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“Until the rain poured down from the heavens on the bodies”: Rizpah and the power of silent protest

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Today’s blog post is written by Siam Hatzaw. Siam is an undergraduate student of English Literature and Theology at the University of Glasgow. She is an editor for Persephone’s Daughters, a literature magazine empowering female survivors of abuse, and is also a features editor of The Glasgow Guardian. You can find Siam on Twitter @siamhatzaw.

“Until the rain poured down from the heavens on the bodies”:  Rizpah and the power of silent protest

The story of Rizpah and her silent vigil (2 Samuel 21:1-14) is one of the most heart-wrenching narratives of grief, devotion, and sacrifice within the Bible. But more than this, its implications are far-reaching as her story resonates with the voices of oppressed women throughout history. If actions speak louder than words, then Rizpah’s vigil epitomises the power of silent protest in the face of injustice.

The Madwoman in the Attic

I frame my reading of Rizpah through the “madwoman in the attic” trope which refers to certain female literary characters. The trope is coined by Gilbert and Gubar in their seminal work of feminist literary criticism by the same name, where they discuss the tendency within literature to characterise women as either angelic or monstrous, an embodiment of purity or an unkempt madwoman. Gilbert and Gubar argue that both characterisations should be killed off as neither can accurately represent women; they emphasise the need for women to be written as multifaceted and developed characters in their own right.

The trope’s name is drawn from the character of Bertha Mason in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, a woman locked away by her husband for an unnamed insanity. The perception of Bertha’s character exemplifies the link between Rizpah and the madwoman trope: madness is continually feminised and thus weaponised against victims of trauma to deride the justness of their cause. Juliana Little explains that:

“Madness has been perceived for centuries metaphorically and symbolically as a feminine illness and continues to be gendered into the twenty-first century. Throughout history, images of mental illness in women send the message that women are weak, dangerous, and require containment”.

This association between women and madness is also represented through the feminisation of “hysteria” – a common theme in Victorian novels and the basis of a medical diagnosis (predominantly linked to women) that the American Psychiatric Association did not drop until 1952.

In short, women and madness have always gone hand in hand. Female literary characters are all too often painted as irrational, overemotional, or excessive – and it is here that we find Rizpah.

Situating Rizpah

Rizpah begins her story already a victim. She is introduced as Saul’s concubine and after his death, his commander in chief Abner is accused of “going into” her (2 Samuel 3:6-21). This leads to conflict between Abner and Ish-Bosheth, Saul’s successor, so Abner defects to David who becomes King. According to Isabel Hamley, Abner’s assertion of power through sexual domination to achieve his own means is enough to qualify the incident as rape. Rizpah’s body is used to assert a claim to the throne, making her “nothing but a pawn in powerful male hands”. The men’s conflict isconcerned with the violation of Saul’s property and pays no attention to Rizpah’s trauma. This comes as no surprise, considering the concubine’s status as “the locus of battles between men”.

David’s Atonement

Fast forward to 2 Samuel 21, we find Israel in the midst of a three-year famine. God tells David the famine is “on account of Saul’s blood-stained house” (2 Samuel 21:1) as he had broken an oath by trying to annihilate the Gibeonites in spite of Israel’s sworn promise to spare them.

David asks the Gibeonites what he can do for atonement, at which they call for the execution of seven of Saul’s descendants: five sons of Merab and two sons of Rizpah. Seven is considered the biblical number of completion, used repeatedly to reference redemption. Therefore, these men can be seen as Israel’s sacrifice of redemption for Saul’s sin.

Transforming Trauma into Action

The seven sons are executed and left to hang upon the hillside at the beginning of harvest, as Rizpah watches with unspeakable grief. Here we can draw a parallel with another grieving mother who stands at the foot of the cross, watching her own son become a sacrifice of redemption. What unimaginable strength must it take for these mothers to bear witness to their sons’ deaths?

According to Deuteronomic Code, corpses must be buried on the same day or they are cursed by God. Hebraic tradition views burial as a sacred rite. However, David leaves these men to rot for all to see – a grave injustice.

And so, Rizpah defies the king. Her suffering sparks something within her, driving her to turn her trauma into action.

Alone Upon the Hillside

Rizpah guards the corpses “from the beginning of the harvest until the rain poured down from the heavens on the bodies” (2 Samuel 21:10). This is a period of approximately six months, April to October, through which she endures immense physical and psychological torture. The sight and smell alone would be enough to destroy anyone – and yet, she perseveres.

Let’s come back to the madwoman trope. Picture Rizpah alone at the foot of the bodies, fighting off the birds by day and wild animals by night, sleeping with the rotting corpses… in all this time, she finds no aid, no company, or consolation. She is seen as a woman driven insane by grief.

But Rizpah doesn’t care. Her vigil is more than mourning; it’s a protest, and she knows she is right in the eyes of God.

Rizpah’s Significance for Israel

We should take a moment to consider why the bodies are left to hang. Samantha Joo argues that if David was only looking to appease God for atonement, he would have demanded a burial. Instead, he leaves them as a warning for those who would oppose him. Joo suggests that had it not been for Rizpah’s presence, onlookers would have slinked away in fear. Instead, because of this madwoman on the hillside, they start to ask questions. Their murmurs spread and eventually reach King David.

Rizpah’s protest was on the verge of dismantling the legitimacy of his kingship, as he had broken his oath to spare Saul’s descendants and defied Hebraic funeral ethics. And so, to silence the murmurs, David gathers the bones of Saul and Jonathan, together with the seven men, and gives them their just burial. After this, God “answered prayer in behalf of the land” (2 Samuel 21:14), and rain falls on Israel once more.

Ekaterina Kozlova proposes that by ensuring the men’s burial in the ancestral tomb, Rizpah’s vigil salvages the dynasty’s dignity. Moreover, it is intertwined with the fate of a nation. Her actions neutralised the penal plagues that wreaked havoc in Israel. Kozlova further argues that these ritual contexts allow women to enter the previously inaccessible domain of male power and turn these solemn occasions into public forums for pressing issues.

Rizpah rouses David into action as, according to the rabbis, he considers: “If she, who is but a woman, has acted with so much loving kindness, must not I, who am a king, do infinitely more?”. Thus, she uses the power available to her in this domain to shame the king into utilising his own power and right his wrongs.

What’s in a Name?

A deeper look into the meaning of Rizpah’s name illuminates the story’s political significance in light of her call to repentance. The name means “hot coals” which symbolises the cleansing of sin.  In Isaiah 6, a seraphim places a hot coal from the altar upon Isaiah’s lips to cauterise the wound of sin. Rizpah, the “hot coal”, served as a symbol to Israel as a cry to repent – when her protest is heard, the rain falls from the heavens and completes their redemption.

Athalya Brenner presents “hot coals” as a symbol of quiet but enduring passion, a slow-burning anger, and purification.Likewise, Kozlova notes that glowing coals or fire are symbolically connected to human life, further proposing that by situating Rizpah’s name (a double light-based cipher) at the intersection of two dynasties, it becomes “an indispensable gloss” on the narrator’s intentional social commentary: to criticise the king’s injustice.

Contemporary Examples

Rizpah’s story resonates with contemporary examples of women who use their trauma to fight for change. Joyce Hollyday relates her to Israel’s Women in Black, and to other groups of mothers of grief who become mothers of hope.

The Women in Black

The Women in Black are an anti-war movement demonstrating opposition to Palestine’s occupation by holding weekly vigils in mourning for the victims of the conflict. Formed in 1988 following the outbreak of the First Intifada, the group now comprises an estimated 10,000 activists around the world. The movement inspired global vigils in solidarity, which became protests for local issues in each country and evolved into an “international network of women for peace”.

Gila Svirsky has written about this movement’s powerful symbolism of mourning, dignity, and conscience; their commitment to nonviolence was a source of strength. She describes a particular vigil before which they had been warned by the Commissioner of Police about an overwhelming threat of violence – and yet more women than ever showed up to protest.

“All of us, with our hearts in our throats, more silent than our silent vigil ever really was, standing there in determination not to be shoved aside by bullies.  People threw things from their cars, but nothing exploded.  And the women continued to stand with dignity”.

It is notable that the majority of protesters were victims of trauma themselves, who channelled their pain into transformative action. As Svirsky states: “Those who were sensitive to the issue of violence against women applied that lesson to all forms of violence and oppression”.

Svirsky uses the Arabic word sumud, steadfastness, to describe the Palestinians clinging to their views despite adversity, not being shaken from the ultimate goal. Sumud reflects the power of nonviolent resistance. However, the media’s reports of the vigils are continually littered with ridicule and criticism. Svirsky writes: “What’s that you say about prophets in their own land?  One had to be really committed – or nuts – to keep plugging.  But we did”.

“Nuts”. These were madwomen in the eyes of the onlookers, like Rizpah, a picture of insanity at the foot of the bodies. The trope portrays women who are vilified, using “madness” to invalidate their cause, women who are called hysterical rather than brave, despised rather than sympathised. And yet, they persevere, standing firm against their oppressors. Both the Women in Black and Rizpah embody sumud in their powerful resilience.

“Comfort Women”

Another contemporary comparison is proposed by Samantha Joo, who relates Rizpah to bronze statues situated around the world which represent the “comfort women”. “Comfort woman” is a translation of the Japanese ianfu, a euphemism for “prostitute”. It refers to the many thousands of women and girls forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. Joo explores the insidious efforts of governments who seek to suppress stories of and by these women whose bodies bear witness to rape and oppression.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan pressured President Moon Jae-in of Korea to honour the December 2015 agreement in which the Korean government agreed to remove the bronze statue of a comfort woman standing outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, in exchange for an apology and monetary compensation. Prime Minister Abe “and other like-minded constituents” also tried to encourage the removal of bronze statues in Hong Kong, Australia, and the US, as well as whitewashing Japanese textbooks and attempting to change textbooks in Korea and the US. Joo views this as an attempt to “monopolize all of history with their master narrative”, an “all-out international campaign to wipe out the counter-narratives of the comfort women”.

Joo discusses the similarities between this endeavour to erase the scandal of the “comfort women” and King David’s attempts to cover up his collusion with the Gibeonites. The historian’s master narrative implies that David’s hands were tied: he had to sacrifice the men to restore fertility to Israel. Yet underlying this narrative was an attempt to silence David’s opposition. It is a message of terror, which Rizpah dares to confront.

Joo argues that, similarly, the Korean people must resist until Japan’s Prime Minister publicly acknowledges the systematic sexual enslavement of the “comfort women”. Just as Rizpah is the silent presence representing the senseless death of innocent men slaughtered for King David’s ambition, the statue represents the senseless trauma these women suffered through. Both the statue and Rizpah thus become counter-monuments embodying stories which interrogate and destabilize unjust leaders.

Joo powerfully states that:

“If any of us allow a government to deny the injustice of the past or the present by manipulating and perpetuating its master narrative, then we are complicit. We are like the men of Gibeah, who passively watch a king kill seven innocent people. Rather we, like Rizpah, should dare and persist in fighting the master narrative that tries to silence the cries of women who with their bodies incarnate the counternarratives.”

The Power of Silent Protest

Rizpah’s story echoes throughout the history of oppressed women. She is in a dangerously vulnerable position as a concubine, a victim of rape, and a grieving mother. Yet, Hamley argues that it is her very lack of power – exemplified in her repeated victimisation and taking up the only option open to her – that ultimately enables her to achieve her goal.

In the end, Rizpah, the madwoman alone upon the hillside, is vindicated. Hamley states: “The woman, invisible and used in 2 Samuel 3, abused further through the death of her sons, is now seen and recognised… not simply by David but by the God who only brings the famine to an end once justice is done for her loved ones”.

Rizpah’s story portrays the incomprehensible strength of women in their suffering, an ability to turn trauma into transformative action and enact real change. Although she is silent, her actions ring loud and clear as a daring challenge to the king to do what is right.

Funlola Olojede describes silent but open resistance as a powerful tool, particularly in cases where overt forms of protest would be dangerous or ineffective: “Her silence continued to cry out louder than words… her resilience in the face of unspeakable grief as she watched the bodies of her two sons rot away before her eyes speaks to women today”.

Across the world, women who bear unspeakable suffering are not allowing themselves to be broken. They are letting their silence cry out until justice is found, a mirror to Rizpah and her vigil which touched the heart of God.

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