I want to tell you the story of Michal, daughter of King Saul, wife of King David. The lectionary gives us the end of her story; she is not mentioned again. But let’s go back to the beginning. Back to First Samuel 18, when David is first taken into King Saul’s household to serve him, after the defeat of the Philistine giant Goliath and the rout of the Philistine army. If you heard that story here a few weeks ago, you remember that it ended with Saul’s ambivalence and jealousy. He was glad to have David as a military leader, because of David’s successes; but he envied David’s popularity and feared that David would try to take his place. Remember the women of Jerusalem singing and dancing, “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his tens of thousands”? Remember how much King Saul loved hearing that? …. The text tells us, “All Israel and Judah loved David; for it was he who marched out and came in leading them.”
So Saul is keeping David around, on the principal of, Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. But having David close by has its disadvantages. Because two of Saul’s children fall in love with David, the dashing, handsome young warrior, musician, and heartbreaker. 1 Samuel 18 tells us that Saul’s son Jonathan loved David as his own soul. Jonathan’s soul was bound to the soul of David, and he made a covenant with him. And Saul’s youngest daughter, Michal, also falls in love with David. Now, Saul thinks maybe binding David to his family can work to his advantage, by increasing David’s loyalty to him and his house. He thinks, I’ll marry David to one of my daughters, and he’ll keep going out to fight the Philistines for me, and eventually the Philistines will get lucky and kill him, so that I don’t have to. The text puts words to Saul’s thoughts: “Let me give [Michal] to him so that she may be a snare for him, and that the hand of the Philistines may be against him.”
Now, David has always been well-endowed with hubris and self-esteem, but becoming the king’s son-in-law is a big step even for him. Saul’s servants are sent to tell him, “See, the king is delighted with you — [that’s a lie!] — and all his servants love you [that’s probably true!] — now then, become the king’s son-in-law.” And David replies, “Does it seem to you a little thing to become the king’s son-in-law, seeing that I am a poor man and of no repute?” Among other things, he’s worried about being able to pay a suitable bride-price for the very important wife he is being offered. And Saul tells him, “Oh, don’t worry! …. All I want for a marriage present from you is the foreskins of a hundred Philistines.” And David says, Oh, is that all? … 1 Samuel 18 tells us, “David rose and went, along with his men, and killed one hundred of the Philistines; and David brought their foreskins… to the king, that he might become the king’s son-in-law. Saul gave him his daughter Michal as a wife. But when Saul realized that the Lord was with David, and that Saul’s daughter Michal loved him, Saul was still more afraid of David. So Saul was David’s enemy from that time forward.”
Saul makes up his mind to get rid of David. But Jonathan and Michal are determined to save their beloved. Jonathan tells David, My father is trying to kill you; run away, hide nearby, and I’ll see what I can do. And Jonathan talks to Saul and reminds him of David’s loyalty and all that he has done for Saul; and Saul decides not to kill David: “As the LORD lives, he shall not be put to death.” But not long afterwards, a dark mood comes upon Saul and he changes his mind again. One evening while David is playing music for him, he tries to stab him with a spear. David escapes to his home, but Saul sends assassins to kill him next time he steps outside. This time it’s Michal who saves David; she helps him escape out the window, then creates a “dummy” David in the bed, the classic pillow-under-the-covers thing, plus some goat hair on the pillow. She used the “dummy” to put off the assassins – claiming David couldn’t come out because he was sick – long enough for David to get well away. When her father asked why she had helped David, choosing loyalty to her husband over loyalty to her father, she claimed that David had threatened to kill her.
The Scriptural text tells us far more about the love between David and Jonathan – using some of the most emotionally intense language found in Scripture – than it tells us about David and Michal’s marriage. It seems likely that David cared far more for Jonathan than he did for poor Michal. The text tells us twice that she loved him; it never claims that he loved her. He flees their home apparently without a backward glance, though he has a heart-wrenching farewell scene with Jonathan.
David flees to one neighboring land, then another; and as he travels, he gathers followers. Saul, more and more fearful, begins to slaughter anyone he suspects of supporting or helping David. The situation escalates into full-on civil war. It’s really exciting stuff – I commend it to you! I would love to tell you about the time King Saul stopped to pee in a cave, and David was hiding in the same cave. I would love to tell you about the rich and grumpy man Nabal, and his clever, beautiful, and opportunistic wife Abigail, who brought supplies to David’s troops against her husband’s orders, and, when he conveniently died ten days later, became David’s second wife. I would love to tell you of how King Saul, desperate for guidance and receiving no word from God, sought out a medium, a witch, at Endor, who summoned the ghost of the prophet Samuel to tell him, God is done with you; David will be king. But there’s too much story, not enough time, for one Sunday morning. Still: if you love Game of Thrones, the drama, intrigue, violence, and betrayal, I commend the books of Samuel and Kings to you.
During David’s absence, Saul had taken poor abandoned Michal and given her as a wife to another man, probably someone whose loyalties he hoped to secure in the face of David’s threat. Here’s how David finally claims his kingship: Saul and Israel’s army are fighting the Philistines, again. (In this time and place, as in many times and places, the king also served as general of his army, leading them in battle; this will be a plot point in another story in a couple of weeks!…)
And in this battle, the Philistines win. Saul’s sons are killed – including Jonathan. Saul throws himself on his own sword, committing suicide, to avoid the shame of being killed by the enemy. When David hears of it, he sings a great song of grief about the death of these valiant warriors, Saul the King, anointed of God, and his beloved friend Jonathan. Soon thereafter the people of Judah anoint David as their king.
But the last of Saul’s sons, Ishbaal, remained on the throne in Jerusalem; so more years of war follow, with David’s house growing stronger and Saul’s house growing weaker. Sometime during those years, in a moment of tentative peace, David asks Ishbaal to give him back Michal as his wife. I can imagine a couple of reasons for the request: because of the dishonor of having his wife given to another man; because of the potential power of having a wife of Saul’s line, and the possibility of one day being able to put a son on the throne of Israel who would combine the lineages of David and Saul. I can’t really imagine that David’s feelings for Michal were a third reason, because nothing in the text suggests he ever had any. Ishbaal agrees to David’s demand; Michal is taken from her second husband, Palti. The text tells us, “Her husband went with her, weeping as he walked behind her, all the way to Bahurim,” until Ishbaal’s general ordered him home. So Michal is given away a third time, taken from a husband who loved her and given to one who, like her father, sees her only as a pawn.
Finally a couple of enterprising warriors take it upon themselves to assassinate Saul’s son, King Ishbaal. David is not grateful; he still respects the house of Saul, and, frankly, would prefer to manage his own affairs; he has the assassins publicly executed. But when all the tribes of Israel come to him and say, Now you can be our King, he doesn’t object. So the kingdoms of Judah and Israel are united, with David as their great King. A great King who takes more and more wives and concubines, and begets a great many children.
And as kind of a gesture of national pride and unity, David and his army set out to bring the Ark of the Covenant to his new capital city, Jerusalem. Remember the Ark? From either the book of Exodus or the Indiana Jones movie? Not the one Noah built. The one crafted by Israel’s finest craftsman, during the wilderness years, to hold the stone tablets on which Moses had received the Law of God. A holy box to hold the world’s holiest treasures, stone tablets engraved by the hand of God. And as they enter Jerusalem in triumphal procession with the Ark, David and those who are with him are so filled with holy joy that they dance wildly, with all their might, to the music of lyres and harps, tambourines and castanets and cymbals. And David danced and leaped the most wildly, the most fervently of them all, dressed only in a simple linen skirt. I think we can take it as the intention of the text that the linen skirt was pretty skimpy, and that David was putting on quite a show, and probably really didn’t care. After all, if being King doesn’t mean you can dance naked in the streets now and then, what’s the point?…
Michal daughter of Saul looks out of the window, and sees David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despises him in her heart. She hates him, bitterly. And when he comes to the house, she confronts him: “My goodness, the King of Israel certainly honored himself today, showing off his privates like any vulgar fellow for the eyes of any cheap servant girl!” David says, “I was dancing to please God, lady, not you – the God who chose ME over your father to be King of Israel, you may recall.” The text tells us that from that time on, Michal had no child. At my first reading, I thought, She is punished with barrenness? – that’s not fair! – and I saw other commentators make the same reading. But the text doesn’t say she was barren, just that she never had a child. I think it’s quite possible that this was the last time David and Michal spoke. That she lived out her lonely life unloved and untouched in some corner of David’s household, watching the rest of his wives and concubines talk and laugh and fight and nurse their children.
So what’s going on here for Michal, as her heart turns against a man whom she once loved? She has been through so much… Years of coldness, betrayal, loss, and never having what she actually wanted. Of course she’s jealous – that remark about the servant girls tips her hand about how much she minds all David’s romantic conquests. She’s also contrasting her husband with her father, Saul’s dignity with David’s extravagance. David is one of those people who is just – very. He’s extravagant in relationships. He’s extravagant in emotion – these flares of anger, joy, grief, desire. He’s extravagant in his ambitions. He’s extravagant in his piety. Michal just wishes he would act like a king. And David says, Deal with it, lady. I am who I am, and God likes it.
So why tell Michal’s story?… If this chapter, 2 Samuel 6, were all we knew about Michal, we would think she was proud and judgmental and kind of a witch. When we know the fulness of her story – beginning with her unrequited love for David; continuing with her using her intelligence and influence to save him, only to find herself abandoned; being given to another man who loves her, then taken again, as a pawn, into a household where she is now one of many, many wives – we get the fulness of the pathos of Michal. This is a sad story about a miserable, lonely life.
Why does the Deuteronomist tell us this story? The Deuteronomist is shorthand for the author/editor – singular or plural – who composed the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, sometime in the sixth century before Jesus. There may have been many people involved in the work, over many years, but there’s quite a strong narrative voice, actually, across those books; so we call that voice the Deuteronomist.
If all the Deuteronomist wanted us to hear was that Saul’s royal line ended with Michal, we might only get this part of the text. But the Deuteronomist gives Michal a backstory – not a lot of detail, but enough to be evocative. Enough to trace the contours of a life. And I think the Deuteronomist gives us all that because the larger story the Deuteronomist is telling us is about the failures and risks of human power and human institutions. About the way that ordinary people, and even not so ordinary people, get caught up- and ground up – in the machinations of the powerful and the ambitious. About how people lose control of their own lives, and suffer and struggle, because those in power, and those who seek power, are busy doing their thing and don’t count the costs.
Feminist Biblical scholar Alice Ogden Bellis describes Michal as both symbol, and a victim, of the conflict between her husband and her father. Another commentator, Katharine Sakenfeld, writing about Michal, concludes, “I mourn with Palti over Michal’s fate.”
So why do I tell Michal’s story? Why make space on a Sunday for this ultimately rather unhappy story? Well – a couple of reasons. For one thing, often people look casually at some of the awful stuff that happens in the Old Testament, and they are put off because they think that the text talking about that stuff means that the text thinks it’s OK. In fact, the text often doesn’t think it’s OK. The Deuteronomist thinks Michal had a miserable life, just like we do. Maybe he judges her a little harshly for turning against David here; but he also gives us all that context to understand her heart. I think that’s a really really important point for our engagement with the Bible in general and the Old Testament in particular: Yes, it tells about some awful stuff. Why is it telling about it? Not because it approves. The Biblical text contains much more complexity and narrative sophistication than you might realize. The Bible often doesn’t think that the terrible things it’s describing are OK.
For another thing… Ellen Davis, who was my amazing Old Testament professor at Duke, wrote a book called Wondrous Depth, advocating preaching the Old Testament. And in it she says that there are two kinds of Christians. One kind sees us as profoundly separated from the Old Testament. Set apart by an enormous gulf – in Davis’ words, “a vast chasm whose dimensions are not just historical but also moral and theological.” In this view, the Old Testament is interesting but also alien and dubiously relevant to Christian life. Lots of folks take that perspective, consciously or unconsciously – including many, maybe most, Episcopalians.
The other kind of people see the Old Testament as “an urgent and speaking presence” that “exercises shaping force on Christian lives.” They see the Old Testament as a compendium of stories of human and divine relationships that have never lost their power and relevance.
The reason Michal’s story is compelling is that it’s not so strange or unthinkable. The stories of women never allowed to make their own choices, controlled by husbands, fathers, pimps or politicians – those stories still happen. The machinations of those seeking political power, and those victimized by their ambition – those stories still happen. The stories of relationships that start out sweet, then turn first sour, then bitter – those stories still happen.
The Deuteronomist tells us the story of Michal, among so many others, to teach us that kings aren’t the only people that matter. To history, to God. To teach us to hear and attend to stories like hers – the stories of those struggling in the brutal currents of human history – and to care about what happens to their lives and their hearts. That, too, is the message of the Prophets, who hold the greatest accountable for the wellbeing of the least. That, too, is the message of Jesus, who once and for all placed God among the powerless and insignificant.
Two weeks ago, while I was away, Father John preached to you about a Gospel story that takes place a thousand years after the time of King David: the woman with the flow of blood, who has lived with this shameful affliction for many years, endured much under many doctors, spent all she had, and found no relief. Desperate to relieve the pain and uncleanness of her body, the embarrassment and isolation of her condition, she approaches Jesus in the crowd, touches his clothing – and feels herself immediately healed. The bitter darkness she carried so long – released. She is made whole. The Gospel text doesn’t give the woman a name; she is often just called “the woman with the flow of blood,” which is hardly how anyone would want to be remembered. What if we were to name her, the better to celebrate her hope, her courage and her healing? What if we were to name her… Michal?