In Second Samuel, David’s marriage to Saul’s daughter, Michal, leaves people scratching their head. David steals someone’s wife. Is this something God thinks is OK? What about the command not to covet another man’s wife? Stories like The Epic of Gilgamesh indicate that Ancient Near Eastern kings had no problem interrupting happy marriages, but does the Bible hold its kings to a higher standard? If not, what does that tell us about how the Christian should view power?
In this Second Samuel account, David demands Michal’s hand in marriage on the grounds that King Saul had promised her as a reward for David’s exploits against the Philistines. Complicating matters, Saul had reneged on his promise and had given Michal’s hand in marriage to a man named Paltiel. Paltiel appears in the scripture for a brief instant, weeping for his wife as he is driven away by a fierce general named Abner. While Paltiel weeps for Michal, David insults her. The next time Michal appears in the scripture, David, in an almost petty move, reminds her that God had chosen his house and not Saul’s house to rule. At the end of the disagreement, the text hints that David ceased to have marital relations with her after the disagreement. The contrast couldn’t be more poignant. Paltiel loves Michal and even stands up to a general for her. David views her as a property, which can be discarded.
Understanding how and why David comes to view Michal in this light, helps to explain what the author means by including the account in his history. When David demands Michal’s hand in marriage, he is competing with Saul’s son for the kingship. David thinks that by marrying Michal, he can help to consolidate his power (i.e. he can shore up the base). However, the truth is that the bible specifically commands Israel’s kings not to multiply wives to bolster their influence. This command flies in the face of what everyone in the Ancient Near East was doing. Marriage could help to seal treaties and build consensus.
However, separating Israel from their neighbors, the nation was not supposed to depend on anything but God for their strength. In Samuel and Kings, the writers credit Israel’s wild disregard for the prohibition against the multiplication of marriages with their downfall. Wars, coups, division, and plagues result from these sins.
The sad thing is that David did not need a marriage with Michal to secure his kingship. God’s promise would go forth no matter what. However, like Abraham with Hagar, David manifests the human tendency to believe that the Lord of Hosts needs a little help to accomplish his worldwide plan.
So, what does the weeping Paltiel teach us? The story is admittedly complex. As such, there are more connections that could be followed in the account of Michal with David, but one thing seems likely. The biblical writer does more than just show the consequences of sin in coups and civil war. He shows a human cost of trusting in the world’s system of power rather than in God. In this story, David may be more of villain than a good guy.
Luckily, no one was better at being a bad guy than David, insomuch as he sets the gold standard for repentance. The story teaches that no one is immune to trusting the world’s system of power more than they trust God. If God convicts us of the same sin, hopefully we will have hearts quick to repentance like David.