Children’s stories about David and Goliath often portray the king as a man after God’s own heart. David, the story goes, is an innocent young man who shows courage in the face of long odds. We want David to be good, a desire that colours readings of his reign.
The quality of David’s heart, however, is a matter of some debate. like all of our hearts, David’s is dynamic and often uncertain of itself. However, it would be a mistake, to model our lives off David and a disaster to organize our communities in the image of his Israel. Taken as a whole, David’s life is in direct opposition to the life of Christ.
Bathsheba is a natural place to begin discussing the failings of David’s heart. The story is well known: and includes David abusing his power, lusting after a married woman, raping her and then murdering her husband to cover up his sins.
Bethsheba, unfortunately, is just one victim in a long line of injuries perpetrated by the king against the most vulnerable. This great grandmother of Christ is often used as a stand-in for all the women victimized by David. It’s useful, therefore, to recall the stories of these other women, in particular, Michal, David’s first wife.
The text offers two stories of how Michal, a daughter of Saul, comes into David’s possession. First, we’re told in 1 Samuel 17 that the prize for killing Goliath is the daughter of Saul. Presumably, therefore, Saul gives Michal to David for killing the giant. But there’s a second accounting as well. In this story, Saul uses Michal as a pawn against David. Watching David and his son Jonathon become close confidants, Saul senses a rival in David. Spying an opportunity, Saul uses his daughter, who is said to love David, to ensnare him in a plot to take his life. He offers his daughter as a bride without a dowry. David can’t say no. and accepts her as a wife. Unfortunately for Saul, Michal betrays her father, warning David of the plot to kill him, helping him escape out the window, and covering up his actions by lying on his behalf. In an act of heroism and defiance, Michal risks her life to save the one she loves.
It’s interesting to note that this is the only place in all of Scripture where a woman is reported to love a man romantically. Sadly, David never returns Michal’s love; like all the women in his life, David uses Michal for his own purposes.
After Saul discovers his daughter’s betrayal, he annuls the marriage and marries her off to another man. Saul dies two years later but David still manages to take over as king. As a prize for his accomplishments, David demands Saul’s wives and his daughter Michal. In 2 Samuel 3, we read of Michal’s new husband weeping as she’s returned to the newly crowned King David.
The final interaction between David and Michal occurs three chapters later in chapter 6 verse 16. Here we read:
“As the ark of the Holy One of Old came into the city of David, Michal looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Holy One; and she despised him in her heart.”
But why does Michal despise David for bringing back the Ark of the Covenant? In her book Womanist Midrash, biblical scholar Wildas Gafney, provides one explanation:
I believe that the reason Michal despises David is that, after all she has done for him, after taking and using her love to escape from and ultimately succeed her father on the throne, he has abandoned her. David has moved on to other women and other children. He will not return to her bed; he will not father children with her. She is a living widow watching him woo, seduce, and impregnate women all around her. Michal, who has used her agency in the narrative to defy and deceive her father, has lost that agency. She has been passed from man to man and now finds herself retrieved like property, but not rescued to the loving embrace of the man she once loved. Michal uses her voice for the last time in the Scriptures to tell David about himself in 2 Samuel 6:20: ‘How the king of Israel honored himself today, stripping today before the eyes of the slave-girls of his slaves, as any empty fellow might strip, uncovering himself.’
David’s response does not acknowledge her feelings for him, her actions on his behalf, her suffering on his behalf, any indebtedness to or care for her at all. Instead, he taunts her with the theology that it was God who elevated him at her father’s expense… And about those slave-girls enslaved to his slaves, the lowest of the low, especially compared to a king’s daughter, David says to Michal in verse 22, ‘I will make myself yet more accursed than this, and I will be degraded in my own eyes and with the slave-girls of whom you speak, with them I shall be honored.’
In other words, ‘I have yet to begin to debase myself. I’ll do so with whom-ever I choose–anyone but you. And they–slaves of slaves–those girls are just my speed. No matter what I do, they’ll cheer me on, and they’ll like it’” (Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne, 196).
In the same way that David’s eldest sees evil in his heart on the battlefield, Michal uncovers it fully, finding an “empty” man, his vulgar heart stripped bear in the comfort of power.
This narrative of David and Michal ends, “And Michal did not have a child to the day of her death” (2 Samuel 6:23). Evidently, David never allows Michal to give birth — he forces her into barren life.
Michal and Bathsheba are excellent examples of the way in which David wrongs the women in his life: he fails to listen to them, he abuses them, he uses them for political gain.
Hannah, the last woman I want to discuss here, is the mother of Samuel, who was the prophet that God called to anoint both Saul and David. 1 Samuel begins with Hannah’s story which includes the prayer of thanksgiving she gives after Samuel’s birth. Hannah’s prayer finds resonance in Mary’s Magnificat — another song dedicated to a miraculous birth. Hannah’s story and her prayer set a standard for God’s relationship with Israel in First and Second Samuel, a standard that the Kings repeatedly fail to uphold.
Summarized, Hannah’s prayer speaks of military power being broken like the “breaking of a bow.” Power, according to Hannah, is found with those who stumble. She tells the arrogant not to speak proudly. She claims that the hungry will hunger no more while the wealthy will need to work. She blesses barren women with children and says that those with many sons will “pine away.” The poor will inherit thrones of honour. Hannah’s God is with the humble, the hungry, the poor, the barren, the disabled, and those who shun military violence.
In stark contrast, David ends his life with a song directly opposing Hannah’s prayer. David glorifies military strength with the symbol of an unbroken bow. Unlike Hannah and Mary, his boasts show no concern for the poor, the widow, the barren. David’s final song reveals just how far Israel and her kings have wandered from the way of God which was described by Hannah. David leads his nation into a theological and moral wilderness. Speaking of his enemies, David sings, “I beat them as fine as the dust of the earth; I pounded and trampled them like mud in the streets” (2 Samuel 22:43).
Based strictly on David’s summation of his own career one can argue that, taken as a whole, David’s life opposes the life of Christ. Unlike David who opposes Hannah’s prayer, Jesus listens to Mary’s Magnificat. Jesus praises the women in his life showing them respect and kindness. He rejects military strength. He demands that Israel cares for the widow and the powerless. Like Hannah, Jesus dreams of a world in which the poor are lifted up to inherit thrones of honour. Jesus has far more in common with Hannah, Michal, and Bathsheba than he does with David and the nation he inspires. To play off a tired cliche, Jesus’ kingdom is an upside-down version of David’s.