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Why Should We Learn from Rizpah's Tragedy?

Woman sitting in grief

Tragedy is all too common in our world: whether it’s a story we see on the news or an event that hits close to home. Many people in the Bible lived through tragedies, including Rizpah. Who was she, and what did she experience? How can knowing her story help us today? Let’s take a closer look at her world and the tragedy she was unable to escape.

Who Was Rizpah in the Bible?

The first mention of Rizpah occurs in a dispute between two men in the Bible. Rizpah was one of Saul’s concubines. After King Saul’s death, Ish-Bosheth was appointed king over Gilad by Abner, Saul’s army commander. The house of Saul and David had been in a long time war fighting for control over Israel. At this time, David only ruled as king over the tribe of Judah even though he was destined to become ruler of the whole nation. Abner was on Saul’s side—until a king dangles the name of Rizpah in front of him.

In 2 Samuel 3:7, King Ish-Bosheth accuses Abner of sleeping with Rizpah. Abner became angry with the charges, although he doesn’t deny or confirm the act. Abner helped carry on Saul’s legacy by naming his son, Ish-Bosheth, king. He was a proud man and despised being asked such a question. Abner knew God had promised all the land of Israel to King David. Up until this time, Abner had come against the plan, but now, with a heart of anger and revenge, he declares he will help fulfill the promise. He travels to make a treaty with David but is killed by Joab when he accuses Abner of being a spy.

Later in 2 Samuel, Rizpah endures an unthinkable tragedy. Since Rizpah was a widow, she had very little power. Her sons are chosen to be sacrificed for an oath broken years prior. Unable to put a stop to the death sentence, two of Rizpah’s sons are hung in the Gibeah of Saul. After they were murdered, Rizpah stayed by their side for months keeping the birds and wild animals away from the bodies.

What Tragedy Happened to Rizpah?

To fully understand Rizpah’s story, we need to back up to Joshua 9. Joshua was Moses’s successor, donned with the task of leading the Israelites to the Promised Land. Other tribes of people occupied the area, but God was with Joshua and his people. He helped them overcome their enemies and take possession of the land.

The Gibeonites were one of these people. When they heard the destruction Joshua’s army caused in Jericho and Ai, they came up with a plan to trick the Israelites. Dressed in tattered clothes and carrying moldy food, they approached Joshua and his people. They pretended to be from a faraway country and asked for a peace treaty. The Israelites observed their sorry state, and Joshua made the treaty sealing it with an oath.

Three days later, however, the Israelites heard the Gibeonites were actually their neighbors. The Israelites continued on their journey but did not attack the Gibeonites when they approached them because of the oath. Joshua 9:20 says “This is what we will do to them: We will let them live so that God’s wrath will not fall on us for breaking the oath we swore to them.”

In 2 Samuel 21, we find that Saul had broken this oath and slew the Gibeonites. In response, a three-year famine spread across the land. The Israelites asked how they could atone for the broken oath, and the Gibeonites responded that they could sacrifice seven of Saul’s male descendants. Two of these men were Rizpah’s sons.

What Is the Meaning of Rizpah's Story—Why Include It?

Rizpah’s tragedy is a story of grief. Even though her sons were innocent, they had to die for the sins of their father. How horrible it must have been to watch her children die for an event they had no part in. Similar stories are not unknown to people today. How many mothers have stood by after their children died at the hands of a drunk driver or a terminal illness that took them too soon?

Rizpah models a way of grief. She stood by her sorrow, not for days, but months, although we can infer her pain lasted through the rest of her years. She tended to the bodies, protecting them from further defilement. David noticed her dedication and buried her sons giving them the proper burial they deserved. The sacrifice ended the drought and it rained on the lands of Israel. The nation survived.

There is a life after grief. After we take time to mourn, we can enter a new phase of life, although the hurt and pain may remain. The death of her sons helped a nation to flourish. God’s plans are difficult to understand and discern. With sin in the world, there will be pain and suffering until Jesus comes again. Whatever may happen, however, God can provide comfort and restoration.

3 Important Lessons from Her Story

God Can Use Our Tragedies

Loss and sorrow are part of this earthly world. Sometimes we become part of a tragic story like Rizpah. Our world is turned upside down by something we never expected: the accident, diagnosis, or life-changing phone call. God may not plan our tragedies, but he can use them for good. Romans 8:28 says “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” The killing of Rizpah’s sons ended a three-year famine and restored Israel. God can also use our tragedies for good.

There’s A Time to Grieve

Knowing God is in control doesn’t erase our pain. After Rizpah’s sons died, she stayed by their sides for 5-6 months staring straight into her sorrow, being surrounded by the pain every day. Healing is a process. It’s ok to grieve our tragedies. It’s healthy. Ecclesiastes 3:1;4 tells us There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens . . .a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.” Grieving isn’t easy. Rizpah’s sure wasn’t: keeping animals away from her sons’ hanging bodies. We have to face this hard part of the process so we can get to the other side and witness the restoration.

We Have Strength to Endure.

After witnessing this horrendous act against her family, Rizpah remained strong. From the beginning of harvest until it rained, she stayed by her sons’ bodies. Imagine the ghastly sight and putrid stench that must have surrounded her. Yet she kept fighting. Day after day, night after night, she protected what was left of her children. A chapter of Rizpah’s tragedy ended when water filled the land. She didn’t swat away the birds forever. We’ll experience our own thinkable chapters, and God will give us the strength to endure.

Rizpah was a woman of tremendous strength and love for her children. When her world tumbled out of her control, she didn’t run away. She remained faithful long past her sons’ earthly end. God saw Rizpah. He used the horrific events to bring restoration. God will do the same today. He remains in control, even as the ravaging birds circle around us.

Photo credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/kaipong

Jenna Brooke CarlsonJenna Brooke Carlson is an elementary dual language teacher in the Chicago suburbs. As a member of American Christian Fiction Writers and Word Weavers, she enjoys spending time with other writers and perfecting her craft. She recently signed a contract for her first young adult novel, A Big Hot Mess, with Elk Lake Publishing. Along with writing, she’s pursuing her dreams of creating a community of brave young women, who she can encourage to live out their dreams amid challenges and imperfection. Her days are busy, but she’s determined she can conquer anything with a fuzzy blanket and a hot cup of tea. To find out more about Jenna, visit her website at jennabrookecarlson.com.


This article is part of our People from the Bible Series featuring the most well-known historical names and figures from Scripture. We have compiled these articles to help you study those whom God chose to set before us as examples in His Word. May their lives and walks with God strengthen your faith and encourage your soul.

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