Today’s story reminds me of a tabloid in the grocery store check-out line. The story-teller flashes us a High Definition photo of the celebrity of the century: King David, the sexiest man in Jerusalem. Right underneath this glamour shot of David’s winning smile and handsome features, there’s a caption airing the dirty laundry of the royal family for all the world to see.
You see, the opening of today’s story is full of life and color, excitement and sound and movement. The young King David has decided to fetch the Ark of the Covenant and bring it to Jerusalem, and the Ark will serve as a sign to everyone that God’s favor rested on David, on his kingship, and on his city.
Well, the Ark traveled all of six steps and out broke a party, which is to say, the Ark was a big deal. And because the Ark accompanied David, this confirmed that David was a big deal, as if he wasn’t popular enough already.
All this made David a little giddy, to say the least. First he got religious, sacrificing a bull and a fatted calf. Then he got wild and started dancing in the streets with all his might. The storyteller conveys that people were shouting and trumpets were blaring. In other words, everywhere you looked, it was a celebration. Every sound you heard was loud and exuberant. Even the smell in the air had the odor of animal sacrifices, which in that day and time, was a holy smell. All your senses were telling you that this day combined the very best of worship and the very best of festivity. Sacred and party collided together, an intoxicating joy that burst into the streets and swallowed up everyone in the celebration.
Only, it didn’t swallow up everyone. Somebody got left out or at least, she opted not to join. There is a party in the streets, but there is pouting princess in the window. A queen, really, since she is married to the King, but before she was married to King David, she was the daughter of King Saul. In today’s story, she is called “Saul’s daughter,” not David’s wife, even though Saul is dead and David is very much alive. She is queen, but she was princess first and it is as if the storyteller wants to emphasize where Michal’s loyalty really lies. The text says “Michal, Saul’s daughter, saw King David (no mention that the King is her husband) leaping and dancing before the Lord and she despised him in her heart.”
The opening party scene quickly moves towards a thickening plot: we learn there is a shadowy current to this colorful triumphant story, a private matter of discord beneath the public display of unity. You’d think Michal’s unpatriotic attitude would be the kind of thing to cover-up (bad publicity), but for whatever reason, the storyteller doesn’t sweep the familial tension under the rug. The private stuff gets spotlight space too, making all of us privy to some very personal information about the king’s family.
Michal despises David, but we aren’t told why. She is called Saul’s daughter, and the language of husband and wife is strangely absent. But no sooner have we begun to understand that something is amiss in the relationship, when the narrator takes us right back to the party. David is still celebrating, totally oblivious to the disdain of his queen. David makes more sacrifices, blesses the people, and passes out food to every person in the kingdom. The extravagance of the celebration grows—you can taste it in the feast, feel it in the dancing, smell it in the burnt sacrifices, hear it in the trumpets, and it would seem that everybody in the kingdom is included, but we now know that not all is jolly in David’s kingdom.
David hasn’t noticed, but we know about the princess waiting at her window. You and I are familiar enough with princesses from Rapunzel to Fiona, that we can easily picture yet another damsel in distress, looking down from her palace window, though in Michal’s case, there is no Knight in Shining armor to rescue her from her misery; things will only get worse.
The text reports, “When David returned home to bless his household, Michal daughter of Saul came out to meet him and said, “How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today, going around half-naked in full view of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would!” The disdain and anger are dripping from her voice, and David, who had come to bless his family, spits out blessings for himself instead: “It was before the Lord, who chose me rather than your father or anyone from his house when he appointed me ruler over the Lord’s people Israel—I will celebrate before the Lord. I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes. But by these slave girls you spoke of, I will be held in honor.”
With that, the dialogue ends abruptly. David gets the last word, and the text concludes, “Michal, the daughter of Saul, had no children to the day of her death,” which suggests the feud prevailed and Michal and David never again met for love.
A simplistic reading of this story says that David worshipped, Michal despised his worship, and Michal was punished. But the real story is much more deliciously complex than that.
Royal women waiting at the window is a common image in Scripture, from Sisera’s mother to Solomon’s lover. And in the Michal story alone, there are actually two different window scenes. This second window scene takes place as the Michal-David marriage is disintegrating, but the first window scene takes place at the very beginning of their relationship.
As you can imagine a lot transpires between the budding romance and the falling out, because at the outset Michal loved David. It says so twice in 1 Samuel 18 that Michal loved David, and this is quite significant because she is the only woman in all of the Old Testament who is said to have loved a man. Her father, King Saul, feared David, and he saw his daughter’s love for David as something he could use to his own advantage. Saul set a price for his daughter’s hand: 100 Philistine foreskins. Quite naturally, he thought this would be a deterrent, and hopefully, a death warrant for David.
Unfortunately, Saul ended up with 200 Philistine foreskins, which David counted out in front of him one by one (with a bit of cheek, I imagine), and Saul had no choice but to surrender his daughter. And while the storyteller makes it undeniably clear that Michal loved David, it is not so clear how David felt in return. Yes, he went to great lengths to obtain the bride price, but the text only says he was pleased to be the king’s son-in-law. There is no profession of love on David’s part, so we don’t know whether he had an eye for Michal or just an eye for the status of the royal family.
Whether or not a true reciprocal romance ever formed, we don’t really know. That Michal was initially love-struck and devoted, we are absolutely certain. Early in their marriage, Michal discerns that her father is plotting to kill David, so she cunningly and courageously engineers an escape for her young husband by letting him out the window. This is window scene #1, and in it, Michal plays the daring rescuer who outwits her father and the guards to save her lover’s life.
The biblical narrative is mysteriously silent about their marriage for quite some time after the rescue, and next time we hear about Michal, she is being taken from David by her father and given as a bride to somebody else. Without any say in the matter, Michal is a political pawn, shuffled here and there to try and subvert David’s growing power. It makes Saul nervous, having David so close to the royal line, and so Michal is simply removed, like a piece of property and given to Paltiel, whoever he is. We are not told how either David or Michal felt about the split.
But we do know that David takes another wife, Ahinoam, and then another, Abigail. By 2 Samuel 3, Saul is dead, David’s kingship is more or less official and he’s got at least four additional women, making a total of 6, 7 if you count the displaced Michal. By Samuel 5, he has a functioning harem, complete with concubines and more wives.
Finally, during some war negotiations with what remains of Saul’s household, David demands that Michal be returned to him, after all, he paid 200 Philistine foreskins for her. And so his first wife is returned to him, more or less as a spoil of war. She is taken from her second husband, Paltiel. This is the second time she’s been forcibly removed from her home, and Scripture reports that poor Paltiel followed weeping behind her for as long as he could.
Scripture is strangely silent about how Michal reacts to this transfer, which leaves space for us to wonder. If Paltiel was so torn up about her departure, maybe she was too. Maybe she’d finally found a man who loved her and a home safe from political maneuvering. Or, maybe, there was something inside her that always longed for her first love, the man she’d protected, the man she was so tragically ripped away from. Maybe she secretly hoped she would return to David and win his heart for good. Or maybe Michal felt numb: being moved from place to place had zapped her energy. Maybe she was fighting angry—the man she had once loved was at war with her father’s family. Or maybe she felt confused inside like a big jumbled mess of roaring emotion, who knows?
All I know is that no matter what she was expecting, what she got was a palace full of women, all of whom had been with her husband and none who had loved him the way she had.
So by the time we get to our story today, and we read that Michal, daughter of Saul, saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord and she despised him in her heart, we are not exactly sure why she despised him, but we sure do have some pretty good ideas why, and none of them have anything to do with David’s style of worship.
Like most marital fights, the thing you’re fighting about isn’t really the thing you’re fighting about. There’s more, beneath the surface, and in Michal’s case, there is much, much more. Michal is no simple character, and neither is King David. Even the most celebrated king in all of Israelite history had a pretty messed up family life, and most of his problems were problems he created for himself. As Robert Alter aptly notes, the storyteller does not question David’s divine election as king, but “theological rights do not necessarily justify domestic wrongs, and the anointed monarch of Israel may still be a harsh and unfeeling husband to the woman who has loved him and saved his life.”
It is important to read the whole story lest we fool ourselves into thinking that these characters are in the Bible in order to be examples for us. They aren’t examples; they are people. People who love and fight, win and lose, burn with passion and burn-up with envy. Some of them win when all the odds are against them; some of them lose and lose again no matter how hard they try. Some are victims and some are perpetrators, and just like real life, most are an odd combination of both.
They are people, and the Bible is their stories. More importantly, the Bible is the story of God, and today is a story about one of those many, many, many times in human history in which God is worshipped publically, but privately, people are hurting and fighting. You see it all the time these days—people who praise God with their lips and destroy other people with their lives—and it turns out that is nothing new. It is hard hard hard to have an inner life that matches an outer life, and I think that’s why the contemplatives recommend you start your spiritual work with the inner.
It would be so much easier if David’s actual life lived up to his glamorous reputation. But I’m thankful the storyteller didn’t gloss it over for us, just to make it easy. Because when has life ever been easy? When have people ever been neatly divided into easily identifiable groups—bad guys over here, heroes over there? David’s character is as complex as they come, and like most Bible characters, there is very little in his life to teach us what we ought to do in ours. Mostly, people like David and Michal remind us what it is like to be human, what is like to be given free will, and how terrifying it is that God grants humans so much influence in the unfolding of history. These stories teach us that amidst the foibles and follies, feelings and fragilities of humanity God continues to show up and interact with his creation.
Most of the time, history gets told by the winners. There is some of that in the Bible, but there is space for other stories too. While David is out winning battles, winning wives, and retaking the Ark of the Covenant, Michal’s voice rings out with honesty—not all is well in the house of David.
May we come to our Bibles not looking for perfection—perfect people, perfect stories—but may we come looking for hope that God never gives up on humanity. May we gather together as the church not looking for perfection—perfect people, perfect stories—but may we gather together looking for hope that God never gives up on humanity. May all our grasping desires be slowly transformed into honest worship. Amen.
 Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, 125.