, and so he seemingly without remorse or pause sends seven of Saul’s descendants to a brutal death. Now, it could be noted that in doing so, David also sends 7 men to their deaths who could be considered candidates for the throne of Israel, and calls it the “will of God,” but that’s another midrashic speculation. At very least we ought to be quite familiar, toofamiliar, with the narrative of God’s will used to justify ourviolence. This is the temptation for David, to protect his power by any means necessary, including violence that he can pass off onto God.
Then, enter Rizpah. Not the wife, but the concubine, of Saul, she is virtually powerless to save her sons and so when we see her it is in the role commonly found for women, not only in the ancient Mediterranean world, but in many cultures to this day – the person who laments. Her lament will certainly not bring back her sons, and it may initially seem futile. She might have been tempted to simply retreat into the shadows, one of the only available options for her as a woman in this patriarchal culture. She was being told by the actions all around her that she didn’t matter, her sons didn’t matter. Yet, like Jesus, she refuses the identity forced upon her and takes the only avenue open to resist the natural order of things.
By lamenting in the way she does, Rizpah goes deep, claiming her own identity by refusing to simply play the role assigned to her, to grieve for the appropriate amount of time and move on in silent complicity. Her resistance is an incredibly human response to the forces that assault, violate and obscure human dignity. Like a reporter turning the cameras on the separation of families on our border, like the Crutcher family here in Tulsa, unwilling to simply let their loved ones’ murder be dismissed to the microfilm on the historical record, Rizpah says noto the order of things, and it is her lament that finally breaks through. Rizpah does something that women have done all over the world, throughout history – she cares for the dead in ways that the patriarchal system would not even care for the living. In that resistance, she claims her identity.
Soon, during Holy Week, we will witness the lives of women who stay at the foot of the cross, who bear the grief and lament, who show up to the tomb and who are the first witnesses to the risen Christ, perhapsbecausethey show this kind of defiance to the order of things so often attributed to God’s will, the very violence and vengeance that God defies by raising Jesus. It is because of that identity-claiming action, because of that special kind of resistance, that we even haveChristianity.
The powers that be know that lament is a dangerous thing. From the Lamentations in Jeremiah to the Chilean women who sang protest dirges clutching pictures of their missing loved ones during the reign of Pinochet, women have made social and political statements with their grief. But such resistance is hard to stop, for even the most sinister of regimes cannot shut down the grieving mother. Lament works to alter the narrative that controlling power wants to use, generating time in those deeper places, where our identity can be reinforced and fortified, where our humanity is lifted up and dignified.
David’s assumption is that his sacrifice of blood will bring back the rain, but the text tells a different story. After the murders, the drought continues. The rain doesn’t fall until verse 10, as a direct result of Rizpah’s grieving, as if God is not operating the way that David assumes. What if Rizpah hadsimply drifted into the background, assuming the identity that the culture grants her? Would David have changed his assumptions after the drought didn’t break, or would he have to double-down on his theology?
Rizpah’s actions reflect a theology in themselves, eventually forcing King David to respect the dignity of the dead by giving these victims of violence a decent burial, by acknowledging the value of these bodies. With this act, something of the humanity of Saul’s sons is recovered and Rizpah teaches us all a way out of this cycle of violence that comes from the recognition of a common humanity, from the lament that challenges the notion that some lives are more valuable, and therefore more grievable, than others. The action of God takes place in this story only when the value of all bodies is realized, just as the reality of “all lives matter” is fulfilled only when we can say with full and robust voices that “black lives matter.”
In lifting up the unheard voices in scripture over this season of Lent, we hope to provoke very serious and important questions to reflect upon as we prepare for Holy Week and Easter – just what is God up to? Where and how does God act? And what, if anything, does this have to do with us, with who we are, and who we seek to be as our identity?
When Jesus, in the wilderness, remembers his identity, a child of God, beloved of God and accepted by God, he is able to set aside the offers of illusionary power. The “devil” tempts him with the promise of all things that aren’t of God. The word that gets translated into “the devil” means the “slanderer” or the “accuser,” the one who speaks to abuse or wound. In psychological terms it is the voice that belittles and shames, the “you’re not good enough”, the demeaning self-talk that we are taught. That voice creates an identity in us, and notice what that identity uses to numb the very pain it inflicts – consumption, power, and safety. These are the same things that motivate the advertising which hammers away at us every day, trying to make us feel inadequate and then offering us a product to fix that inadequacy. It is the same force drives our politics, as more and more campaigns are forged entirely on the motivation of fear, with the promise that the candidate will keep us safe, and maintain our power.
What enables Jesus to defy this temptation is, perhaps surprisingly, the remembrance of his humanity, not his embrace of divinity. Rather than taking the bait and puffing up his own power, Jesus goes deeper, he embraces his weakness, he enters that same space that Rizpah enters, the space that lament takes us to, a space of deep reflection and even holy dependance, which is quite counter-intuitive in our culture. We’re supposed to be self-sufficient and independent, but the 40 days in the wilderness how us that Jesus becomes a divine symbol by being the most human he can be, acknowledging his weakness and placing his trust and his dedication in a God who promises him presence, not safety or comfort…a God who promises him enough, not more than he could ever consume…a God who offers him the power of love rather than the love of power. What “The Adversary” tries to get him to do is to think that HE can fix all of his problems, that HE has the power…power that is defined only by it’s ability to dominate and control, not to heal and to care.
We are all tempted over and over again by our own adversaries to forget our identity. We have our hearts broken and are told to “buck up.” Lament is out of the question, it is weak and useless. Instead you should get revenge, which is precisely what the adversary suggests. As we move more deeply into this Lenten season, I offer you a deeper drink of this water…the really cold stuff with a slight metallic taste because it comes from the deepest places. Refreshing and jarring, thirst-quenching and unexpected, this is a season to turn to different things, it is the season to turn our eyes to the cross, where we know that the “order of things” killed Jesus in the way it kills so many. It destroyed his body and buried him, thinking that was it. But God raised Jesus from the dead in order to demonstrate that God’s love is more powerful than all the hate in the world and that the life God offers is more powerful even than death. That, friends, is our identity.