2 Samuel 21 opens as David prays to understand the cause of a three-year famine. The LORD responds with a surprising answer: the famine is the result of blood guilt upon the house of Saul because he put the Gibeonites to death (2 Samuel 21:1). David approaches the Gibeonites and inquires what restitution would satisfy them. They require seven of Saul’s sons to be handed over to them so they might “impale them before the Lord” (2 Samuel 21:6). David delivers seven of Saul’s sons into their hands, sparing the offspring of Jonathan.

At this point in the text, we expect a logical conclusion: the death of the Gibeonites has been atoned for before the Lord, therefore, health returns to the land. However, the text instead turns to Rizpah, the mother of two of the executed, and concubine of Saul. Without speaking a word, this grieving mother takes sackcloth, spreads it on a rock, and protects their bodies from “the birds of the air…or the beasts of the field by night” (2 Samuel 21:10). The actions of this grieving mother stir David’s compassion, leading him to give the executed men a proper burial, even retrieving the bones of Saul and Jonathan to be buried with their remains in the land of Benjamin. It is after all these things, that God responds to the plea for the land (2 Samuel 21:1-14).

Proper Burial in the Old Testament

The Old Testament is adamant that the dignified and ritual burial of the dead separates Israel from their pagan counterparts. In the logic of Scripture, posthumous exposure (i.e., hanging, crucifixion, impaling, etc.) is a horrific act of dishonor. When someone is exposed in this way, their body is susceptible to the destructive effects of creation, specifically birds and beasts. The order of creation is inverted in this act, as a divinely ordained co-regent of creation becomes food for the creatures he was created to exercise authority over. The biblical text consistently understands this to be a consequence of disobedience. In Deuteronomy 28:25-26 and Jeremiah 7:33-34, the bodies of the disobedient are dishonored as they become “food for the birds of the air and for the beasts of the earth and no one will frighten them away.” This is the same logic behind the claim in Deuteronomy 21 that “anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse” (Deuteronomy 21:23). Thus, abandonment of human bodies to such a fate was used to disgrace an enemy, that they might be reviled rather than mourned or lamented (Jeremiah 16:4). Such exposure refuses the ritual acknowledgment of one’s life, stripping dignity from the victim. When humanity’s divinely ordained role in creation is acknowledged, even the dead are to be treated with care; the Bible reflects a way of life in Israel that calls them to acknowledge human dignity as they outdo even the dead with honor.[1]

The narrative of David, the Gibeonites, and Rizpah understands burial with one’s ancestors as an act of great honor. God brings a three-year-long famine to an end only once the executed sons are given the dignity of being buried with the remains of Saul and Jonathan. This is the result for which Rizpah silently protested. Risking her reputation, Rizpah protests through her grief, not simply mourning the loss of her sons, but also the loss of their honor. She uses her own body to protect her sons from “birds of the air" and “beasts of the field,” crying out for their shame of exposure to be undone with the honor of burial.

Jesus & Burial

It’s difficult to read the story of Rizpah without thinking of the burial of Jesus. The impaled sons of Saul were executed as enemies, disgraced as such, and were not to be given the honor of burial. So too, in the Greco-Roman world, someone executed as a criminal would not have a resting place for their remains but would have been abandoned to the elements.[2] The Gospel of Luke records a man named Joseph of Arimathea asking Pilate to be given the body of Jesus so that he might bury it. In a certain sense, Rizpah and Joseph of Arimathea serve similar functions, advocating for their disgraced loved ones to be given dignity in their death. After Joseph received the body, “he took it down and wrapped it in a linen shroud and laid him in a tomb cut in stone, where no one had ever been yet laid” (Luke 23:53). The women who came with Him from Galilee and prepared His body, honoring Him by administering a ritual and proper burial.[3] In all four of the Gospels, it is said Jesus was “wrapped in a linen shroud” and then placed in Joseph’s tomb, according to Jewish custom (Matthew 27:59-60; Mark 15:46; Luke 23:53; John 19:40).

The story of Rizpah illuminates the narrative of the crucifixion as an act of shame-filled horror, while also opening our eyes to God’s work in even the smallest acts of faithfulness. Just as Rizpah for her sons, the men and women who followed Jesus, according to the Gospels, resolved to give their crucified Messiah the honor of burial. Yet unlike Rizpah’s sons, Jesus hung on a tree and became cursed for our sakes, so that we might be freed from the curse of the law and redeemed in His body (Galatians 3:13). Further, while the end of Rizpah’s hope was honor in burial, the beloved of Jesus was given a greater hope. Jesus disregarded the shame of the cross, enduring its violence, precisely because of the “joy that was set before Him,” that in His resurrection He might be the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith” who sits at the right hand of the Father in immeasurable honor brought forth from the unimaginable shame of the cross (Hebrews 12:2).

[1] Referencing Deuteronomy 21:23’s explanation of the proper handling of a criminal’s body.

[2] Craig Evans, “Jewish Burial Traditions and the Resurrection of Jesus,” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 3, no. 2 (2005), 187.

[3] In Hee C. Berg, “The Gospel Traditions Inferring to Jesus’ Proper Burial through the Depictions of Female Funerary Kinship Roles,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 47 no. 4 (2017), 218 – 220.