Rizpah protecting the bodies of her sons, by George Becker, left; William Cullen Bryant, right

With Gaza ablaze, the political woes of contemporary Palestinians continue to echo past tragedies on the same blood-drenched ground. Consider the vengeance of the Gibeonites, both a purge and a scourge in the early days of Israel’s King David. Setting aside who is who for the moment, the biblical account recorded in the book of II Samuel describes a weak David with a struggling economy (called a famine in those days). The Gibeonites, who sought vengeance for their slaughter by the former King Saul, demanded seven of his sons, and David agreed. The princes were soon hanged in eye-for-an-eye justice. Yet the queen mother of two of the sons spent five months protecting the bodies from being devoured by beasts not shaped like humans. Her name was Rizpah and she can be seen as a maternal heroine or a distraught widow.

Like so many of these seemingly sacred stories, almost any moral can be teased out of the narrative. Should the lesson be “Do not make deals with the enemy, even when you are weak”? I can see both supporters of Hamas and Israeli hardliners applauding the message. Or might it be possible to read the story in a more sane hindsight as a referendum on the futility of vengeance? Were the matter simply an eye for an eye, it could theoretically stop after the first act of vengeance, but this region has seen an infinity of eye-gouging that no blessed peacemakers have yet been able to stop. My own preference is for Rizpah fighting off the vultures of violence, less an act of protecting only one’s own than defiance of the perpetual killing that makes martyrdom a virtue on both sides.

Once again, I prefer to tune out the talking heads and let a poet of the past speak:

by William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878)

And he delivered them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they
hanged them in the hill before the Lord; and they fell all seven
together, and were put to death in the days of the harvest, in the
first days, in the beginning of barley-harvest.

And Rizpah, the daughter of Aiah, took sackcloth, and spread it for
her upon the rock, from the beginning of harvest until the water
dropped upon them out of heaven, and suffered neither the birds of the
air to rest upon them by day, nor the beasts of the field by night.
II Samuel 21:10.

Hear what the desolate Rizpah said,
As on Gibeah’s rocks she watched the dead.
The sons of Michal before her lay,
And her own fair children, dearer than they:
By a death of shame they all had died,
And were stretched on the bare rock, side by side.
And Rizpah, once the loveliest of all
That bloomed and smiled in the court of Saul,
All wasted with watching and famine now,
And scorched by the sun her haggard brow,
Sat mournfully guarding their corpses there,
And murmured a strange and solemn air;
The low, heart-broken, and wailing strain
Of a mother that mourns her children slain:

“I have made the crags my home, and spread
On their desert backs my sackcloth bed;
I have eaten the bitter herb of the rocks,
And drunk the midnight dew in my locks;
I have wept till I could not weep, and the pain
Of my burning eyeballs went to my brain.
Seven blackened corpses before me lie,
In the blaze of the sun and the winds of the sky.
I have watched them through the burning day,
And driven the vulture and raven away;
And the cormorant wheeled in circles round,
Yet feared to alight on the guarded ground.
And when the shadows of twilight came,
I have seen the hyena’s eyes of flame,
And heard at my side his stealthy tread,
But aye at my shout the savage fled:
And I threw the lighted brand to fright
The jackal and wolf that yelled in the night.

“Ye were foully murdered, my hapless sons,
By the hands of wicked and cruel ones;
Ye fell, in your fresh and blooming prime,
All innocent, for your father’s crime.
He sinned—but he paid the price of his guilt
When his blood by a nameless hand was spilt;
When he strove with the heathen host in vain,
And fell with the flower of his people slain,
And the sceptre his children’s hands should sway
From his injured lineage passed away.

“But I hoped that the cottage roof would be
A safe retreat for my sons and me;
And that while they ripened to manhood fast,
They should wean my thoughts from the woes of the past.
And my bosom swelled with a mother’s pride,
As they stood in their beauty and strength by my side,
Tall like their sire, with the princely grace
Of his stately form, and the bloom of his face.

“Oh, what an hour for a mother’s heart,
When the pitiless ruffians tore us apart!
When I clasped their knees and wept and prayed,
And struggled and shrieked to Heaven for aid,
And clung to my sons with desperate strength,
Till the murderers loosed my hold at length,
And bore me breathless and faint aside,
In their iron arms, while my children died.
They died—and the mother that gave them birth
Is forbid to cover their bones with earth.

“The barley-harvest was nodding white,
When my children died on the rocky height,
And the reapers were singing on hill and plain,
When I came to my task of sorrow and pain.
But now the season of rain is nigh,
The sun is dim in the thickening sky,
And the clouds in sullen darkness rest
Where he hides his light at the doors of the west.
I hear the howl of the wind that brings
The long drear storm on its heavy wings;
But the howling wind and the driving rain
Will beat on my houseless head in vain:
I shall stay, from my murdered sons to scare
The beasts of the desert, and fowls of air.”