Note: In my new role as Lead Equipper in the Center for Vitality of the Arkansas Conference of the UMC, I am looking for ways to be helpful to those serving in pastoral ministry. I know as a pastor some weeks I was scrambling to pull together my sermon. Knowing I was not alone in that struggle, I plan to post a blog resource on one of the upcoming lectionary passages each Monday. I start today with a story about David, knowing more than one pastor out there is preaching a series on David right now. Feel free to use this resource in sermon preparation in whatever way you find helpful (without misquoting me, of course). Also, feel free to send me requests for upcoming passages.
Warning: this post deals with implications of emotional and spiritual abuse. It may trigger some people/congregations.
A Most Sinister Tale
As the LORD's chest entered David's City, Saul's daughter Michal was watching from a window. She saw King David jumping and dancing before the LORD, and she lost all respect for him. (2 Samuel 6:16, CEB translation)
Read the whole story.
If you don’t read the whole story, then you think Saul’s daughter Michal is a completely unreasonable human being. Unfortunately, the Revised Common Lectionary cuts the story up so you think exactly that. In fact, if you read it just as the RCL cuts it, you really admire David and his care and concern for the proper worship of the Lord. But if you read the whole story, and you pepper in some prior details about Michal, who is not just “Saul’s daughter,” you will probably have a different take. I do. I think this story is instead one of the cruelest, most sinister stories in the Bible.
Let’s first come at it as if all we had to read is the passages the RCL wants us to read, and come to a resulting interpretation. From those details, contained in 2 Sam 6:1-5 and 12-19 (by the way, always be suspicious when the RCL just skips over some stuff – they are probably skipping the messy stuff that actually involves deep theological reflection or things that problematize main characters, which is what is happening here), David is trying to bring the Lord’s Chest (also known as the Ark of the Covenant) to Jerusalem. He is being very attentive about moving it, taking time to sacrifice an ox and a fatling calf EVERY SIX STEPS that they take! David is also wearing a priestly vest, presumably out of respect for the Lord’s Chest. Saul’s daughter Michal (remember Saul? The previous king of Israel? We don’t like him anymore, right?) looks down and sees David dancing with all of his strength in honor of the Lord, and she loses respect for him. Wow, what’s up with Michal? She must just be jealous that David is king now and not her daddy, and so she has decided to be all judgy about David’s piety. Then David puts the Chest in a proper tent, does all the correct sacrifices, and hands out food to all the people. What a great guy who truly knows how to honor the Lord! No wonder he is Israel’s greatest king!
That cut up version of the story might lead us to preach on what constitutes proper worship before the Lord. We might talk about how seriously we should take the worship of the Lord, and how we must respect the Lord’s power. It might cause us to share a cautionary word about not judging those who enthusiastically worship. We might even hearken to James 1:27 about proper religion and how that includes care for widows and orphans, which David obviously did when he gave food to everyone. James 1:27 also reminds us to remain unstained by the world, and David, by worshipping the way he was called to worship instead of how Michal thought he should worship, was remaining true to God instead of being stained by her expectations. Many of these are good points to make for our people. Just don’t use this story to make those points. Why?
Read the whole story. Because trust me, some of our people will. All they have to see is skipped verses, and they are going to pick up their Bible and read what is left out. I know because I used to do that. In fact, that was the only time I picked up a Bible in church, unless I was asked to read. I also know because if I ever skipped verses while preaching, invariably someone would come up to me after the service and ask about those skipped verses. And in this case, if we ignore those verses and preach the interpretation I just shared, we are likely to look like fools. Or worse – to look like people with a hidden agenda, and an abusive one at that.
So read 2 Samuel 6:1-23. That’s right, the whole chapter. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Okay, back now? Now how do you feel about David?
I will be the first to admit, David is not one of my favorite people. The whole scene with Bathsheba is just awful. Then there is the fact that he basically turned a blind eye to one of his sons raping one of his daughters, and let his sons kill each other over it instead. He’s not the best dude. And this passage also ranks as one of his worst. Let me break down why.
1. David is a big ol’ chicken. As soon as Uzzah dies because he touches the chest after trying to keep it from falling when the oxen stumble (which by the way, God, that was a no-win situation there – why kill Uzzah? But I digress), David ditches the Chest. When he hears how Obed-edom is getting blessed by having the Chest in his household, he goes to get it. Can’t have anyone else getting God’s blessing, right? He is taking his time this time, though. No stumbling oxen now because they are traveling at a snail’s pace. And just to make sure those oxen don’t get some fancy feet, they get to be treated to watching one of their own get sacrificed every few steps.
2. It is not all about God; it is all about David. I have already implied that the snail’s pace is less about honoring God and more about self-preservation. Here’s the thing, though. The Bible keeps saying they are bringing the Chest to David’s City. Not Jerusalem. Not Zion. DAVID’S City. Also, when trying to figure out how to move the Chest, he says, “How will I ever bring the Lord’s Chest to me?” (2 Sam 6:9, emphasis mine). And then there is the fact that David is not only performing the sacrifice, he is wearing priests’ clothes. Barely. First, does anyone else remember how much trouble Saul got into for not waiting for Samuel to come take care of the entirely burned offering, even though Samuel was late, Saul’s troops were deserting, the enemy army was marching against them, and Saul truly wanted God’s blessing to proceed? He lost the kingship. Saul lost the kingship for doing the work of the priest (see 1 Samuel 13). Apparently that is all cool now with David though. And then there is this linen ephod (called in the CEB a linen priestly vest) that David is wearing, and that, based on what Michal says to him in verse 20, is apparently all he was wearing. Wearing an ephod would be a bit like taking a beach towel, cutting a hole in the middle, sticking your head through that hole and letting part drape down over your back and part over your front. It would have hung long enough to fall just above your knees, but would have been open on the sides. David might have belted it, but if he was dancing with all his strength, he would have left absolutely nothing to the imagination, except maybe his nipples. Maybe. That does not strike me (or Michal, for that matter) as respectful of the priestly office, but rather says, “Hey, yeah, I love God – see I am wearing a priestly vest. Oh also, what’s up ladies. Check me and my ‘holiness’ out.” Michal calls him out on it too. When he gets home, she says, “How did Israel’s king honor himself [i.e. not God] today?... By exposing himself in plain view of the female servants of his subjects like any indecent person would!” (v. 20)
3. David doesn’t help widows, he creates them. And let’s talk about Michal, shall we? From this passage, and this passage alone, we might assume that David has taken pity on Michal as the daughter of Saul and given her a place to live safe from her father. Nope. Michal is not just Saul’s daughter. Michal is DAVID’S FIRST WIFE! Michal loved David, and Saul decided to exploit that to keep David in line by giving her to David as a wife and demanding 100 Philistine foreskins as a dowry, which David readily provided (1 Samuel 18). Then, when Saul was threatening to kill David, Michal warned David, lowered him out a palace window, and placed a decoy in the bed to look like him (a decoy which happened to be the household’s divine image with a goat hair wig) and then told her daddy that David was sick (1 Samuel 19). Then David goes off, marries a bunch of other women, never returns for Michal, and so her father marries her off again (1 Samuel 25). Then later David demands that Ishbosheth bring Michal to him because she is his wife, and so Ishbosheth goes and takes her away from a husband who actually loves her, who follows behind weeping until they send him away, to bring her to David to gain his favor (2 Samuel 3). Then the next time she appears is here when she calls out David. The only other times Michal appears in the Bible appear to be in a scribal error (2 Samuel 21:8) and in a cleaned up version of this story in which David looks great, 1 Chronicles 15:29. So really, this is the last interaction we have between this husband and wife. A woman who has been a pawn in the games of men up to this point finally calls David out. She names what he is really doing – glorifying himself so he can bed more women. How does he respond? First, he cloaks himself in God’s favor. He says he is just honoring God. And then he punishes her. She will remain his wife, but he will never have sex with her again. We know this because we are left with this devastating detail: “Michal, Saul’s daughter, had no children to the day she died.” (2 Sam. 6:23). David is keeping her trapped. He won’t release her from the marriage, because she belongs to him and he can use her to his own advantage of power. But he will also guarantee that she has no future. She is not a wife, she is a widow, and one who has no child to care for her in her old age. For the time, this is roughly equivalent to a death sentence for Michal. This is the worst type of manipulation and abuse, and David does it in the name of God.
This is a rich story, and one that the church needs to hear and reflect on. We need to, from time to time, examine our hearts in an honest way. I know I personally benefited from a reminder that I should not present self-righteousness as God-righteousness. That is a message so much of the church needs today. Then there are the specific examples of abuse by those in power. How many of us have been part of churches led by predators who were interested in their own glory rather than in God’s, even as they enthusiastically cloaked themselves in piety? That cloak is a thin one, though, one that barely covers more sinister, self-indulgent aims. Those same wolves among the shepherds frequently keep up appearances in their family lives, forcing spouses (and children) to maintain an expected image, all the while manipulating, denying, and abusing them behind closed doors. Leaving them without a hope and without a future.
Don’t fall for the Lectionary soundbite that cleans up a nasty situation. Read the whole story. Preach the whole story. Wrestle with its implications. The health of our faith, of our Body of Christ, depends on it.