The story of Rizpah’s faithful vigil for her dead sons is a disturbing yet touching episode recorded in the Second Book of Samuel. Rizpah had been a concubine, or ‘official mistress’ of King Saul, before he killed himself after losing the battle of Mount Gilboa. She had two sons by him, Armoni and Meshibosheph.
After Saul’s death, there were three years of famine in Israel. King David – who had succeeded Saul – consulted God about the reason for the ongoing lack of rain across the country. He was told that it was because of the bloodthirsty actions of King Saul, who had tried to wipe out the Gibeonites, who were the native inhabitants of the land.
When King David spoke with the Gibeonites about this, they demanded that seven sons of Saul be handed over to them for execution. David agreed, apparently believing that this would please God and stop the famine. The Gibeonites then executed all seven brothers on a hill (by hanging, or possibly crucifixion) and left their bodies there unburied. Two of the victims were Rizpah’s sons, Armoni and Meshibosheph.
In her grief, Rizpah kept vigil day and night by their bodies, keeping vultures and wild animals away from their rotting corpses. Her mourning on the hill lasted for many months, until the famine ended with the arrival of rain. At that point King David agreed to their burial, after which God finally took pity on the country.
Taking the text at face value, it would be easy to conclude that God required the death of seven of Saul’s sons to make amends for the sins of their father. However, a closer look reveals that there may be more going on here than meets the eye. God never asked for further bloodshed; that was the request of the Gibeonites. And in fact, the famine only ended after Rizpah’s long period of devoted mourning and the agreement for the bodies to be buried.
The Law of Moses required that executed people be buried the very same day (Deuteronomy 21:23). Rizpah’s vigil was a silent protest for this law to be followed. As a result, the famine may have ended due to Rizpah’s heroic behaviour, rather than the deaths of the seven men. However interpreted, this story of a mother’s devoted care for her dead sons is as moving as it is tragic.
Rizpah’s vigil on the hill has been traditionally interpreted as a symbol of the future suffering of the Virgin Mary during her son’s crucifixion. This is partly due to the fact that the Latin translation of verse 9 – qui crucifixerunt eos in monte coram Domino – implied that the sons were crucified on the hill, rather than just hanged.
This prophetic interpretation is reflected in this stained glass scene by the Hardmans firm, which dates to 1889. The window shows Rizpah seated in mourning while the birds and wild animals circle around the bodies of her crucified sons. The scene’s title in Latin (Respha substravit sibi supra petram) refers to the fact that she stretched out sackcloth upon the rock underneath her. The window is found alongside other biblical stories that point forward to the death of Christ.
See the full image:
Where to find this work of art
Sacred Heart, Caterham
Read the relevant passage
2 Samuel 21:1-14