In ancient Israel, female sexuality was the arena in which male authority and patriarchal domination manifested themselves most clearly and oppressively. Woman’s sexuality was regarded not so much as part of her feminine being but, rather, as the exclusive property first of her father and then of her husband.
The cultural postulate that the daughter’s femininity is the father’s property which he can use as a bargaining chip or payment of a debt or compensation for favors is the backdrop for the story of David and Michal in the First Book of Samuel.
This somber ancient tale highlights the tragic predicament of a woman used as a sexual and political pawn by the two men in her life—her father and her husband.
But it also records the story of a woman who dared to love a man in a culture where women’s sexual and emotional preferences were regarded as being of no importance.
The story begins when King Saul, the unfortunate first monarch of ancient Israel, decides to entrap David, his young armor-bearer and musician, who is increasingly gaining in popularity among the people. As Saul devises a number of schemes to get rid of David, the Bible introduces Saul’s daughter, Michal, and a crucial fact: Michal is in love with David.
This piece of information, which colors the whole relationship between David and Michal and foreshadows future events, is unusual, especially if we recall that this is the only instance in the entire Bible where we are explicitly told that a woman laves a man.
While the Bible states twice that Michal loves David, it ominously omits David’s response. When the ambitious David will finally marry Michal, he will not be motivated by amorous feelings, but by political considerations. In its unromantic nature, the story of Michal and David also sheds new light on the dashing hero, David, whose treatment of Michal is unfeeling and punitive.
Michal is apparently so in love with David that her passion becomes public knowledge, and the word finally reaches her father. From this point on, the story of David and Michal is told in four fragments interlaced with the long narrative of the rise of David and the establishment of his dynasty. Michal appears only on landmark occasions in the hero’s progress from lowly armor-bearer to glorious monarch.
Michal seems a doomed woman from the first moment she appears on the scene. To her father, she is an instrument he plans to use to get rid of David. To David, she is no more than the reward due him for his heroic deeds, and a symbol of his rapid climb in the king’s court.
Saul first demands a very unusual bride-price, one hundred foreskins of Philistines, in the hope that David will get killed while trying to perform this feat. When David survives, Saul sees in his daughter a spy to help him entrap the young hero.
Michal’s initial actions as David’s wife display her great love for him as well as her assertive and independent spirit. She defies her father and helps David escape when Saul’s men come for him.
Michal emerges in the ensuing events as crafty and quick-witted. She puts a dummy in the bed to mislead Saul’s messengers into believing that David lies there ill, thus allowing him enough time to reach safety. When the ruse is revealed and her father asks for an explanation, Michal quickly answers that she was forced to help David because he threatened her life.
Michal’s allegiance is now clear and unequivocal, but the narrator’s continued silence regarding David’s feelings towards her does not bode well for her future.
The Biblical text now abandons Michal and follows David’s career as a fugitive on the run from the wrath of a paranoid king whose world centers on destroying the charismatic young warrior. The reader is left to wonder about the fate of the clever, enterprising and loving woman who was left behind.
There is a break in Chapter 25 in the narration of the adventures of David the outlaw as we are told about his two new wives. There is also a brief statement that Saul gave his daughter Michal to another man.
While we do not get a direct glimpse of Michal, her compliance or her silence as this transaction goes on points to the metamorphosis that this young woman has probably experienced. Earlier, she had dared to defy her father and blatantly lied to him, yet now she is not recorded as even putting up a fight. She may be disillusioned with David, who did not send for her and has married two other women, or she may have lost her spunk during her long waiting at the home of her obsessed father.
David’s reaction to Michal’s marriage is, typically, not mentioned, and it was probably non-existent.
When Michal next appears on the scene, she is the typical woman in a patriarchal society: she is being acted upon. The occasion is David’s rise to the throne, after the death of King Saul. Saul’s loyalists are now ready to make peace with David who, in turn, demands Michal back. At this sensitive point in David’s political career, the return of Michal to his home would mark the final surrender of the former royal family, and serve as a symbol of the consolidation of power in David’s hands.
David’s claim to Michal is couched in legal, not emotional language: “Deliver me my wife Michal, whom I betrothed to me for a hundred foreskins of Philistines.” He wants his wife back not because he loves and misses her, but because she is legally his, and he had paid the bride-price demanded by her father.
Michal’s husband cries bitterly as he accompanies his wife to David’s place, yet Michal does not say a word and is probably much less heartbroken than her present husband. One might surmise that Michal understands David’s motives and does not delude herself as to his feelings towards her. Yet perhaps she still hopes that the long-lost love would be rekindled.
Later, when David dances before the Ark as it is brought into “the City of David,” Michal criticizes him for making a spectacle of himself and behaving in an unregal manner. She is now identified as “Michal, the daughter of Saul,” which implies her isolation in the court of her father’s successor. Michal’s words are those of a woman scorned, and they illustrate the last stage in her metamorphosis from David’s lover into “Saul’s daughter.”
The Michal narrative ends with the statement that “Michal, the daughter of Saul had no children to the day of her death.” We can interpret the statement about Michal’s barrenness in either of two ways. One is as an explanation of what transpired before the angry exchange between David and Michal. According to this view, Michal’s bitterness towards David is due to the fact that, though he forced her to return to him from her second husband, he did not receive her as a wife but as a symbol of his political triumph. Her acid words thus mark the eruption of the pent-up anger that the humiliated Michal has long felt towards her neglectful husband. Another interpretation of Michal’s barrenness is that it occurred after their hostile exchange. David withdraws his sexual favors from the woman he never really loved, denying her not only sexual love, but also the only other feminine fulfillment in ancient times, motherhood.
The first and last of the four episodes in which Michal appears, while spread out and interspersed in the narrative about David, echo and reverse each other. Both when she makes her first appearance and when she makes her final exit, Michal acts and speaks out. In the middle episodes she is silent and is being acted upon. In her first appearances in the story, Michal is verbal and expressive about and for the sake of her love. In her last scene, she is also outspoken. Yet her cutting sarcasm and acrimonious tirade reveal a tortured woman who no longer shares in her husband’s triumphs and joys.
The parallels between the first and the last episode draw our attention to Michal’s transformation from a spirited and independent young woman motivated by love and hope to a bitter and neglected wife shrunken in stature and depleted in spirit.
With Michal traveling into a bleak future, childless and loveless, we see clearly a Biblical woman who dared deviate from the feminine role by unabashedly making her desire for a man known, committed herself fully and unequivocally to the choice of her heart—and was condemned for this to a dire and disastrous fate.