The Congregation at Duke University Chapel

Testimony, Race, and the Bible

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Testimony, Race, and the Bible

presentation at Adult Forum by
The Rev. Vanessa Hawkins
Associate for Nurturing Ministries, Presbytery of New Hope
February 5, 2017

2 Samuel 21:1-14

21 Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year; and David inquired of the Lord. 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 tried to wipe them out in his zeal for the people of Israel and Judah.) 3 David said to the Gibeonites, "What shall I do for you? How shall I make expiation, that you may bless the heritage of the Lord?" 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 anyone to death in Israel." He said, "What do you say that I should 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 handed over to us, and we will impale them before the Lord at Gibeon on the mountain of the Lord." The king said, "I will hand them over."

7 But the king spared Mephibosheth, the son of Saul's son Jonathan, because of the oath of the Lord that was between them, between David and Jonathan son of Saul. 8 The king took the two sons of Rizpah daughter of Aiah, whom she bore to Saul, Armoni and Mephibosheth; and the five sons of Merab daughter of Saul, whom she bore to Adriel son of Barzillai the Meholathite; 9 he gave them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they impaled them on the mountain before the Lord. The seven of them perished together. They were put to death in the first days of harvest, at the beginning of barley harvest.

10 Then Rizpah the daughter of Aiah took sackcloth, and spread it on a rock for herself, 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. 11 When David was told what Rizpah 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 people of Jabesh-gilead, who had stolen them from the public square of Beth-shan, where the Philistines had hung them up, on the day the Philistines killed Saul on Gilboa. 13 He brought up from there the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan; and they gathered the bones of those who had been impaled. 14 They buried the bones of Saul and of his son Jonathan in the land of Benjamin in Zela, in the tomb of his father Kish; they did all that the king commanded. After that, God heeded supplications for the land.

First Reading

  • Listen for an aspect of the text that strikes you (either positively or negatively); something that shimmers, beckons, stirs, addresses, unnerves, grabs, or touches them.

Second Reading

  • Listen or watch for the aspect of the scripture that struck you last time. Perhaps it has changed. How does it relate to you? What feelings, images, ideas, physical sensations, memories, or hopes does it stir?

  • Rizpah appears "so obscure that she doesn't even, in most of the study Bibles I looked at, warrant a chapter heading ... she is a 'by the way, there was a woman by the name of Rizpah'" storyline. (Renita Weems)
  • Walter Brueggemann wonders if we have two parties who differ on David's efforts to centralize the government by transitioning from a tribal society to a monarchy.

Rizpah's roles

  • Pious support for David's rise to power
  • Victim in the hands of ruthless men
  • Mother/victim vulnerable to the ethnic violence imposed upon her sons
  • Defenseless widow of a dead king
  • Silent advocate for justice

Womanist Perspectives

  • Weems acknowledges Rizpah's presence as someone who "fights back by beating back the buzzards."
  • Melchanthon declares Rizpah to be someone who "redeems the conscience and the soul" of her community and people.
  • For the most part, the feminists and womanists see Rizpah as a courageous bold woman who stands in solidarity with the dead and who hold the 'powers to be' accountable for their actions.

Key Terms

  • Hôqia (impale) has several meanings. It can be translated as ritual dismemberment, execute, hang/lynch, crucifixion in the sun, expose with arms and legs broken, and hurl them down.
  • Rizpah is is identified as Saul's pileges. She is a concubine or secondary wife who is identified by her mother's maiden name.

Rizpah's Actions

  • As a mother, Rizpah mourns for her sons and all other sons slain by the State and brutally murdered for someone else's gain.
  • Her nonverbal actions demonstrate her understanding of the situation.
  • Takes refuge in the public square and holds a vigil over the dead bodies as a visible act of protest.
  • Reinterpretation of the oracle's message to God.
  • David acknowledges Rizpah's actions by collecting the bodies and ashes of Saul and Jonathan and burying them.
  • Silent testimony

Testimony and Witnessing

It was in their own "invisible institution", the "hush Harbors", that the slaves were free to create "vehicles for expressing the sprit and gaining strength" to persevere; it was there that the field hollers, work songs, spirituals, and even the blues had their beginnings as the slaves rediscovered theor own 'sacred being through songs, rituals, music, and dance.' The experience was truly spiritual ... 'as we laid down our burdens, we became light As we testified and listened to others testify, we began to understand ourselves as communal beings, no longer the kind of person that the slave system tried to make of us. Through our participation in these rituals, we became one. We became again, a community.

M. Shawn Copeland quotes Dona Richards, "The Implications of African-American Spirituality," in African Culture: The Rhythms of Unity.


Testimonies rely on several sources:
Spirit, Bible, self, context, imagination, and God.
The Bible provides the stories, images, and framework for the testimony.

Testimony (cont.)

  • A pedagogical tool for faith formation and biblical interpretation
  • Narrative analyses in which a speaker:
    • presents a problem,
    • recounts God's intervention,
    • provides some type of biblical reinterpretation of the event, and
    • concludes with a praise report.

Testimony (cont.)

  • Form of Truth Telling
    • time of critical reflection
    • system of accountability
    • persuasive event
    • Experience is the cornerstone of testimonies - the witness to God is the lived response
  • Communal Experience
    • Requires a speaker and witness(es)
    • Given in a call and response pattern

Testimony (cont.)

  • Spiritual Practice
    • Restorative
    • Emancipatory
    • Transformative
    • An act of community building, affirmation, and healing.