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Go to Bible: 2 Samuel 21
“the House of Blood-guilt.” “The House of Blood-guilt” is set in opposition to the “House of Saul,” and further describes it. Thus, in God’s eyes, “the House of Saul” was also “the House of Blood-guilt,” and Saul’s house certainly had much blood-guilt associated with it. Besides putting Gibeonites to death, something that is not recorded in the Word, Saul put to death an entire village of priests (1 Sam. 22:16-19); tried to kill David; tried to kill his own son and crown prince Johnathon (1 Sam. 20:33), and almost certainly put to death others who are not recorded in the Bible. Then again, when called upon to kill the Amalekite Agag, an enemy of Yahweh, Saul spared him and Samuel had to do it (1 Sam. 15:20, 33).
For the translation “blood-guilt” see HALOT Hebrew-English Lexicon; the Schocken Bible by E. Fox; and the Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament.(top)
“zeal.” This is a great example of misplaced zeal that is sin in the eyes of God. There is both godly and ungodly zeal.(top)
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“the two sons of Rizpah.” Rizpah is one of the many sad stories in the Bible and in life. She must have been born a beautiful but lower-class woman, or perhaps even a slave, because she was a concubine of Saul’s. Then when Saul died, Abner took her and slept with her (2 Sam. 3:7), but then Abner was killed also, and what happened to her after that is lost in history. Now her two sons, certainly the light of her life and her support in old age, were executed for something her ungodly husband king Saul had done.
“Merab the daughter of Saul.” Merab was the oldest daughter of Saul and was promised to David in marriage, but when it came time for the wedding Saul changed his mind and gave Merab to Adriel (1 Sam. 18:17-19). Now, in a terrible twist of fate, her five sons are sentenced to death for something their grandfather did.(top)
“they impaled them.” Although most English versions say “hanged” instead of “impaled,” this hanging was not like our Western idea of “hung by the neck” but was an act of impaling. We see this with Jesus, who the Bible says was “hung on a tree,” but he was actually nailed to it; thus impaled on it.
It was the general custom in the Old Testament that the person would be killed first, and then the dead body was impaled and hung up for public display. The Assyrians, who were a very cruel people, often impaled people on upright stakes while they were still alive, and the Romans modified the act of impaling such that it became the horrible torture of crucifixion. The translation “impaled” is used in the NRSV; Tanakh; and Schocken Bible. Rotherham’s Emphasized Bible actually says, “crucified” here, but that is a historic anachronism when compared to Roman crucifixion.(top)
“until water was poured on them from heaven.” That is, until the autumn rains came. The barley harvest started in April, often mid-April, and the autumn rains started in late October or early November, and it was getting colder by then too. So Rizpah watched over her dead sons for at least six months. Some scholars believe that the famine was due to no rain and that therefore the rain that came was not the regular autumn rain but was special and ended the famine, but there is no indication of that in the text. There are lots of times famines occur for other reasons than there being no rain.
“the birds of the air.” The Hebrew is literally, “the birds of the heavens,” but the Hebrew word “heavens” is always plural, there is no singular word “heaven” in Hebrew.
“or the animals of the field by night.” Rizpah kept her vigil day and night, napping on the sackcloth on the rock, and thus she protected the bodies and bones of her beloved sons. This is one of the most profound acts of a mother’s love in the Bible. Eventually the men’s flesh would decay and mostly waste away, leaving the bones. In the biblical culture it was very important to protect and properly bury the bones of the deceased, and Rizpah no doubt wanted to see her sons get a proper burial. She had to keep vigil over the bones, which would have been taken by animals if not guarded. Her diligence and love paid off and eventually her sons got an honorable burial.(top)
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“the public square of Beth Shan.” This does not contradict 1 Samuel 31:10, which says the Philistines fastened Saul’s body to the wall. The public square was usually near the city gate (2 Chron. 32:6), and even could be outside it (Neh. 8:1). The Philistines would have wanted Saul’s body where everyone could see it, and on the wall near at the public square would be the perfect place. The fact that the people would tolerate a rotting body near their public square shows how insensitive people of that time period were to what we today would consider intolerable stench.(top)
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“Rapha.” Rapha was one of the Nephilim, the “Fallen Ones.” Rapha is mentioned four times in 2 Samuel 21: 21:16, 18, 20, and 22 and in other places in the Old Testament as well. [For more on the Nephilim and the connection between them and Rapha, see commentary on Gen. 6:4].(top)
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