Say Their Names: The Rizpah Inside All of Us

This post is the fourth installment in a series that I have been hosting called, “Say Their Names” which tells the stories of amazing women in the Bible who like our male heroes, exercised and operated from a deep sense of faith. And from their stories, I will expound on other historical and modern day examples. Outside of the biblical text, I will only lift up the faith narratives of black women because in our sociopolitical landscape in this present moment, black women are often the most exploited and forgotten. This story will talk about the faith of Rizpah, an oft overlooked woman in 2 Samuel 21.

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Let’s now turn our attention to Rizpah. Rizpah is the daughter of one of King Saul’s concubines, Aiah. And as many of you know, King Saul was disgraced because he failed to obey God wholeheartily. Understanding that God anointed David to take his place, Saul grew increasingly jealous and tried to take him out on numerous occasions. But God cautioned David against seeking revenge so he never repayed evil for evil. In fact, David made a covenant with Saul’s son Jonathan that when he was made king, he would not return evil to Saul’s family. For the most part he held to that until the Gibeonites asked him to do otherwise.

Many of the Gibeonites were killed under the leadership of King Saul, and they wanted revenge against Saul’s family specifically. At their request, David allowed seven of Saul’s sons to be hung by the Gibeonites in order to lift the famine in the land. Perhaps it did. But this covenant that David made with Jonathan, and that David even made with God, had been ignored.

Rizpah, the mother of two of the sons murdered that day, wasn’t having it. She would not allow the injustice done against her family to go without holding those accountable for the deaths of her sons, even if the guilty party was none other than King David himself. She spread sackcloth, a national sign of mourning, upon a rock in plain sight of David’s empire and sat there morning, noon, and night for months until it got King David’s attention. Although Rizpah lost her sons, David was shamed into acting right. While the Gibeonites wanted the bodies of her sons to lay hanging in the hot sunlight, like the bodies of our forefathers hung on trees like fruit as a testament of what would befall others if they dared to interrupt whiteness, David brought the bodies down and gave them a proper burial.

I have to admit, it took me a long time to understand the story of Rizpah in this way. My theological background led me to assume that since the Gibeonite revenge seemed to appease God’s anger, that the killing of Saul’s sons were justified. But if we think about this story from the perspective of the marginalized – Saul’s family at this time – then we have to think a bit more critically about how much power is driving the outcomes in this situation. In fact, let us again remind ourselves that (1) Saul’s family were David’s political enemies, (2) David made a covenant with Jonathan and God that He would preserve their family’s lineage (3) the Gibeonites tricked and deceived the people of God into protecting them in perpetuity. All of this should cause us to raise some doubts about ‘the rightness’ of David’s actions here.

Because the Gibeonites said that they required blood, David provided it to them, similarly to the way in which Herod delivered up the head of John the Baptist. We do not know if this is the right response or if this was the response God required. What we do know is that times without number throughout the biblical text, God demanded confession and repentance on the part of people who have violated His commands. We also see God asking communities who have offended each other to offer acts of service, hospitality, and gratitude in order to promote healing and reconciliation. In the instances that a call for sacrifice is warranted, it is livestock – not humans – that God uses as a proxy for atoning sins at both the individual and communal level.

Unfortunately, there is no mention of God actually being consulted here in what He wishes would take place in order to atone for the unjustified killing of the Gibeonites. Because God is silent, we have to assume that He is not consulted. In His absence, the punishment meted out on the sons of Saul seems to come from a place of revenge for both the Gibeonites and David. To makes matters worse, language about God gets thrown around in order to justify their revenge on Saul’s sons.

But Rizpah says no. In spite of the power that David and the Gibeonites hold, she will not allow this sin against her family go without bringing shame on David’s head. In doing so, she points out the hypocrisy of a nation state that claims to love God while spilling so much blood. Lest we forget, God told David he could not build the temple because of the amount of blood on his hands. The Gibeonite revenge against Saul’s family, unfortunately, is just one example of how many people lost their lives during David’s reign.

Black Power fist.jpegIn our American context, so much of our theology and ways of thinking about God uphold the principalities and powers of this society. The language of God gets dropped around a lot in order to justify the continual maltreatment of African Americans, American Indians, and other populations of color. In the name of God, our country cuts off essential programs that actually helps marginalized peoples. In the name of God, our country’s defense roams the earth looking for someone weaker to devour. In the name of God, our country conquests, steals, kills, and destroys the earth – misappropriating in the most perverse way the biblical concept of humanity having dominion over the earth.

Fortunately for us, black women have been among those who have challenged the dominant narrative and resisted. In fact, like Rizpah, black women have pointed out the hypocrisy of a nation that claims to love God while grinding the face of the people of God into the earth. One of those women was Ida B Wells. Wells was a prominent voice against lynching and other violent attacks against the black community in the late 1800s, and risked her life in order to truthfully document and tell about these horrendous actions committed against black bodies. Like Rizpah, Wells drew the empire’s attention to these actions and demanded that reforms be made.

Another woman was Mamie Ellzabeth Till-Mobley. Mamie was the mother of Emmitt Till, a young brilliant black boy who was brutally killed nearly 60 years after Wells anti-lynching work. Accused of flirting with a white women – who recently admitted that she lied – the young Till was brutally beaten, disfigured, shot in the head and then dumped into the Tallahatchie river. At his funeral, a grieving Mamie insisted on an open casket and demanded that the country face its demons. Like Rizpah, she put the hypocrisy of the country on display, and did so before a world beyond this nation’s borders that was watching.

In our present time, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, Patrisse Cullors – founders of Black Lives Matter – have once again raised consciousness around the plight of the black body in America. Refusing to be silent after the murder of Trayvon Martin and others after him, they – like Mamie, Ida, and Rizpah – called an ungodly nation’s sin into account. As has the beautiful Bree Newsome, a black woman who climbed a flagpole to tear down the confederate flag after nine black parishioners were killed by a white supremacist in North Carolina.

I could go on. But time would fail me if I did. Our nation’s history is filled with examples of black women alone who have stood up to the death and murder of our own. To be clear, in order to prevent any deranged ideas, our brilliance does not come as a result of our oppression; it is there in spite of it. Like Rizpah, we decide to exercise our brilliance and agency every single day because we refuse to be complicit participants in our own destruction. Neither will we tolerate the defamation of the name of God through the actions of a country that claims to love Him while despising His creation.

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