Sunday, July 26, 2015

Storybook Wedding: Michal and David

Sometimes people dismiss the Bible as being nothing more than a “collection of fairy-tales,” a judgment which to my mind shows a superficial appreciation of fairy-tales as well as of the Bible. If you define a fairy-tale as a ridiculous fantasy fit only for children and the feeble-minded, Professor Tolkien would like to have a few words with you out behind the Bird and Baby.

I can think of one Bible story, though, that does have certain fairy-tale elements in it. It’s the story of a Princess, and of the Brave Peasant Lad who saves the kingdom and is given her hand in marriage. It’s the kind of story that ought to have a Fairy-Tale Ending, in which the two of them Live Happily Ever After.

Except that in the Bible story, things don’t work out that way.

Most people have probably heard the story of David, the humble shepherd boy, and how, armed only with his faith in the Lord and five smooth stones, he sleweth Goliath who lay down and die-eth. King Saul, the ruler of Israel at that time, was pleased with David's defeat of the giant and the subsequent victory over the Philistine army. He gave David a high rank in the army of Israel. And that's when the trouble began.

David proved himself a capable officer. He was successful in battle and led his men wisely. He was popular with the other officers and with the people as well. He became best buds with Saul's son, Jonathan, which is another story we'll be getting to.

Once, when Saul and David were returning after another successful campaign against the Philistines, they were met by a group of women who had come from “all the towns of Israel” to welcome them home. As they played music of celebration and danced, they sang a little song in honor of the heroes:

Saul has slain his thousands,and David his tens of thousands.(1 Samuel 18:7 NIV)

Now, Hebrew poetry has a literary convention of stating an idea in one line, and then restating it, slightly re-phrased, in the next. It's the reason why the Psalms work so well as responsive readings in worship services. So it's very likely that all the women meant to say was that the armies of Saul and David have killed many thousands of enemies.

But that's not how Saul took it.

Saul was very angry; this refrain galled him. “They have credited David with tens of thousands,” he thought, “but me with only thousands. What more can he get but the kingdom?” And from that time on Saul kept a jealous eye on David. (1 Samuel 18:8-9)

There's an old saying that you should always keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Saul seems to have had a similar thought, because his first idea was to offer David his eldest daughter, Merab in marriage. Well, to be honest, Saul had previously promised his daughter to anyone who would kill Goliath, so he was making good on his earlier promise; but he made a condition of marriage that David continue his brave service in the army and continuing to “fight the battles of the LORD.” Sooner or later, Saul figures, David will get killed in combat, and then he won't be a problem any more, will he.

Which, come to think of it, is similar to the plan David later used against Uriah the Hittite. I wonder if that's where he got the idea.

A more ambitious man, or perhaps a less prudent one, would have jumped at the offer. David turns Saul down. “Who am I, and what is my family or my father's clan in Israel, that I should become the king's son-in-law?” (v. 18)

The plan wasn't a total wash, though. David is still in the army, and accidents can still happen. Saul marries Merab off to a guy named Adriel and the two of them fall out of the narrative. Much later the Second Book of Samuel makes mention of five sons of Adriel (2 Samuel 21:8). Many of the oldest Hebrew manuscripts refer to them as the sons of Adriel and Michal, Merab's sister; but that doesn't make a lot of sense and many translators and commentators – regard this as a goof and say that Merab was the mother. One explanation, which makes about as much sense as anything, suggests that Merab had died by this time and that Auntie Michal raised the five boys. Maybe.

But what about Auntie Michal? We're getting to her.

Michal is Saul's younger daughter, and she has fallen in love with David. This pleases Saul because it gives him another chance to sucker David into doing something rash. He has some of his flunkies go to David privately and butter him up. “Look, the king is pleased with you, and his attendants all like you; now become his son-in-law.”

Dave still plays it cagey; or perhaps he really is that humble. “Do you think it is a small matter to become the king's son-in-law? I'm only a poor man and little known.” (v.23)

It was customary at the time for a bridegroom to pay a “bride-price” to the father of the bride. To our sensibilities, this sound awfully like the girl is being sold like a prize heifer; and to a certain respect it is. The reasoning behind it was that the bride-price was compensation to the bride's family for the loss of a daughter; and also insurance to support the bride, should she become widowed; which, given David's line of work, was a distinct possibility.

This time, Saul is ready for David's demurral, and passes on the message that the only bride-price he wants from David is one hundred Philistine foreskins. Presumably from dead Philistines, although I suppose they could have been taken from prisoners; but yes, foreskins.

Perhaps you might ask yourselves at this point, “What is it with these ancient Hebrews and their thing about foreskins?” Well, Circumcision, the excision of the male foreskin, was the sign of the covenant God established with Abraham way back in Genesis chapter 17. It became a symbol of Jewish identity; a physical sign that they were a people different from other nations. Not only were the men required to be circumcised, but also their servants and the other male members of their household.

One Bible study program that my Dad used back in the '70s used Circumcision to represent a whole class of Mosaic laws and Scriptural narratives which emphasized the separation of God's People from the Gentiles; but I wonder if the reverse wasn't true as well. By requiring the servants and even the slaves to also be circumcised, the Law was including them in the Covenant community as well.

Looking at it from this point of view, Saul's request becomes rather perverse. Besides the the inherent squickiness of the the body part he requested, I mean. A ritual intended to be a sign of inclusion in a group, is being used as a mark of humiliation inflicted on an enemy.

On a less theological level, Saul is also following the venerable fairy-tale tradition of demanding that a suitor perform an impossible task before granting him the hand of his daughter, in the hopes that the guy will fail or die in the attempt.

In the fairy-tales, this never works. The Poor but Honest Peasant Lad succeeds in his impossible task; and in this story, so does David. He goes off to fight the Philistines and comes back with twice the number of trophies Saul demanded.

This ought to be the point where they all live happily ever after; except that Saul still hates and fears David. He sees David's success as a sign that God favors him, and the jealousy Saul feels is eating him up. Everything David does is a success; he has more victories than any of Saul's other generals. Saul's daughter is in love with David and even his son, Jonathan, who ought to regard David as a rival, speaks up for him.

Saul's jealousy deepens into an obsession and on a few occasions, he impulsively tries to kill David.

On one of these, Saul sends minions to David's house with orders to watch it and to kill David in the morning. Michal becomes aware of this and warns her husband that he needs to flee for his life. She helps him escape through a window, and then hides the escape by sticking a dummy in his bed and covering it up with blankets and a goat-hair pillow at the head to make it look like David is still sleeping. Saul's minions obviously haven't seen enough movies and so they are fooled.

The text doesn't call it a dummy of course; the Hebrew calls it a “terephim”. The word is believed to refer to an idol, and is used in the story from Genesis where Rachel steals her family's household gods and winds up embarrassing her husband. Why would the daughter of the king of Israel have a heathen idol in her house? Well, the obvious answer is that King Saul wasn't all that righteous. Another possibility is that the people of David's time weren't nearly as doctrinally pure as the later priestly writers of Scriptures would like us to think, and that sometimes made graven images. Maybe it was simply an object d'art, or a piece of plunder from a neighboring kingdom.

Whatever it was, when Saul arrives the next day desiring to kill David and finds how his myrmidons were bamboozled, he is furious with his daughter. Michal pleads that she had to help David escape because he threatened to kill her if she didn't. Which was a lie, but one which probably saved her life, considering her father's rage.

David flees Saul's court, and for the next several years sort of knocks about with a small group of loyal followers. Let's not be cute about it; the were essentially mercenaries, like Jephthah's band of “worthless men”. Sometimes they were pursed by Saul and his men, but even when they weren't, David kept his distance. There were times when David even wound up working for the Philistines, although he tried to finesse this conflict of interest by raiding third parties who were enemies of both the Philistines and the Israelites.

And what of Michal? As far as Saul is concerned, David is dead to him; or at least Saul wishes he was dead. He marries Michal off to a guy named Paltiel. I don't imagine he asked Michal's input on the matter; even if such a thing were customary at that time, Saul wasn't that kind of a guy.

The on-again/off-again wars between the Israelites and the Philistines continue. In one climactic battle, most of Saul's sons are killed, and Saul commits suicide on the battlefield rather than be captured by the enemy. His remaining son, Ish-Bosheth, is a weak leader who holds only a tenuous grasp over the tribes of Israel.

David returns to his native Judah, to the city of Hebron; where the tribe of Judah elect him king. There follows a period of tension between David and Ish-Bosheth over which one would rule over the whole of Israel.

David sends messengers to Ish-Bosheth, demanding that he return his sister Michal to David. After all, David did pay for her. Perhaps it was tacky of him to mention the hundred foreskins, but at least he didn't bring up the fact that he had supplied double the price.

Perhaps if Ish-Bosheth had been in a stronger position, or if he regarded his sister better, he would have told David where to stick his hundred foreskins. As it was, he complies, and orders Michal to be taken from Paltiel and delivered to David. Paltiel is heartbroken to be separated from her and follows her weeping, until Abner, the general charged with escorting Michal, tells him to get lost.

It would be nice to think that David demanded Michal's return because he still deeply loved her. Maybe he did. But during the intervening years, he had picked up two other wives, Aninoam of Jezreel, and Abigail the widow of Nabal. Some readers have darkly observed that if David really loved Michal that much he could have taken her with him or tried to recover her earlier.

It could be that this was simply a matter of pride: Saul had taken David's wife away from him, and now he wanted her back. Or it could have been a matter of politics: by claiming the Daughter of Saul as his wife, David was trying to bolster his claim as the rightful successor to Saul.

Or it might have been something even more subtle. At this time, Abner, one of Saul's most able generals, is getting pretty fed up with Ish-Bosheth and decides to defect to David's side. His escorting of Michal might have been an excuse for him to go to Hebron where he could negotiate with David.

Or it may have been a combination of any of these factors. We aren't told how Michal felt about being yanked from one husband to another. The narrative simply notes that David regained possession of her and then goes on to other things.

Eventually, David does gain recognition by all the tribes as King of Israel. He conquers the Jebusite city of Jerusalem and makes it his political capitol.

At first he wants to bring the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem too, so that Israel's religious center and its political center will be in the same place. This doesn't work out so well. In his first attempt to bring the Ark to Jerusalem, he fails to follow the SOP, and one of the men transporting it accidentally touches the Ark and gets fried by its Divine Power. (2 Samuel 6:1-7) This frightens David, so he waits a few years before trying it again.

The second time, David was more careful and had his people follow the protocols established in the Law of Moses for transporting the Ark. Everything goes without a hitch, and David led the procession into the city, dancing before the Ark all the way. And why not? It was certainly an occasion for celebration. This moment, for David, is probably the peak of his career; more momentous than slaying Goliath, more important than being crowned king, even more significant than claiming the city of Jerusalem for his own.

Maybe, but Michal doesn't see it that way.

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. (2 Samuel 6:16)

After the Ark has been placed in its new home, a special tent erected within the city walls, and offerings have been sacrificed to sanctify the occasion and David had given out bread and dates and raisins to the crowd in celebration, David returns to his palace, where Michal has words for him.

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, disrobing in the sight of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would!” (v.20)

He was making a spectacle of himself and cavorting in a manner beneath the dignity of a king. Her phrasing has led many readers to assume that David was dancing naked, or perhaps in his underwear, but I'm not sure if this is necessarily true.

Verse 12 states, “David, wearing a linen ephod, danced before the LORD with all his might.” The ephod was a sleeveless garment worn by those who served in the holy sanctuary. A special type of ephod was worn by the High Priest and had a special breastplate attached to it, but this was probably the bog-standard work smock worn by the entry-level staff. The text does not give us a detailed description of what the ephod looked like, probably because at the time those passages were written, it was in use and so everybody knew. The Jewish Encyclopedia tells us this:

All that can be gleaned from the text is the following: The ephod was held together by a girdle ... of similar workmanship sewed on to it (Ex. xxviii. 8); it had two shoulder-pieces, which, as the name implies, crossed the shoulders, and were apparently fastened or sewed to the ephod in front (Ex. xxviii. 7, 27). In dressing, the shoulder-pieces were joined in the back to the two ends of the ephod. Nothing is said of the length of the garment. At the point where the shoulder-pieces were joined together in the front "above the girdle," two golden rings were sewed on, to which the breast-plate was attached.

If the ephod was fairly short, coming down, say, to mid-thigh, and if David was wearing nothing underneath it, is is quite possible that in his enthusiastic dancing he gave the crowds on the street some entertaining glimpses of his royal dangly bits.

Or it could be that Michal was peeved that he cast off his kingly robes to prance about in a humble tunic like a peon. It was a rude reminder to the princess that the man she married was at heart still a peasant shepherd.

So was Michal's rebuke prudish, or snobbish, or justified anger? It was certainly a buzzkill, and David replies icily:

David said to Michal, “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.” (v. 21-22)

The chapter ends with a sad commentary:

And Michal daughter of Saul had no children to the day of her death. (v. 23)

Many commentators see this as Divine Punishment for her catty remarks about her husband's dance moves. I think it's something deeper and sadder.

At one time, Michal loved David. There aren't a lot of relationships in the Bible where the text says anything about how the woman felt; this might be the only one. Then David was absent for so many years, and Michal married off to some other guy. By they were reunited, they must have become strangers to each other; she was no longer David's first love, but rather an addition to his existing collection of wives.

I think the incident of David's dancing brought home to both of them that their relationship was over. He put her aside, with the other trophies of his old victories, but never again loved her.

A bitter ending to what started out as a storybook romance.

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