2 Samuel 21

Rizpah and her Children

Commentaries by Wil Gafney

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Robert Mabon

Scene in Famine, 18th century, Watercolour and graphite with pen and black ink on paper, 79 x 64 mm, Yale Center for British Art; Paul Mellon Collection, B1977.14.22369, Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art

An Untended Corpse

Commentary by Wil Gafney

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2 Samuel 21 begins with a notice of famine. And from the hand of Robert Mabon, whose career spanned the years from 1792 to 1798, comes a stark illustration of just that. 

This pen and ink drawing is entitled Scene in Famine (one of at least two works with that title by the artist). With washed out watercolours in slate and sand and grey, Mabon depicts a supine man dying or dead, being eaten by birds of prey and what is perhaps a dog. The man’s famine-bloated belly and the aggression of his eaters communicate the horror of famine. He may be being eaten alive: his uplifted chin and bent but still upright left leg suggest there may yet be some life left in him. But not for long. A large white bird stands on his head, preparing to peck or rip at the soft tissues of his face. A second bird, grey, is captured in descent, coming to partake of the gruesome meal. The rough sketched canid has already torn into the man’s breast; there is flesh in its mouth. 

Read alongside the story of Rizpah—defending the bodies of her children from carrion eaters—the presence of a dog would be an additional horror. Dogs were despised in ancient Israel and being eaten by a dog was the ultimate desecration of the human body (see 1 Kings 14:11; 16:4; 21:19, 23–24; 22:38).

Mabon’s untended corpse illustrates Rizpah’s fears—what she sees as she moves from the body of one dead child to the remains of the other. As Rizpah turned to one body, beating back the predators, another would have been exposed, and the carrion eaters would feast. Their ages are not revealed in the text; their ages do not matter to the authors or perhaps even to Rizpah. These are her babies, whether children in arms or fully grown men like Mabon’s subject.

Candido Portinari

Woman with Children, 1940, Oil on canvas, 51 x 71 cm, Private Collection; AGB Photo Library / Alamy Stock Photo

Deserted in the Desert

Commentary by Wil Gafney

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Brazilian painter Candido Portini’s (1903–62) Woman With Children depicts an Afro-Brazilian woman in shades of brown and black. 

The woman may be read as Rizpah bat Aiah with her children sitting in a barren landscape representing her lack of protection and provision, images of death all around them; a prelude to the events of 2 Samuel 21.

The scene is punctuated by a cow skull and a scarecrow. These are alarming images. The little family is not safe. The mother looks the viewer in the eye needing help but not quite asking for it. To her right and left are larger and smaller girls facing backward—looking back, perhaps to the place from which they have come, as did Lot’s wife in Genesis 19:26

On her lap she holds an infant seemingly in full wiggle. She sits on a box, perhaps a piece of luggage and there is a smaller box near her, perhaps a lunchbox. In my reading, the father of her children has just died and been replaced by a new king. Rizpah and her children are on their own. The warm, red-earth and browns of the desert give way to a deepening night sky; there is no shelter to be seen. The girls’ polka-dotted dresses contrast with their mother’s plain one. Their mother has given them what gifts she can. One girl has a red ribbon—the only splash of colour in the painting—slipping from her unravelling hair as the colour seeps from Rizpah’s unravelling life.

Tamara Madden

Keeper of the Golden City, 2013?, Mixed media on canvas, 91.5 x 122 cm; Courtesy of the Tamara Natalie Madden Estate

The Keeper of the Dead

Commentary by Wil Gafney

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In 2013, Atlanta based, Jamaica born Tamara Madden (1975–2017) released a series of mixed media ‘Guardian’ images on canvas with lush depictions of Africana women ornamented with rich gilding. 

The woman in The Keeper of the City invites comparison with Rizpah bat Aiah in 2 Samuel 21. Her left hand draws the eye as she rubs her left shoulder, her elbow resting on one knee, seated on a rock. It is a posture that evokes how an aching Rizpah keeps vigil on the rocks as she guards the remains of her children from carrion eaters (2 Samuel 21:10). 

The body of Madden’s ‘Keeper’ slants forward but her back is straight and her head is lifted up. Her beautiful face is composed, sorrowful, exhausted, determined. Her back is girded and gilded with bars of gold. The city is at her back; she has turned away from it. Read with 2 Samuel 20:3, the city in the painting can assume the mantle of Jerusalem where the man lives who handed over Rizpah’s children to pay a blood debt they did not owe (2 Samuel 21:8–9).

Her right arm rests on the corresponding knee and her hand dangles signaling exhaustion. A black bird with a bright red chest sits on her right arm just above her wrist encircled by delicate bracelets, which—with the matching rings on her finger—can be imagined to be gifts from the king who fathered her sons. (I do not identify the men and kings in this passage; this exegesis is not about them.) The bird is most likely a red-breasted meadowlark from the artist’s native Caribbean. In my visual exegesis accompanied by 2 Samuel 21, the bird is one of those that came to feast on her children’s remains. She has not only dissuaded it, she has tamed it. It will not partake of that unjust feast.



Gafney, Wilda. 2017. Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and of the Throne (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press), pp. 198–201

Robert Mabon :

Scene in Famine, 18th century , Watercolour and graphite with pen and black ink on paper

Candido Portinari :

Woman with Children, 1940 , Oil on canvas

Tamara Madden :

Keeper of the Golden City, 2013? , Mixed media on canvas

Mother of the Dead

Comparative commentary by Wil Gafney

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Visual exegesis—particularly iconographic representations of biblical characters and other holy figures—can offer rich insights into biblical interpretive practices across times and cultures. In the present reading, three disparate works of art offered provide depth and texture to 2 Samuel 21, itself part of a longer continuing story. This suite of images works well when reading this ancient story because the motifs are enduring and because interpretation is as much the province of the reader/viewer as it is the writer/painter. 

The narrative opens with an ecological and economic crisis: famine. For three years, ‘year after year’, the famine persisted (2 Samuel 21:1). Bloated, mangled bodies like Robert Mabon’s subject in Scene in Famine would have been commonplace. 

The biblical narrator’s God blames the now dead Saul. His guilt lingers; his defamation, even beyond the grave is a key element in the pro-Davidic propaganda of the Samuel corpus. The unnamed David devises a plan without consulting his God (vv.2–6). It is his (or the narrator’s) theological understanding that atonement must be made using the verb that gives Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, its name, (the NRSV has ‘expiation’ instead; v.3). David seeks the blessing of the Gibeonites (the objects of Saul’s earlier hostility), suggesting an understanding that their blessing will somehow end the famine, a blessing he will purchase with blood, with the lives of Rizpah’s children along with the children of other mothers, all descendants of the vilified Saul.

Saul’s death occasioned a wilderness of abandonment, transition, and desperation for Rizpah as a low-status wife whose children were not entitled to an inheritance. This wilderness is evoked by Candido Portini’s Woman with Children. (Secondary or low-status wives were legal wives and not concubines; see Gafney 2017: 34, 77–78, 198).

A reading of the passage using Tamara Madden’s The Keeper of the City conjures, by contrast, the resolve of Rizpah, blossoming into an unimaginable strength. Sitting outside of the city that turned its back on her and her children, Rizpah, mother of the dead, keeper of the dead, becomes the keeper of the city. The famine ends when her watch ends, with the rightful burial of the dead in 2 Samuel 21:14.



Gafney, Wilda. 2017. Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and of the Throne (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press)

Next exhibition: 2 Samuel 23:8–39

2 Samuel 21

Revised Standard Version

21 Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year; and David sought the face of the Lord. And the Lord said, “There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibʹeonites to death.” 2So the king called the Gibʹeonites. Now the Gibʹeonites were not of the people of Israel, but of the remnant of the Amorites; although the people of Israel had sworn to spare them, Saul had sought to slay them in his zeal for the people of Israel and Judah. 3And David said to the Gibʹeonites, “What shall I do for you? And how shall I make expiation, that you may bless the heritage of the Lord?” 4The Gibʹeonites said to him, “It is not a matter of silver or gold between us and Saul or his house; neither is it for us to put any man to death in Israel.” And he said, “What do you say that I shall do for you?” 5They said to the king, “The man who consumed us and planned to destroy us, so that we should have no place in all the territory of Israel, 6let seven of his sons be given to us, so that we may hang them up before the Lord at Gibeon on the mountain of the Lord.” And the king said, “I will give them.”

7 But the king spared Mephibʹosheth, the son of Saul’s son Jonathan, because of the oath of the Lord which was between them, between David and Jonathan the son of Saul. 8The king took the two sons of Rizpah the daughter of Aiʹah, whom she bore to Saul, Armoʹni and Mephibʹosheth; and the five sons of Merab the daughter of Saul, whom she bore to Aʹdri-el the son of Barzilʹlai the Mehoʹlathite; 9and he gave them into the hands of the Gibʹeonites, and they hanged them on the mountain before the Lord, and the seven of them perished together. They were put to death in the first days of harvest, at the beginning of barley harvest.

10 Then Rizpah the daughter of Aiʹah took sackcloth, and spread it for herself on the rock, from the beginning of harvest until rain fell upon them from the heavens; and she did not allow the birds of the air to come upon them by day, or the beasts of the field by night. 11When David was told what Rizpah the daughter of Aiʹah, the concubine of Saul, had done, 12David went and took the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan from the men of Jaʹbesh-gilʹead, who had stolen them from the public square of Beth-shan, where the Philistines had hanged them, on the day the Philistines killed Saul on Gilboʹa; 13and he brought up from there the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan; and they gathered the bones of those who were hanged. 14And they buried the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan in the land of Benjamin in Zela, in the tomb of Kish his father; and they did all that the king commanded. And after that God heeded supplications for the land.

15 The Philistines had war again with Israel, and David went down together with his servants, and they fought against the Philistines; and David grew weary. 16And Ishʹbi-beʹnob, one of the descendants of the giants, whose spear weighed three hundred shekels of bronze, and who was girded with a new sword, thought to kill David. 17But Abiʹshai the son of Zeruʹiah came to his aid, and attacked the Philistine and killed him. Then David’s men adjured him, “You shall no more go out with us to battle, lest you quench the lamp of Israel.”

18 After this there was again war with the Philistines at Gob; then Sibʹbecai the Huʹshathite slew Saph, who was one of the descendants of the giants. 19And there was again war with the Philistines at Gob; and Elhaʹnan the son of Jaʹare-orʹegim, the Bethlehemite, slew Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam. 20And there was again war at Gath, where there was a man of great stature, who had six fingers on each hand, and six toes on each foot, twenty-four in number; and he also was descended from the giants. 21And when he taunted Israel, Jonathan the son of Shimʹe-i, David’s brother, slew him. 22These four were descended from the giants in Gath; and they fell by the hand of David and by the hand of his servants.