I Samuel 18:17-30: David’s Bloody Bride-price
The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast June 29, 2008; Craig D. Atwood
Introduction Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, site of the annual reading of the Declaration of Independence. You may know that the first public celebration of Independence Day in American history was here at Home Church right after the end of the Revolutionary War. This year Rev. Scott Venable and Bishop Graham Rights will take charge of the observance, and it will be their responsibility to pronounce the word “conjure” in such a way that our assistant archivist does not squirm. The Unity Women’s Conference was meeting in Herrnhut last week, with dozens of women from all parts of the world. Home Church was represented. We are thankful for the safe travels for all of the women. This week a group of 28 Moravians will be leaving for a tour of Moravian sites in Central Europe as part of our 550th anniversary celebration.
Our lesson this week focuses on one of the many women who were important in the life of King David. The most famous woman is Bathsheba, of course, but she is not unveiled until David is king. It was his first wife, Michal, who most helped him become king. According to researchers, she is the only women in the Hebrew Scriptures identifies as loving a man (Bruce Birch, I & II Samuel, 1122). This does not mean that none of the other wives in the Old Testament loved their husbands, but it does mean there was something notable about Michal’s love for David.
Before reading the story of David’s marriage and the atrocious bride-price Saul demanded, let me remind you that this story is closely connected to what we discussed last week. We saw that Jonathan loved David and clothed him in his own royal robes and armor. We saw that the women of the kingdom praised David more than they praised the king himself. And we saw that Saul was growing jealous and afraid of David. This week, Saul will give David one of his own daughters as a wife, but his motives are not necessarily pure.
Read: I Samuel 18:17-30
Son-in-law to the King: This section of I Samuel, like earlier sections, shows evidence of having been edited, probably by the person who assembled the entire book. The original story was simply about Saul offering David one of his daughters to be his wife. It was probably written shortly after David became the king, and it was used to justify the legitimacy of David. He had a right to the throne because he was the son-in-law of King Saul, and he was the son-in-law of Saul because he had been such a successful military commander. This original story is interesting on its own merits, but a later editor inserted statements about Saul’s motives that cast a sinister light on all of these events. These editorial insertions claim that Saul was using his daughter as a way to bring about David’s destruction.
There are a couple of reasons why many biblical scholars think the sentences about Saul’s state of mind were added later. For one thing the story of David getting married reads perfectly fine if we remove portions of verses 17, 21, and 25 (see Herzberg, 159). In fact, the story reads more smoothly without those pieces. Secondly, the claim that Saul gave Michal to David as a way to ensnare him just does not make much sense, and it actually undermines the claim that Saul had helped make David his heir and successor. If Saul had simply wanted to get David killed in battle, he could have done it without using his daughter as bait. Royal marriages, even today, are much more important than that.
The author of I Samuel knew that Saul had turned against his son-in-law and tried on several occasions to kill him. It is a natural thing for historians and theologians, which the author of I Samuel was, to interpret earlier events from the perspective of later events. In other words, when the unknown historian wrote his masterful chronicle of the career of David, he knew that Saul was a failure and David was a success. There is little reason for an historian to doubt the tradition that Saul was a tragic figure whose paranoia led him to attempt murder and threatened to destroy his kingdom. To a later writer, all of Saul’s decisions were suspect. It is kind of like after someone gets divorced and then looks back on the early days of the marriage questioning the sincerity of every act of goodness and love from the now ex-spouse.
The author of I Samuel was so hostile to first king of Israel – and most of his successors – that he could not imagine that Saul might have given David his daughter for any reason other than his desire to destroy his rival. Thankfully, the author of I Samuel had such great respect for the records he was using that he left the original perspective alongside his darker view of David’s first marriage. Although this binocular vision on the kingdom is difficult for modern historians who want to know exactly when David married and why, it is great for theologians and psychologists because it reveals the complex nature of all human motivations. None of us acts purely from good intentions, and we rarely act entirely from selfish ones either. We make decisions even before we know for sure what we think, and sometimes we wait until we see the result of our action before we decide why we did it. Even though the text of ch. 18 is contradictory, it is entirely plausible that Saul was always of two minds about David and about having David as a son-in-law.
Merab Saul first promises to give his oldest daughter to David. Her name was Merab, and she is famous only because she did not marry David. Many scholars assume that the offer of Merab was directly connected to the story of David slaying Goliath, but that is not clear in the text. In the final version that we have, it appears that Merab is a reward for David’s success in leading Saul’s armies. He already has the royal robes and armor of Jonathan, why not marry the king’s oldest daughter? David politely deflects the offer. He knows that his family could never pay the bride-price for a princess. The king’s daughter should be given to someone powerful and wealthy, to seal an alliance with the prince of a neighboring tribe or to increase the wealth of the kingdom. Keep in mind that daughters were bargaining chips in the politics and business until very recently. Even today, one wonders how much national politics played in the marriage of one of the Kennedys to the future governor of California. It should not surprise us that the Bible does not say a word about Merab’s feelings as she is presented as a prize for David.
Saul tells David that he does not need to provide a bride-price for Merab. All he needs to do is prove himself on the field of battle. If he continues to fight Saul’s wars, he can marry the king’s daughter. I suspect that the story we discussed last week about the women praising David more than Saul was originally after the story of Merab, and that it was when the king saw how popular David was becoming that he changed his mind and gave Merab to Adriel. We know nothing about him or why he was so honored by the king, but David never got over this insult. When he became king he handed the five sons of Merab over to the Gibeonites to be executed.
Michal So far the story of David’s first marriage sounds like typical dynastic politics. The king dangles his daughter as a piece of bait in front of a skillful and ambitious poor man and then snatches it away for political reasons. What makes ch. 18 more interesting is that we are told that another daughter of Saul loved David. Not only is this the only time in the Hebrew Scriptures that a woman is said to love a man, ch. 18 mentions Michal’s love for David. She is presented as a living, breathing human being who expresses her feelings and desires. We do not know if she was one of the women who stood on her balcony and sang praises to David when he returned from battle, but it seems likely. We do not know if she loved David the way many people love someone beautiful and famous, like the way I love Catherine Zeta Jones. It is possible that Michal loved the legend, not the man, but that is probably not the case.
Think back to last week’s lesson when we talked about how Jonathan loved David. Michal’s love for David is the parallel to her brother’s love. The author is telling us that Michal viewed David much the same way. She will seal a covenant with him that goes beyond a political marriage, and we should not be surprised that in a moment of crisis Michal will betray her father in order to save her husband. One of the overlooked facts of the Bible is that David became king in part because he was married to a strong woman who saved his life, but we are jumping ahead in our story. Just keep in mind that one of the signs that the LORD was with David is that he earned the love of a wonderful woman. Let that be a lesson to young men today.
Saul’s Offer Saul learns that Michal loves David. We aren’t told how her father found out about her feelings. Perhaps she blushed whenever he mentioned David at breakfast. Perhaps he read her diary or saw her writing Michal and David forever on the wall of her room. Perhaps other girls in the household were gossiping and Abner’s wife told him what they were saying. We don’t know, but it is unlikely that King Saul sat Michal down and asked if there was a young man in the kingdom that she was interested in dating and maybe marrying. No, this was all a matter of intrigue and innuendo.
The important thing is that Saul was happy when he heard the news that Michal loved David. The final editor of I Samuel assumes that Saul was happy because this fit in with his evil plot to have David killed, but he never tells us how Michal could be a snare for David. Bathsheba was certainly a snare, and there were other women that caused a little trouble, but not Michal. It is more likely that Saul was pleased to hear the news about Michal because she would want to please David whom Saul also loved. Especially after insulting David by not letting him marry Merab, Saul could give him a younger woman who was in love with him and would try to make him happy.
The Bible records the traditional custom of arranging a marriage through intermediaries. This was not the kind of thing a king did on his own. Even today a royal family depends on courtiers to introduce potential mates. When a prince falls in love on his own, it causes all kinds of problems as Queen Elizabeth discovered. The king’s men and David negotiate for Michal, and David plays the game well. He is respectful, but points out that he cannot provide a suitable bride-price for the king’s daughter. He is cautious because he knows what happened with Merab.
Foreskins Saul made David an offer that most of us could have refused. It is almost too gruesome for a Sunday morning radio program, and it certainly was never discussed in Bible School at my church growing up. Saul tells David that he wants 100 foreskins from his enemies. I will assume you know what part of the male anatomy this refers to, and I will merely point out that this is one reason the Bible should be rated “R”. The problem is that David’s task lends itself to far too many jokes and puns that it is hard not to turn into Jay Leno!
Last week I mentioned that ancient Israel was more like a Native American tribe than a modern state, and here is one indication of that. This is analogous to a chief demanding that a warrior bring him 100 scalps of an enemy tribe. Or, if you prefer, it is like a medieval king asking a thane to bring him the hands of his enemies. In the book God Knows, Joseph Heller says that it took a little while for David to realize that it was much easier to take the foreskins off the Philistines if he killed them first. That, of course, was what Saul was really asking David to do. The foreskins were proof that the victims were men and that they were not Israelites.
Leaving bad puns aside, the chose of bride-price was not arbitrary. Circumcision was one of the oldest practices of the Israelites. Some anthropologists think it pre-dated the worship of Yahweh even. Throughout the ancient literature of the Israelites, there are stories highlighting the importance of circumcision, such as when Zipporah circumcised Moses with a flint, making him a “bridegroom of blood.” In our study of Genesis we discussed the importance of circumcision in the story of Abraham and his heirs. I Samuel may have been connected the ancient story of the massacre of Shechem after the rape of Dinah. The idea the foreskin was part of the sacrifice made by a groom before the wedding night was probably part of the cultural memory of Israel in David’s time. Saul simply exaggerates that old practice and connects it to David’s primary role as the king’s number one soldier. Bring me 100 foreskins to prove you are worthy to be my son-in-law.
The editor’s comments on I Samuel indicate that Saul did this as a way to get David killed. When news reached the Philistines that there was this madman mutilating the bodies of the dead in a way designed to insult their manhood, they would hate David even more than they already did. It is possible that this is what Saul had in mind, or at least considered that as one possible outcome. It is also possible that Saul wanted to show his enemies just what they could expect from him. Saul probably congratulated himself on his shrewdness. If David succeeded, it would be a great blow against the Philistines and princess Michal would be very happy. If David was killed, Saul would sit a little more easily on the throne.
Twice the price David accepted Saul’s challenge. As Brutus said in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; Omitted, all the voyage of their life Is bound in shallows and in miseries. One secret to David’s success is that he knew when the tide was moving and he seized his opportunities. He may have been the Lord’s Anointed and destined to the throne, but he did not sit back passively waiting for God to make good on his promises. That is a mistake of too many Christian these days. To be called by God or chosen by God means that you must have the courage to act. You must be willing to risk great things for God in order to achieve great things for God.
“David rose and went, along with his men, and killed 200 Philistines.” With that simple line the biblical author relates one of the great achievements of David as a soldier. He put his life on the line to win the hand of the princess Michal, but notice that he was wise enough to take his men with him. Saul never said David had to do this alone, like a hero in Greek myth. David was pious and faithful, but he was no fool. He took his troops, engaged the enemy, and brought the king twice many trophies as requested. We are not told what David thought about all this. He may have decided that Saul was a psychopath for wanting such a present or he may have been thrilled by the prospect of proving to the king what a faithful warrior he was. We are not told if he felt the same about Michal as she felt about him. All we know is that David succeeded where others expected him to fail.
Conclusion This is another story that we might expect would end with the words “and David and Michal lived happily ever after,” but that is not how life is. Rather than rejoicing over David’s great victory over the relentless foes of Israel, Saul was shattered by David’s success. What kind of man was this who could win the love of the king’s children and also master the Philistines so handily? What kind of man was this whose lyre could drive away evil spirits and yet be so bloody on the battlefield? Rather than rejoicing that this exceptional man was going to be his son, Saul’s resentment grew. As David grew more famous, Saul grew more depressed, but David did not let Saul’s problems stop him from doing his job.
This concludes the first part of the story of David’s rise. I will be away for two weeks and you will have two guest teachers. Rev. Scott Venable of Home Church will speak next week and after that will be Rev. Neil Routh of Christ Moravian Church. I am grateful to both of these friends for their help, and I know that you will enjoy what they have to say. We’ll pick up the story of David again on July 20.