Chapter 21 provides us with a somewhat odd story regarding an ongoing famine during the reign of David. It gives seemingly several odd theological and ethical dilemmas. However, we do see an emphasis on the justice of God for those who may be oppressed as well as some possible causation for natural disaster.
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 Gibeonites to death.” 2 So the king called the Gibeonites and spoke to them. Now the Gibeonites 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 strike them down in his zeal for the people of Israel and Judah. 3 And David said to the Gibeonites, “What shall I do for you? And how shall I make atonement, that you may bless the heritage of the Lord?”
Although we are not given an exact chronological reference for this story, we can assume it occurs sometime after chapter 9 where Mephibosheth is placed under the protection of David’s rule and somewhere before Absalom’s rebellion in chapter 16.
In Israel’s climate, lack of rainfall would not immediately set up an alarm, however, 3 consecutive years of drought caused David to wonder if the kingdom was experiencing some sort of divine judgment.
We cannot assume all natural disasters to be the result of divine judgment for sin, yet from this passage we can safely conclude that this may very well be the case in some instances. David inquirers of God and this proves to be the case in his particular circumstance.
One of the most puzzling aspects of this narrative is the fact that David’s kingdom, now suffers for the sins of his predecessor, Saul. Saul’s particular sin was the breaking of a peace treaty between Israel and Gibeon (Joshua 9:15-18). Although we might presume this to be unjust on God’s part, we can never underestimate the ripples of our own sin. Adam and Eve’s initial rebellion resulted in all of man to be born in sin and act according to their sinful nature.
David then approaches the Gibeonites and seeks to make things right. His main concern is not for the blessing of his own nation but that “you (Gibeonites) may bless the heritage of the Lord”. Saul’s actions apparently caused the Gibeonites to view the Israelites in hypocritical fashion which caused a loss of respect for God’s character.
APP: Hypocritical action results in a devalued understanding of God himself. It not only discredits the hypocrite, but also the cause he represents.
4 The Gibeonites 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?” 5 They 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, 6 let seven of his sons be given to us, so that we may hang them before the Lord at Gibeah of Saul, the chosen of the Lord.” And the king said, “I will give them.”
The people of Gideon did not seek financial restitution or justice outside of their walls. Apparently their judicial system had been very limited under the Israelites. Ironically, they call for retribution in line with the teachings of the torah (Deut 19:21).
Their request for 7 deaths is no doubt symbolic. Saul most likely killed much more than 7 Gibeonites. Just as Saul had killed many residents in their hometowns of Gibeon, they request justice to occur in Saul’s hometown.
Although this judicial system seems brutal, mercy is shown through the requests of the Gibeonites. The torah precise wording called for equal numbers of deaths, the Gibionites only call for 7.
10 Then Rizpah the daughter of Aiah 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. 11 When David was told what Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, the concubine of Saul, had done, 12 David went and took the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan from the men of Jabesh-gilead, 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 Gilboa. 13 And 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. 14 And 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 responded to the plea for the land.
Although her sons were taken from her in retribution, Rizpah demonstrates an unwavering commitment to her family to ensure they receive a proper burial. She sets up a make-shift camp in order to prevent animals from consuming the corpses and to make sure remains are not stolen.
When David learns of her act, he moves to ensure an appropriate memorial is constructed for the family of Israel’s first monarch. Davids loyalty and love for his father-in-law and his best friend continued even after their death.