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For anyone outside the king’s court to see Rizpah was rare. Closely protected by eunuchs, she was a royal concubine and lived in separate quarters. She belonged to King Saul and may have been his only concubine. Her story begins, “Now Saul had a concubine named Rizpah daughter of Aiah” and continues with the reason she was out in public (2 Samuel 3:7, 21:10-14).

A mother’s vigil

After Saul died, Rizpah became part of King David’s harem. In the normal course of events, Rizpah would have lived in the seclusion of his court. But Gibeonites had killed the two sons she had borne to Saul and impaled them on a hilltop for public scrutiny. There they hung as restitution for something they hadn’t done. Rizpah watched over them.

Painting of a Biblical scene

Painting of a Biblical scene (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rizpah…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 of the air touch them by day or the wild animals by night.

Sackcloth symbolized mourning and penance (Gen. 37:34). Considering her gruesome vigil, I wonder if Rizpah could have had any thoughts of some greater purpose being worked out through her slain sons? Her sad efforts to defend the dead from scavengers would have been enough thought.

The backstory

Some years before, King Saul had gone after Canaanite tribes northwest of Jerusalem. Among the people he killed were Gibeonites. Putting to death any Gibeonites violated a treaty of protection Joshua had made with them four hundred years earlier. Because Saul broke the treaty Joshua had made, he triggered divine punishment—a three-year famine that commenced in the reign of David. As the famine intensified, David inquired of the LORD about the meaning of it (2 Samuel 21:1).

It is because of Saul and his bloodthirsty house, because he killed the Gibeonites.


When David learned that the famine resulted from a broken treaty, he asked the Gibeonites what he could do to atone for Saul’s infraction.  To settle accounts, they required that seven of Saul’s sons be turned over to them for execution and public exposure. David agreed and handed over five sons of Merob (Saul’s daughter) and the two sons of Rizpah.

Did God approve of the Gibeonites’ request and David’s handling of the matter? Commentators disagree. Noted Bible scholar Herbert Lockyer states, “Vengeance was taken out of God’s hands and executed by revengeful men in God’s name on seven innocent men.”[1] Adam Clarke states, “It is very strange that a choice of this kind should be left to such people. Why not ask this of God himself?”[2]

The Expositor’s commentary states that because “the famine was due to the breaking of the covenant between Gibeon and Israel…propitiation could only be effected by the death of the sons of Saul at the hands of the Gibeonites.”[3] Other commentators conclude that because the rains commenced, God was satisfied.

How long?

How long did Rizpah remain on watch? The Expositor’s Commentary says she stayed until the rains came that ended the drought, and these rains “were probably an unseasonable late-spring or early summer shower.”[4] Josephus states, “So when the Gibeonites had received the men, they punished them as they pleased; upon which God began to send rain.” [5] However, the Bible does not say that God brought an immediate rain, a late spring rain or an early summer rain. Edersheim believes the rains were the periodic ones that began in October, meaning that Rizpah continued her sad duties for five months.[6]

A proper burial

When David was told about what Rizpah had done, he was moved to bring back the bones of Saul and Jonathan from where they had been buried in Jabesh Gilead. He took the bones of the seven sons from the hill and buried them with Saul and Jonathon in tomb of Kish, Saul’s father. What happened to Rizpah after the interment is not known. Perhaps she was comforted that Saul and his sons had a decent burial.

Did God approve?

A post-script to her tragic story is the question of whether God approved of concubines and multiple wives. Many notable men had several wives and/or concubines (Abraham, Jacob, Gideon, Saul, David, Solomon). Jesus said that from the beginning of creation, marriage was an institution uniting one man and one woman (Matt.19:4-5, Gen.1:27, 2:21-24). Because people strayed from God’s pattern, by the time of Abraham having another wife or a concubine was not considered “evil.” Taking additional wives and concubines became a “regular custom among the Jews” so some of the laws God gave Moses for Israel “were directed to prevent excess and abuse”[7] of the practice. The allowances made for divorce, multiple marriages and concubines are laws and procedures made necessary because men have departed from God’s will.

Life as a concubine

Royal concubines were kept under close supervision and enjoyed privileges in food, clothing, and living quarters. They entered a king’s harem through a political alliance, from the slave market or as a requisition from among the beautiful women in the kingdom. Customarily they were well cared for because they added to a king’s prestige. A Queen Mother or head eunuch managed the harem and each concubine’s access to the king. The wives and concubines of a king that died or was deposed became the property of his successor.♦ Mary Hendren


[1] All the Women of the Bible, Herbert Lockyer, p. 143.

[2] Adam Clarke’s Commentary, One-Volume Edition, p. 333.

[3] The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 3, p.1054

[4] Ibid, p.1055

[5] An Exposition of the Old and New Testament, by John Gill, online, note on v.10

[6] Bible History Old Testament, Alfred Edersheim, p. 570.

[7] The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary,  “Concubine,” pp. 250-251

About womenfromthebook

Mine is a life-long interest in the women of the Bible, and I enjoy exploring the world in which they lived, and discovering the challenges that they faced. I have enough curiosity about them to last the rest of my life.

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