Notes for teaching on 2 Samuel 21:1-14, which is featured in Explore the Bible, Summer 2018, Session 11.
David addresses a past sin of Saul, and a mother changes the course of the story by honoring her dead sons.
The passage is applicable today because it invites us to consider how we can use our own power in the face brutality and injustice.
Notes on the Text
(Quotations taken from the NIV)
21:1 During the reign of David, there was a famine for three successive years; so David sought the face of the Lord. The Lord said, “It is on account of Saul and his blood-stained house; it is because he put the Gibeonites to death.”
ETB, 114, does a good job of introducing the final chapters of 2 Samuel. These chapters are addendums to the wider story already told. John Goldingay calls them “a series of appendices to the story.” Basically, we’re dealing with David stories that didn’t make it into the chronological telling of David’s reign but that were important enough to include after everything else was said and done.
In this passage, a three-year famine engulfs the land and drives David to inquire of the Lord. Note that David does not assume that Israel is being punished by God. Instead, he is seeking the Lord for the sake of the land and the people. The answer that he receives brings the theme of judgment into the story. Apparently, Saul had broken faith with a people group known as the Gibeonites (See Josh 9 for their story) by trying to wipe them out. While this action is unpraiseworthy in and of itself, it is doubly so because the Gibeonites were protected by an oath made before God. In fact, Saul’s animosity toward the Gibeonites was nothing new. They engineered the oath of protection through deceit, and the people, at least during that time, resented them for it. Joshua 9:18b-21 tells us:
The whole assembly grumbled against the leaders, but all the leaders answered, ‘We have given them our oath by the Lord, the God of Israel, and we cannot touch them now. 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.’ They continued, ‘Let them live, but let them be woodcutters and water carriers in the service of the whole assembly.’ So the leaders’ promise to them was kept.
Note how the leaders are careful to honor their word even though it was given under deceitful circumstances. Because the oath was made before the Lord, it could not be taken lightly. Moreover, breaking the oath would put the Israelites in danger of facing “God’s wrath.” This same agreement still would have been in effect in Saul’s day. He chose to violate it.
There is no record of Saul’s campaign against the Gibeonites, and we are not told here why his “zeal for Israel and Judah” drove him to such measures (21:2 speaks of Saul’s zeal). I might venture a guess that Saul believed himself to be righting the wrong done to Israel and Judah when the Gibeonites deceived them. If so, he sided with the people in Josh 9 rather than the leaders. As it turned out, the leaders in Josh 9 were right. Saul broke an oath made before the Lord, and a three-year famine was the result. It seems that the people of Israel were indeed facing the very wrath that the leaders sought to avoid all those years earlier.
2 The king summoned the Gibeonites and spoke to them. (Now the Gibeonites were not a part of Israel but were survivors of the Amorites; the Israelites had sworn to spare them, but Saul in his zeal for Israel and Judah had tried to annihilate them.) 3 David asked the Gibeonites, “What shall I do for you? How shall I make atonement so that you will bless the Lord’s inheritance?”
4 The Gibeonites answered him, “We have no right to demand silver or gold from Saul or his family, nor do we have the right to put anyone in Israel to death.”
“What do you want me to do for you?” David asked.
5 They answered the king, “As for the man who destroyed us and plotted against us so that we have been decimated and have no place anywhere in Israel, 6 let seven of his male descendants be given to us to be killed and their bodies exposed before the Lord at Gibeah of Saul—the Lord’s chosen one.”
So the king said, “I will give them to you.”
Armed with knowledge of the famine’s cause, David goes to the remaining Gibeonites to offer recompense for Saul’s actions. The Gibeonites’ preliminary response shows an awareness of their social position. While the oath meant protection for them, they were not part of the people of Israel. As such, they were not able to make demands for retribution. Indeed, since Saul’s actions made the Gibeonites an endangered people-group, survival, not justice, must have been their chief priority.
While the Gibeonites might not have had the standing to demand justice, God had taken their side. Therefore, David ignores their standing and asks what he can do for them. They might not have the right to demand justice, but the king does have the right to grant it. The Gibeonite’s request is stark: “Let seven of [Saul’s] male descendants be given to us to be killed and their bodies exposed before the Lord.”
It is important now to note that children paying for the sins of their parents was not an aspect of Israelite law. Deut 24:16 states, “Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin.” Why, then, does David agree to this request? My own thought here is that Saul’s crime was far beyond what Deut 24 was addressing. That command is given in the context of murder. Murder, of course, is a horrible offense, but Saul took it to the level of an entire people. Genocide was his aim, and the Gibeonites describe Saul thus in 21:5: “As for the man who destroyed us and plotted against us so that we have been decimated and have no place anywhere in Israel…” Saul’s “zeal” was devastating for the Gibeonites, and, if their description of that devastation is true, they saw many if not most of their own children die. In this light, we can see how the Gibeonites could see their request for seven of Saul’s heirs as just and even restrained. ETB, 117, offers what may be a good theory of the Gibeonite’s reasoning: “… the execution of seven of [Saul’s] offspring was a way of punishing Saul himself. He had tried (in biblical terms) to ‘cut off’ the Gibeonites – that is, to leave them without any hope that future generations of Gibeonites would live in the land. In response, they would (partially) ‘cut off’ Saul, by seeing to it that he would be left with fewer descendants in the land.” If this were the case, we can perhaps see why this trade, uncomfortable as it makes us, might be seen as just. Saul’s crime against the Gibeonites was taken to a level that was not dealt with in the law, and David was in untraveled territory as he chose how to proceed.
At the same time, it is important to note that God was not the one to demand the death and humiliation of the seven. That was David and the Gibeonites. Moreover, in their first response to David, the Gibeonites intimate that financial recompense might be a way forward when they say, “We have no right to demand silver or gold from Saul or his family…” David, it seems, might have suggested another course of action to grant justice while also sparing Saul’s family. As we see David’s failure to offer an alternative way forward, we can wonder whether he was being opportunistically selfish. Goldingay and Brueggemann both note that the Gibeonite’s request played to David’s advantage. In handing over Saul’s heirs, he eliminated seven possible rival claimants to the throne. As is often the case in David’s story, motivations are left up to interpretation. For our modern (and New Testament) sensibilities, we certainly wish that David had been more proactive in finding an alternative solution.
7 The king spared Mephibosheth son of Jonathan, the son of Saul, because of the oath before the Lord between David and Jonathan son of Saul. 8 But the king took Armoni and Mephibosheth, the two sons of Aiah’s daughter Rizpah, whom she had borne to Saul, together with the five sons of Saul’s daughter Merab, whom she had borne to Adriel son of Barzillai the Meholathite. 9 He handed them over to the Gibeonites, who killed them and exposed their bodies on a hill before the Lord. All seven of them fell together; they were put to death during the first days of the harvest, just as the barley harvest was beginning.
While we may understand the reasoning behind the Gibeonites’ request, actually seeing the names of those affected by it is unsettling. These are not seven nameless men. No, they have names, and they have mothers. Indeed, it is the action of one of these mothers that will soon take center stage. As we expect from what comes before, the seven are executed, and their bodies are left exposed “on a hill before the Lord.” This last piece seems to intimate that exposing the bodies “before the Lord” was meant as a kind of testimony to God that justice had been served. Mephibosheth is spared this fate because of David’s pledge to Jonathan.
10 Rizpah daughter of Aiah took sackcloth and spread it out for herself on a rock. From the beginning of the harvest till the rain poured down from the heavens on the bodies, she did not let the birds touch them by day or the wild animals by night.
In a truly moving scene, Rizpah, who is mother of two of the slain and related to the other five, takes it upon herself to honor the bodies of the fallen. Like Tamar earlier in the David narrative, she is a character of limited power who does all that she can. Though she was unable to spare the seven – that negotiation took place far above her station – she was able to give honor where others gave none. For David, the seven were a required recompense in response to the drought. For the Gibeonites, the seven were justly slain in retribution for their own losses. For Rizpah, they are her sons and relatives who were caught up, through no fault of their own, in matters of judgment and state. Their only offense was being born to the wrong family. Indeed, Rizpah herself suffers the loss of her children simply because of her relationship to Saul, and she is powerless to stop it. After the deaths, she is not even able to move the bodies! What she can do is honor the fallen by refusing to let the bodies be subjected to further humiliation. They have been struck down and left to rot on a hillside, but Rizpah ensures that they will not be food for buzzards and wild animals.
Think now of what giving this honor cost Rizpah. She remains outdoors watching her sons decompose. She loses sleep and subjects herself to danger from wild animals. Hers is a never-ending task that ETB argues went on for months. The power that Rizpah has concerning the fate of the seven is small, and it requires much of her. As so many women of limited power do in the biblical narrative, Rizpah shines as a beacon of goodness in a story that is short on the same.
11 When David was told what Aiah’s daughter Rizpah, Saul’s concubine, had done, 12 he went and took the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan from the citizens of Jabesh Gilead. (They had stolen their bodies from the public square at Beth Shan, where the Philistines had hung them after they struck Saul down on Gilboa.) 13 David brought the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan from there, and the bones of those who had been killed and exposed were gathered up.
14 They buried the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan in the tomb of Saul’s father Kish, at Zela in Benjamin, and did everything the king commanded. After that, God answered prayer in behalf of the land.
Fittingly, the light that Rizpah emits is seen and appreciated by the king. More than this, Rizpah’s example moves David to action. We would expect at this point for David to join Rizpah in honoring the fallen, but he goes farther than that. David, it seems, is so shamed by Rizpah’s kindness to these members of the house of Saul that he is moved give honor to the entire house. Thus, he retrieves Saul’s and Jonathan’s bones from Jabesh Gilead. David then gathers the bones of the seven. Though we don’t know what happened to the bones of the seven (beyond being removed from the humiliation of continued exposure), the text tells us that Saul’s and Jonathan’s bones were buried in the tomb of Saul’s father. ETB, 119, explains the importance of this burial: “In ancient Israel, tradition was to allow the body to decay and desiccate until on the bones remained. For this to happen, the body would be laid on a stone bench in a tomb. Afterwards, the bones would be taken to a common, family burial site. Thus, joined with the ancestors in common chamber, the deceased would ‘sleep with their fathers.’” Due to Rizpah’s intervention with the seven, Saul and Jonathan were given a burial honor that heretofore had been withheld.
This is the second time that we have seen people besides David care for the bodies of the deceased in Saul’s house. 1 Sam 31 tells how the people of Jabesh Gilead rescued the fallen bodies of Saul and his sons from the city walls of Beth Shan rather than allowing them to rot for all to see. Here, in 2 Sam 21, Rizpah is not able to rescue the bodies of her sons and relatives, but she does spare them from the humiliation of being eaten by buzzards and wild animals. In doing so, she also ensures that their bones are not lost, which is important according to ancient Israelite customs (see previous note).
Interestingly, David, who took great care to show honor to Saul in Saul’s lifetime and who loved Jonathan as a close friend, did not show honor and love when it came to their bodies and burials. It was others who did this service. Likewise, David was not the one to show honor to the bodies of the seven, even though they were members of the previous king’s household. It was another who offered this service, and it seems that her example is what finally jolted David out of inaction on this point.
Notes for Teaching
Let’s be frank. This is not an easy text to teach. Many elements of the story make our stomachs turn, and we are left wondering whether David might have done more. The only obviously exemplary person in the story is Rizpah, who is caught in an impossible situation and provides the only service that she can. More than this, the drought opens questions as to whether we should understand natural disasters as God’s judgment (this is a viewpoint that we often see evangelical leaders taking today). We’ll need to tread carefully on this ground!
In regard to natural disasters, John Goldingay offers a helpful insight in saying:
The Old Testament recognizes that trouble such as a failure of the harvest (like personal disasters or sickness) is often “just one of those things” but that it can be God’s chastisement for some wrongdoing. Either way it means you turn to God, but in doing so you do have to ask the question whether some wrongdoing is the explanation for the calamity
Note that the Old Testament does not always see judgment as the cause for calamity, though it entertains the possibility. The New Testament viewpoint is similar. Sometimes we suffer because we live in a fallen world through no fault of our own (see Luke 13). 1 Corinthians 11 shows that God’s judgment may also be the cause of calamity. (In this text, Paul says the congregation at Corinth is experiencing sickness and even death because of their improper taking of the Lord’s Supper.) In the end, I would divide calamity into three categories:
- The result of living in a fallen world through no fault of the sufferer.
- The natural consequences of sin(s) that God allows to play out (Romans 1 speaks in these terms).
- The intentional judgment of God on sin (1 Corinthians 11 speaks in these terms).
I would argue in regard to disasters that we should assume that 1 or 2 is at play rather than jumping immediately to 3. I take this view because jumping straight to 3 can make God look like a judgmental monster who causes bridges to collapse, cancers to kill, and tsunamis to engulf cities. Moreover, those who jump to 3 often seem to have pre-decided on the sin(s) being judged. Why should it be one sin of a person or people-group rather than another? The answer seems to be in the eye of the beholder. In the narrative at hand, David receives a word from God that the cause of the drought being judgment. I would argue that many evangelicals today run straight to the idea of judgment without any such word from God. This is not to say that God cannot cause calamities in judgment. It is to say that we should not speak for God in such ways unless we have a very clear word on the matter. Added to this, if judgment is the cause, we need to agree with ETB, 120, that such judgment is a call to repentance rather than simply the action of an angry deity. Throwing option 3 around in an unfounded, untested manner causes great pain for those who suffer by heaping up unneeded guilt on already painful situations.
Moving to the parts of this story that turn our stomachs, we should let them do just that. Saul’s treatment of the Gibeonites should turn our stomachs, as should the executions of seven of Saul’s male heirs. At the same time, we should note that the difficulty expressed in this story is relevant today. What does justice look like in the face of the Holocaust, genocide in Rwanda, apartheid in South Africa, or slavery in the United States for that matter? In each case, entire people groups were targeted for death or horrendous treatment. In each case, generations were affected or cut off completely either by the murder of parents and would-be parents and the denial of basic human dignities. How do we even begin to think about justice in these kinds of situations? Asking that question helps us understand David’s dilemma. Allowing ourselves to see the world through the eyes of the wronged in these situations helps us understand the Gibeonites’ viewpoint. Our stomachs should turn at the brutality of the story. At the same time, they should turn at the numerous cases of widespread injustice that are perpetrated in the present day. More than this, we need to acknowledge the extreme difficulty of the question of justice in a world like this.
All this in mind, we as Christians then need to move to ask what King Jesus would call us to do in these kinds of situations. In South Africa, Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that sought to describe apartheid in all its hideousness while also making a way for healing and forgiveness. I can’t help but think that King Jesus approved of this effort even though many might argue that such a commission could not go far enough. Jesus pushes us to name the powers correctly while also resisting them and moving to a place of forgiveness and reconciliation (hard as that can be) in response to their atrocities. Martin Luther King, Jr., is an excellent example of holding all of this together. His work in the Civil Rights moved teamed truth and love in a truly extraordinary manner.
To be truthful, I’d rather not have added the part in that last paragraph about forgiveness in light of the extreme suffering that some have encountered. The Jesus of the gospels, however, isn’t silent on the difficult subject of forgiveness. Important to remember here is that human forgiveness is done with an eye toward God’s justice. “Vengeance is mine,” means that God will take care of justice and that we are free then to move forward in forgiveness. When we do so, we leave things in God’s hands.
Then we also need to look at the example of Rizpah. She is a woman who is caught in the impossible situation of watching her children and relatives die. She is powerless to stop this, even as she was powerless when it came to Saul’s campaign against the Gibeonites. We can feel like this today as we look at the wrongs perpetrated under sinful systems of government and commerce. We want to do something, but we don’t have the power to move the needle. It is important now to note that we in western democracies have more power than most people in history, and we need to use that power in ways that honor King Jesus. At the same time, we can learn from Rizpah, who was also unable to move the needle. We can learn from her refusal to be passive in the midst of brutality. And we can learn from her that the sometimes simple and sometimes demanding act of offering honor and dignity can go a long way. Importantly, we don’t give honor and dignity to move the needle (though that often happens). Instead, we offer honor and dignity because we are followers of Jesus, and that is the kind of people we are. Whether or not they move the needle, our acts of honor and dignity serve as beacons just as Rizpah’s did in the story.
A Possible Teaching Plan
- What do we know about the Gibeonites?
Explain: Fill in blanks as needed from Josh 9.
Read 2 Sam 21:1
- What new do we learn about the Gibeonites in this verse?
- Why, beyond it just being a bad thing to begin with, was Saul’s animosity toward the Gibeonites problematic?
- What was God’s response to Saul’s actions?
- What do you think was going through David’s head when he heard all of this?
- The text says that a natural disaster (drought) came about because of judgment. How should we Christians understand natural, national, and personal tragedies today?
Read 2 Sam 21:2-9
- What is David’s response to the news of Saul’s sin?
- Do you think that the Gibeonites’ request is just? Why or why not?
- Was handing the seven over the only choice that David had? Should he have pushed for an alternative? Why didn’t he?
Read 2 Sam 21:10-14
- What do you think was going through Rizpah’s head and heart as her sons and relatives were killed?
- What is her response?
- Does that response matter? Why?
- Why do you think David gathers up the bones and gives Saul and Jonathan a proper burial after he hears about Rizpah?
- What can we learn from Rizpah?
The Present Day
- In 2 Sam 21, we are faced with stomach turning events. Do these kinds of things still happen today? Give examples.
- How should we Christians respond?
Walter Brueggemann’s 1 and 2 Samuel in the Interpretation commentary series
John Goldingay’s 1 and 2 Samuel for Everyone
Explore the Bible curriculum
 Goldingay, J. (2011). 1 and 2 Samuel for Everyone: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (p. 165). Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press; Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
 Goldingay, J. (2011). 1 and 2 Samuel for Everyone: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (p. 163). Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press; Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.