What I Didn’t Learn in Seminary: How To Tell Rizpah’s Story

It was the beginning of my sophomore year at Vanderbilt University, and I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I had confessed that I did not want to be a doctor or study pre-medicine anymore. It was the perfect time to have some academic fun while fulfilling liberal arts’ requirements. I signed up for classes in Religious Studies, Creative Writing, and 17th Century Poetry.

“Hebrew Bible and Its Interpreters” was the first class I’d taken on the Bible outside of the Church. Our main textbook was the Old Testament, but I couldn’t call it the Old Testament. It was the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible. The professor, Shai Chery, wore a kippah and asked to be addressed as “Rav” instead of “Professor” or “Doctor.” The only teachers I’d had on the Bible until then had been “Pastor” or “Reverend.” I was used to reading footnotes in my study Bible for interpretation. Now, I was sifting through commentaries of the earliest Jewish scholars.

On the first day of class, Rav Cherry defined the word, “exegesis,” for us. Until he actually wrote “e-x-e-g-e-s-i-s” on the board, I was confused. I thought he was saying, “Exit Jesus.” When I realized my mistake, I sank into my seat and laughed in relief that I had not asked why Jesus left the building.

I had learned a new word, and it was a word of curiosity. Exegesis is about digging for truths, excavating ancient words, and interpreting sacred pages. It was not easy. The old texts were challenging to read, and I didn’t agree with a lot of the interpretations. But I loved what we were finding – because we were searching.

For our final assignment, we were to choose a story from the Hebrew Bible and incorporate the different methods of interpretation we’d learned. I remembered a sermon on an obscure passage in 2 Samuel—the tragic story of Rizpah. She was a concubine of King Saul whose two sons were executed. I became obsessed with trying to answer the question that had led to the writings of all those rabbis and scholars we’d studied: why is this story here?

Seminary did not teach me to love the Scriptures. I loved the Bible long before sophomore year of college.

Seminary also did not teach me the joy and mystery of Scripture interpretation that leads to a sermon. I learned that through telling Rizpah’s story. We never hear her voice, so I felt a responsibility to give her a voice through study, research, reverence, and prayer.

Every Sunday that I step into the pulpit, whether I’m preaching on Abraham’s calling or Rizpah’s tragedy or Jesus’ feeding of the 5000, my desire is to tell God’s Story through these stories. Sometimes those stories are tough to swallow. At other times, we know them by heart. Each part of the Word matters, and it is our blessed duty as children of God to find out why.

Seminary provided me with many tools to become a preacher. An undergraduate course in Religious Studies taught me how to ask questions, how to listen for the voices on the page, and how to revere the Breath of Life behind the words. I learned to tell Rizpah’s story by listening to Rizpah.

God is speaking in and through the Word. Will you listen with me?

all good things to each of you,
Pastor Darian

The following is a poem that I wrote as part of my final paper from Rizpah’s point of view. Please be advised that the content is difficult as it tells the story of a mother witnessing the horrific death of her sons.

Rizpah

II Samuel 21:1-14

That early morning, I stood and watched the life
I gave my boys seep out in scattered breaths,
first quick then slow, as they began to die.
As they grew still, I grasped their skin and clung
as if my warmth could resurrect their souls.
But they were gone, two corpses left behind
to rot in open air as food for birds
and scare the passers-by. I could have left.
I could have walked away like others did.
Instead I stayed behind for seven months
and beat away the beasts of day and night.
I lived with death, with remnants of my flesh,
and cried to gods of earth and air for strength.
One day my sons received their burials;
a king had heard how I, a mourning mother,
refused to let the earth consume her sons
in wild and open air. I let them go
at last, but scripture also let me go.
And now I’m just another concubine
who pleased a king for years and bore him sons.
I’m just another woman of the text,
who has a name and place but never speaks.
I’m just another mother cursed to watch
her only two ascend a hill and die.
My name is Rizpah, concubine of Saul,
a mother left with only wind and rain,
a woman living only here in words.