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‘David: The Divided Heart,’ by David Wolpe

An excerpt from a new analysis of King David, the biblical poet-hero

Jewish Lives (Sponsored)
September 10, 2014
(Library of Congress)
(Library of Congress)

This is a sponsored post on behalf of Yale University Press and their Jewish Lives series.

A king’s loves are ever sullied by statecraft. They may be designed from the beginning to foster relations between states, a form of alliance obsessively practiced by David’s son and successor Solomon, reputed to have had a thousand wives, a number more suited to bookkeeping than to romance. Even when a coupling begins with love or lust, as with David and Bathsheba, the state feels the vibrations. David’s relationships with women are by far the most detailed and nuanced in the Bible. Untangling which of David’s marriages were strategic and which fueled by love may be impossible. An unmixed motive does not seem to exist in David’s world, or in his heart. He imperils his kingdom through raw desire but also marries with an eye toward advancement. His relations to women are at least as complex as all the other arenas of his life. This ancient king, although with royal inflections, reminds us of our own conflicted natures.

David’s first recorded encounters with women are in public. After he vanquishes Goliath, women in the streets call out, “Saul has struck down his thousands / and David his tens of thousands” (1, 18:7).

This acclamation is first a threat to Saul’s ascendancy. His reaction is to suspect David’s intentions from that moment forward, a suspicion with tragic consequences. It is significant that jealousy begins with the cheers of women. Suddenly, a young boy, who was yesterday a shepherd, is the darling of Israel’s women. We know nothing from the text of David’s mother, not even her name, although the Rabbis spin tales of her love for him. Whatever David’s previous experience may have been, from this moment forward women will be instrumental in shaping his story. Their adoration, advice, and comfort will appear at crucial moments throughout David’s life.

Saul has not become king without learning the potential of women to make or break men in power. Saul seeks ways to eliminate David. He has been so crude as to clumsily and ineffectively launch his own spear at the nimble youth. Now the king decides on a different approach. Saul resolves to arrange a marriage not as statecraft but as sabotage. But when Saul seeks to use women to upend David, it does not work; David will parry Saul’s attacks, only to prove far more successful in upending himself.

Wary of the growing popularity of the upstart, Saul resolves to give David the hand of his eldest daughter, Merab, in return for David’s promise to fight against the Philistines. David ponders the offer with a becomingly modest demurral (“Who am I and who are my kin, my father’s clan in Israel, that I should be the king’s son-in-law?” [1, 18:18]). Is he speaking from genuine humility or from well-founded suspicion? Since we are not clear exactly what campaign Saul was requesting, David may also have been wary of undertaking a perilous mission. While he dithers, Merab is betrothed to another.

David has been told on the battlefield that Saul has prom ised his daughter to the man who slays Goliath. At least one biblical commentator, Abravanel, assumes that Merab chose her mate without her father’s knowledge. No matter; the way is now cleared for the younger daughter Michal, for “the daughter of Saul loved David” (1, 18:20).

This is the single instance in the Hebrew Bible of a woman being said to love a man, a tribute to David’s appeal. Both Jonathan and Michal, Saul’s children, are said to love David. Love in its nature is transgressive, it overspills boundaries. Part of the engine of devotion could well have been the clear threat that he posed to their father, and even their father’s hostility toward him. They would not be the first children to choose companions guaranteed to antagonize their parents. They may have truly loved and cared for their father as well as loving David. The story of David continually reminds us that little if anything in human relations is entirely wholehearted, and to speak of a conflicted heart is simply to speak of a human heart.

It is not clear who tells Saul of Michal’s love for David; the Hebrew reads “when they” reported it. “They” could be the servants. It could be members of his household; in a scene worth imagining, Merab and Michal together may have informed their father, one disdaining David and the other claiming him. Either way, Saul is pleased, thinking Michal “would be a snare” and enable Saul to set David against the Philistines. Saul is not above using his national enemies to eliminate his personal foe. (Later, David will use just such a tactic to dispose of his lover’s husband, Uriah.) Saul sends his servants to persuade David to accept the offer of marrying Michal.

An overarching question throughout the book of Samuel is David’s legitimacy as king. The royal line was assumed in the ancient world as today to be hereditary, yet David will supplant the line of Saul, earlier chosen by God through Samuel. David’s marriage to Michal is an opportunity to unite the two lines and establish his children the legitimate heirs to the crown. Broadly speaking, David represented Judah in the South and Saul was the favorite of Israel in the North. Michal is in Saul’s eyes a trap, in David’s a golden chance. It has been justly said that every action Saul takes, benevolent or antagonistic, works in David’s favor. And conversely but complementarily, everything David does, wittingly or not, paves his path to the crown. Saul is about to devise a plan to ensure that the Philistines kill David. Yet in the end David will become king when the Philistines kill Saul. When the Bible declares that God was with David, the reader, having seen each spun thread turn to gold, understands the force of the statement.

Saul springs the “trap”—all David needs for a bride price is the foreskin of a hundred Philistines. In a coup that surely ratchets up the dread in Saul’s heart, David and his men strike down two hundred Philistines. Not the most idyllic wedding gift ever devised, but effective.

The condition having been dramatically fulfilled, David’s relationship with Michal begins in drama and rescue. Saul, increasingly fearful of his son in law, is intent on eliminating him. As the Elizabethan poet Michael Drayton writes, “Melancholy / craz’d his wits.” Saul resolves to put David to death, not in a haphazard burst of anger, as has happened so far—twice he tried to pin David against the wall with a spear and twice David evaded the blow—but systematically. Saul sends messengers to David’s house to keep watch, so that he can execute David in the morning. Michal warns her husband: “If you do not get yourself away tonight, you will be killed in the morning” (1, 19:11). Michal then lowers David from the window and he escapes. She replaces his body in bed with a household idol and a thatch of goat’s hair. The fact that she had an idol on hand not only recalls the story of Rachel hiding her father’s household gods (Gen. 31) but reminds us that idolatry was slow to be expunged from Israel. This is unsurprising to those who take Israel’s prophets seriously, because the prophets are constantly rebuking the people for idolatry. They would not rage against violations no one was committing. Idolatry had deep roots and was slowly unearthed from the soil of Israel’s worship. When archeologists excavate ancient Israelite sites, they invariably find a cache of idols, small stone carved figures, primarily fetishes intended to help fertility. That Michal had an idol on hand is a shock to piety but a commonplace to history.

Michal’s fealty to David is a nervous one, however. She may love him, but her position as a woman buffeted by kings present and future is uneasy. The dilemma of women caught between fathers and husbands is not new, but the crown intensifies the stakes of each encounter. When her father reproaches her for protecting his enemy, she lies. She reports that David threatened her life: “He said to me: ‘Let me go. Why should I kill you?’” (1, 19:17). The lie reinforces Saul’s negative image of David but spares Michal.

David flees and Michal languishes. Marriage to a fugitive consigns her to distance that will never entirely be bridged. In his flight through the countryside Michal’s husband finds other wives. Later we discover that, in revenge, Saul has nullified David’s marriage to Michal and wed her to a man named Paltiel.

While Saul seeks to end David’s life, we begin to see David’s natural capacity for leadership. He becomes the captain of a roaming, ragtag band. As the youngest son he can expect no inheritance, but David is more than capable of providing for himself. When they discover that Nabal, a wealthy man in the vicinity of Hebron in Judah, has shepherds grazing in the area, David and his men undertake a sort of pastoral protection racket. They watch out over the sheep and the shepherds—a project more dangerous than it sounds. Ancient Israel was a place where both man and beast were constantly threatening. Recall that in presenting himself as a candidate to fight Goliath, David boasted that he has defeated both bear and lion. Not all shepherds were adept at defense, and such safeguarding was pre sumably required, since all flocks faced the same perils. Skilled fighters are always needed. David asks in return for whatever Nabal can give to him and his men. David’s speech uses “shalom,” peace, three times. It is not combative or aggressive. His protection may be unsolicited, but for the shepherds it is surely not unwelcome. Their master Nabal feels differently.

Nabal is incensed at the idea that he should “take my bread and my water and my meat that I slaughtered for my shearers and give it to men who come from I know not where?” (1, 25:11). Nabal, without the benefit of the Godfather movies, does not understand offers one cannot refuse, but he is about to learn the inevitable result of spurning David. As a settled landowner he simply has failed to reckon with the daring that was second nature to his foe, or with his desperation. David’s reaction is unambiguous: “Every man, gird his sword!” David goes with four hundred men (the same number Esau took to meet his brother Jacob, whom he had sworn to kill), while two hundred stayed behind with the gear. David, in the coarse rhetoric of the warrior, vows, “Thus may God do to David and even more, if I leave from all that is his until morning a single pisser against the wall!” (1, 25:23). David’s band is planning a massacre.

Here the Bible offers a rare speech by an unnamed participant that clarifies the situation. One of the lads—that is, one of Nabal’s shepherds—says to Abigail, whom we now meet as Nabal’s wife: “Look, David sent messengers from the wilderness to greet our master, and he pounced on them. And the men [that is, David’s men] have been very good to us and we were not humiliated and we missed nothing the whole time we went about with them, when we were out in the field. They were a wall around us both night and day the whole time we were with them tending the sheep. And now, mark and see what you must do, for the evil is resolved against our master and against all his house, and he is such a scoundrel no one can speak to him” (1, 25:14–17).

Nabal is despised by his own household—not only by his employees but by his wife, Abigail. The shepherds recognize a certain justice in David’s demands. And Abigail now undertakes some skillful diplomacy. She begins by approaching David with bread, wine, sheep, grain, and cakes, all mounted on donkeys, in another echo of Jacob’s approaching Esau with gifts. Abigail is the first woman in all of Scripture to be described by her mind before her appearance: “The woman had a good mind and lovely looks” (1, 25:3). She now demonstrates the suppleness of her mind, standing before David.

Abigail gives a speech, the longest prose speech by any woman in all of Scripture, in which she prostrates herself, denigrates her husband, and appeals to David’s vanity, nobility, and cupidity:

And she flung herself at his feet and said, “Mine, my lord, is the blame! But let your servant speak in your ears, and hear the words of your servant. Pray, let not my lord pay mind to this scoundrel of a man, to Nabal, for just like his name, he is, his name means Base and baseness is with him. And as for me, your servant, I never saw my lord’s lads whom you sent. And now, my lord, as the Lord lives and as you live—the Lord Who kept you from coming into blood guilt with your own hand delivering you—and now, like Nabal may your enemies be who seek evil against my lord. And now, this blessing that your servant has brought to my lord, let it be given to the lads who go about in the footsteps of my lord. Forgive, pray, the crime of your servant, for the Lord will surely make for my lord a stalwart house, for he fights the battles of the Lord and no evil will be found in you for all your days. And when a person rises to pursue you, to seek your life, my lord’s life will be bound in the bundle of the living with the Lord your God, and the lives of your enemies He will sling from the hollow of the sling. And so, when the Lord does for my lord all the good that He has spoken about you and He appoints you prince over Israel, this will not be a stumbling block and a trepidation of the heart to my lord, to have shed blood for no cause and for my lord to have carried out his own deliverance, then will the Lord do well with my lord, and you will remember your servant.” (1, 25:24–32).

The skill of this speech is in the continual self-abasement, in the insistent puffery (“lord” appears in the Hebrew fourteen times), its implicit promise, and its appeal to David’s better side before his men, subtly reminding him that earlier he might have killed Saul but did not. Entering the kingship with soiled hands will not serve David’s ultimate aims. Perhaps even the speech’s length is a product of calculation, giving David time to cool. The Midrash praises Abigail’s action: “Abigail [in preventing David from sinning] was better for David than all the sacrifices in the world which atone for sins after they have been committed” (Midrash Socher Tov, 53:1).

David acquiesces, and Abigail returns home to find her husband drunk. She tells Nabal nothing, but when he wakes in the morning, she recounts what occurred. Nabal then has a well-timed heart attack, and dies.

As will recur repeatedly throughout the story, an enemy of David’s dies with no apparent responsibility on his part. It has not escaped careful readers of the Tanach that Abigail’s concluding remark is: “You will remember your servant.” Many see that as an explicit appeal, or prediction, of the time when Abigail will be available to David. Whether she or he had any hand in bringing about the result we cannot know. One can say only that the timing of Nabal’s coronary is opportune in the extreme.

The moment David hears of Nabal’s demise, he blesses God and sends for Abigail as his wife. She is summoned and responds instantly. Although enveloped in almost courtly drama, the marriage proves economically important to David’s burgeoning ambitions. With the marriage of Abigail and the assumption of Nabal’s lands in the South comes David’s first major acquisi tion that helps to turn him from a marauder with a reputation into a man of substance and property. Nabal was a Calebite, a group of non-Israelites centered around Hebron that had joined with the tribe of Judah. Seven years after this incident David will create a capital in Jerusalem. At this period the capital is Hebron.

A reminder of how much is hidden from us is in the coda to this story, which reports that David had also taken another wife, Ahinoam (future mother of Amnon, David’s firstborn son) and that in the meantime, “Saul had given Michal his daughter, David’s wife, to Palti son of Laish, who was from Gallim” (1, 25:44). David now has three wives and Michal has two husbands. (The Rabbis, in an excess of chivalry, claim that the union between Michal and Paltiel was never consummated. They do not feel a corresponding need to claim that David was ever chaste with his multiple wives.)

Our next glimpse of Michal is later in the story, after Saul and Jonathan have died. David says to Abner, the former head of Saul’s troops, that he will make a pact with him, but only if he brings Michal back to David. They have not seen each other for a long time. David sends messengers to Saul’s remaining son, Ish-Bosheth. The text then offers these devastating lines:

And Ish-Bosheth sent and took her from her husband, from Paltiel son of Laish. And her husband went with her, weeping as he went after her, as far as Bahurim. And Abner said to him, “Go back.” And he went back. (2, 3:15–16)

In Paltiel we have a small, vivid glimpse of a man caught between historical titans. The woman he loves is taken, for David desires the spoils of his triumph. Does love exist between David and Michal? The next and final incident in their relationship suggests otherwise.

David has triumphed in battle and succeeded in bringing the ark back from its capture by the Philistines. This might be his most exalted moment as a warrior, but success does not always endear us to estranged spouses. The story is told of Samuel Beckett that he knew his marriage was over when his wife answered the phone and exclaimed, “Quelle catastrophe!” When he asked her what had happened, she informed him that he had won the Nobel Prize.

And as the Ark of the Lord came into the City of David, Michal the daughter of Saul looked out through the window and saw King David leaping and whirling before the Lord, and she scorned him in her heart. (2, 6:16)

Note the identifiers: the ark is God’s, the city is David’s, Michal is Saul’s. The near-Homeric tags already inform us that Michal is not, primarily, the wife of David. She who once saved him by lowering him through a window now peers through another window and sees the man who ran away, succeeded her father, stripped her of her loving husband Paltiel, cavorting in frenzied triumph. It is too much. This time, the window is not an escape, it is the porthole of a prison: “And Michal daughter of Saul came out to meet David, and she said, ‘How honored today is the king of Israel who has exposed himself today to the eyes of his servants’ slavegirls as some scurrilous fellow would expose himself!’ And David said to Michal, ‘Before the Lord, Who chose me instead of your father and instead of all his house, to appoint me prince over the Lord’s people, over Israel, I will play before the Lord! And I will be dishonored still more than this and debased in my own eyes. But with the slavegirls about whom you spoke; with them let me be honored!’ And Michal daughter of Saul had no child until her dying day” (2, 6:20–23).

The implication is that David no longer lay with Michal and she withered. There is a strange, ambiguous afterword to the story. Long after the death of Saul, David hands his descendants, including “the five sons of Michal, daughter of Saul,” over to the Gibeonites, who kill them. The Septuagint, the early Greek rendering of the text, has “Merab” (the oldest daughter of Saul whom David was to marry but did not). Three possibilities, in ascending order of likelihood: that David handed over his own children conceived with Michal; that he handed over Michal and Paltiel’s children, or, most probably, that he handed over Merab’s children and the text earlier was correct that Michal never bore offspring. Yet even if the insertion here of Michal’s name is a scribal error, it is also a final insult to the memory of a woman who suffered from being trapped between a powerful, vengeful father and a powerful, vengeful husband. An unhappy fate.

There is a fourth option, favored by both Josephus and rabbinic literature, that Merab died and Michal raised her sister’s children, hence their designation as Michal’s children. She who was born of a king and is the first woman in the Bible said to love a man, she who once saved David’s life, ends up discarded and alone. In a book rife with candidates for the harshest fate, Michal’s is surely as bitter as any.

Excerpted from David: The Divided Heart by David Wolpe, published by Yale University Press. Copyright 2014 by David Wolpe. Reprinted by Permission.


David Wolpe, the rabbi of the Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, is the author of seven books, including Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times.