2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19
I had the great good fortune to have been raised and educated by Southern Baptists. They taught me everything from higher maths to the importance of spending quiet time with God every day. The thing they didn’t teach me, though, is how to dance. To this day, I am not a very good dancer.
I am sure they have their reasons, though I’ve never been clear on what they are, but Baptists don’t dance. In fact, there’s a joke they tell: Q. Why don’t Baptists have sex standing up? A. Could lead to dancing. It seems to me that the dancing prohibition somehow misses whatever point may have at one time been there. But, there you have it. They just don’t dance.
If David had been a Baptist, he might have avoided the confrontation he had with one of his wives in this morning’s reading from 2 Samuel. Today we only read a line or two from the story:
As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart.
But, there is more to the story. The thing is that it’s just scattered around a bit. In fact, if you removed these several lines from our reading today, the lesson would still flow quite nicely. That’s what makes this bit important. It stands out simply because it doesn’t really belong. That is precisely why it should make us itch to know more. Who is this woman, Michel? What does she have to do with the story? And, more importantly, does it mean anything for us as we try to live out the Gospel in the 21st century?
Michel was King Saul’s beautiful second daughter, and like many young girls before and since, she had a crush on the popular hero of the day, David. David was handsome and he was the giant slayer. He had literally, and single-handedly, won the way against the Philistines. Everybody was a fan of David, but maybe none more than Michel. I imagine she wrote his name over and over in her notebook and dreamed of the day she would be his wife.
Usually, these kinds of dreams don’t come true and there are lots of reasons this one was unlikely. For one thing, despite Michel’s love for David, there is no indication from either the text or the tradition that David loved her. Saul had become resentful of David’s popularity and so he did not like David either. He tried to make the marriage impossible by setting a bride price of 100 Philistine foreskins, and you know it’s almost impossible to get a Philistine to part with his foreskin. Additionally, David was from a poor family which didn’t offer any advantages in terms of building alliances and strengthening the kingdom. It just wasn’t likely. But, some dreams do come true and Michel was given to David to marry. The only real effect of the marriage was to strengthen David’s later claim to the throne.
As time passed, and Saul became more resentful of David, things deteriorated at court. Saul decided to have David killed. David’s best friend, Jonathan warned him and, Michel saved David’s life by helping him escape. In fact, David was loved by both Michel and Jonathan. It is said that Michel helped David survive inside the palace and Jonathan helped him survive outside the palace. This may the real source for the verse that says, “For two are better than one…”
David was in hiding for a long time — fourteen years. That is a long time for a young bride to wait, but Michel did wait. The rabbis speculate that even when she was married off to another man — a man who genuinely loved her — Michel remained faithful to David. In fact, her new husband, Paltiel, placed his sword between them and said: “Whoever engages in this [intercourse] shall be stabbed by this sword.” Paltiel so successfully overcame his sexual urges toward Michel that people called him a woman. So, if you think gender-bending is a modern phenomenon, read Leviticus Rabbahand then decide… but, I digress.
As for David, he went to Nob where he was given the showbread to eat and Goliath’s sword for protection and went into hiding. With Jonathan’s help, David waited out Saul’s anger and multiple attempts on his life. When Saul and his sons were killed in battle David saw his chance to swoop in and claim the crown. Of course, being the legal husband of Saul’s daughter didn’t hurt his chances in this. There were no other possible heirs, and David had been loved by the people. In addition to winning the war, he won back Michel in the bargain.
That would make a nice ending to the story, but that is not how it ends. After he became king, David decided to go down to Nob and get the ark of the covenant and bring it back to Jerusalem. As they were entering the city, David was so happy that he took off his robe and danced before the Lord in only his underclothes. When he got home, Michel was waiting for him and she was not happy. She said, “Today the honor of the house of my father Saul has been revealed. Come and see the difference between you and Father’s house. All the members of my father’s household were modest, and no one would see even a bit of their hand, and not even a bit the size of a thumb of their body, and all were more distinguished than you. But you stand and reveal your clothing as one of the worthless ones!” She didn’t like this new thing, a Caanite practice, the king behaving like a commoner.
All because of dancing.
When we read these stories it’s easy to identify with the hero of the story. We all want to be David, dancing freely and joyfully before God. The truth is that we are often more like Michel. When someone else rejoices in a marriage of which we don’t approve we may detest it as a foreign practice, unknown among the people of God. Or, when there is liturgical language that is jarring or unfamiliar we may be quick to point out that it is not part of our tradition. And those people, like Michel, are right. They are new and, like David’s Caanite practice, they are previously unknown.
The rest of the story, though, reveals that David was on the right track. He became a much-loved king. Michel, however, had a different fate. By saying that she didn’t have any children until her dying day, it is implied that David never slept with her again and she is never heard of again. David’s life bore the fruit of service and faithfulness. But, Michel, entrenched in the practices of the past and unwilling to be moved by any new breath of God, did not bear fruit.
What about us, though? If we’ve been in the position of Michel by not accepting the unfamiliar or even rejecting it outright, we still have time to go back. We can have a do-over. There is still time to accept new practices and new blessings. What foreign practice or strange new thing might you want to reconsider? Can you imagine that it might become a blessing to you?
When God brings something new into our lives we can choose to dance with it or to rail against how very unknown and scandalous it is. Much harm has been done when people are rejected for living into their authentic calling as a child of God. Women, queers, and the merely odd have all tried to show us a way to dance differently. Whether we take up the dance ourselves, or just rejoice in the dance of others, there is a blessing there.
I think it was hard for Michel to consider that the court of her father might be gone forever, just like it is hard for us to accept that our lives, and our church, is changing in ways that we never imagined. As General Convention comes to a close and we all begin to live into some new things, all of us are likely to find things that are hard to accept. Thus has it ever been. Let’s choose to dance with what the spirit brings, even if it is unknown or different. This is the hard way of fruitful life and it is the way forward.
Linda McMillan is writing from Bangkok, Thailand. She is a traveler and adventurer and a bad dancer from way back.
Some Notes of Possible Interest
The truth is that Baptists not dancing is sort of like Baptists not drinking. Some of them do both. Which reminds me of another joke: What is the difference between a Methodist and a Baptist? The Methodist will say hello to you at the liquor store.
Proverbs 39, in “The Woman of Valor” poem also speaks of Paltiel, saying “[Many women have done well,] but you surpass them all” BT Sanhedrin 19b–20a.
Abimelech the high priest who gave David the showbread and Goliath’s sword was eventually killed for helping David along with 84 other priests. But Ahimelech, Abimilech’s son, somehow escaped he warned David. He later became the high priest.
2 Samuel 6:23… And Michal daughter of Saul had no children to the day of her death (NIV). — Some say that this means that Michel did have a child, but that she died in childbirth. It’s hard to know since we weren’t there. She did serve as a mother-figure to her older sister’s children.
Paltiel was not the only gender-bender in today’s story. The rabbis also say that Michel put on tefillin every day, something that only men are required to do, but the sages didn’t say anything about it.
For information contained in this essay see Numbers Rabbah and Midrash Samuel.
As always, I am in the debt of my friends and teachers especially Robert P. Morrison, vicar at St Alban’s Episcopal Church, Albany, Oregon who reminded me about the Baptists.
I apologize in advance for the earworm, but you know I am going to leave you with some music: