Karen Blixen under her
pen name Isak Dinesen said, “All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story.”
Human suffering can be a matter of pure misery, but a story begins to explore the meaning of difficult or awful event
s for our lives. We may not be able to articulate that meaning, but how we tell the story expresses some of the feelings involved. How we set forth the narration gives the arc of events and structure to something that may have been overwhelming and seemingly formless.
In this section, we briefly look at the way we tell and use terrible stories. Then we begin the plunge into one particular terrible story found within the sacred texts of Judaism and Christianity. That such a story could be found in a sacred text indicates that there is some larger meaning to this dreadful narrative. In our own journeys we have learned that redemptive meaning can only be found by a deep dive into the horror, into the heart of darkness. There in the depths, a light shines.
Dealing with Terrible Stories
Storytelling is such an important part of culture and has immense social value. Through stories, we pass on family and social history. Through stories, we share values, information, and preserve the nuances of humanity in all its diversity. Stories can evoke so many deep emotions in us. We love stories, especially with happy endings. We have a friend who only watches movies and listens to stories with guaranteed happy endings.
Yet we are bombarded daily in social media, news, Facebook posts, and documentaries with terrible stories. These are stories that describe suffering and shame, stories that make us want to turn the page, change the channel, or turn the radio off. They may be stories that make us click “angry” or “sad” icons.
History is full of terrible stories, many of them around experiences of war. Terrible stories such as the Holocaust in World War II are so overwhelming that many people even seek to deny what happened. Sometimes we try to sanitize stories, such as making slavery in the United States sound benign so that US citizens, especially white citizens, don’t have to acknowledge the terrible chapter of our national story that still haunts our political and social life today.
We have our own intimate stories, those “skeletons in the closet” and “family secrets” that may or may not be shared or believed among family members. Families will go to great lengths to keep these stories hidden because they are often full of shame and humiliation. They go against our self-image as good people.
Sacred texts are no exception, and it is here that we find the story of Rizpah. It is a story of genocide, revenge, execution, mourning, and madness. It is an ancient story, yet full of concerns that jump out in contemporary news. Is there nothing new under the sun?
What do we do with these stories? We can ignore them and miss the opportunity that such stories provide. We can re-enact terrible stories within our own lives or project them into the lives of others, continuing the suffering and heartache that comes with unresolved trauma. The body remembers trauma, and even if we don’t act consciously trauma can leak into the next generation in very unhealthy patterns. Family and national history thus repeats, recycles, and may even intensify, creating new trauma and ongoing terrible stories.
There is another way to deal with terrible stories, the way of transformation. Someone “flips the script.” Someone acts out of turn and breaks the established rules. Someone takes a path of courage and creativity, and a new story emerges. Happy endings are one thing, but when good comes out of evil and lives are transformed, bringing hope and reconciliation—now that is a truly good story! Let’s take a closer look at a terrible story in a sacred text and see the transformation from terror to trust. It is a story for the ages.
A Terrible Story in the Bible
The Bible has many wonderful and inspiring stories, whether parables told by Jesus or stories of various characters in biblical history. But there are also some hideous stories of violence, abuse, and degradation in the Bible. Phyllis Trible called such stories, “texts of terror” in her book of that title that examined in depth four horrible stories of violence against women.
The stories of David have been told to children for centuries: Stories of the shepherd boy protecting his sheep by killing lions and bears, the story of the young boy slaying Goliath with his shepherd’s sling, of David becoming the mighty king and writing beautiful psalms. But David’s story has a more sordid side that we don’t tell children: His “affair” (some even take it as rape) with Bathsheba and then the plot to kill her husband, the violence and civil war with his children, and dancing nearly naked when he brought the ark to Jerusalem. These stories have moral messages for us, but sometimes those messages are complex and even unclear as the stories raise moral ambiguities. The story of Rizpah is even worse.
At first blush, it is easy to read this story as some sort of violent payback to the family of Saul for their own violence. David is just settling the score in response to God’s demand for justice. But in the end, there is a tender moment to comfort the grieving mother of those killed. Such is the perspective that most of the Bible commentaries on 1 and 2 Samuel take about the story.
But let’s not linger too long with this strange story of David and Rizpah, because the more we think about it the more disturbing it becomes. Those killed were not complicit in the genocide of Saul, so is God demanding human sacrifice? Are children to be killed for the sins of their father? The wild fury of Rizpah’s grief suggests that all is not well. Can a killer say “there, there” to the mourning survivors, and everything will return to normal?
The more we dig into the story the more questions are raised, troubling questions. So we quickly turn the page and get on to the “good stuff.” Where is the inspiring story? Remember, David is a good guy, so let’s get to the passages that show him in a good light or at least a redeeming light.
This text, however, rewards those who are willing to sit with it and dig deeper into it, as uncomfortable as that will be. The rapid glance at the story wearing pro-David glasses just brings confusion that causes readers to look away. However, if readers take off those pro-David glasses and peer deeply into the text, if they don’t just read it but feel it, and even live it, then they will find a very different story emerging. They can discover a story of good news arriving from an unlikely place. Readers can enter a story of powerful transformation out of horror, a story of reconciliation and hope. Yet this transformative story is one that can’t be seen unless the reader is willing to follow the plot into the depths of rage and despair.
To summarize the story in 2 Sam 21:1–14, there is a famine in Israel. David prays, and God speaks to him that Israel is guilty of having shed innocent blood, specifically that Saul had massacred Gibeonites, people of an ethnic minority group within Israel. David met with surviving Gibeonites to ask how to make things right. The Gibeonites refuse financial compensation and instead ask that seven of Saul’s male descendants be executed. David concurs, sparing Jonathan’s son. The seven young men, perhaps even boys, were killed publicly as a religious ritual, “before the Lord.”
Rizpah, mother of two of the slain young men, began a vigil by the bodies, driving away the scavenging birds and dogs. David hears about Rizpah’s action. He first goes to the village of Jabesh-giliad to gather the bones of Saul and the sons who had been killed in the earlier battle at Mt. Gilboa. The bodies of Saul and his slain warrior sons had been hung up on a Philistine city wall following the Philistine victory. The men of Jabesh-giliad stealthily took down the bodies and held them for safekeeping in their village. With those bones David comes to the execution ground, gathers the bones of those killed, and likely with Rizpah and others in the family of Saul, buried all the bones in the ancestral lands. The story then concludes with God answering the prayers for the land, presumably ending the famine.
What an awful story! You are invited to risk entering into it with the full feeling of the characters and plunging into its depths to see where the redemptive story might emerge. Here is the ...