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.

Illustration by Ann Ronan Pictures, Print Collector/Getty
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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

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 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.

Pull Quote
Flesh of my flesh was gone, but bone of my bone was left— // I stole them all from the lawyers—and you, will you call it a theft?— // My baby, the bones that had suck’d me, the bones that had laugh’d and had cried— // Theirs? O no! they are mine—not theirs—they had mov’d in my side.
Rizpah, Lord Alfred Tennyson in 1878

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.)

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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.