Sunday, December 08, 2019

The Other Side of the Story

One thing you will likely notice as you read through the Bible’s books of history is that they are not saturated with editorial comments. That is to say the Holy Spirit did not prompt the writers of scripture’s various histories to pass moral judgment on many, even most, of the events they recounted.

There are several notable instances in which he did.

Editorial Comments in the Old Testament

Occasionally we get a “But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.” Or perhaps God’s response to a particular choice is so unequivocal that we could not possibly draw wrong conclusions about its morality. For example, “Fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them.” Such a reaction from God leaves us no room for doubt about what he thought of Nadab and Abihu’s presumptuous sacrifice, even if no further editorial or in-narrative clarifications were offered us.

But there are not very many of these. For the most part, it’s “stuff happened, and then more stuff happened.” If we are to learn moral lessons from Old Testament historical events, we are going to have to take the doctrinal portions of scripture about appropriate godly living and apply them to these events for ourselves and see what we come up with. Sometimes, as it turns out, there may be another side to a Bible story we have only ever heard told one way.

I don’t know how you’ve heard the account of Michal daughter of Saul exposited from platforms or in commentaries, or if you remember what lessons might have been drawn from it. But I am referring to the most infamous tale concerning Michal, the one in which her husband David dances through the streets of Jerusalem in a state of undress (the narrator specifies that David was wearing a linen ephod, but Michal refers to her husband as “shamelessly uncovered”) in order to celebrate the coming of the ark of the covenant into its place of rest. Michal despises David in her heart and rebukes him to his face. David doubles down, saying in effect, “Not only did I do this thing, but I will gladly do more of it,” and the episode closes with the comment that “Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death.”

Unpacking Old Testament Morality

There are a number of ways that incident might be morally unpacked, especially if we do a little background research. But the one I’ve heard most frequently is that Michal’s take on the situation was unspiritual, David’s was spiritual, and that God stood behind David by rendering Michal childless for her profane reaction to a truly sacred moment. In this version of the story, David’s wife comes off as a self-involved, carnal grump. That may well be exactly right, but I cannot help but notice the Holy Spirit does not come out and say that, and there are certainly other ways we might understand what happened, and other lessons we might learn from it. You will understand that I am not about to present these dogmatically, as if they are the only possible correct way to apply the teaching of scripture to this very specific and personal domestic situation. I simply want to offer another side to a familiar story.

I will come right out and say it: Michal may well have been wrong here, but she may also have had compelling reasons to be in the state in which we find her in 2 Samuel 6. When a married couple disagree as bitterly as these two disagreed, there is rarely only one cause, and the one that gets cited explicitly as the source of provocation is often not the primary reason at all. Moreover, as the old proverb has it, when the camel’s back breaks, it may only take a straw to do it, provided the camel has already been stressed beyond what anyone would consider reasonable.

So here we go.

Michal Loved David

We first encounter Michal in the early days of David’s service to her father Saul. We read, “Now Saul’s daughter Michal loved David. And they told Saul, and the thing pleased him.” This was no forced marriage, or mere marriage of state. The woman loved him, and David didn’t think the idea of marrying her repellent, particularly because Saul obliged him to win Michal’s hand in battle, which appealed to David’s enjoyment of a good challenge. Saul was using his daughter’s love to achieve his own evil purposes, but that had nothing to do with the motives of either Michal or David.

But bear in mind that Michal married David for love, and David married Michal because it pleased him to become the king’s son-in-law. Both facts are plainly stated, in Michal’s case more than once. Those are two very different motivations, and two very different levels of commitment.

Michal was David’s first wife, and during the time she was first married to him, his only wife. That too is highly relevant.

Tomorrow You Will Be Killed

The next telling vignette comes in the following chapter, when Michal’s father is determined to kill her husband. Where is Michal’s loyalty? Why, it’s with her husband, as it ought to be. So she tells David, “If you do not escape with your life tonight, tomorrow you will be killed.” She quite literally saves his life. If you want to argue that God did it, I’ll give you that, but he saved David’s life through the love of a good woman. She lets him down through a window, then goes about deceiving her own father, lying to him, and incurring his wrath on David’s behalf.

A good gal to have in your corner, I’d say. Why didn’t she go with David? A very good question, and yet another one the narrator doesn’t stop to answer for us. Could be she didn’t want to leave the comforts of home for the rigors of the road. Could be that David was protecting his wife, knowing what lay ahead for him. Could be that she’d volunteered to stay behind to provide the necessary diversion and to buy him more time to escape. The house was being watched, after all. Could be she couldn’t make it down the rope. Could even be that in a flash of cowardice, David recognized that taking Michal along would make him an even bigger target than leaving her behind. I don’t think we should completely rule that out. David did have moments of uncharacteristic panic documented for us, and not all of them ended perfectly.

Moving On

But what happened as a result of this incident was important. At some point not terribly long after she had betrayed her father, Saul took Michal and gave her to Palti (or Paltiel) the son of Laish. Perhaps he was being as kind as Saul had the capacity to be. After all, he intended to kill David and he wanted his daughter to have a normal life, and presumably to bear him grandchildren. But since Michal loved David and had recently demonstrated it at great risk to her own life and standing in the kingdom, we can be fairly sure this technical nullification of her marriage to David was not her idea. Not one bit.

In any case, Michal and Palti were married, and for whatever reason, it seemed to work. At very least we can pretty clearly establish that the daughter of Saul was deeply loved, whether or not she loved her new husband back with a similar intensity.

Meanwhile, David went on with his life. He married two other women, Ahinoam and Abigail, before coming into his kingdom, demonstrating that it was possible to live as a married man even while on the run, and that it would not have been inconceivable for Michal to join him in exile, had he sent for her expeditiously. But let’s not hold that against David too much. Perhaps Saul gave Michal away rather quickly after David’s escape. Perhaps David could not get a message to his wife in time. Perhaps she forgot about him, and her loyalty reverted to her father. Perhaps. Once again, the Holy Spirit does not clear that up for us.

And time passed. Quite a bit of it, actually.

First Bring Michal, Saul’s Daughter

Finally, David negotiated with Abner, the general of Saul’s son Ish-bosheth, to consolidate the kingdom once again. But he had one condition: “You shall not see my face unless you first bring Michal, Saul’s daughter, when you come to see my face.” So Abner did. He took Michal from her husband of fifteen years and brought her to David. Palti was destroyed. He went with his wife all the way to Bahurim, weeping after her, and only left her under duress. Bear in mind that this was a risky move, and demonstrated the reality of his love. He was publicly showing his displeasure with both the king and one of the most powerful men in the kingdom.

Palti was also in the right, as it turns out. God had previously commanded that when an Israelite woman remarried while her husband was still alive, her first husband was not to take her back at a later date. “She has been defiled,” says the Law. Now, admittedly the circumstances surrounding Michal’s compulsory remarriage were unusual, but that did not make her any less “defiled” where David was concerned.

Frankly, it is hard to see David’s insistence on Michal’s return after fifteen years as anything more than a cynical political move. Let’s face it: he was flipping the bird to the tribe of Benjamin. In the intervening years, he had married at very least six — count ’em: six! — other women, at least one marriage of which was probably also politically motivated (the daughter of Talmai king of Geshur). These facts are conveniently spelled out for us at the beginning of the very same chapter in which David demands Michal’s return. If the Holy Spirit is not trying to make a subtle point here, he is at least making it very difficult for us to sympathize with David, who had everything and was risking nothing, and very easy for us to sympathize with Palti, who had one wife whom he loved dearly and for whom he risked everything.

Life in Splendor

So now Michal is living in Jerusalem with David. No longer is she his only wife. No longer is she his most beloved or highest-status wife. She has no children with him. He has children by all his other wives, very likely quite a few more than are listed in the first verses of chapter 3. Michal has now gone from Wife No. 1 to Wife No. 7, a mere afterthought in a household brim-full of spouses and children, with a husband consumed by the affairs of state and numerous responsibilities he did not have when they were first together. She may be a queen, but she is one of many, and very probably living under a cloud of legal defilement, despite David’s insistence on her return. She may be married to the king, but she’s grown used to the undiluted love and devotion of one man.

These are the interpersonal dynamics at play when Michal looks out her window and sees David dancing before the Lord (and bear in mind that she can’t see the Lord before whom David is dancing, or read the motives of her husband’s heart). All she can see is her husband cavorting half naked in the streets in front of the crowds. What is he after? More wives, maybe? Don’t you think the man might want to cool it with the overheated loins for just a little bit, especially on a religiously important occasion?

This is in fact the very objection she raises to him: not that he is dancing, not that he is celebrating, not that he is bringing the ark into Jerusalem, and not that he loves his God. No, her objection is that he is doing these things indecently, putting himself on public display inappropriately to young women. He is insulting her once again. If David’s motives are opaque to her, it is not necessarily the case that she is spiritually blind so much as it is that David has to date given her very few good reasons to trust his judgment.

Can we maybe see her point just a little, teensy bit? I seriously doubt the Lord would have questioned the sincerity of David’s joy and devotion if he had celebrated with just a few more clothes on.

Room for Interpretation

Now, I’m not saying it all played out exactly this way. There is room for plenty of interpretation, because the Holy Spirit has not seen fit to make one particular lesson from this incident explicit. But let’s say this: when we come to this final statement about Michal having no child until the day of her death, we should probably keep in mind that there are at least five possibilities in play: (i) Michal continued having normal marital relations with David, but was under the judgment of God for speaking out of turn and her womb was closed; (ii) David stopped having conjugal relations with her and Michal didn’t cheat, in which case we could argue that was fairly unreasonable of him; (iii) Michal stopped having conjugal relations with a man she despised, which he probably didn’t miss, given his options; (iv) the two stayed apart by mutual agreement and, other than the lack of children, preferred that to the alternative; or (v) the writer of 2 Samuel is simply noting a fact and we are connecting it to the previous few verses without sufficient warrant.

Nothing about this marital situation is particularly Christian, and any lessons we might seek to draw from it for ourselves must be appropriated with considerable caution. What it is, however, is an incredibly human and plausible story, in which both parties almost surely made mistakes of one sort or another, and both parties had unpleasant things happen to them that they did not choose and could not plan for, and both parties likely jumped to conclusions about the motivation of the other that were unproven and unreasonable.

Sort of like any marriage today, except that when you have a disagreement with your wife, you can’t just close the book on her and walk away to a roomful of other women, and when she disagrees with you, she isn’t necessarily trapped in a loveless marriage until she dies.

Apportioning Blame

In short then, if Michal indeed sinned in rebuking David and despising him in her heart, she was grossly provoked to it. In such a case, she certainly bears responsibility for her thoughts and actions before God. But let’s be realistic: David did not exactly cover himself with glory in his dealings with his first wife, and it may turn out that he too will give an account for his behavior toward her, if he has not already. I believe we will all one day encounter a similar, absolutely just apportionment of blame for the divisions which mar our domestic relationships in this life when Christ, the great Judge, turns his gaze on our own lives.

There is another side to almost every story. It never hurts to tease it out and meditate on the implications a bit.

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