Michal and David: domestic abuse?

"David: good; others: bad." That's our typical reading of the narrative of King David in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), isn't it?

OK; there's that Bathsheba thing, and the associated murder. And, if we think a little more, there's the occasional mass genocide.

But still… nevertheless… despite those one-offs… it's still "David: good; others: bad." Isn't it? Nothing long-term bad. Is there?

But for a moment suspend that "David: good" preconception that we subconsciously force onto the text. Pick out the thread, the long-term thread, about his wife, Michal.

"Michal: good; David: abuser." That's how it unfolds and runs its course. Once you see it, can you un-see it?

In the Hebrew Bible, first appearances in a narrative are important. Being alert to the detail can provide early hints of inner character and subsequent development.

Sometimes a story can be told not only by presence of detail but also by its absence. Spotting presence is straightforward. But spotting absence is, almost by definition, far harder and more elusive. The "Michal story" is a masterclass in the narrative art of absence. "In absence no-one can hear you scream."

It starts at her first active appearance: "Michal loved David". Pointedly absent from the text is any reciprocal "David loved her".

By this seemingly subtle difference, the text sets up the contrasting parallel storylines of her loyalty to him and of his forthcoming abuse of her.

Tease out the thread of her story. Allow scripture to speak in its own voice; avoid force-reading it in ours. Read what it actually says, not what we think it ought to have said.

Can we be alert to the unheard cries of Michal?

The Michal story

So here is the "Michal story". It is simply "picking the thread", from beginning to end, of her every appearance within the larger "David story" tapestry.[1][2]

1 Sam. 14:49–50a

The sons of Saul were Jonathan, Ishvi, and Malchishua; the name of his firstborn daughter was Merob; the name of the younger was Michal. The name of Saul's wife was Ahinoam, daughter of Ahimaaz.

1 Sam. 18:17–19

Saul said to David, "Look, I will give you my older daughter, Merob, in marriage if you become my warrior and fight the battles of the Lord." Saul thought, "I will not lay a hand on him. Let the hand of the Philistines strike him."

But David answered Saul: "Who am I? And who are my kindred or my father's clan in Israel that I should become the king's son-in-law?" But when the time came for Saul's daughter Merob to be given to David, she was given as wife to Adriel the Meholathite instead.

1 Sam. 18:20–22

Now Saul's daughter Michal loved David. When this was reported to Saul, he was pleased. He thought, "I will offer her to him as a trap, so that the hand of the Philistines may strike him." So for the second time Saul said to David, "You shall become my son-in-law today."

Saul then ordered his servants, "Speak to David privately and say: The king favors you, and all his officers love you. You should become son-in-law to the king."

1 Sam. 18:23–25

But when Saul's servants mentioned this to David, he said: "Is becoming the king's son-in-law a trivial matter in your eyes? I am poor and insignificant." When his servants reported David's answer to him, Saul commanded them, "Say this to David: The king desires no other price for the bride than the foreskins of one hundred Philistines, that he may thus take vengeance on his enemies." Saul intended to have David fall into the hands of the Philistines.

1 Sam. 18:26–28

When the servants reported this offer to David, he was pleased with the prospect of becoming the king's son-in-law. Before the year was up, David arose and went with his men and slew two hundred Philistines. He brought back their foreskins and counted them out before the king that he might become the king's son-in-law.

So Saul gave him his daughter Michal as wife. Then Saul realised that the Lord was with David and that his own daughter Michal loved David.

A short while into their marriage…

1 Sam. 19:11–17

The same night, Saul sent messengers to David's house to guard it, planning to kill him in the morning. David's wife Michal informed him, "Unless you run for your life tonight, tomorrow you will be killed." Then Michal let David down through a window, and he made his escape in safety. Michal took the teraphim and laid it in the bed, putting a tangle of goat's hair at its head and covering it with a blanket.

When Saul sent officers to arrest David, she said, "He is sick." Saul, however, sent the officers back to see David and commanded them, "Bring him up to me in his bed, that I may kill him." But when the messengers entered, they found the teraphim in the bed, with the tangle of goat's hair at its head. Saul asked Michal: "Why did you lie to me like this? You have helped my enemy to get away!" Michal explained to Saul: "He threatened me, saying 'Let me go or I will kill you.'"

Some years later, David meets Abigail; this is recounted in the passage immediately preceding Michal's next appearance. The inevitable happens.

Michal's father Saul pulls her away and marries her off to another man, Palti. Any mention of the father's love (if any at all) is, again, pointedly absent from scripture.

1 Sam. 25:39b–44

David then sent a proposal of marriage to Abigail. When David's servants came to Abigail in Carmel, they said to her, "David has sent us to make his proposal of marriage to you." Rising and bowing to the ground, she answered, "Let your maidservant be the slave who washes the feet of my lord's servants." She got up immediately, mounted a donkey, and followed David's messengers, with her five maids attending her. She became his wife. David also married Ahinoam of Jezreel. Thus both of them were his wives.

But Saul gave David's wife Michal, Saul's own daughter, to Palti, son of Laish, who was from Gallim.

Time passes. David and his one-time father-in-law Saul are now in open tribal warfare. While this is primarily against other local tribes, Saul, Michal's father, also seeks to destroy David. David twice has him within his grasp, but specifically spares him. Ultimately, Michal's father dies on the battlefield.

2 Sam. 3:2–5

Sons were born to David in Hebron: his firstborn, Amnon, of Ahinoam from Jezreel; the second, Chileab, of Abigail the wife of Nabal of Carmel; the third, Absalom, son of Maacah, who was the daughter of Talmai, king of Geshur; the fourth, Adonijah, son of Haggith; the fifth, Shephatiah, son of Abital; and the sixth, Ithream, by David's wife Eglah. These were born to David in Hebron.

2 Sam. 3:12–14

Then Abner sent messengers to David in Telam, where he was at the moment, to say, "Make a covenant with me, and you have me on your side, to bring all Israel over to you." He replied, "Good, I will make a covenant with you. But one thing I require of you. You must not appear before me unless you bring back Michal, Saul's daughter, when you come to present yourself to me." At the same time David sent messengers to Ishbaal, son of Saul, to say, "Give me my wife Michal, whom I betrothed by paying a hundred Philistine foreskins."

2 Sam. 3:15–16

Ishbaal sent for her and took her away from her husband Paltiel, son of Laish, who followed her weeping as far as Bahurim. But Abner said to him, "Go back!" So he turned back.

David has "got religion". Yet how does he now put this into practice with the wife whom he had married, who had saved his life and whom he had then let go? And whose second, happy marraige he then wrecked by sending his snatch-squad to drag her back as more political power-play?

The public outdoors show of religion by its zealots can mask a deep abusive behaviour in the private indoors.

2 Sam. 6:14–19

Then David came dancing before the Lord with abandon, girt with a linen ephod. David and all the house of Israel were bringing up the ark of the Lord with shouts of joy and sound of horn. As the ark of the Lord was entering the City of David, Michal, daughter of Saul, looked down from her window, and when she saw King David jumping and dancing before the Lord, she despised him in her heart.

They brought in the ark of the Lord and set it in its place within the tent which David had pitched for it. Then David sacrificed burnt offerings and communion offerings before the Lord. When David had finished sacrificing burnt offerings and communion offerings, he blessed the people in the name of the Lord of hosts, and distributed among all the people, the entire multitude of Israel, to every man and every woman, one loaf of bread, one piece of meat, and one raisin cake. Then all the people returned to their homes.

2 Sam. 6:20–22

When David went home to bless his own house, Michal, the daughter of Saul, came out to meet him and said, "How well the king of Israel has honored himself today, exposing himself to the view of the slave girls of his followers, as a commoner might expose himself!" But David replied to Michal: "I was dancing before the Lord. As the Lord lives, who chose me over your father and all his house when he appointed me ruler over the Lord's people, Israel, not only will I make merry before the Lord, but I will demean myself even more. I will be lowly in your eyes, but in the eyes of the slave girls you spoke of I will be somebody."

Michal's exit is devasting. It is far too easy to bridge from this passage to the next as "[Michal] despised him in her heart therefore [she] was childess to the day she died".

In these cultures, a woman's childlessness is a cause of deep shame. The culture would automatically look to apportion such "therefore" blame against her.

2 Sam. 6:23

[And] Saul's daughter Michal was childless to the day she died.

In our rush to read "she despised him therefore she died childless" are we falsely superimposing onto scripture something that isn't there? The Hebrew Bible does not state causal link. The second part is simply alongside the first.[4]

Should we not be far more sympathetic to Michal? Abused by her father. Serially maltreated and abused by the husband she loved but who, it seems, did not love her.

Further, what does it show us about the deep, long-lasting flaws in the character of the otherwise heroic David?

"Michal: good; David: abuser." Not a conventional, David-focussed reading. Yet is it not a valid reading?

[1] All occurrences except one are in Samuel. The additional occurence is in Chronicles, but this is simply a near-repeat of the near-final "David danced…she despised" episode of the Samuel narrative. Also observe that Chronicles, putting a different political spin on the David story, almost entirely omits the Michal story.

[2] There is a possible second occurrence much later, in 2 Sam.21:8 about Saul's grandsons, in which some sources retrospectively name Merob (Saul's first daughter) as their mother and others Michal. This is probably a scribal error in those "Michal" sources.

[3] See also Leah and Rachel in the patriarchal narrative of Gen.29.

[4] The grammatical term is parataxis: adjacent statements without indication of coordination or subordination: "A; B" or "A [and] B". Contrast hypotaxis: "A therefore B".