There are, in general, no rains from the barley harvest in May until after the autumn harvest and the the feast of Tabernacles ("Succot")1. So the text does intend to say that Ritzpah bat Ayah did in fact protect the unburied bodies of both her own two sons and those of Michal, the seven condemned men, for at least five months. In the dry climatic conditions of the hill country of Benjamin the corpses would dry out but not necessarily rot or even stink.
Since the men had been given over to the Gibeonites to do as they saw fit, and Ritzpah was a private individual at this point, she could not take the bodies down and bury them herself.
The guarding of the bodies was an exceptional act of respect for the dead. The narrative in verse 11 intends to show that David was not aware of Ritzpah's acts until the rains came. Once David hears of it, he brings the bodies of her husband (Saul) and Johnathan from across the Jordan in Yabesh Gilad and buries them together with the seven condemned men in the family grave of Kish. Since David was the sovereign, he had the power to demand the bodies from the Gibeonites. The narrative thus portrays David as showing respect for the dead and care of a widow.
A less apologetic interpretation of the events is that Ritzpah's actions are a provocative protest that forces David, after a scandalously long time, to show respect for the bodies of the men whose deaths he caused and for the body of his predecessor and rival Saul, and for Johnathan.
Regardless of the interpretation, it is these acts of respect for the dead by David and Ritzpah bat Ayah that end the famine (last clause of verse 14).
Even in the apologetic interpretation there is still an element of criticism of David for not promptly burying Saul and Johnathan, as required by tradition, and for not fulfilling his responsibility as the sovereign to bury the seven condemned men who were executed by the Gibeonites2.
Some commentators see a parallel with the Ugaritic Epic of Aqhat, KTU.1.17, KTU.1.19, particularly in showing respect for widows.
- The notable exception is of course I Samuel 12:17
- Even the condemned to death must be buried the same day as they are executed, as commanded in Deuteronomy 21:23 and shown in Joshua 10:26.