The story in 2 Samuel 21 is, in modern sight, simply awful, but it illustrates some important truths that should not be overlooked in any age and that, I think, is it’s purpose.
The Israelites were to completely destroy all the Canaanites. This was God’s desire and directive. But when Israel entered the promised land, they encountered the Gibeonites, a Canaanite people, who deceived Israel into making a treaty of peace with them (see Judges9) instead.
Perhaps legally, the Israelites could have annulled the treaty because it was based on subterfuge. But Israel doesn’t because they have, in the name of the Lord, taken the oath. These oaths cannot be violated. It points out the difficulty people get themselves into when they are not careful to obey God. Sometimes, there is no good solution and you have to go the way that honors God best. This brings up our first eternal lesson: when you give your word, because you are God’s child, that word is binding. It may be a bad agreement, an unwise one, but because you are God’s child, your word is the same as God’s word. In talking about agreements (and he is talking about agreements, not, as is usually assumed, going to church), Jesus said “where two or three are gathered together, there I am too” (Matthew 18:20).
The treaty was for all time. Saul, however, violated the treaty and tried to exterminate the Gibeonites. We don’t have this story. All we know about it is the reference in this chapter.
In punishment, God sent a drought on the land resulting in a famine. But you have to wonder: why did God wait so long? And why punish all of Israel for the actions of one man? Here are two more truths: First, some sins, like violence and bloodshed, bring guilt on everyone. As God’s people, we are all in this together. Christians should remember this. When things go bad in one congregation, it’s the responsibility of the whole to fix it, and you don’t fix it by leaving and going elsewhere else, nor do you eliminate your guilt by saying “it wasn’t my fault” or blaming others. Second, God’s justice doesn’t always come immediately. Sometimes, it takes a while – but it does come.
Neither money nor possessions can replace a life. The Gibeonites know this and understand if there is to be atonement, life will have to be given. They ask for the lives of seven of Saul’s family – and David gives them.
Rizpah, the mother of two of the sacrificed men, was determined that her sons should not die for nothing. If her boys were going to be sacrificed to atone for Israel, then she would protect the sacrifices until God accepted them and sent rain. But her determination that the sacrifices be acceptable to God prompted David to consider his own actions. After all, though the people of Jabesh Gilead had honored Saul’s remains, David had not. David moved to re-bury Saul and Jonathan’s bodies in their ancestral burial ground, and that brings us to the final lesson: it’s never too late to do the right thing. Though rain came during the actions of Rizpah, the notice that “God answered prayer in behalf of the land” does not occur until David does the right thing and gives honor to whom honor is due.