November 4, 2014
Just like comic scenes in horror movies (I’m not an expert on this), the Bible sometimes mixes funny stories into awful storylines. Jamming tragedy and comedy together shows vividly in the stories about Michal (mee-kahl), King Saul’s youngest daughter.
Part of the tragedy is that both Saul and David used Michal for their own purposes. Saul used her to try to kill David. He had progressed from being insulted that David got more credit as a warrior than he did to fearing him, hating him, and eventually to making him a constant enemy. David, on the other hand, used Michal to become a legitimate part of the royal family. Before Samuel had anointed him, David hadn’t much thought about being king, but he quickly warmed to the idea. He pursued it steadily with a dynamic blend of cunning, prowess, and blessing. (He wasn’t entirely ruthless, since he carried some of foreign-woman Ruth’s DNA.) Marrying Michal gave him an edge in becoming king.
Yet in the midst of all this chaos and conflict, Michal loved David. As did her brother Jonathan and everybody in Israel. Except Saul. Seeing that Michal loved David, Saul offered her to David as wife, requiring as a dowry only one hundred Philistine foreskins. David would get killed for sure, he thought, before he collected a bag full of those. But he didn’t, and David took Michal as wife. (For more detail, but without illustration, see my blog post “David’s Daring Dowry.”)
After Saul failed to get his family and servants to kill David, he took direct action, but the daughter he offered as bait thwarts him. (See 1 Samuel 19:8-18 for these stories.) First he sends a surveillance squad to stake out David’s house to keep track of him. Michal knows trouble is brewing and warns David to flee that night. She sneakily lets him down from a window (an underserved biblical theme – see also spies at Jericho, Saul at Damascus, Eutychus at Troas), and David runs for his life. Then she puts a household idol in his bed, tops it with a goat-hair wig, and throws covers over it. Many of us may best remember this age-old trick from the movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” but it’s a perennial one.
The next morning, as Michal predicted, Saul sends a hit squad to murder David. Now here the biblical text is very compact, so we need to use our imaginations a bit to unpack the story, to see faithfully what the author describes.
When the hit squad arrives at David’s house and they ask to see him, Michal greets them and says, “Sorry, he’s sick today. You’ll have to come another time.” So the bewildered assassins leave and return to Saul, willing to put off murdering David until he was feeling better. That’s funny in itself, but imagine what they had to tell Saul: “Umm, he’s sick today so we couldn’t kill him.” Remember that this is the Saul who, when he’s angry, throws spears at people. Might he have said, “I don’t care if he’s sick, I want him dead!”? Among other things, Saul ordered them back to David’s house, “Bring him, bed and all, back so I can kill him!” (The Message)
They hurry back, barge into David’s room, and find only the dummy with the goat-hair wig, but they bring Michal back to Saul. He challenges her, “How could you betray me, play tricks on me, and side with my enemy?!” Michal, ever resourceful, has one more trick, “David threatened me. He said, ‘Help me get away or I’ll kill you!’” She survives this crisis, though Saul gives her as wife to another man.
Michal’s story continues, after Saul’s death, in texts that also blend tragedy and humor, but for now let’s note how trickery, surprise, and reversal can weave humor through ugly stories. And maybe you, with me, will continue to wonder whether the spirited Michal was naïve or ambitious or clever.