A drawing of Rizpah protecting the bodies of her sons from vultures and dogs

King David’s rise to power cost one woman everything

Remembered for defending the bodies of her sacrificed sons, Rizpah is one of the most tragic figures in the Bible.

Rizpah, King Saul's concubine, 1866. Rizpah stopping the birds and beasts devouring the bodies of her sons and five others killed by the Gibeonites as a harvest sacrifice after a famine.
Illustration by Ann Ronan Pictures, Print Collector/Getty
National Geographic explores notable biblical figures in our ongoing series People in the Bible, as part of our coverage of the history of the Bible and the search for sacred texts.

Rizpah was the daughter of Aiah and concubine to King Saul, with whom she had and two sons: Armoni and Mephibosheth (II Samuel 3:7; 21:8,10-11).

After Saul’s death, the commander-in-chief of his army, Abner, took a fancy to Rizpah and planned to marry her. If he did, he would become the guardian of Rizpah’s children who were heirs of the late king. (Discover how Ruth and Boaz fell in love.)

Ishbaal, the contested king supported by the northern tribes of Israel, saw this as a threat and lashed out at Abner. The general then promptly switched his allegiance to David, the king supported by Israeli leaders in the south, and promised to “bring all Israel over to you” (II Samuel 3:12). David welcomed him, but on one condition: that he would be reunited with his first wife, Michal. Their reunion would heal the rift between the house of David and Saul, and seal the restoration of a unified nation. Abner agreed, however, he was eventually killed by David’s commander, Joab, who thought Abner was a spy.

During David’s reign, the people of Gibeon demanded that all of Saul’s children be put to death so as to atone for a severe famine. David had no choice but to comply. Rizpah’s children, as well as five grandsons by Saul’s eldest daughter, were put to death.

The bodies of Rizpah’s two sons were left exposed on a hillside. Rizpah watched over the bodies, protecting them from scavenging birds and animals until the rain came, signalling the end of the famine. The moving story of her love makes Rizpah one of the most tragic figures in the Bible. (Read how Queen Esther's beauty and bravery saved her people.)

This entry is an excerpt from Who's Who in the Bible: Unforgettable People and Timeless Stories from Genesis to Revelation, published by National Geographic Books.

Read This Next

An ambitious new Florida trail links two U.S. national parks
How reading the night sky helped Black Americans survive
Does a woman’s fertility really plummet at age 35?

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet