I wouldn’t be surprised if you haven’t heard about Rizpah. It took me many years of reading the Bible before I discovered her. And when attempting to gain more insight about her, I became disheartened by how little information is available. The fact that Rizpah’s story is generally unknown can be discouraging, but it isn’t surprising. It’s common for the dominant culture to overlook bodies on the margins.

In order for us to recognize abuelita theologians in Scripture, we must continue to re-center those who have been ignored or pushed aside, because God often resides most powerfully among the most powerless.

Despite being a minor character, Rizpah played a major role.

Rizpah appears twice in the book of 2 Samuel. In her first appearance in 3:6–11, we learn about the circumstance she finds herself in, a situation in which she is being used as a pawn in the great game of kings. Her body is a site of contention for the monarchy after Saul’s death. When we first learn about her, she is a victim caught in a web of male domination, power, and sex. This is not unique to Rizpah or to the women of this time. Many marginalized bodies are still disregarded, abused, and misused today. Sexual violence in the US disproportionately impacts women of color, immigrant women, LGBTQIA+ women, and disabled women.

Rizpah’s story of abuse and misuse is one story among many.

She was King Saul’s concubine and the mother of two of his sons. A concubine was akin to a mistress and merited a status lower than that of other women. Concubines were included among the spoils of war, often awarded like trophies to victors.

Rizpah’s first cameo is short. We don’t learn much about her other than the fact that one of Saul’s sons, Ishbosheth, is accusing Saul’s army general, Abner, of sleeping with her. During this time, sleeping with a king’s concubine was akin to attempting to usurp his throne, making Rizpah a casualty of the bloody business of king making.

Womanist scholar Wilda Gafney points out two important details about the accusation: (1) the unprotected woman would have had no choice of consent, and (2) when accused of raping Rizpah, Abner doesn’t deny it. Instead, his response to the accusation (2 Sam. 3:8–10) is to rage, list his past support for Saul’s house, and promise to help God keep a divine oath to elevate David.

Because the author isn’t filling us in on Rizpah’s thoughts or feelings concerning this encounter, I wonder, How did she feel? Did anyone defend her? Did God condone such an act from those in power, those who were put in place to lead God’s people? Asking these sorts of questions not only tunes our ears to listen more intently but sharpens our gaze and softens our hearts toward the vulnerable.

Rizpah’s story, and the situation thereof, is complicated. She is presented as a woman without agency. But as we keep reading, her story takes an unexpected turn, reappearing in 2 Samuel 21:1–14.

By the time we reach chapter 21, years have passed, and it’s now late during David’s reign as king. The nation of Israel is in a three-year drought and famine. David—curious about the circumstances—decides to inquire of God why the Israelites are suffering without food or water. To David’s surprise, God informs him that his predecessor, King Saul, was at fault because he broke a treaty made with the Gibeonites during his reign. This treaty had been important, as it ensured that the Gibeonites would be protected and secure in their land.

Instead of keeping his end of the deal, however, Saul attempted to exterminate the Gibeonites from Israel. What made this situation even more complicated was that in ancient Israel, when innocent blood was shed, it always needed to be avenged.

After learning about this important piece of history, David decides to go to the offended Gibeonites and ask what they would require to vindicate the unjust murder of their people so that God would end the famine. The Gibeonites decide that they want seven sons from the house of Saul. David, choosing to spare his beloved Jonathan’s son, hands over Rizpah’s two sons, Mephibosheth and Armoni, along with the five sons of Saul’s older daughter, Merab.

The Gibeonites take the young men and essentially lynch them, leaving the bodies of Saul’s sons and grandsons to rot, exposed and humiliated in the presence of God at a local shrine. This is a particularly vile and insulting punishment, as it also violates Israelite burial practices. Not only was decent burial greatly important in ancient Israel, but the law maintained that burial should always take place before sunset.

I want to circle back to Rizpah as my theological imagination begins churning, imagining what an atrocious circumstance this was for her. Not only were her sons murdered; they were left degraded and exposed to rot in the heat of the sun and to be devoured by wild animals.

I can’t fathom the agony and desperation Rizpah felt.

On top of losing her children, she lost her financial security, as women relied on the men in their family to provide for them. Rizpah faced complete and utter destitution. Because she was also intimately aligned with the house of Saul—who was considered a rival of David—some argue that she was probably socially ostracized and treated as a political outcast.

But in the midst of this sorrow, Rizpah does something radical and remarkable.

She takes action by asserting herself, choosing to act not only in bravery but also in justice. Scripture tells us that Rizpah took appropriate funeral clothing, spread it out by a rock, and stayed at the scene of the execution “from the beginning of the harvest until the rains poured down on the bodies from the sky”—about six months—in an act of protest. Scripture says, “She wouldn’t let any birds of prey land on the bodies during the day or let wild animals come at nighttime” (2 Sam. 21:10).

Rizpah puts her life, her misused and abused marginalized body, on the line to seek justice for her own children’s violated bodies. She wanted justice, and she dared to believe that God wanted justice too.

Rizpah is considered an activist, one who not only took action to seek justice for the bodies but boldly shamed the king for not properly burying Saul and his sons.

But the story doesn’t end there. King David heard about Rizpah’s vigil, and moved by her actions, he decided to order that the bodies of the young men, along with the bodies of both King Saul and Jonathan, be given a proper and decent burial.

Lynching the men did not heal the land or save the people; doing right by a wronged woman did.

It was only after this that the famine ended.

Lynching the men did not heal the land or save the people; doing right by a wronged woman did.

Oftentimes the most overlooked and untold stories are those that teach us the greatest lessons and offer the truest examples of faith rooted in survival, strength, and resistance. More than that, they’re stories in which the seemingly powerless will stand up to power in an attempt to right wrongs.

Rizpah understood and embodied those abuelita values and the abuelita faith that God wants us all to live out: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic. 6:8 NRSV).

Rizpah not only impacted the political powers that be but brought the waters to rain down from heaven, saving thousands of hungry and thirsty lives.

Content taken from Abuelita Faith by Kat Armas, ©2021. Used by permission of Baker Publishing www.bakerpublishinggroup.com.