Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Michal: Redux and Remix

For those of you who are interested in sermon craft, here is the revised form of my Michal sermon, Why Michael Rightly Despised David, edited for my Episcopal parish. The long form was preached at a WomanPreach event.

Let us pray: In the name of the God who declares we are all worthy of love. Amen.

 Our first lesson proclaims: Michal despised David in her heart. A text without a context is a pretext. There is context to be found, but not in the snippings of the lectionary. Michal despised David in her heart. And she had every reason to do so. It’s well past time to listen to the voices of women in the biblical texts telling their stories about characters we have been taught to romanticize like certain now-fallen Hollywood idols. This is the whole point of the Me Too movement: Listen to women, believe us. Believe us about assault and harassment, believe us about discrimination and underrepresentation and overwork and underpay, and believe us when we say the Church’s fixation on masculine language and imagery for God is harmful to us.

We are wrestling with this as a Church. Soon we will wrestle more intently with the language we use in prayer. While we wait to wrestle with the prayerbook we will explore a wider range of language for God, and perhaps, one day, we will revisit our lectionary. (Notice today Michal is paired with Herodias, two allegedly bad women pitted against the men that everybody knows are the real heroes of the story.) That’s actually my next book project, a woman centered lectionary which will ask “what does it look like to tell the good news through the stories of women who are often on the margins of scripture and often set up to represent bad news.” The story of Michal is one of those stories for me. Michal despised David in her heart because he was despicable and I imagine God said, “I understand.”

We love royalty in this country, particularly now that we are couple hundred years away from it and no longer subject to it. Now we romanticize it and fantasize about it, and some apply those fantasies to royal characters in the biblical texts. Many of us also learned from an early age who the heroes were or were supposed to be in biblical stories. Our forbears built this nation and brutally reorganized the world on reading strategies like these: cowboys and Indians as the new Canaanites and Israelites, enslavers and enslaved, and subordination of women to men and in each pairing certainty on whose side God was supposed to be.

Along the way we’ve begun to ask questions of the texts just as we asked questions about the world we inherited along with the responsibility to shape it for those who follow. Scripture is our heritage and it been both badly exploited and underutilized. One of the most important questions we can ask of scripture is what am I missing by reading as I have always read? Whose voice is missing or ignored? Many have read the text with and as David–that’s why our lectionary is set up for us to read his story through the summer–but few have read from the perspective of Michal, his first wife, Saul’s youngest daughter. We’re going to talk about Michal and how and why she came to despise David and in so doing we shall see that pink princess fantasies don’t belong anywhere near the biblical texts.

Is there a word from the God who loves David so much it seems it doesn’t matter what he does to any body or their body for Michal? I maintain God is God of all creation and that includes the folk on the margins of the very scriptures that proclaim God’s love for David while demonstrating how deeply unworthy he was of that love on his own, let alone Michal’s.

Michael is the only woman in scripture said to love a man who is not her son. She loved David. And David loved Jonathan, and apparently himself. She may have been in love with him already when she watched him become engaged to her older sister first. How she would have rejoiced when her father called it off. How high her hopes would have been when her father offered her to him. What might she have thought of the cost? Reading from the margins means we can’t look at the brideprice of one hundred Philistine foreskins as the mighty act of a great warrior as we might have once. Now we stop and remember that this represents the murder and mutilation of human beings as beloved by God as we are. We stop and proclaim the good news that no one is disposable; no one is beyond God’s love. And we are to love neighbor and stranger, even in a time of war.

Michal was used by her father to trap David and used by David to escape the trap. He left her behind to suffer the consequences at the hands of her increasingly violent father. Her father used her body to punish David, giving her to another man as his wife – still married to David in the eyes of the law and in her heart, probably still in love with him in spite of having abandoned her, now she has to sleep with the strange new man her father has given her body to. How she must have longed for David, the swashbuckling hero and rebel bandit to come to her rescue. And when he did, it was with two other women in tow.

Michal might have been content to live with David and his new wives, that was the way of kings and she was a king’s daughter. But David didn’t want her as a woman or a wife. He wanted her back as a possession. She was his and no one else could have her. He took her back and then he abandoned her. He failed to do for her what was commanded by the Torah; he failed to provide her with children. The text does not say that Michal was barren, that would mean she and David were having sex. It says she does not have a child, meaning that David did not give her one. David withheld himself, his body and his seed from her, forcing her to live in isolation as he married and fathered again and again and again–nine women plus Saul’s leftover wives plus two more groups of unnamed, uncounted women and their children. (Learn more about Michal and other royal women in Womanist Midrash.)

Michal had to watch as David impregnates Abigail and Ahinoam. Michal watches as David passes her by and married and impregnates Maacah multiple times. Michal watches as David passes her by and married and impregnates Haggith. Michal watches as David passes her by and married and impregnates Abital. Michal watches as David passes her by and married and impregnates Eglah. I imagine she would have heard the news every time David married another woman and fathered a child and by this point in the story there would be many. Is there any wonder she despised him in her heart? It may have even been the first time she had seen him in person since he took her back abandoning her to a living widowhood.

Michal’s childlessness is an opportunity to discuss something else the Church doesn’t do well with, unwanted childlessness, infertility, and miscarriages. It’s not all the Church’s fault. The bible is incredibly unhelpful here claiming God gives and withholds children to reward and punish. That is clearly how our forbears thought but we are not limited to their theology any more than we are limited to their knowledge of reproductive biology–in which men plant seeds that are miniature people into women who like good and bad soil are fertile or barren, contributing nothing to the child.

In the bible, barren women get miraculous conceptions, pregnancies, and live births. But in this world in which the bible is enshrined, the miracles are few and far between. Some, few women, miraculously conceive against the odds. The overwhelming majority do not. God does not plant a little patriarch or savior in their womb. It’s not like the bible stories in this world in which the bible has become scripture. Our task as faithful interpreters is to bridge the gaps between the text and the world with the good news that God does not toy with us but holds in in our brokenness and heartbreak.

I know Michal is not just a character in David’s story, that there are childless, lonely, hurting women, women longing for the love a man that will never love them and women who lost the one who did. To say nothing of the heartbreak men experience but society tells them they’re not entitled to feel as real men. Longing for children or intimacy is limited by gender or orientation. Heartbreak, betrayal, and abandonment are not the sole province of women. And no matter what some of us may say in sorrow or anger, they are not all the fault of men. And not all heartbreak is romantic. Parents can wound as deeply as partners. Loss of employment and financial losses can be devastating. I dare say all of us have been brokenhearted, abandoned, or betrayed by someone or something beyond our control, beyond fixing, with which we simply have to live.

To all of us who like Michal have been brokenhearted saints at one time or another, God is Immanuel. God is Immanuel to Michal and to me. And to you. In our brokenness, in our wholeness, in our fullness, in our emptiness. God is with us. God is within us. God is and we are. Still here. Here and not alone. We are surrounded by the love of God that is greater than the failing love of friend, father or lover. In our places of isolation, abandonment, and self-exile we are held by the God who loves, heals, and restores, a God who is not swept away by romanticized readings of David and the despicable things he did to women. A God who loves even David, though perhaps in spite of rather than because of. We are held and loved by a God who chooses the weak, the vulnerable, the abused and mis-used.

This is good news for the ones who don’t get that happy ending in spite of how much you fast and pray. You are living with stuff you can’t tell anyone about. And you need a word for your life as it is right now. This is good news for those saints they don’t write songs about or include in Eucharistic prayers, saints like you and me.

The promise of God throughout all of scripture is Immanuel. If it is for anyone, it is for you, whether you are a Michal or a David. God’s love is for you. God is with you, loving you through this life you didn’t choose and may not want. Amen.

2 Responses

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