Today the lectionary introduces us to Michal, first wife of King David. This is the end of Michal’s story; she is not mentioned again. And if this is all you knew, you might think of her as jealous and judgmental.
But we know more about Michal, daughter of King Saul. That’s the richness of the books of Samuel and Kings: with many of these characters, we learn enough to see, at least a little, who they are, and how their experiences shape them.
So to do Michal justice, let’s go back to when the *text* first introduces her, back in First Samuel chapter 18.
Michal’s relationship with David begins with hero-worship. David has just killed Goliath, the Philistine giant, and then joined her father’s household. Sometimes he plays music for Saul when Saul’s dark moods seize him. But more often he’s leading Saul’s army into battle – successfully! The women of the land sing, “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.”
Michal’s brother Jonathan has sworn fealty to David, offering him his armor and sword as a gesture of loyalty and love – for Jonathan loved David as his own soul. It wasn’t just Jonathan; the text tells us, “All Israel and Judah loved David.” And Michal, too, loves David – this handsome young warrior poet.
Saul likes the idea of binding David to him through a strategic marriage… but he also kind of likes the idea of having David be killed by the Philistines, Israel’s enemies. So Saul lets it be known that he’d be very glad for David to marry his daughter, if David can bring him 100 Philistine foreskins. He hopes this challenge might get David out of his hair for good… but of course David, being David, simply goes and does it.
This only deeps Saul’s fear and hatred, and he makes up his mind to get rid of David. But Jonathan and Michal are determined to save their beloved. Jonathan pleads with Saul to have mercy on David, and Saul relents – but later, in a dark mood, he changes his mind again, and sends killers to David’s home.
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, plus some goatskin for hair. She used the “dummy” to put off the assassins – claiming David couldn’t come out because he was sick. It delays them long enough for David to get well away. When her father asked why she helped David, choosing her husband over her father, she claimed that David had threatened to kill her.
The Bible tells us far more about the love between David and Jonathan than David and 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 before escaping to the wilderness.
David flees to one neighboring land, then another; and as he travels, he gathers followers. And Saul takes poor abandoned Michal and gives her as a wife to another man, named Palti.
Here’s how David finally becomes king, years later: Saul and Israel’s army are fighting the Philistines, again. And the Philistines win. Most of Saul’s sons are killed – including Jonathan. Saul throws himself on his own sword to avoid the shame of being killed by the enemy.
David and his little personal army aren’t at this battle; they’re busy chasing down some raiders who had attacked their village. When David hears of Saul and Jonathan’s deaths, he sings a great song of grief about the death of these valiant warriors. Soon thereafter, the people of Judah, the southern part of the land of God’s people, anoint David as their king.
But the last of Saul’s sons, Ishbaal, survives the battle and becomes king of Israel, the northern part of the land. 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. Maybe David rankled at the dishonor of having his wife – one of his wives; he’s collected several more – given to another man. Maybe for the possibility of a son who would combine Saul and David’s lines, and be the next king of a united nation. Sadly, it probably wasn’t because he loved her or missed her.
Ishbaal agrees to David’s demand, and Michal is taken from her second husband, Palti. The text tells us, “Her husband went with her, weeping as he walked behind her,” until Ishbaal’s general ordered Palti to go home. So Michal is given away a third time, taken from a husband who apparently loved her, and given – again – to David, who, like her father, sees her only as a pawn.
Finally, a couple of enterprising warriors assassinate King Ishbaal. This is a pattern with David: People conveniently kill his enemies for him, and he has the luxury of keeping his hands clean and being outraged and grief-stricken, while still reaping the benefits of their actions. David has the assassins publicly executed… and then when the tribes of Israel come to him and say, “Now you can be our King too,” he says, Well, OK.
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. This isn’t the ark Noah built, though it’s the same word in Hebrew. This ark was built during the wilderness years, by Israel’s finest craftsman, to hold the stone tablets on which Moses had received the Law of God. A holy box to hold the world’s holiest treasure. A box so holy that if someone has not prepared themselves to approach it, and simply reaches out a hand to steady it on uneven ground – that person might get zapped to ashes.
And as they enter Jerusalem in triumphal procession with the Ark, David and those with him are so filled with holy joy that they dance wildly 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 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, what’s the point?…
Michal daughter of Saul looks out of the window, and sees David leaping and dancing before the Lord. The New Revised Standard translation says, she despised him in her heart. The Common English Bible says, she lost all respect for him. Either translation gets the idea across.
What’s going on here for Michal, as her heart turns against a man whom she once loved? She has been through years of coldness, betrayal, loss, and never having what she actually wanted. Of course she’s jealous – the remark about the servant girls hints at how much she minds all David’s dalliances. 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 has great big feelings: those flares of anger, joy, grief, desire. He has great big ambitions. He has great big piety, devotion to God. Michal just wishes he would act like a king. And David says, Deal with it. I am who I am, and God likes it.
The text says that from that time on, Michal had no children. I think what we are to understand is that their relationship – never strong – is irrevocably broken, in this moment. Maybe this is the last time David and Michal speak to each other. Maybe Michal lives out the rest of 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 why tell Michal’s story?… Well, at the most superficial level: to fix the lectionary. If you only hear the Sunday texts, Michal comes off pretty badly. If you know her whole story, it’s different.
Let’s go a little deeper and wonder why the Bible tells us Michal’s story. If all that mattered was the end of Saul’s royal line, the text could have told us much less about Michal. But instead it gives us enough to trace the contours of her life and the ache of her heart. I think that’s because the larger story that this part of the Bible is telling is about how people lose control of their own lives, suffer and struggle, because those with power, and those seeking power, don’t count the costs – or don’t care. 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.
So why do I tell Michal’s story? Why make space on a Sunday, every few years when it rolls around in the lectionary, for this ultimately rather sad story? There are a couple of reasons I think it’s important. For one thing, often people look at the awful stuff that happens in the Bible and they are put off, because they think that if it’s in the Bible, that means the Bible – and those whose faith is grounded in the Bible – think that awful stuff is OK.
But the voice of the text doesn’t think that stuff is OK. I think the Biblical text pities Michal, just as we do. That’s a really really important point for our engagement with the Bible in general and the Old Testament in particular: Yes, there is some terrible stuff in there: senseless violence and bitter injustice and cruel betrayal and so on. The thing is, the text KNOWS that stuff is terrible. The Bible has much more complexity and narrative sophistication than a lot of folks realize. Michal’s story is a good example.
For another thing: Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis says that there are two kinds of Christians. One kind sees us as profoundly separated from the Old Testament. In this view, the Old Testament is interesting but also quite strange, and not really relevant to Christian faith or life. Lots of folks take that view, consciously or unconsciously – including many Episcopalians.
The other kind of Christians, says Davis, see the Old Testament as “an urgent and speaking presence”, a compendium of stories of human and divine relationships that have never lost their power and relevance. From this perspective: The reason Michal’s story is compelling is that it’s not so strange or unthinkable. The stories of women who get to make few of their own choices, controlled by the men around them – 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 Bible tells the story of Michal, among so many others, to show us that kings aren’t the only people that matter – to history or to God. To call us to pay attention to those struggling in the brutal currents of human history, and to care what happens to their lives and their hearts. And that, beloveds, is deeply congruent with the life and witness of Jesus Christ – who taught us to seek God and serve God among those the world sees as unimportant.