Michal: The Political Strategist
We meet Michal in 1 Samuel 14:49 when the narrator alerts us to Saul’s family composition: his wife, his three sons, and his two daughters with Michal being the youngest. Women are so rarely mentioned in family lines, that when they are, it cues the reader to stop and take note. When a detail like birth order is addressed, the biblical narrator is nearly shouting–remember, the least of these will be the most important! And Michal does not fail to disappoint.
We get to know Michal later in 1 Samuel 18, in the euphoria of David becoming the next up-and-rising hero in Israel. Everyone loves David, from the most powerful men in Michal’s family—Saul and Jonathan—to the women in the streets singing adoring praises. Like the others, Michal fell in love. We can imagine a teenage girl in love with the nation’s new young, courageous, SINGLE, and good-looking military hero. Why wouldn’t she? Not only did her whole family love David but “all Israel and Judah loved David” (1 Sam. 18:16 NIV).
But, as the women sang David’s praises, Saul realized that David had the potential to usurp the throne, arousing his survival instinct.1 Samuel 18:8-9 reads, “Saul was very angry, for this saying displeased him. He said, ‘They have ascribed to David ten thousand; what more can he have but the kingdom? So, Saul eyed David from that day on.”
As a reading audience, we get an insider’s look at Saul’s strategizing, and his central plan is to use his daughters as political chess pieces. First, he decides to give his oldest daughter, Merab, to David as a wife; with the explicit condition that he “be valiant for me and fight for the Lord’s battles. For Saul said to himself, ‘I will not raise a hand against him. Let the Philistines do that!” (1 Sam. 18:17). The political strategizing intensifies. David understands that Saul’s royal family far outranks his lowly family, meaning strings will be attached in such a marriage. So, he refuses saying, “Who am I, and what is my family or my clan in Israel, that I should become the king’s son-in-law?” (1 Sam. 18:18).
But once the plan began to brew in Saul’s mind, it did not die. When Saul heard that his younger daughter, Michal, loved David, he was pleased. Again, he thought, “I will give her to him…so that she may be a snare to him and so that the hand of the Philistines may be against him” (1 Sam. 18:21). And this time he addressed the first offer’s weakness; he gave David an explicit bride price—the foreskins of one hundred Philistines. And he manipulated David’s ego, having his servants whisper in David’s ear how much they loved him. Saul’s plan worked. “When the attendants told David these things, he was pleased to become the king’s son-in-law” (1 Sam. 18:26).
A Woman’s Expected Loyalty
If we step back from the story a bit and consider other Old Testament episodes, we begin to understand the political value Saul expects of his daughter. Delilah provides an early example of siding with her Philistine people against Samson. Jezebel provides a later example. Her sin amounted to remaining faithful to her foreign gods and people.1 And Ruth is beloved because of her exceptional loyalty not to her own people and gods but to Naomi’s. In the Ancient Near East culture women remained loyal to their families and their power was not underestimated.2 Like Delilah was a snare to Samson, Saul expected Michal to be a snare to David for Saul’s benefit.
So, Saul concocted an elaborate plan, daring David to kill one hundred Philistines in close combat to earn his daughter’s hand, convinced it was a death trap. But Saul had met his match in David, a tried-and-true warrior, a successful strategist in his own right, with his own political savvy. Though we know that Michal loved David, Scripture never says that David loved Michal. No, David desired the marriage for political proximity, not love, and he knew he could easily procure the bride-price. As the text says, “David was well pleased to be the king’s son-in-law. Before the time had expired, David rose and went, along with his men, and killed one hundred of the Philistines” (1 Sam. 18:26-27). Not surprisingly, Saul’s plan backfired and it began to dawn on him that Michal could be his undoing. Michal was powerful, with proximity to the throne and a rearing in all things political. Saul “realized that the Lord was with David and that Saul’s daughter Michal loved him. So, Saul was still more afraid of David” (1 Sam. 18:28).
A Courageous Strategist in Her Own Right
True to Saul’s fears, the next episode reveals that Michal is as capable and strategic as any. No sooner does the narrator tell us that Saul sent guards around David’s house with plans to kill him in the morning than Michal reveals her insider’s knowledge, saying, “If you do not run for your life tonight, tomorrow you will be killed” (1 Sam. 19:11). We already know that the palace servants love David. It takes little imagination to suspect how Michal was informed of Saul’s plans, likely directly from the guards sent to kill David.3 So, with her own political savvy, Michal planned, executed, and defended David’s escape. A skilled military leader, David recognizes Michal’s tactical brilliance and silently follows her plan. While David flees for his life, she stands courageously and selflessly, suffering the full consequences to come.4
Protecting David by accusing him of abandonment and murder, Michal returned to the patriarchal “protection” of her father’s home. We learn in 1 Sam. 25:44 that Saul used his power to marry Michal off to Paltiel, cutting David off from any legitimate claim to the throne.5
Michal Reveals the Ugly Side of Power
The next time we meet Michal, she is no longer a lovesick teenager but a mature woman. Her father’s selfish act of marrying her off to another man, despite her love for David, effectively removed her from the political contest. Now, in another political act of posturing, David again uses Michal as a pawn by forcibly removing her from her husband’s home (2 Sam. 3:15-16), not because David loved her but because he paid the legal bride-price.6 Having finally found love with Paltiel, David rips her away only to settle a political score.
We meet Michal one last time in 2 Samuel 6 when David is dancing in victory before the Ark of the Covenant as it enters Jerusalem. No longer blinded by the infatuation of her youth, “when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, she despised him” (verse 16). She confronts him saying, “how can the king of Israel distinguish himself today, going around half-naked in full view of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would.” (2 Sam. 6:20). Her accusation recalls Israel mocking her father prophesying, naked.7 Israelite law forbids nakedness in holy places (Ex. 20:26).8 David does not deny the allegations but flaunts them in his response to her, “I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes. But by these slave girls you spoke of, I will be held in honor” (2 Sam. 6:22). He can act as sexually undignified as he wants and no one will blame him. In his mind, it is essentially a contest of winners and losers and David is on the winning side (2 Sam. 6:21).
Abuse and the Future
The scene is heartbreaking and recognizable to many women as they look back over their lives. With all their youthful enthusiasm, natural brilliance, life experience, and love they fully engage in the patriarchal structures of their youth. They sacrifice their families and often their own futures. But at some point, perhaps when they are taken out of the situation or something changes, they suddenly recognize the system in which they engaged.
Michal’s courage remained with her to honestly confront David no matter the consequences. She was unable to play along any longer, and the consequences were severe. 2 Samuel 6:23 records David’s full rejection in the words, “and Michal daughter of Saul had no children to the day of her death.” Many of us empathize with Michal, as we see this brilliant, courageous woman used as a chess piece in someone else’s game.
Scripture preserves her story for a reason. This is a story of abuse. Saul and David exploited Michal’s power, courage, and tactical savviness. They recognized her God-given ezer, her power to save, and tried to use it for their own gain. Void of empathy and without regard for her future, they abused their power over her. Strikingly, the Spirit thought it was important that our hearts break as we empathize with her injustice beside her enormous potential. While these words point out the broken world in which we live, they point to the true Messiah who came to rescue us from this brokenness, to restore the world to a time when man and woman, together represented the image of God created for shared governance (Gen 1:26-30) not male dominance (Gen 3:16).
Consider the many women in Scripture who took initiative to save others in this Mutuality article, Taking Initiative.
Consider how women are protectors, like Michal and Abigail in Protectors or Protected?
Consider the contrast between how some daughters like Michal are treated in The Delight of Daughters: A Theology of Daughterhood.
See the end results of a theology that supports patriarchal marriage in A Theology of the Generations.
Learn how to faithfully interpret and understand difficult biblical texts such as Michal in A Whole Bible Approach to Equality.
Listen to experts talk about abuse and how to create healthy mixed gender partnerships in the Mutuality Matters podcast, Creating Safe and Thriving Mixed Gender Partnerships.
Consider Michal’s situation and the spiritual structures that have not allowed us to interpret her situation as you read this article, The Unavoidable Link Between Patriarchal Theology and Spiritual Abuse.
- Robyn J. Whitaker, “Invoking Jezebel, Invoking Terror: The Threat of Sexual Violence in the Apocolaypse to John,” Terror in The Bible: Rhetoric, Gender, and Violence, ed. Monica Jyotsna Melanchthon and Robyn J. Whitaker, (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2021), 110. This is not an attempt to justify Jezebel’s behaviors but to note the Biblical pattern of women remaining loyal to their own foreign national gods and people, which many just as Whitaker have also noticed.
- Linda L. Belleview, “Women Leaders in the Bible,” in Discovering Biblical Equality: Biblical, Theological, Cultural and Practical Perspectives, 3rd ed., ed. Ronald W. Pearce, Cynthia Long Westfall, and Christa L. McKirkland (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2021), 75. Belleview says, “though there appear to be more men than women in the political spotlight, it was not due to a lack of intelligence, temperament or political savvy. Nor is there any notion in the Old Testament that women leaders were inappropriate.”
- Wilda C. Gafney, Womanist Midrash:A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2017), 193. Gafney also suspects that Michal had insider sources.
- David Jobling, 1 Samuel Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry, ed. David W. Cotter (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1998), 152. Jobling notes the difference between Michal and David’s actions too, stating, “Michal’s whirlwind of activity…is a convincing enactment of her love for David. David, by contrast, has a passive role (the only thing we see he actively does is run away v.12).”
- Bruce Birch, “The First and Second Books of Samuel: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume II (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 1224. Birch notes that “Saul hoped to remove any claim by David on kinship to the house of Saul that might strengthen Davidic claims on the throne.”
- White, “Michal the Misinterpreted,” 458. See also Wilda C. Gafney, Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2017), 194; Birch, “The First and Second Books of Samuel,” 1224; and Jobling, 1 Samuel, 159. White notes the many Old Testament scholars who recognize the legal language of David’s negotiations that demonstrate no emotional appeal to have back his wife who he loves and saved his life.
- Everett Fox, The Early Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings: A New Translation with Introductions, Commentary, and Notes (New York: Schocken Books, 2014) 450. Fox suggests that David’s “near nakedness reminds her of her father’s prophetic moments, which caused people to whisper (see 1 Sam. 19:24).”
- White, “Michal Misinterpreted,” 460-461; Fox, The Early Prophets, 450. Both Fox and White note the sexual undertones of this passage, and White argues that Michal is justified in protecting her sexual marriage rights jealously. Rather than David honoring the woman who saved his life and is trying again to save his reputation, he taunts her and no one will blame him.
- Tykva Frymer-Kensky, Reading Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories, (New York: Schocken Books, 2002), 146. See also Gafney, Womanist Midrash, 196. As noted in the footnote above regarding White, many interpreters see David flaunting his sexual promiscuousness before Michal. Wilda Gafney says, “In other words, ‘I have yet to begin to debase myself. I’ll do so with whomever I choose-anyone but you-. And the-slaves of slaves-those girls are just my speed. No matter what I do, they’ll cheer me on, and they’ll like it.”