Not really a sermon about Michal

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
11th of July, 2021

1 Samuel 18: 20-29
1 Samuel 19:11-17
1 Samuel 25:43-44
2 Samuel 3:12-16
2 Samuel 6:1-5 12b-23

I keep referring to the story of King David of Judah and Israel as a soap opera, and today I’m going to ignore the lectionary suggestions and instead tell you the story of one of the most interesting characters in this soap opera – Michal the daughter of Saul and wife of David. The lectionary ignores her almost completely, and I suspect this is because the author of the books of Samuel portrays her as a brave and independent woman treated abominably by the great King David. So, of course, I think she needs to be remembered.

Michal was the younger daughter of Saul. Like her brother Jonathan, Michal loved David. We are told this in so many words: ‘Now Saul’s daughter Michal loved David’. This is the only time in the entire Bible that we are told that a woman loves a man. We are not, however, told that David loves Michal in return. We have earlier been told that when Saul’s son Jonathan first met David, ‘the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul’. That love seems to have been reciprocated; when Jonathan dies, David laments: ‘I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women’. Given the way that David treats the women in his life, that David cares more about the love between he and Jonathan than about the love of women is not really a surprise.

So, Michal loves David. This pleases her father, Saul, who plans to use her love to trap David, who he now fears. David is told by Saul’s servants that Saul will give him Michal in marriage if he brings ‘a hundred foreskins of the Philistines’ as bride price. Saul assumes that David will be killed in the attempt, but David kills two hundred Philistines, bringing Saul their foreskins. So David marries Michal, but Saul grows even more afraid of David.

Saul next tries to have David assassinated, and Michal saves her husband from her father. Unlike Jonathan, who at one point must be convinced that his father wants David killed (1 Samuel 20), Michal believes immediately in David’s danger when she is warned about it. When Saul sends people to David’s house to watch him, planning to kill him in the morning, Michal lets David down through their bedroom window to escape. Michal then makes a dummy out of a household idol with goats’ hair on its head, put it in bed, and tells Saul’s messengers that David is sick. By the time Saul comes to kill David in his bed and discovers Michal’s ruse, David is long gone. At this point Michal is described as ‘David’s wife Michal’. She is no longer Saul’s daughter; like her brother Jonathan she has given her allegiance to the rising power and future king. It will turn out that this is a mistake on her part.

Saul now gives Michal to another man as wife. David has deserted her and gone, and as the daughter of the king she is still a marriage prize. Interestingly, we are told this in the context of David also marrying again, he marries the widow Abigail and Ahinoam of Jezreel, and at this point we read: ‘Saul had given his daughter Michal, David’s wife, to Palti son of Laish, who was from Gallim’. We of course are not told how Michal feels about this, but much later, after Saul’s death, while David is fighting Saul’s son Ishbaal, the general Abner sends messengers to David at Hebron, asking to make a covenant with him, and David agrees if Abner brings him Michal. David also demands her of Saul’s son Ishbaal, saying: ‘Give me my wife Michal, to whom I became engaged at the price of one hundred foreskins of the Philistines,’ and Ishbaal does send Michal to David, taking her from her new husband. We are given a poignant vignette: ‘Ishbaal sent and took her from her husband Paltiel the son of Laish. But her husband went with her, weeping as he walked behind her all the way to Bahurim. Then Abner said to him, “Go back home!” So he went back.’ (2 Samuel 3:12-16) Again we have no idea how Michal feels about all this.

The final time we hear of Michal is in the reading the lectionary gives us today, after David has become king, when he brings the Ark of the Covenant back into Jerusalem. As the divine presence enters the city of David Michal, now again referred to as the daughter of Saul rather than the wife of David, looks out of her window, sees the king leaping and dancing before the Lord, and despises him in her heart. The lectionary reading ends without telling us about the final encounter between David and his wife, the woman who saved his life, who he deserted, replaced, and then demanded back from a husband who loved her. In this final encounter between them, David comes to bless his household and Michal leaves the house and comes outside to meet him.

Michal condemns David: ‘How the king of Israel honoured himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants’ maids, as any vulgar fellow might shamelessly uncover himself!’ This has led to lots of discussions among commentators about whether David was leaping so exuberantly in his dance that his genitals were uncovered. We are specifically told that ‘David was girded with a linen ephod,’ which is the clothing of a priest, and the Lord had earlier told his priests that ‘You shall not go up by steps to my altar, so that your nakedness may not be exposed on it’ (Exodus 20:26). So maybe this is Michal’s problem. But the fact that she is referred three times in this story as ‘Saul’s daughter’ indicates that the real controversy is between the House of Saul and the House of David. When Saul was alive his children Jonathan and Michal gave their loyalty to David. Before David became king Jonathan asked of him, ‘If I am still alive, show me the faithful love of the Lord; but if I die, never cut off your faithful love from my house’ (1 Samuel 20:14-15), but Michal had received no such promise. And so when she attacks David, he attacks back. ‘It was before the Lord, who chose me in place of your father and all his household, to appoint me as prince over Israel, the people of the Lord, that I have danced before the Lord.’ Michal, as Saul’s daughter, is part of the old regime, that has now been replaced by the House of David, of which she is apparently no longer a part.

David then says something interesting. ‘I will make myself yet more contemptible than this, and I will be abased in my own eyes; but by the maids of whom you have spoken, by them I shall be held in honour.’ Pro-David propagandists have argued that David means that he is willing to make himself a fool for the Lord, willing to give up all honour and glory, which rightly belongs to the Lord anyway. Except that this is not what David says. David is still planning to be held in honour by his servants’ maids, and he does not describe himself as being humble or meek, but as being contemptible and abased in his own eyes. Immediately after this we are told that, ‘Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death’. However, we are not told that this was because the Lord had closed her womb. Again, pro-David commentators suggest that the Lord did make her barren, because she did not appreciate David’s exuberant celebrations before the Lord. But that is reading into the text something that is not there. I wonder whether she had no children because David stopped having sex with her and so made himself contemptible and abased himself, by failing at the first duty of a husband and of the people of God, being fruitful and multiplying.

Michal in David and Bathsheba 2

Jayne Meadows as Michal in ‘David and Bathsheba’ (1951).

For whatever reason, Michal has no children. All Saul’s other descendants, except for Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth who has crippled feet and thus would be unable to be a warrior-king, have been killed. With Michal bearing no children, the House of David has completely replaced the House of Saul. And so Michal’s story ends.

You can understand why the story of Michal and David does not make it into the lectionary. As Walter Brueggemann writes: ‘We seem to be reading a dime-store novel or watching a seedy soap opera.’[1] The relationship between David and Jonathan is remembered for its love and beauty and pathos; there are no stained-glass windows put up to Michal. In the 1951 film David and Bathsheba, in which Gregory Peck plays David, Susan Heyward plays Bathsheba, and Jayne Meadows plays Michal, Michal has become a bitter, elitist woman, as a way of defending David from accusations of ill-treatment. (I will be on holiday on the Sunday when the lectionary gives us the story of David’s treatment of Bathsheba, so I will just quickly say now that biblical commentaries also tend to absolve the great King David from his adultery and murder in that story by blaming Bathsheba for bathing naked where the king could see her.) For too many biblical commentators, David can do no wrong, which means the women in David’s life can do no right.

Still from the 1951 film David and Bathsheba, with Gregory Peck as David and Jayne Meadows as Michal

Still from the 1951 film David and Bathsheba, with Gregory Peck as David and Jayne Meadows as Michal

I am not suggesting that we can discover the historical truth behind the story of Michal in the Scriptures. She may have been a brave and loving wife to David, whose love only turned to hatred after he deserted her and married other women. She may have been the nagging, angry, sarcastic shrew that some biblical commentators make her out to be. To quote Brueggemann again: ‘David, who is thought to be despised by Michal, is in fact honoured by Israel and by Yahweh. Michal, who thinks she is in a position of strength, is dismissed by the narrative as barren and hopeless. There is something here of the exalted being humbled and the humbled being exalted.’[2] With the deepest respect to Brueggemann, only a man could have written that. Michal may have been a king’s daughter, but she has been handed around in marriage by her father and brother. David may have started life as a shepherd, but he has been able to pick and choose multiple wives. Michal is not exalted; David is not humble. The end of their story leaves them in the same position as in the beginning: Michal vulnerable to the whims of men; David the favourite of the Lord.

What we see in the story of Michal is what we will see in the story of Bathsheba. David is a bad king. When the people asked Samuel to give them a king like other nations, the Lord told Samuel to do it, but first to ‘solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them’. (1 Samuel 8:9) We are often told that the Lord is with David; we are also shown that David is the sort of war-making, son- and daughter-stealing, king of which Samuel warned them. Why does the Lord continue, then, to be with David? Samuel tells Saul that ‘the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart; and the Lord has appointed him to be ruler over his people’, (1 Samuel 13:14) but why is David a man after the Lord’s heart? The pious answer is that it is not about who David is, but about who the Lord is. The Lord remains faithful to David regardless of David’s wrongdoing. That answer makes sense if we are reading the books of Samuel through the eyes of David, but not if we try to read them through the eyes of Michal or Bathsheba. So, I do not have an answer. I just do not want Michal to be forgotten. As the lectionary leads us through the deeds of the great King David, remember his wives.

[1] Walter Bruggemaan, First and Second Samuel, John Knox Press, 1990, p. 144

[2] Bruggemaan, First and Second Samuel, p. 253.

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