July 9, 2021 • Life for Leaders
Scripture – 2 Samuel 6:12-16 (NRSV)
So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing; and when those who bore the ark of the Lord had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. David danced before the Lord with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet. 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.
Read the rest of the story here.
I think sometimes we need to simply acknowledge that the Scriptures give us hard stories. Stories of people trying to follow God’s will and deal with holiness in their midst—and screwing up. Sometimes the best thing we can learn from stories such as these is what not to do.
In my (Episcopal) tradition, after the lay reader reads one of our assigned Scripture passages for the week, he or she announces to the congregation that what we have just heard is “the Word of the Lord,” and we respond: “Thanks be to God.” There are weeks in the lectionary, though, when the passage that has been read is so odd, or disturbing, or puzzling, that a note of question almost rises in the lay reader’s voice: “The Word of the Lord?” Can what we have just heard really be a part of Holy Scripture, which we learn in 2 Timothy 3:16 is “inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness”?
This week, we have not one but two such passages. We’ll look at one today and one tomorrow. Today, we have the Old Testament story of David dancing before the Ark of the Covenant. During the long stretch of Ordinary Time (see my recent devotion for more on Ordinary Time), we hear a continuous story in our Old Testament readings, and right now we are hearing the story of the Kings of Israel. First we spent a few weeks with Saul, then we read about the (bumpy) transition from Saul to David, and now we are in the early years of David’s reign (he was just anointed king over the whole country in the preceding chapter.) One of his first acts is to bring the Ark of the Covenant from where it has been resting in Kirjath-jearim to a place of honor in Jerusalem. There’s an even more disturbing story right before this one, when the Ark starts to fall over while they’re carrying it and the guy who catches it gets killed because he touches the Ark. After that, they park it for a few months in the house of a man named Obed-edom the Gittite because they’re afraid to move it.
At the point we join David, though, the Ark is now making the final leg of its journey. When it first left Kirjath-jearim, there seems to have been a procession with dancing, so it doesn’t seem that having such processions—and even having the king participate in them—was all that unusual. But when the Ark gets closer to its new home, Michal, one of David’s wives and the daughter of Saul, looks out of the window and sees the King of Israel dancing in an ephod and is displeased; when he comes back to the house she accuses him of “uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants’ maids” (2 Samuel 6:20). David responds that he danced on the Lord’s orders (2 Samuel 6:21-22). As a result of this, the narrator tells us, Michal never had any children with David.
David and Michal had a complicated relationship—and, as with all royal marriages in the Bible, the complexities included politics. Saul originally offered David the hand of his older daughter, Merab, in marriage, but David said that he was too lowly to be the son-in-law of the king (I Samuel 18:18). Merab married someone else. Then Michal fell in love with David. Saul approved the marriage, seeing it as a trap for David, on the grounds that David murder 100 Philistines. David murdered 200. The trap backfired, though, because David began to be more esteemed than Saul. Eventually, he had to flee, and Michal helped him escape (1 Samuel 19:11-17).
While David was in hiding, he married several other women, and Saul gave Michal to another man, Palti (1 Samuel 25:44). Then David became King of Judah, and asked for Michal back. Saul agreed in order to cement an alliance between them, and sent the military commander Abner to take her back to David, “but her husband [Palti] went with her, weeping as he walked behind her all the way to Bahurim. Then Abner said to him, ‘Go back home!’ So he went back.” (2 Samuel 3:16). That was the state of the relationship between David and Michal when she looked out of the window.
It really is a terrible, complicated, and heartbreaking story. Nobody comes out of it looking very well—not Saul, not David, not Abner, not Michal (though her sarcasm seems a bit understandable under the circumstances), not even God. Only Palti seems to be blameless. How can this be “the Word of the Lord”?
The church fathers sometimes subjected stories such as these to interpretations that focus our attention away from the events and towards the moral lessons to be learned—when we struggle with the battles in Joshua, for example, it may be easier to think of the fact that God wants us to do battle with evil in our own daily lives. This is a kind of interpretation that has a long tradition in the church, and can sometimes be helpful. (There’s a detailed and useful article about the traditional “four-fold” method of interpretation of Scripture here, published by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.) But that does not mean that the actual events which happened don’t give us pause.
I think sometimes we need to simply acknowledge that the Scriptures give us hard stories. Stories of people trying to follow God’s will and deal with holiness in their midst—and screwing up. People who got the will of God mixed up with the dictates of government. People worried about looks and self-preservation. After all, that is the world we live in. Sometimes the best thing we can learn from stories such as these is what not to do.
We’ll think more about this difficult subject tomorrow. For now, consider these questions.
What is your reaction to the story of David and Michal (and Saul, and Abner, and Palti, and the Ark of the Covenant)?
How have you handled difficult stories from the Scriptures before in your devotional reading and prayer life?
What might this story be trying to tell us?
I’ve often found worshipping with The Porter’s Gate to be helpful in times of lament. “O Jerusalem” is a beautiful picture of the redeemed society we long for—a deep contrast to the society we see in this story. (Lyrics here.) Listen, and sit in silence and grief before the song, discerning God’s will for you.
Lord, help us respond to your calling and your holiness not with violence and power, but with love and truth. Help us when things seem difficult to understand. Amen.
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Jennifer Woodruff Tait (PhD, Duke University) is the editor of and frequent contributor to Life for Leaders. She is also the managing editor of Christian History magazine and web editor for the Theology of Work Project, and a priest in the Episcopal Church. She has written a book of poetry, Histories of Us. Jennifer lives in Berea, Kentucky, with her husband, Edwin, and their two daughters.
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