What would you rather do? Keep your mouth shut to avoid conflict or risk your life to help someone else? Generally most of us would prefer to choose the more comfortable option. If we go back 3000 years in time, we find a woman who may be more popularly remembered today for her caustic tongue, but whom the Bible depicts more generously as also a brave and loyal wife and a heroine of her people. Let’s take a fresh look at Michal, daughter of King Saul and first wife of King David.
Michal first comes on the scene as a young girl in love with the popular young army commander David serving her father King Saul. David has been at the palace from time to time before, serving her father as a musician. He rises to prominence as a military hero after he defeats Goliath and averts a national security threat. David is also her brother’s best friend.
At this point of the story, Saul feels threatened by David’s military victory and popularity. He slights David by going back on his public promise to give his eldest daughter Merab as wife to the man who defeats Goliath. Merab is given to someone else. Yet Saul is actually pleased to learn that Michal loves David. This pleasure is not in his daughter’s happiness. Rather, Saul hopes that in practicing the cultural traditions of winning Michal’s hand in marriage, David will be harmed. We see David’s humility in not wishing to marry into the royal family, he is extremely conscious of his humble background and feels diffident about becoming the king’s son-in-law. It takes a lot of persuasion to consider the marriage proposal.
Interestingly, it looks like around 1000 B.C. in ancient Israel, the dowry was to be given by the groom to the girl’s family, rather than the bride’s family needing to pay a man to marry their daughter as happens in many cultures even today. Saul’s bride price is a 100 Philistine foreskins. The Philistines happened to be an aggressive neighbour that periodically invaded Israel. David has to hunt down their enemies and kill enough of them to be able to bring back the proof of having killed uncircumcized men. Saul’s hope is that in the process of trying to kill a hundred men that his prospective son-in-law would get killed himself. His plan fails, David is able to procure what Saul wants and in due course marries Michal. It is worthwhile to note that Michal is said to ‘love’ David rather than just be ‘in love’ with him. Soon we will see how her love is put to the test.
Loyalty and Initiative
Soon after Michal’s wedding David is engaged in his peacetime occupation of playing soothing music for the king. Saul’s jealousies and insecurities get the better of him and he tries to kill David by hurling a spear to pin him to the wall. David escapes and returns home. While he is slow in responding to the imminent danger of being found and executed, it is Michal who acts decisively, correctly interpreting the king’s intentions and initiating appropriate action.
The scene could be from a thriller. David has just escaped from his deranged father-in-law. Michal notices palace thugs outside their home sent by her father to make sure David can’t leave his house. Michal realizes if David is to flee from the king, it has to be that very night, that to delay until morning would result in being captured by Saul. It is she who insists that David cannot afford to wait until morning to escape and almost pushes him to act immediately. The plan of escape is hers and she works to execute the plan. In the dead of night, David is stealthily let out through a window by Michal, so that he can get away to safety. No wringing of hands. No tears. Only bold and courageous action of a loyal wife. Sometimes in a life and death situation, there is no time to think about our feelings, our character comes through in how we act in the moment.
Dealing with Crises
Even after she has helped David get away, Michal does not succumb to self-pity or justified grief. She is busy with a plan to buy time for David, so that he can get further away from Saul. Taking nothing to chance, in case the men sent by her father should come into the bedroom, she makes up the bed to give the impression that a person is sleeping. She stalls the men by saying that her husband is sick. Confronted by an enraged father who discovers the trick of the dummy in bed, Michal pretends that David would have killed her if she had not helped him escape. How comfortable are we with her lies? Both her lies are to shield either her husband or herself from the repercussions of irrational rage of an authoritarian ruler. If Michal had let the men come into the room they would have discovered David’s escape earlier and he would have had them pursuing him in no time. No trial, and likely summary execution. Is she had the stupidity to tell her deranged father that she was instrumental in letting his enemy escape, she could easily have been killed herself. This is not a far- fetched assumption. Saul has a history of unpredictable rage and violence. Shortly thereafter, enraged to hear Jonathan speaking up for David, Saul tries to pin his own son and heir to the wall.
Michal’s license with the truth in the context of dealing with powerful but unjust authorities raises an interesting issue. Can we who live in comfortable cultures with no threat to our physical safety even understand circumstances where the most prudent course of action might be to lie? Not because its convenient, or its uncomfortable to face the consequences of our actions, not even for grand notions of the greater good, but because of your certain knowledge that if you gave true information to the authorities that it would lead to the unjust death of a human being. Think back to Hitler’s Germany where people risked their lives and hid Jews and very likely lied to the authorities who came looking for them. Much like Shiphrah and Puah in the time of baby Moses. These Hebrew midwives were ordered by the Egyptian ruler to kill male babies born to Hebrew women. They chose not to obey the national law that clashed with a higher moral law and when questioned by the king made a prudent reply. God actually rewards them for their honorable lies.
In more recent times folks across the globe have hidden ethnic minorities from bloodthirsty mobs in times of civil unrest. In Sri Lanka during July 1983 when Colombo was in flames and we saw great evil with an angry Sinhalese mob hunting and killing Tamils, we also saw great good where Sinhalese stood up to protect their Tamil friends and neighbors. In these kinds of circumstances unusual for most of us, even if we want to be truthful no matter the consequence for ourselves, we do not have the luxury of salving our conscience by sacrificing someone else. Do we lie or tell the truth and give someone over to certain death; marked for death because of color, gender, ethnicity, religious or political belief that does not sit well with the ruling regime.
Michal’s lies also help Saul save face. In many cultures around the world today including my own, there are indirect rather than direct ways of relating to people. Older people by and large are not used to being contradicted. Younger adults find it hard to tell older people that they disagree with their point of view. Out of respect, the younger person may keep his/her view to himself. It would have been intolerable for Saul to be confronted by Michal his daughter.
There is nothing to suggest in the tone of the passage that Michal is rebuked by history for lying, standing up to her father or going against the king’s wishes. Rather, Michal is depicted as a heroine. As the history of David and Solomon are recorded, we see Michal’s role in initiating David’s escape from Saul as pivotal. She is the brave and loyal wife who risks her life and her father’s wrath to help David get away. It is an ugly situation for any newly married young girl to be in. Who would want to choose between a father and a husband due to dysfunctional family dynamics? In the only instance recorded where she has the power to choose her allegiance, she chooses to be loyal to her husband David, over fidelity to her father. Michal is not looking out for number one. If she wanted to make a pragmatic choice, she would not have chosen to side with a fugitive on the run over an established and powerful ruler. Several years after the actual event, even after Michal’s relationship with David turns sour, the Biblical account portrays Michal with respect, the woman instrumental in helping David escape, preserving his life so that he could be king of Israel as God intended.
David is almost a bystander in this crisis situation, all the key decisions are made by Michal. Sometimes when we are overwhelmed by what seems to be an insurmountable problem, it is natural for our confidence to be shaken and to be slow in figuring out what to do. Michal on the other hand has her wits about her. In this instance we see her functioning as an equal partner in their marriage, trusted to be able to make a crucial and complex decision. She is not an adornment, but an active participant in shaping the course of Israel’s history.
As David escapes and Michal is left behind to cope with her father, they would not have dreamed that this is the last time they would see each other for several years and their lives and circumstances would change irrevocably in the interim.
In patriarchal cultures, once a woman is married, she is absorbed into the husband’s family. Her family of origin no longer has any claim over her. For a woman, marriage included a giving up of allegiance and identity with her own family and learning to identify with and consider her husband’s family as her own. Not too long after David is on the run, Saul does what he has no right to do. He gives his daughter Michal already married to David, to another man, Paltiel. Here, the powerful king is making a political statement. By giving Michal to someone else Saul is signalling to all Israel that David is no longer considered his son-in-law. The fugitive on the run is no longer family, only Saul’s enemy.
Saul’s behaviour shows that he values humiliating David over the happiness of his daughter. Giving Michal to Paltiel is a public insult to David. Michal has no choice in the matter. She is a pawn in a political power game. How did she feel about being given to another man, forced to think of him as her husband, to be intimate with him? 1 Samuel is not Michal’s story, so we do not know. We can guess from what we know of her already. A young wife, concerned for the safety of her husband, missing him and repelled to be in someone else’s bed. Her feelings are irrelevant. Saul is so intent on hurting David and dissociating himself from him, that he can’t see/doesn’t care that he’s hurting Michal also.
Time passes. Life happens. While David lives in hiding with a ragtag band of followers, he marries two more wives, Ahinoam and Abigail. Saul gets killed in fighting a foreign army. Jonathan dies in the same battle. The king and heir are dead and its time for David to begin ruling. There are many years of political unrest though, as the house of Saul won’t easily give up their claim to the throne. For more than seven years David has to be content ruling only a small portion of the country from Hebron. During this period, David does not initiate a plan to bring Michal back. He takes four more wives and at least six sons are born to him in Hebron. We see David starting to play the strategic alliance game, one of the wives he marries is the daughter of a foreign ruler. The wife of his youth is forgotten.
Michal is remembered again only when David realizes the political importance of having her by his side. The commander of the Saul family faction tries to make a deal with David, so that David could have control of all Israel. David says no deal unless he brings with him, “Saul’s daughter, my wife”. Michal is returned as the key component of the political negotiations. David sees that having Michal with him is strategic to silence Saul’s clan/extended family. Having Michal by his side strengthens his position as king and is a unifying factor with fellow Israelites. While it is possible that David didn’t want to unsettle Michal from her new life and therefore was hesitant about bringing her back, the moment David realizes that Michal is necessary to consolidate his position as king, he is inflexible in his determination to have her brought back.
How does Michal feel about being returned to David? The Bible records how Paltiel follows weeping as the army commander takes away his wife of around ten years. Not the signs of an indifferent husband, but a loving one. It is very likely that the young devastated Michal, briefly the wife of David, has over the years begun to reciprocate the affection of her new husband. Paltiel would not have wept for an indifferent wife. Michal has got accustomed to her new life when she is uprooted again. Saul and David both use her for their own ends. Michal is a pawn yet again. She has no choice in the decisions made about her. As a girl, her youthful love for David is used by her father to try and trap David. When David escaped Saul’s clutches the young wife is given to another man to humiliate David. With the passing of the years as she tries to respond to the love of her second husband, she is taken back to David by military force.
Michal has to keep adjusting to circumstances beyond her control and deal with emotions of loss, sadness, repugnance, anger, humiliation and bitterness. Having her well-being continually ignored by powerful authority figures in her life, by this time she must be a master at masking her emotions. Masking emotions come easy to people who are habitually in situations of powerlessness where their thoughts, aspirations and even lives are considered unimportant by others who have power over them. In some cultures even today, wives can be physically assaulted by their husbands and still be expected to be soft-spoken and respectful to their husbands and not discuss their marital situation with anybody. A sure recipe for depression. Did Michal come smiling, even though seething inside?
How does the helper in your home feel about how you treat her? Does she smile all the time or is she comfortable being sullen sometimes? One way I know that my family has got this right is the fact that my brother and sister-in-law’s domestic helper has no problem telling them off from time to time! She knows that her work is valued, paid for well, gets time off and that she is as worth as they are as human beings.
The young girl we first saw has now become a mature woman. She has experienced the harshness of the real world. Her family has lost power in Israel, her father and brother have been killed in war. She has known grief and bereavement. Michal now has to navigate a relationship with David which is necessarily complicated as he has other wives and children.
We see Michal only once after she is returned to David. We are not sure how long after her return the event takes place. The occasion is a religious celebration. David is dancing before God in physical abandonment. This is a public ceremony, so all the people see their king worshipping God without concern about proper kingly reserve. Michal is able to see the festivities from her window and is consumed by thoughts of how undignified her husband the king appears. When David comes home joyfully after worship, Michal drips with sarcasm as she upbraids him for appearing vulgar and making a spectacle of himself before the servant girls. While David has been expressing himself in worship to God, without caring about his royal position i.e. “what will people think?” Michal has been preoccupied with thoughts that David’s behviour in worship did not fit his pomp and circumstance. Perhaps she feels his actions are a slight to her own position as well. Convinced by her perception that his behaviour was not dignified, Michal fails to see David’s genuine worship of God. The narrative links this despising of David’s worship to Michal’s barrenness.
Sometimes this portion of the story has been exposited as a warning of judgment to wives who don’t treat their husbands with respect. However a close reading of this incident shows that the reason Michal misses out on being a mother is her failure to recognize David’s transparency and sincerity in worshipping God. It is not for mocking her husband. It is interesting that David does not reprimand Michal for how she talks to him. He only reiterates that his position is in fact given by God and that he will probably humiliate himself several times over.
Ever felt embarrassed on behalf of someone else? Sometimes we too presume we can read a situation, but end up judging someone else’s actions and motives wrongly. What we think we see may not always be the reality, though we are convinced it is so. Do we harm ourselves and others by being contemptuous of their transparent and open lives? Sometimes the honesty of others lives and their simple worship of God can be a threat to our own lack of transparency. They expose the elaborate but empty religious rituals behind which we hide, for fear of relating to God on his own terms. We are busy passing judgment and miss the joy of seeing how God has impacted real people in significant ways.
Michal seems to have to pay too heavy a price for one lapse. In this sense she is like Moses, who had to forego leading the Israelites to the Promised Land, for one lapse. Just one attitude, in Michal’s case despising her husband’s worship results in childlessness. One moment of frustration, a small act of altering God’s instructions in getting water from a rock results in Moses forfeiting the right to lead the people into Caanan. Why? I guess at the very least, it means that small things are important to God. He expects clear instructions followed and is concerned about what our minds are filled with at a given moment.
In Michal’s action we see the juxtaposition of free will and predestination. Barrenness is Michal’s consequence for denigrating true worship. Even as Michal is responsible for how she thinks, in God’s sovereignty his promise to Saul comes true, in that Saul’s heirs will not inherit the throne. If Michal had had children, her son would have the strongest natural claim to the throne as both the son of David and the grandson of Saul.
Michal does not have the power to make large decisions like where she will live and with whom. She does have agency over her thoughts and to what degree she would allow her thoughts to influence her words and actions. She is still a strong woman, able to speak her mind to her husband the king. Stronger than some of us perhaps, who might find it easier to guard our speech to avoid giving offense, rather than risk ourselves to real danger even for the sake of those we love.
It is interesting that the two episodes where Michal is seen as a real person with her own thoughts, words and actions are such contrasts. Why are these two contrasting stories included in this narrative of Israel’s history? How are they both important? We see how Michal’s own attitudes and behavior mesh with God’s wider plans for Israel and the world in preserving the line of David instead of the house of Saul. We also see that Michal is still honoured as the one who preserved the life of the then future king, despite having made a wrong judgment. The whole story of David’s life is written down after all these incidents take place. Despite Michal’s lack of recognition of David’s worship and her mockery of her husband the king, she is still seen as the person without whose initiative and assistance David would not have escaped Saul and certain death. Even as God uses Michal’s own attitudes and actions in later times to fulfill his purposes for Saul’s descendants, God also uses Michal’s initiative and actions in earlier days to fulfill his purposes for David.
Sometimes we forget a person’s faithful character and service in the past. We cling to his/her one mistake, sin even, and all their future actions are interpreted through the lens of that one flawed action. Yes, there are consequences of bad actions however glorious a person’s past accomplishments. However, God still sees, values and rewards the good choices of our past too. They don’t get cancelled out. We see this in how Moses is remembered in the New Testament. His impatience cost him the privilege of leading the people the final step of the journey, but did not cancel out the years of good leadership before. In the Biblical record, Michal is treated the same way. Though smaller in scale, Michal ‘s story is presented in a way that shows she is still valued by David and the people as the heroine who helped him escape at a time in his life where he did not have power, privilege and position. A little different to modern times where those in power quickly forget those who helped them get to their position! We see her human, giving in to negative impulses. Her faults, like Moses’s and even King David’s are acknowledged. David and Moses or other heroes with larger stories in the Bible are not written off because of their faults. Michal, a real woman of both strength of character and human weakness, with her small story is not written off either. Not by God, nor her people.