2 Samuel 21:1-14 – Grisly Vengeance


2 Samuel 21:1-14


After discerning Saul’s bloodguilt, David allows the Gibeonites to murder seven of Saul’s grandchildren. Saul’s secondary wife, Rizpah, mother of two of the slain children, stands guard over their exposed bodies for months, until David finally buries the last descendants of Saul. 


We do not know exactly what Saul did to the Gibeonites, other than kill some of them while they were protected by treaty status (Joshua 9-10). God told David that the three-year famine was because of Saul’s murderous violation of the treaty. David seeks to make reparations to the Gibeonites. But crucially, David asks the Gibeonites, rather than God, what those reparations should be. The Gibeonites ask for seven members of Saul’s house whom they can murder and ritually expose. David, perhaps seeing how the death of members of Saul’s house could get rid of rival claimants for the throne, agrees. 

David’s acquiescing to the Gibeonites’ demands seems to have been especially cruel, as he surrendered the children of either his own wife, Michal (following the Hebrew text), or of Merab, Saul’s older daughter to whom David had almost been married (following the Septuagint Greek text and a couple early Hebrew manuscripts). Jewish tradition resolves the uncertainty by saying that the children were biologically Merab’s, but that Michal raised them in the palace, with David’s own children. This interpretation only heightens the cruelty that David allows. 

If David is the villain in this story (and he is) Rizpah is the heroine. For about six months, she stands guard over the bodies of her sons, and over the bodies of her relatives, refusing to let animals desecrate their corpses. 

Finally, David hears what Rizpah has done for the bodies of her murdered children. David gathers the bones of Saul and Jonathan (who had also been ritually exposed after their deaths), and buries them all in the grave of Kish, their ancestor. David’s one kindness in this horrific account is that he keeps his pledge to Jonathan, and does not choose Jonathan’s descendants for this grisly revenge.