I was recently listening to a compelling sermon by Austin Channing Brown, that was all about Rizpah. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, she’s a woman in the Old Testament who undertook a months-long one-woman silent protest. Her actions, recorded in 2 Samuel 21, eventually persuaded King David to bring an end to something which he had commanded. (If you want to hear the sermon, it’s on episode 2 of the Evolving Faith Podcast.)
Brown’s sermon focussed on speaking truth to power and she applied Rizpah’s story to racial justice today. But as I sat and thought through Rizpah’s actions, I realised they may have been even more far-reaching, even in her own time.
And while I’m yet to visit the library and validate my suspicions here, I’m now willing to bet that Rizpah’s protest changed the law.
Allow me to explain.
And CONTENT WARNING this gets a bit gory.
The backdrop is near the beginning of Israel’s monarchy; the first king, Saul, had died and his most talented soldier, David, had taken over.
While Saul was alive, he had grown paranoid about David and tried to kill him multiple times, despite David’s loyal service. As one might imagine, their two houses subsequently had frosty relations.
Rizpah, meanwhile, was a concubine of Saul and she had two sons.
We read about her in 2 Samuel chapter 21 because David ordered her sons (and five other direct male descendants of Saul) to be handed over to a neighbouring people, the Gibeonites, in order to be executed. The seven men (who would have been adults) were hanged on a hill and their bodies left there.
What makes David’s actions so problematic – even in the context of Old Testament times – is that these men hadn’t done anything to deserve such a fate. They were being executed in place of their father Saul, as vengeance for when Saul committed genocide against the Gibeonites.
Also, the men’s bodies – even though they were executed as criminals – should not have been left on public display; they should have been brought down before the first nightfall. But they weren’t.
Because of this, Rizpah went and sat on that hill for months, stopping the bodies from being eaten by carrion birds and animals — and word of her actions reached David. Then, when Autumn set in, David ordered the bones of the men to be given a proper burial with Saul’s remains.
Why did David allow these men to be killed?
One answer is to argue that David wasn’t actually a pleasant guy, but happy for any excuse to see his political rivals subdued even further. And… whilst I have reservations about that argument, it has some mileage: David was a politically savvy guy, who didn’t shy away from killing his enemies, and he absolutely did not always act ethically.
But there’s another angle too.
It’s possible that David allowed these seven men to be treated the way they were…
… not just because there was a famine and he believed that this would help end the famine (we can disagree – but that’s what he believed, see 2 Samuel 21:1),
… not just because Saul committed genocide and he believed the lives of seven men was a comparatively small price to pay to alleviate that bloodguilt (again, we can disagree – but that’s not the point),
… not just because this was what the Gibeonite survivors asked for and he wanted to honour their wishes as the wronged party,
…but also because it wasn’t against the law.
Those of you who know your Bibles might now pull out a couple of laws from Deuteronomy. After all, Deuteronomy is a book of law; its writings are attributed to Moses, who lived long before David’s time, and there are some verses that explicitly prohibit what David did.
If a man has committed a sin deserving of death, and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain overnight on the tree, but you shall surely bury him that day, so that you do not defile the land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance; for he who is hanged is accursed of God.
– Deuteronomy 21:22-23
Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their fathers; a person shall be put to death for his own sin.
– Deuteronomy 24:16
But there are two things to note here.
Firstly, Deuteronomy is the only book of the five books of law that contains laws to this effect.
Secondly, Deuteronomy wasn’t written by Moses.
And if Deuteronomy wasn’t even compiled until a good many years after David’s time, then we have the very real possibility that these laws in Deuteronomy were written because of Rizpah’s actions.
So how do we know that Deuteronomy wasn’t written by Moses?
Short answer? Because the opening verse tells us it wasn’t.
The longer answer is that there is a lot of evidence in the text of Deuteronomy and the rest of the Old Testament that suggests it was written in the late monarchical period. That is, some time between the reigns of Hezekiah and Josiah.
We should bear in mind that it was a long-standing Jewish literary custom to ascribe writings to an earlier author. Isaiah’s writings cover periods that span well over a century; maybe he was predicting the future, but it’s more likely that other people also wrote prophecies and attributed them to his name. Similarly, the last six chapters of Daniel are written in a style that dates after Daniel’s time.
If you want to dig into the detail, I’ve written another post that digs into more detail and sets out the textual evidence. It draws on the work of Alexander Rofé.
The point for now is that, if Deuteronomy was written after David’s time, and if his actions were indeed lawful, then maybe Rizpah’s actions are a big part of why the law was changed.
I appreciate that David may have known other laws that should have given him pause for thought.
Joshua, for example, didn’t leave dead bodies hanging after evening (Joshua 8:29 and Joshua 10:26). (Though I’m not sure when the book of Joshua was written, so… maybe David wasn’t aware?)
David would also have known about Exodus 21:28, which forbids the execution of an ox’s owner, in the event that their otherwise well-behaved ox kills another person. There is a case for saying this pointed towards Deuteronomy’s law that children shouldn’t be killed for the crimes of their parents.
It’s also possible that there were other laws amongst the Israelites, that were generally accepted, albeit not endowed with the authority of Moses.
Nevertheless, even if David was aware of these principles, the idea of punishing children for the crimes of their parents would still have been normalised for him – from Exodus if nothing else (Exodus 20:5-6). When faced with a famine and the need to pay recompense for genocide – yes, genocide – committed by the previous king, and no command from Moses saying the Gibeonites’ request was unlawful… well, it puts a different light on David’s decision.
The lesson here is not to whitewash David with a glib, “He wasn’t breaking the law, so what he did was all OK.” I think the tone of the biblical narrative shows that David’s actions were considered regrettable, even during his day.
Rather my point is this: given that Deuteronomy is the only book of law that prohibits the actions David took, and given Deuteronomy was probably written after David’s time, there’s a case for arguing that Rizpah brought about a cultural shift, which later resulted in a new law being written.
And if that’s the case, it’s a pretty big deal. And she should get the credit for it.
If you enjoyed this, you might also like:
- How I used to interpret Deuteronomy 22:13-21, and how I explain it now (in fewer than 500 words)
- Review of ‘Esther in Ancient Jewish Thought’ by Aaron Koller
- God is inclusive: in Deuteronomy, in Isaiah and in Acts (reflecting on the meaning of priesthood)
 Aaron Koller talks about this possibility in Unbinding Isaac: The Significance of the Akedah for Modern Jewish Thought Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2020, 146.