A Biblico-Theological Reflection on Human Rights
The story in II Samuel 21: 1-14 begins with a famine of three years during David’s reign. In the narrative, when David asked God what caused it, God said that Saul was guilty over the killing of the Gibeonites. David, then, asked the Gibeonites what it is that he can do so that they may have justice, and they answered, “let seven of his sons be handed over to us, and we will impale them before the Lord….” (v.6) David, the king, handed them over. The king took the sons of Rizpah, the concubine of Saul, and the five sons of Merab, the daughter of Saul. And the Gibeonites impaled them, a form of torture where a victim’s body is pierced with a stake, like an animal for roasting. Seven sons from the house of Saul were tortured and killed. Rizpah guarded the bodies “from the beginning of harvest until rain fell on them from the heavens; she did not allow the birds of the air to come on the bodies by day, or the wild animals by night.”(v.10)
Two characters play vital roles in this Biblical narrative on human rights violations: David and Rizpah. David, the king, has power of life and death over the lives of people. He may attribute to God and the Gibeonites the judgement upon the seven sons, but as king, he chose to have mercy on the son of Jonathan, Mephibosheth, who was the grandson of Saul. David, the king, chose to let one live and let seven die.
Rizpah, Saul’s concubine, guarded over the bodies of seven sons: two of them were her own; five of them were somebody else’s. Five of them were the sons of Merab. We cannot condemn Merab. But we must condemn those who strike so much fear in the hearts of mothers like her. It takes a mother to raise a child, but it takes a brave woman to struggle for justice. Rizpah’s struggle took courage: she left the comfort of her home and community; she stayed for days and seasons on a mountain which had the stench of death; she defended the rotting bodies of seven males from wild animals. Her very presence in the face of death was a challenge to David, the king, who would have wanted her to accept the death of seven sons. Just as her sons were victims of human rights violations, she could also be the victim of the same.
Finally, the seven sons say nothing in the text. We do not hear their cry as they are taken away from their loved ones; we do not feel their pain as they are tortured to death; we do not feel their dead bodies as their lives are taken from them.
Sixty-three years ago, in a rare moment of grace, humanity came together and proclaimed that the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family serve as the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world; that it is essential, if humans are not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last a resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law; that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights; and that they are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood/sisterhood. We pledged our collective commitment to these declarations.
Moreover, sixty-three years ago we proclaimed that no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and that no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile. Sixty-three years ago, humanity pledged “never again” to the injustices wrought on Rizpahs, Merabs, and their children, and we declared “enough!” to the inhumanities effected by Davids and their ilk.
Sixty-three years later, we ask, have we really been faithful to our pledge?
Sixty-three years later, there are still Davids who wield power over life and death. There are still sons and daughters whom Davids order to be tortured and killed. There are still countless Rizpahs and Merabs whose sons, daughters, husbands, wives, mothers and fathers are abducted, never to be seen again. Everyday, in our country, in Palestine, in so many parts of our world, daughters and sons, many not even 12 years old, are violently taken away from their loved ones: snatched, imprisoned, and violated.
Sixty-three years later, there are still young children who are arrested in the dead of night for throwing stones at tanks and armored personnel carriers. There are still bishops, priests, pastors, deaconesses, and youth leaders whose bodies are impaled for opening their homes, their hearts, and their lives to those whose only hope is God.
Today, December 10, 2011, is exactly sixty-three years later. David is still alive. But so is Rizpah. She was alone in the Samuel text. In our context, she is not. She is legion.
Free All Political Prisoners! Free Palestine!
The Center for Women, Youth, and Children
UNION THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY
Human Rights Day
December 11, 2011