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January 8, 2011 / 2 Shevat, 5771

A Little known Heroine
Rabbi Charles Simon

Hear what the desolate Rizpah said,
As on Gibeah's rocks she watched the dead.
The sons of Michal before her lay,
And her own fair children, dearer than they;
By a death of shame they all had died,
And were stretched on the bare rock, side by side.
And Rizpah, once the loveliest of all
That bloomed and smiled in the court of Saul,
All wasted with watching and famine now,
And scorched by the sun her haggard brow,
Sat mournfully guarding their corpses there,
And murmured a strange and solemn air;
The low, heart broken, and wailing strain
Of a mother that mourns her children slain:
Verse 1 of 6 Rizpah by
William Cullen Bryant

William Cullen Bryant was a poet who lived in the early to mid 19th century. In 1884, New York City's Reservoir Square at the intersection of 42nd St and Sixth Avenue was renamed Bryant Park in his memory. He was a major force behind what became Central Park and a leading proponent for the creation of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A mentor to Walt Whitman he wrote this poem about the mistress of King Saul and the impact she had on ancient Israelite life during the early rule of King David.

Her story is found in the second book of Samuel Chapter 3 but first read 2 Samuel 2:1-6 for the important background material.
We are told that prior to his death; Saul slaughtered many of the tribe the Gibeonites who were the descendents of the Amorites. Those who survived considered Saul, anything but a friend. If you remember the version in the book of Samuel, David is continuously being chased and threatened by Saul. Yet, (thanks to the author) he swears “not to raise his hand against the King,” This is a very noble statement with serious political implications because Saul left a number of heirs and potential rivals.

Prior to Saul's death David was king of the breakaway Kingdom of Judah. Saul's death resulted in a series of political maneuverings for his throne. One of the prime candidates was his son Ishboshet. Another was his nephew and commander of his army, Abner. All of a sudden Abner decided to marry Saul's mistress and mother of his children, Rizpah. Imagine how Saul's son Ishboshet, Saul's legitimate heir, must have viewed this act! In desperation Abner shifted allegiances to David thus weakening Ishboshet's position sufficiently for David to unite the two Kingdoms.

David, now King David, needed to protect his throne understanding that Saul's heirs could pose a threat. He approached the Gibeonites and asked them what it would take to become his ally. They responded the only thing that could compensate them would be the death of seven of Saul's sons. David somehow allowed them to receive their compensation by informing them of the whereabouts of Rizpah's two sons and five of the sons of Merab, Saul's eldest daughter. “The Gibeonites put them to death and hung up their bodies at the sanctuary at Gibeah” 2 Samuel 21:8-9

And Rizpah, a mere concubine, risked her life and took on the establishment. She went to the rock of Gibeah for five months and watched the suspended bodies of her children to prevent their bodies from being devoured by beasts and birds of prey. 2 Samuel 21:10

Like Cindy Sheehan sitting outside of George Bush's ranch in Texas, Rizpah became a public figure. Imagine the impact that her sitting on the road, (and there weren't too many roads in those days), must have had. Her act of protest threatened David's position until he was forced to publicly address it.

Our heroes of legends were men and women who lived in a rough and tumble age. The story of Rizpah blemishes David's character and perhaps that is why it is rarely told. But at the same time if suggests another heroine and extols a person of character.

This week's commentary was written by

Rabbi Charles Simon,
Executive Director of the FJMC and author of
"Building A Successful Volunteer Culture: Finding Meaning in Service in the Jewish" Jewish Lights Publishing

The opinions expressed in this Unraveller are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the FJMC.

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