Unraveled: Public Grief

“Rizpah” by Lauren Wright Pittman | A Sanctified Art LLC | sanctifiedart.org

Weekly Bible Devotional
“Unraveled: Public Grief”
August 8, 2020

How do we respond when we experience injustice or violence? How do we find a healing path, not just for us but also for others in our community in such times of great distress? Revenge often seems like the way to feel better and to heal. It seems that as humans we believe the illusion that hurting someone else would make us feel better or would bring us redemption and justice. Whether we do this personally or communally, revenge seems to be one of our great temptations. But in reality, revenge does not really make us feel better (at least not for long!). In fact, instead of finding peace, we end up adding to the pain and suffering of all involved. We may confuse justice with the instinct for revenge because the illusion of revenge is based on another illusion: That we are separate from each other. When life unravels, one of the responses to pain is to lash out at others with blame and judgment. Today’s Bible story offers us a different path, an alternative to violence and the instinct to inflict pain on others. The story is about the power of public grief to bring people together through compassion to work for justice.

Public grief is difficult for most of us. We struggle with showing that much emotion and we struggle with entering someone else’s grief. We want to fix/ignore someone else’s pain or exact revenge on wrongdoers. But grief is a different way for dealing with pain. It is about compassion and empathy. It is about being vulnerable with each other and sharing where we are hurt. It is much easier to lash out at others than to let them into our deep pain. Revenge seems like a good solution, but it always leaves us empty and even more broken. When we allow ourselves to grieve publicly, we enter into the depth of our human experiences and learn to see each other with compassion instead of judgment and fear.

In this time of pandemic and racial pain, we do well to learn from the example of Rizpah (the grieving mother in our Bible story) and her public grief. If we allow ourselves and others to enter into the depth of the pain of the losses we are experiencing, we can learn to see each other with greater compassion. We can learn to listen to the voice of God hidden in our experiences of pain.

I pray that the reflections from “A Sanctified Art” will help you delve into this often neglected story to find wisdom for us today.

Scripture for This Week: 2 Samuel 21:1-14

Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year; and David inquired of the Lord. The Lord said, “There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death.” So the king called the Gibeonites and spoke to them. (Now the Gibeonites were not of the people of Israel, but of the remnant of the Amorites; although the people of Israel had sworn to spare them, Saul had tried to wipe them out in his zeal for the people of Israel and Judah.) David said to the Gibeonites, “What shall I do for you? How shall I make expiation, that you may bless the heritage of the Lord?” The Gibeonites said to him, “It is not a matter of silver or gold between us and Saul or his house; neither is it for us to put anyone to death in Israel.” He said, “What do you say that I should do for you?” They said to the king, “The man who consumed us and planned to destroy us, so that we should have no place in all the territory of Israel— let seven of his sons be handed over to us, and we will impale them before the Lord at Gibeon on the mountain of the Lord.” The king said, “I will hand them over.”

But the king spared Mephibosheth, the son of Saul’s son Jonathan, because of the oath of the Lord that was between them, between David and Jonathan son of Saul. The king took the two sons of Rizpah daughter of Aiah, whom she bore to Saul, Armoni and Mephibosheth; and the five sons of Merab daughter of Saul, whom she bore to Adriel son of Barzillai the Meholathite; he gave them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they impaled them on the mountain before the Lord. The seven of them perished together. They were put to death in the first days of harvest, at the beginning of barley harvest.

10 Then Rizpah the daughter of Aiah took sackcloth, and spread it on a rock for herself, from the beginning of harvest until rain fell on them from the heavens; she did not allow the birds of the air to come on the bodies by day, or the wild animals by night. 11 When David was told what Rizpah daughter of Aiah, the concubine of Saul, had done, 12 David went and took the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan from the people of Jabesh-gilead, who had stolen them from the public square of Beth-shan, where the Philistines had hung them up, on the day the Philistines killed Saul on Gilboa. 13 He brought up from there the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan; and they gathered the bones of those who had been impaled. 14 They buried the bones of Saul and of his son Jonathan in the land of Benjamin in Zela, in the tomb of his father Kish; they did all that the king commanded. After that, God heeded supplications for the land.

Theme Connections:
A famine strikes the land and the world falls apart around Rizpah, one of Saul’s secondary or low-status wives. Her sons are murdered, offered as human sacrifices in an effort to end the famine. Instead of receiving a proper burial, they are lynched on a mountain and left there to rot. In response, Rizpah publicly laments their death, staying with the bodies at the top of the mountain for months, enduring the rainy season. When King David hears about Rizpah’s public display of grief, he retrieves the men’s bones and buries them properly with Saul in Saul’s family grave.

How do we grieve in the wake of unthinkable injustice and loss? Rizpah shows us an honest, unapologetic grief and persistent strength in honoring the innocent lives of those taken from her. Her public unraveling motivates the king to amend, as best he can, some of his wrongs.

What Has Unraveled and/or Is Unraveling?
• Rizpah’s life and family.
• Rizpah’s public grief unravels into activism.
• King David’s understanding of the causes and cure for the famine.

Guiding Questions: 
• The first things we learn about Rizpah are that she is a low-status wife of King Saul, meaning that her children are considered legitimate but not entitled to an inheritance, and that she has been raped by Abner, Saul’s nephew and former commander of his army (2 Sam. 3:7). How do these elements shape your understanding of Rizpah’s social location, and therefore, her ability to sway political leadership to take action?
• Examine this story through the lens of power. Who has power and who doesn’t? How does Rizpah move from a position of powerlessness to ultimately creating change?
• What are contemporary examples of public grief in the wake of appalling injustice? How do honest and public acts of grief affect others?

Quote for Inspiration:
“Rizpah bat Aiah watches the corpses of her sons stiffen, soften, swell, and sink into the stench of the decay. Apparently she is denied permission to bury her dead. Denial of proper funerary rites was a common means of cursing and punishing an enemy and their people in and beyond death in the ancient Near East. Rizpah fights with winged, clawed, and toothed scavengers night and day. She is there from the spring harvest until the fall rains, as many as six months from Nissan (March/April) to Tishrei (September/October), sleeping, eating, toileting, protecting, and bearing witness. Moved by her actions, David retrieves the unburied bones of Saul and Jonathan—whom David loved as his own soul and more than women but couldn’t be bothered to bury—from the people who took them when they had been left to rot. He gives them a proper burial, along with the sons of Rizpah bat Aiah and the sons of Merab bat Ahinoam. Then, and only then, does God break the famine.” —Wilda C. Gafney. Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017. 200-1.

From the artist // Lauren Wright Pittman
I don’t know what to say. This story leaves me without adequate ways to fully process the searing pain and utter wrecking of the life of this woman, Rizpah. She is a “low status” wife of Saul.  She is raped by a man who denies his actions. Her two sons are sentenced to death as a king fumbles to rectify wrongs that cause a famine in the land. She gathers her sackcloth and climbs the mountain of God to defend the bodies of her children and their half-brothers. She spends day and night for up to six months fighting off birds of prey and animals of the night from ripping apart the bodies of her children and what shred of hope she has left. David hears of her passionate, radical, public grief and is moved to delayed justice. He calls for the burial of Saul and Jonathan, but also sees to the proper burial of the seven sons that he carelessly offered up to appease God. Justice in this scenario looks like sheltered, buried, dry bones. Rizpah’s public unraveling causes the unraveling of David’s distorted version of justice. God doesn’t require a human sacrifice for the end of the bloodguilt. God ends the famine when David listens to the voice of this strong, fierce, unraveling woman. I pray that we learn from Rizpah. When we see injustice may we, like Rizpah, climb the mountain of God and defend those who cannot defend themselves. When we see someone unraveling in inexplicable grief, may this sight unravel us from the ways we are entangled with injustice.

Take a few moments to gaze upon the artwork. Breathe deeply in quiet meditation as you observe the visual qualities of what you see: color, line, texture, movement, shape, form. Now take a deeper look. What parts of the image are your eyes most drawn to? What parts of the image did you overlook?
Now engage your imagination. What story do you imagine for each figure?

– What has unraveled and/or is unraveling in this story?
– Think of a time when you have witnessed someone’s public display of grief. How did their actions affect you and others?
– Imagine if Rizpah grieved quietly in solitude. How might this story end differently?

Return to a memory of witnessing someone’s public display of grief, perhaps in the midst of death or tragedy. In the space below, reflect on how their grief made you feel. How did their grief impact your actions or the actions of others? How did this event impact your own approach to grief?

May I be moved by and responsive to the unraveling of others. Amen.


Weekly Bible Devotionals

Written by Pastor Roula Alkhouri


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Close to Home: Laying the Foundation