Reading: 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12-19
Sermon preached by Rev Dr Phil Wall on Sunday 12th July
Did you see her? It was a weird blink and you’ll miss it cameo, I’ll grant you, but did you see her or had your mind wandered off by then? Or perhaps, in all the hullaballoo of the ark being brought to Jerusalem, the feast and festivities, the blessings and burnt offerings, you might have been distracted but there she was, named once, in that bizarre verse 16 –
“ As the ark of the Lord was entering the City of David, Michal daughter of Saul watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, she despised him in her heart.”
…and then we’re back to the ark and the sacrifices again. Not exactly a huge role for poor old Michal. But then again over the years, her fame has waned. This royal princess, this controversial Queen lived a life wilder than any tv soap, weirder than any Game of Thrones plot for her story is one of passion, murder, political intrigue, polygamy and polyandry, dramatic escapes, a king’s genitals, a marriage present of 200 foreskins and yet Michal rarely gets a mention in sermons, most of us here have probably never heard of her, and I’m not even sure whether I’m correctly pronouncing her name! Perhaps even sadder than this is the fact that in Bible commentaries and textbooks, she is often dismissed as some unimportant, spiteful woman –described as ‘a divine looking-glass for all angry and outspoken wives’, and included in the book ‘Bad Girls of the Bible’.
So maybe we shouldn’t get distracted by her. Maybe we should focus instead on David and the ark of the covenant. After all, Michal was looking at the great and powerful David, God’s own champion and Israel’s king, with hatred in her heart, simply for dancing before God. Whatever could we possibly learn from such a bitter, resentful, woman?! Well, this morning, I thought we might have a fairly brisk walk through Michal’s life to see why she got so angry at some dancing; what had led her and David to have such a hate-filled relationship; and whether we can learn anything from the life and actions of Queen Michal.
So let us begin. A long time ago, in a palace far, far away, a man called Saul, ruler over the first united kingdom of Israel and Judah, lived with his wife, four sons and two daughters, the youngest of whom was called Michal. King Saul had experienced a mixed reign but after disobeying God in a perhaps understandable way which we’ll have to leave for another day…King Saul was living on borrowed time whilst a new king was being lined up for the throne. Enter David, stage left, the young, shepherd boy who had just defeated the Philistine Giant, Goliath. Now ladies…and perhaps gents…this guy was a catch! He was clever, musical, sensitive yet outdoorsy, a military hero and the Bible repeatedly comments on just how good-looking he was…even Goliath, who I think it’s fair to say you could call a real man’s man…when he was just about to fight David ‘looked over at him and saw that he glowed with health and was handsome and so he despised him’! That’s right, the Bible says that David was so attractive that other men hated him. And what more could a royal princess want? So Princess Michal fell in love with the man. Her love for David must have been all-consuming for it’s the only time in the whole Bible that a woman is described as loving a man! So if this is how their relationship began…how did it end up with bitterness and hatred?
Well almost immediately, things didn’t go well for Michal. First of all, her father, Saul, tries to set David up with Michal’s older sister…but that doesn’t work so King Saul then realizes that he can perhaps use his daughter’s love for David to his own advantage – to get the young upstart killed! So Saul agrees to David marrying Michal if David can give him a dowry of 100 Philistine foreskins. And you thought your in-laws were odd! David, ever the victorious and never the bashful, goes one better than this and brings Saul 200 Philistine foreskins…and with that happy delivery, Michal and David get married.
And whilst we’ve no word on how David felt about Michal, Michal’s love for him was demonstrated on numerous occasions, like when her own father had soldiers surround David and Michal’s home, demanding to see him. Here, Michal saved David’s life by planning and helping him to escape out the window, putting her own life in danger by tricking her father and King with lies and a makeshift model of David sleeping in bed.
Her loyalty and her love was clearly with David, who was now a fugitive, living rough out in the countryside with his band of vagabonds. But Michal waited for him. The months passed and she waited. The years passed and she waited. And then, just imagine Michal’s pain when she, the royal princess who had loved her husband and put her life and status on the line for him, heard that David had taken other wives who, unlike Michal, also bore him children. It would seem that David had forgotten about Michal and had moved on.
Back in the palace and King Saul continued to devise schemes and plans which would enable him to keep power and control for as long as he could. So once again, he used his daughter, Michal, as a pawn in his game, marrying her off to a man named Palti. We do not know how Michal felt about this but we are told that Palti wept bitterly when Michal was taken from him so perhaps he truly loved her. Perhaps, for the first time in her life, a man loved and cared for Michal. Perhaps, for the first time, she was given respect, freedom and dignity. Perhaps. But this was not to last for long for soon she would be forced to move once more when two more men, her former husband and her brother, used her as political asset yet again. You see, David’s star was rising. Michal’s father, King Saul, and three of her brothers had been killed in battle and just as her remaining brother and her former husband, David, were about to square off against each other, a deal was struck and temporary peace was found. David agreed to the terms of this peace as long as he got back what was his; his property that he had justly paid for. That’s right, as long as Michal was given back to him.
So Michal was passed back to David, the man who she had loved and sacrificed her safety and status for, the man who had usurped her father, married other women and used her as a bargaining chip.
All of which brings us back to the dancing. For now, David is king and Michal, childless and presumably loveless, has taken her dutiful role in the palace harem, surrounded by many other of David’s wives, concubines and their children. Her husband, in name at least, is off doing things lofty and important, receiving honour and praise by all whom encounter this magnificent hero. And then she sees him, being all generous with his subjects, dancing wildly and, it is suggested, showing his naked body, in front of everyone. The King! The Jewish King, behaving in such a degrading way in front of slave girls!
So to recap – Michal had been tossed about as political chip by her father, husband and brother; she had been forced to leave a husband who may well have truly loved her; she was grieving her father and three brothers who had been killed in battle on the same day; was childless and stuck in a loveless marriage with David, the man who abandoned her after she had saved his life and who then married and had children with other women, had taken the throne from her family, demanded her back because she was his property and was now to be seen being praised by the people for his generous spirit and holy ways as he danced in a wild and debasing fashion in front of the nation.
“…and when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, she despised him in her heart.”
Well, what do you think? Should we consign Michal to the sin bin; should we forget her insignificant cameo; should we condemn her for despising the mighty King David who was dancing before God, after all?
I, for one, think not. And here’s why. Firstly, the story of Michal’s life might remind us of the importance of every life. When reading the lectionary passage today, Michal had a cameo role – she was given a cursory mention in the context of the larger, apparently more significant story of King David, the ark of the covenant and the establishment of Jerusalem. Most of us would probably have looked past her, might not have even registered her name and would simply forget her in all the busyness and hoopla of the celebrations. Yet this was the woman who was born to a King; this was the woman who saved the life of David, without which who knows what the future of Israel and Jerusalem might have been; this was the woman who had known of privilege and passion, who had felt the bitter sting of the loss of loved ones. To have overlook this woman, would be to miss out on her story and to forget her value as a person, as a child of God. Today, around the world, there are millions of Michals. Women, children and men whom we look past or try to forget about. The homeless on our streets, the women in abusive relationships, the starving in foreign lands…if we are blind to their presence, deaf to their story, we too share the guilt of forgetting about our sisters and brothers – God’s children and those to whom we have been tasked to share the good news of God.
Secondly, in scanning the lectionary passage quickly, we might, as many commentators have, cast Michal as villain, as the one who was hateful when her heroic husband worshipped God. And yet, when we hear her story, when we take the time to listen to her tale of pain and hardship; of lost love and a family killed in conflict; of a lack of freedom and a life in which she was used as a pawn time and time again by those closest to her, we might realize that Michal is no bad girl of the Bible. She is more victim than villain; more abused than abuser. Whilst one cannot condone her despising of the dancing David, one can certainly understand it. And it is likely that Michal would never have felt such hatred if he had dealt with her differently, if he had shown her more compassion. The story of Michal might, then, remind us to not be so quick to judge others. To not think or speak badly of other people so hastily for often we do not know their story, of the pain and hardships that they have been through. No one is born with a hateful heart – it is, sadly, something that some of us learn to develop and perhaps with greater compassion, greater understanding, greater forgiveness, we might just stop such hate from growing…we might defeat hate with love.
And finally, the story of Michal might well challenge us once again to live out our faith in our homes and on our streets as well as in this building. For David, in our reading at least, does not come out so well in his interactions with Michal. He may well be worshipping God with his whole being but he does not seem to be honouring Michal, his wife and a child of God, in his words or deeds. Might we empathise with him? Might we, like David, sometime be good at honouring God whilst not honouring the priorities to which God calls us? Might we sometimes turn up to church events, have our say in worship practices, pray long and sing loud…whilst being too busy to feed the hungry, listen to the lonely, seek justice for the oppressed?
The story of Michal is a story we cannot, we must not, bypass. For it tells the tale of an intelligent, passionate and courageous woman. It speaks of the reality of life’s highs and lows – of love that can be abused and hate that can grow in our hearts. It reminds us of the importance of every life story, of our call to seek to understand others, not to judge them; and of our mission to worship God whilst also loving our sisters and brothers, friends and enemies. So let us remember the name Michal and give thanks for her story as we rejoice that all of our stories are brought together in the story of the Creator who made us; the saviour who redeems us and the spirit who transforms us. Thanks be to God. Amen.