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World Mission Conference Bible Study: Surprised by the Word — Mission and the Unscipted God by Daniel Buttry







TEXT:  2 Samuel 21.1-14


This is an awful passage!

            This Biblical story is one of those terrible Old Testament stories that we might

read as we are slogging our way through the Bible just to say we’ve read the whole thing.

            We rush past it, never to revisit it again.

                        We might even think—what an awful story!

                                    Why did God have to put that in the Bible!

                        Let’s get on to the really good stuff!

Maybe this morning we can be surprised by the Word, for I have found that this story is

definitely worth another visit.


It begins with a famine plaguing Israel for three years, and King David prays to ask God

what the problem is.

            God says there is “bloodguilt” on the land.

                        “There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the

Gibeonites to death.”

            Innocent blood had been shed.

                        Gross injustice, terrible violence, had taken place and never been


                        So that bloodguilt is now resting on all of Israel with dire consequences.

What had happened is that King Saul, David’s predecessor from another tribe, the

tribe of Benjamin, had massacred Gibeonites.

Saul had engaged in what we would call today acts of genocide.

            The Gibeonites were an ethnic minority who had made a covenant of peace with

Israel during the invasion of the Promised Land under Joshua.

            The story of that peace covenant is told in the Book of Joshua, chapter 9.

                        Maybe you remember it, how the Gibeonites tricked the Israelites by

dressing in raggedy clothes and packing moldy bread to look like they had come a long way in a journey to sue for peace with Israel.

As a result they were granted a covenant of peace, though after their

duplicity was discovered they were relegated to the status of slaves, to be “hewers of wood and drawers of water” for Israel, as the text says.

                        That’s better than being killed like the other Canaanites!

But a few generations later King Saul violated that covenant in an old-fashioned

expression of ethnic cleansing.

            Gibeonites were massacred, and God became the only advocate for these

forgotten victims.

                        God was the only one to uphold the covenant of peace by bringing a

famine upon Israel when that covenant was violated.

                        God cursed the land which had committed this brutality, even though it

was God’s special covenant people being judged.


So once David heard from God that this history of covenant-breaking and genocide was a

problem, what should be done about it?

It’s one thing to see a problem, it’s another to solve it.


David got together with the surviving Gibeonites to see what they could do to set things


            And David and the Gibeonites chose a solution that was old back then and has

been continued to this day.

            They decided to deal with the old violence of the past by committing new

violence in the present.

            The Gibeonites who had been so awfully wronged wanted revenge.

                        “We don’t want money—don’t try to buy us off!

                        We want blood!

                        Give us seven of the male descendents of Saul so we can kill them!”


David agreed with their proposal.

            He handed over 7 of Saul’s sons and grandsons, sparing Mephibosheth, son of

David’s friend Jonathan.       

            The seven young men handed over to the Gibeonites were butchered in public,

run through with huge stakes, impaled, and left out in gruesome public display.

                        The Bible says they did this “before the Lord.”

It was a religious act.

            But God is silent—God does not lift the curse upon the land.

                        There is no positive response at all to this act done “before the Lord.”

            Evidently what David and the Gibeonites did in murdering these children was not                                    the way God saw bloodguilt being lifted.

But so often the way of the world is the way of violence.

            We see a problem, and like David we apply real politics to solve the problem by

meeting violence with violence, fighting fire with fire, atoning for one evil by committing another.

            We see it all the time.

                        Just look at today’s paper.

                        Same old, same old, isn’t it?


            You know, my Mother taught me two wrongs don’t make a right.

                        Did your mothers say that?

                        Maybe David wasn’t listening to his Mom when she said that.

            How many innocent victims do we create in our efforts to balance the books of


                        How many have been impaled in our quest for justice?

            More Afghan civilians died in the bombings during our invasion of Afghanistan

than people died in the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks—we can call that collateral damage.

We didn’t intend to kill civilians—but they died.

            More U.S. troops have now died in Iraq than U.S. citizens died in the Sept. 11th

terrorist attacks.

            At least 20 times as many Iraqi civilians have now died in the war sparked by our

invasion of Iraq than died on that fateful day in 2001.

            This sounds more like the revenge math of Lamech in Genesis 4:


                        “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” (Gen.4.24)


            Oh, we have our political rationale’s, but where is God’s Word, and where is

God’s blessing?

                        It seems there is plenty of bloodguilt to go around.


            Now these seven descendents of Saul were innocents, too young to have

participated in the atrocities of their father or grandfather.

If they had been old enough to be warriors, I’m sure they would have

perished in the battle at Mt. Gilboa where Saul died along with Jonathan and two other sons of Saul.

                        No, these men or boys impaled by the Gibeonites with David’s active

consent were innocents.

            But like the innocent Lamb of God, Jesus the Christ, they were impaled and hung up in public in the name of restoring the peace.

                        This sacrifice, however, doesn’t atone.

                        It merely stands out in public as a hideous testament to price the

seductions of violence will lead us to willfully pay.


There are two mothers mentioned in this story.

One mother, Merab, lost 5 sons that day.

Marab simply disappears from the story.

            She becomes that eternal grieving, silent mother who fades away in the

overwhelming sorrow of her loss.

            Ah, there are so many mothers, and fathers, and sisters and brothers and daughters

and sons like Merab—victims who are frozen forever in their grief and anguish.

                        They can never move beyond the terrible loss they have suffered.

                        Their lives are forever defined and limited by the trauma they experienced.


We could unpack this experience more, but I want to move on to the second mother, for

            this woman transforms the entire story.

But the other mother is Rizpah.

Two of her sons were executed—they are named for us:  Armoni and

Mephibosheth (same name but different person as Jonathan’s son).

Armoni and Mephibosheth—her babies, the children born of her body.

            And as her sweet young sons are run through with those stakes and their bleeding

bodies left to hang in the open air, Rizpah feels the sorrow, the wrenching grief, as did Merab.

                        Perhaps besides sorrow she felt anger at the injustice of her loss.

            But unlike Merab, Rizpah does not fade away.


Rizpah instead comes out into the public space where the bodies of her sons are


            Rizpah with mother grief, with mother anger, with mother courage, begins a

public vigil over the bodies of her boys.

                        She spreads a rough cloth on the ground and stays there, keeping the dogs

away, shooing off the birds that circle round about.

                        She keeps that vigil out in public, day after day, night after night.

            There is only one verse about her action—verse 10.

                        That verse says she began at the start of the barley harvest and continued

till the rains fell.

                        One commentary I read said the barley harvest began in October, and the

rainy season started in May.

                        One verse, but many months.


Imagine Rizpah there by the bodies of her sons—October, November, December.

            What is happening to those bodies?

            What do the women in the town do?

                        “Rizpah, come home.

                        You’ve grieved enough.

                        It’s time to get on with your life.

                        You can’t bring your children back to life by this wasting of your self.”

            But Rizpah continues—January, February, March.

                        The bodies have disintegrated in the open air and are nearly bones now.

                        The town’s people all think she is crazy, she’s a madwoman.

            But she continues—April, May.


And finally David hears about her vigil.

            David hears and is moved in his heart by this mother.

            David comes.

                        He comes publicly to the mother whose sons he ordered executed.

                        He publicly gathers their bones.

            Then he gathers the bones of Saul and his other sons who had perished in the battle of Gilboa, but never been properly buried.

            And David buries them all appropriately and with due respect in the land of their family.


Then God heals the land.

            God did not heal the land in response to David’s executions.

            God healed the land when David reversed his policy of violence and came

publicly to Rizpah.

                        He came, I believe, in repentance and humility.

                        David came to the sorrowing mother in her vigil, and he tenderly dealt

with the bones of her children.

            The violence was over.

                        This cycle of revenge and retribution was broken.

                        Grief was given an expression that could bring healing and even

reconciliation at long last.


It’s a strange story, and Rizpah’s action gets just one verse.

            But her action transforms the whole story.

                        They are the hinge upon which it turns.

            David changes, and from his change, inspired by Rizpah, the land is healed.


There have been many daughters of Rizpah over the years, mothers who have turned their

grief into courageous public witness to end violence and heal their lands.


I think today of the Naga Mothers.

            The Naga people are a tribal people in northeast India.

            They were introduced to the gospel of Jesus Christ by American Baptist

missionaries over 130 years ago.

            But since 1947 they have been struggling for independence from India, at times

spiraling into a terrible war that has left as many as 200,000 people dead, probably the biggest war nobody has ever heard of.

            I have been working with Naga peace efforts since 1996, and in that process I

quickly discovered the key roles played by the Naga Mothers.

            A while back the Naga Mothers Association was organized mainly as a women’s

social group, getting together for teas and other such events.

            Then they began going to the Indian army bases to collect the bodies of young Nagas slain by Indian troops.

                        They would take the bodies and wrap them in a new woolen shawl or

blanket for a traditional burial.

                        But they had to keep going back to the army bases almost daily to get

more bodies.

                        They couldn’t keep up with the weaving of the new shawls needed for


            Their grief and anger finally boiled over and the Naga Mothers became one of the

leading groups working for an end to this long-standing conflict.

                        Too many of their children were dying.

            They began traveling to jungle headquarters of Naga insurgent groups to call them

to peace.



                        I worked with the Naga Mothers and other community leaders to develop

the “Journey of Conscience,” a nonviolent campaign of Nagas, including these bold mothers, calling for a negotiated settlement to the war.

            These Naga Mothers are proud and determined and vocal.

                        They have buried far too many of their children, and they can’t be stopped


            They are daughters of Rizpah.


In one of my trips to Myanmar, a country you might know better as Burma, I lead Bible

studies on conflict transformation for Baptist leaders from across the country.

Different small groups were studying different passages and then reporting to the

whole group what they had learned.


To understand this story, you must realize that since 1962 Burma has been ruled by

various military dictatorships.

            A democracy uprising in 1988 was brutally crushed, and one of the leaders, a

woman named Aung San Suu Kyi has been under house arrest almost the whole time since then.

            Aung San Suu Kyi was named for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, but here in

2007 she’s still under house arrest.

            When I was first in Burma in 1995 nobody dared to speak her name.

                        Nobody would talk publicly about what was happening in the country.

                        All conversations of substance where whispered to the side.

            Fear dominated the country.

So this small group was doing a Bible study on this passage from 2 Samuel.

            A young Baptist woman stood up to give the report, and she related the story as

we’ve done today.

            Then she came to the last question on the study sheet:

                        Can you think of any modern day Rizpahs?

            She stated the question and paused.

                        She stood a little taller.

                        She threw back her shoulders.

            And with courage and determination, she said aloud in a strong voice:

                        “Aung San Suu Kyi is today’s Rizpah.”

I wept as I listened to her.

            This surprising story from the Word, which most of us in the United States don’t

know except for Bible trivia experts, gave this Baptist woman in Burma the courage to speak the truth about what was happening in her country, to speak truth into the face of stifling fear.

            This young woman is a daughter of Rizpah.


I was surprised by the Word again in Bosnia last year.

            I was invited by a Ukrainian Baptist missionary, Fyodor Raychaynets, who

pastors a small church in Tuzla, a Bosnian city where Serbs, Croats and Muslims all lived together.

            The war in Bosnia brought incredible suffering, and now 12 years after the peace

agreement people still have deep wounds and bitterness.

                        Communities are still divided, though Tuzla is one place where people


Fyodor pulled together a small group for a Bible study workshop on trauma healing.

We had six Baptist and Pentecostal Christians, including some Serbian mothers,

and five Muslim men from a support group for Bosnian Army veterans with post-traumatic stress.

            Not your typical Bible study group, particularly not in Bosnia!

On the first night as we started into this story, we examined the dynamics of the victim-

survivor as seen in Merab.

There are many victims who are numbly surviving in Bosnia.

Then we looked at the dynamics of how a victim can become an aggressor-

victimizer as seen in the Gibeonites. 

Remember, they were victims of genocide before they engaged in their

own violent actions.

As we worked through this ancient story participants recognized their own

stories in the Bible story. 

One Muslim army veteran suddenly spoke out:

“Now I understand the Serbs!

They used to call me “Turk”—I’m not a Turk.

They are seeing me through their experience of being conquered by the


He was Bosnian, not Turkish, but both were Muslims, and that’s what the

Serbs responded to out of their trauma memories.

                        Here this traumatized Muslim veteran came to compassionate

                                    understanding of his enemies.

                                    The Bible gave him a lens to see his enemy in a new way.

            Then a Serb mother in our group spoke up.

                        “I’d like to pray for his healing.”

                        She looked at me, “I’m not asking your permission.”

                        She then turned to the Muslim veteran who had spoken, “I’m asking your

permission—may I pray for your healing from the traumas you’ve suffered (from her people).”

We ended our session with this Serbian Baptist woman lifting up a

beautiful prayer for the healing of the inner wounds from the war for these Bosnian Muslim army veterans.

                        Healing coming—maybe not to the land, but to a small group within the


            All prompted from a study of this awful story—surprise.

                        Fyodor and I were to be surprised yet again.

                        The Muslim vets all took Bibles, and the next night they returned while we

focused on Rizpah and the journey of healing.

                        They told us that they led the Bible study we’d done the previous night

with their larger post-traumatic support group, and they brought some more veterans along with them.

            I met with them again this year when I was in Bosnia in March. 

                        The vets all came back—Fyodor has continued a pastoral relationship with                                     them.

            Who would have guessed that God would use this part of the Bible to open a

missional door of outreach to Muslim soldiers in a war-ravaged land, but that’s the surprising way God’s Word can move in our world.


There’s one more healing I’d like to talk about in 2 Samuel 21.

            That’s the healing between the house of David and the house of Saul.

            Remember when Saul attacked David and tried to track him down in the


                        David wouldn’t kill Saul as the Lord’s anointed, but David was an exile

until Saul was killed at Mount Gilboa.

            David mourned Saul and Jonathan’s death—“How the mighty are fallen!”—but

he did not bring their bones back for burial.

David left their bones, even Jonathan’s bones in Jabesh-gilead.

            With the dynastic change from Saul to David, also a tribal change from Benjamin

to Judah, there was a deep rift, unaddressed hurt and resentment within Israel.


            You see the symptom of it in how easily David agreed to execute Saul’s male

descendants, sparing only Jonathan’s crippled son.

            Rizpah’s nonviolent witness of grief and sorrow to the horrible toll of violence,

brought about a change of heart in David.

                        Not only is the land healed from the famine, but the rift between the house

of Saul and the house of David is healed.

                        David takes the bones not just of those he ordered executed but also the

bones of Saul and the other sons stored in Jabesh-gilead.

David takes all these bones and buries them in the ancestral cemetery.

This marks not just the end of the trauma with the Gibeonites, but the end

of David’s own trauma of Saul violently turning against him.


            When God brings about revival and renewing, many ills, many wounds are



If the house of David and the house of Saul can be reconciled, how about the house of

Isaac and the house of Ishmael?

Christians and Jews trace themselves by faith to Abraham through Isaac.

Muslims trace themselves to Abraham through Ishmael.

The last we see of Ishmael in the Bible is not when he and his mother Hagar are

heading out into the desert after being cast out by Abraham, though that’s the last story I got in all my Sunday School and seminary lessons.

            Genesis 25.9 tells us about Isaac and Ishmael coming together to bury their father


How I would love to know all that story!

What conversations did they have?

Was the rift between them from their mothers and that journey into the

desert, was that rift healed?

Can there be healing today between the House of Isaac and the House of Ishmael,

between Christians and Muslims and Jews?

            For too often we have chosen the methods of dealing with our traumas that David

and the Gibeonites chose.

            When Islam burst out of Arabia with a strong message and strong army,

Christianity in the Middle East and North Africa was devastated.

            Then Christianity pushed back with the Crusades and the Inquisition.

            So often the cross was accompanied by the sword, certainly in politics, but also in

some global mission.

                        The cross and the sword in the Crusades.

                        The cross and the sword in evangelizing the Americas.

                        The cross and chains in evangelizing Africans brought to the Americas.

            The cross and gunboats in evangelizing parts of China.

            The cross and U.S. military might in countering militant Islam in our war

with terror.

Perhaps we need to abandon this wedding of the gospel with political power.

It’s time to abandon the fueling of our violence with memories of injuries

suffered, whether of the attacks of 9/11 or the recent martyrdoms of Korean missionaries held by the Taliban.

Instead let’s be surprised by God’s Word, surprised by how a powerless, grieving

mother can turn around hardened hearts and return God’s healing to the land.


Let’s meet the world, not with the cross and the sword, but with the cross and the towel.

            Are we willing to serve, willing to wash the filthy feet, willing to assuage the

wounded hearts.

            Like our Serbian Baptist sister—a woman who suffered much herself, among a

people who have suffered much and have caused much suffering—like her can we become people who pray for healing, even for the healing of our enemies?

There is no script to our future other than the one we allow God to write with us.

                        May we be transformed by God’s Word, by God’s wild surprising Word.

                        May we be agents to bring God’s healing to the land.

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