Virginio Grana, David and Michal, 1865, Accademia Ligustica di Belle Arti, Genoa, Italy, in the public domain.

Michal was the youngest daughter of King Saul and the wife of King David. As such, she is a link between the two families and in some ways symbolises the tension between them. There are a number of strange, and troubling, things about the account of her marriage in the Book of Samuel.

When we are first introduced to Michal we are told that “Saul’s daughter Michal loved David” and Saul was pleased about that (1 Samuel 18:20). This is quite lovely as it is the only time in the Hebrew Bible that we are specifically told that a woman loved a man. We read often enough about men loving their wives, or their children, or their food, but Michal stands out as the exceptional woman who loved a man. Perhaps many other women did, but it’s striking that this is the only time the Hebrew Bible mentions it. What is also noteworthy is that Michal is not alone in loving David: so did her father Saul (16:21) and her brother Jonathan (18:1; 20:17 – for my thoughts on whether or not David and Jonathan had a homosexual relationship see my post here). Then we are told that, according to Saul, all Saul’s servants loved David (18:22), and, in fact, so did all Israel and Judah (18:16). Apart from Hannah being loved by her husband (1:5), David is the only character in 1 Samuel to whom “love” is directed. The mention of several people in quick succession who loved David, beginning with Saul, seems to emphasise that Saul is only the first of many to respond to David in this way. There is an added emphasis on the Royal Family and the Royal Household all loving David. The emphasis seems to be exaggerated, it is almost hyperbole, as though the writer is over-stating the point that of the two kings – Saul and David – David was the one that earned and deserved everyone’s love. No mention is ever made of anyone loving Saul. This is not necessarily because Saul was unloved or unloveable, but because the writer(s) needed to establish David’s legitimacy, and what better way to do it than to say everyone loved him, including Saul and his family.

It’s odd though that soon after telling us that Saul was jealous of the attention everyone was giving to David (18:6-9), that he attempted to kill David during a fit of insanity (18:10-11), and that he was actually afraid of David (18:12),the writer tells us that Saul almost immediately offered his daughter Merab to David as his wife (18:17). It was apparently part of a plot to get David to join Saul’s military and therefore be put in a position where he could be killed in battle (18:17). David declined the offer, probably seeing through the plot, saying he was unworthy to be the king’s son-in-law (18:18) but was then persuaded to accept the offer of Saul’s younger daughter Michal instead as wife (18:27). The story is, in some ways, quite bizarre. In order to convince David to accept Saul’s offer the only dowry or “bride-price” that he would have to pay would be 100 Philistine foreskins (18:25). It was clearly intended that David would be killed in the process of trying to obtain the 100 foreskins, but what a bizarre way of setting David up! Saul could have asked for 100 Philistine prisoners-of-war, or evidence that he’d killed 100 Philistine warriors, or simply asked for some small dowry but then sent David on a military campaign and arranged for him to die in battle (in precisely the same way that David later arranged for Uriah to be killed at the front line of a battle (2 Samuel 11:14-17). But to ask for 100 foreskins as a “bride-price” is grotesque! I suspect, in fact, that the writer(s) intended it to be read as just that: an absurdity intended to ridicule Saul and to further question his sanity.

This is not the last we are to hear of these Philistine foreskins, unfortunately. All seems to be well in Michal and David’s relationship at first and Michal actually protects David against an attempt by her father to kill him (19:11-17). David later took two more wives, Abigail and Ahinoam (1 Samuel 25:39-43) and immediately thereafter the record says “Saul had given his daughter Michal, David’s wife, to Palti son of Laish, who was from Gallim” (25:44). In a polygamous society it would not have been illegal or even unusual for David to take more wives, but no explanation or justification is given for Saul to take back Michal and give her to another man (a man who, we learn later, apparently loved Michal). In fact, in the circumstances it is difficult to understand how he even accomplished this. Robert Alter suggests that Saul’s motive for it was “political, to deprive David of one claim to the throne by removing the connection through marriage with the royal family” [1]. However, we know little about how ancient Israel would have expected kingship to be transmitted and if David’s marriage into the royal family would have given him any dynastic rights. After all, Saul had three sons who could make a claim to the throne ahead of his son-in-law David. What we do know, however, is that when the opportunity arose for David to make a claim to take back Michal he did so, demanding of Abner (who was defecting from Ishbosheth, Saul’s successor, to David) that he bring Michal to him, saying “Give me my wife Michal, to whom I became engaged at the price of one hundred foreskins of the Philistines” (2 Samuel 3:6-15). What a horrid way to describe the wife who loved him! He didn’t say “Give me my wife Michal whom I love” or “who loves me” or even “Give me my wife Michal who was stolen from me” but “Give me my wife Michal who cost me one hundred foreskins of the Philistines“! Imagine how Michal would have felt about this: not only to be passed from one man to the next and then back again, taken from a man who loves her, but to be described crudely as the wife who cost her husband 100 foreskins would have been demeaning. Poor woman.

This is not the end of Michal’s story. When David brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem in a procession Michal criticised him because he was “leaping and dancing” and “uncovering himself before the eyes of his servants’ maids, as any vulgar fellow might shamelessly uncover himself!” (2 Samuel 6:16-20). David turned on her, reminding her that God “chose me in place of your father and all his household, to appoint me as prince over Israel, the people of the LORD” (6:21). Despite the fact that Michal had lost her relationship with her father by supporting David, and risked her own life by protecting him, and had demonstrated her devoted love for him, to David she was still regarded as part of Saul’s household and her value was measured simply as “100 Philistine foreskins”. What a dreadful narcissist he was. This part of the story ends with the cold and callous words “And Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death” (6:23). David cut her off, abandoned, unloved and childless. In doing so, he also ensured that Saul’s line could not be continued through her.

It looks like this is the end of Saul’s line. Jonathan and his brothers Abinadab and Malchishua had died in battle together with their father, and Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth was effectively kept under house arrest and under control by David, incapable of being a threat to David’s succession. Saul’s son Ish-bosheth (aka Ishbaal), Michal’s brother, had been murdered by David (2 Samuel 4:8). Michal had been used as a political tool by David and Saul and then taken away from a man who loved her. Under the circumstances, having lost her entire family and the man who loved her, I think some allowances should be made for Michal’s criticism of David when he carried on in an undignified manner.

So was this the end of Saul’s line and Michal’s story? It looks like it, but there is a puzzling textual problem in 2 Samuel 21:8-9 which in most English translations reads: “The king [David] took the two sons of Rizpah daughter of Aiah, whom she bore to Saul, Armoni and Mephibosheth; and the five sons of Merab daughter of Saul, whom she bore to Adriel son of Barzillai the Meholathite; he gave them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they impaled them on the mountain before the LORD.” This looks like David is eradicting any vestiges of Saul’s dynasty by handing over his grandsons to the Gibeonites for a gruesome execution. Among them are “the five sons of Merab daughter of Saul.” This is particularly puzzling because the Hebrew Masoretic Text actually reads “the five sons of מִיכַל Michal daughter of Saul” and the ancient Greek Septuagint translation follows the MT. So did Michal had some sons after all? A few manuscripts – both Hebrew and Greek – have Merab rather than Michal and the sons are described here as the sons of Adriel son of Barzillai the Meholathite, who we were told earlier was the husband of Merab (1 Samuel 18:19). It looks like these are the five sons of Merab, Michal’s sister, but writing “Michal” is an odd mistake to make. If it was a mistake then it seems to have been made early as the Septuagint, an ancient translation, follows it. Various attempts have been made to explain it, but none of them are particularly convincing. There is a principle in textual criticism called “Lectio difficilior potior” which means “the more difficult reading is the stronger”. The argument goes that the more difficult or unusual reading is likely to be the ‘original’ based on the presupposition that scribes would more often replace odd words with more familiar and less controversial ones, or correct errors. In other words, applied to this text this principle means it would be easy to see why some scribes would correct Michal and make it Merab, because this would bring it into line with what we know about Merab and Adriel, and Michal having no children. But it’s not easy to see why Merab would be changed to Michal, so therefore ‘Michal’ is likely to be the older version. Perhaps after being cut off by David Michal married her widowed brother-in-law Adriel and they had five sons, or Michal raised her deceased sister’s boys. We will never know. As it stands, the MT says Michal had five sons, which makes David’s execution of his wife’s sons even more callous.

A final note about the artwork David and Michal by Virginio Grana (above): this painting portrays what appears to be a couple in love as David plays music on his harp for his attentive wife. However, I think I have demonstrated a pattern with David’s life and that while people like Jonathan and Michal loved David, and others like Joab demonstrated their loyal devotion to him over a lifetime, their love was never reciprocated. There is a certain irony in the meaning of David’s name, “Beloved“. Narcissistic David was loved, but apparently incapable of loving.

[1] Alter, Robert, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019, vol. 2, 286.

Next: Saul, David, and Churchill