“Michal Despises David”, James Tissot
Michal first appears in 1 Sam. 18:20 where we learn that she loves David. Not only was she the only woman in the Bible we are told loved a man but it seems that she also publicly declared her romantic interest in David. Even her father, King Saul, knew of her affections. Being mentally unstable, Saul found the giant-killing upstart a threat to his kingship. Saul promised David his daughter Michal’s hand in marriage if David could slay 100 nasty Philistines and bring back their foreskins. Saul thought that Israel’s enemies would kill David and rid him of the beautiful young warrior. When David delivered not just 100 bloody foreskins but 200, the King Saul had no choice but to deliver on his promise.
After the marriage, Saul was still determined to eliminate his rival. He attempted to kill David but the quick-thinking Michal helped her husband escape out a window. She then used teraphim (household idols) to make the bed look like David was sleeping under the covers. A majority of commentators blame Michal for her later tragedies due to her possession of the carved images. They seem to overlook the fact that she lives in David’s house and therefore the idols might be his (Exum, Murder They Wrote, p.126).
Significantly, Michal is in charge in this story.
“Even in his desperate escape through a window, David takes no initiative to save himself. It is Michal who initiates the action; she lets him out the window so that he escapes from the guards posted by Saul… Moreover, it is Michal who constructs the elaborate subterfuge to give David time to escape.” (Brueggemann, p.143)
Commentators then criticize her for destroying their chances for emotional intimacy because she did not follow David into the battlefield! On the run, David delivers his parents to a safe place, gathers his brothers “[a]nd every one that was in distress, and everyone that was in debt, and everyone that was discontented, gathered themselves unto him.” But not the distressed wife who might have been in danger when her father discovered her role in David’s escape. King Saul threw a javelin at his son Jonathan when he found out he had been assisting David (1 Sam. 20:33) so it is reasonable to think that Michal feared for her life.
Over the next few years Michal’s brother, Jonathan, met secretly with David, but David didn’t appear to make any effort to contact his wife; in fact he went on a wife-acquiring spree. When his new brides, Abigail and Ahinoam were captured by the Amalekites, he quickly came to their rescue. One begins to wonder if he didn’t like being saved by a woman and for that reason he ignored Michal. Meanwhile, King Saul gave his daughter away to another man.
David didn’t seem to be in any hurry to reclaim Michal after Saul died. Instead he married more women and had a number of children. Only seven years later when it became a political advantage for him to seek legitimacy as the king of Israel through the royal lineage of Saul, did he demand Michal’s return to him. “Has her love turned to jealous rage as she is forced to live with the knowledge of the six other women David has now married for political benefit each of whom has given birth to a son?” (Adelman, p.119)
The next time we meet up with Michal, David brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem and exuberantly dancing before the sacred chest. Michal looked down from a window as he exposed himself to the onlookers and she found the display disturbing. Sarcastically she said, “How honored was the king of Israel today, who was exposed in the presence of his servants’ maidservants…” (2 Sam. 6:20) Michal’s character assassination by biblical commentators really takes off at this point. Scholars “see in Michal’s reproach a sure sign that her religious sensibilities are the inferior of David’s. David is quintessentially the pious man, and if she reproaches David in the expression of his religion, it is she who is at fault.” (Clines, Michal Observed, p.54)
Clines goes on to say tongue-in-cheek: “Everything about David’s behavior is magnificent; his religious ecstasy is hugely attractive, if you have the taste for it; and if, like Michal, you don’t, what a poor, dispassionate, earth-bound person you are… How could she have allowed little things like royal dignity and sexual modesty to obscure the vision of humble, but royal, extravagance…?” (Clines, Michal Observed, p.54)
After all that Michal had been through, it seems much more likely that she saw the man she loved (or did love) flaunting himself as sexually available while making it abundantly clear that he had neglected her. In response to her criticism he stated, “I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m dancing before the Lord.” Meanwhile, he makes sure all the young girls get a good look at his genitalia.
Contrary to many exegesis, I do not think that Michal receded into passivity allowing her father and her husband to control her. I see her outcry as a form of protest, a public denouncement of her oppression. “The futility of protest… does not deter Michal, who thereby lays claim to her own voice.” (Exum, Fragmented Women, p.28) She did not lose her sense of identity becoming “shrunken in stature and depleted in spirit.” She is fearless and independent.
“David directs toward Michal the hostility one would have expected him to show toward Saul… Michal, for her part, becomes the spokesperson for Saul’s house (p.27)… Michal raises one of the few voices of resistance on the part of Saul’s house to David’s assumption of royal prerogative after Saul’s death (p.52).” (Exum, Fragmented Women)
Then David cursed Michal and thereby tried to silence her. The text states, as if it were a consequence of David’s words, that Michal was barren until the day of her death. Of course it could have been her decision to not have sexual relations with David, thereby denying David any claim to the royal lineage of Saul.
Later rabbinical commentators also rejected the notion that there was something deficient in Michal. They credited her with biblical scholarship and with the use of phylacteries just as men do in prayer (see Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, vol. 1, p. 274). In fact, later Jewish fathers who wanted their daughters to learn cited Michal as a precedent for women having an equal share in education.
Today by retelling Michal’s story, appreciating her strength of character, we right an ancient wrong and allow her to keep speaking. There is so much more to Michal’s story but I will have to save further examination of this literary masterpiece for another time.
For Further Reading
Ackerman, Susan – “The Personal is Political: Covenantal and Affectionate Love in the Hebrew Bible” Vetus Testamentum 52 (2002) 437-458
Aschkenasy, Nehama – Women at the Window: Biblical Tales of Oppression and Escape (Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 1998)
Aschkenasy, Nehama – Eve’s Journey: Feminine Images in Hebraic Literary Tradition (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986)
Brueggemann, Walter – First and Second Samuel: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching & Preaching. (Westminster John Knox Press, 1990)
Clines, David J.A. and Tamara C. Eskenazi, eds. – Telling Queen Michal’s Story: An Experiment in Comparative Interpretation. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament: Supplement Series 119 (Sheffield, Eng.: JSOT Press, 1991)
Clines, David J.A. – “Michal Observed: An Introduction to Reading Her Story.” in Telling Queen Michal’s Story: An Experiment in Comparative Interpretation. David J. A. Clines and Eskenazi, Tamara C., eds., Journal for the Study of the Old Testament: Supplement Series 119 (Sheffield, Eng.: JSOT Press, 1991) 24-63.
Exum, J. Cheryl – “Murder they wrote. Ideology and the Manipulation of Female Presence in Biblical Narrative” in Alice Bach, ed., The Pleasure of Her Text: Feminist Readings of Biblical and Historical Texts (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990) 45-67.
Exum, J. Cheryl – Fragmented Women: Feminist (Sub)versions of Biblical Narratives. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament: Supplement Series 163 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993).
Fuchs, Esther – Sexual Politics in the Biblical Narrative: Reading the Hebrew Bible as a Woman (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000)
Gill, Laverne McCain – Vashti’s Victory: And Other Biblical Women Resisting Injustice (Pilgrim Press, 2003)
Hammond, Gerald – “Michal, Tamar, Abigail and What Bathsheba Said: Notes Towards a Really Inclusive Translation of the Bible” in George J. Brooke, ed., Women in the Biblical Tradition (Lewiston, N.Y.: Mellen, 1992) 53-70.
Kates, Judith – “Michal” in Praise Her Works: Conversations with Biblical Women, Penina Adelman, ed. (The Jewish Publication Society, 2005)
Klein, Lillian R. – From Deborah to Esther: Sexual Politics in the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003)
Schwartz, Matthew B. and Kalman J. Kaplan, eds. – The Fruit of Her Hands: The Psychology of Biblical Woman (Eerdmans, 2007)
Teubal, Savina J. – Ancient Sisterhood: The Lost Traditions of Hagar & Sarah (Swallow Press, 1997) – see pp.15-18 re: Michal
Wolkoff, Julie – “Haftarat Shimini” in The Women’s Haftarah Commentary: New Insights from Women Rabbis on the 54 Weekly Haftarah Portions, the 5 Megillot and Special Shabbatot, Elyse Goldstein, ed. (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2008)