Memory is a tricky thing. Many like to think their memory is excellent. I am not one of those, but even so, I very likely think my memory is better than it is. The truth is, our memory is far, far, more malleable than we like to admit. Those here who have worked in law enforcement in some manner are, I hope aware of how unreliable eye-witness testimony really is. For the rest of you, perhaps you have watched a lineup scene in a police procedural show and noticed how careful everyone is not to make any suggestion to the witness. The concern is not just that the witness might make a mistake in the identification in that moment, but that the witness’ memory of the event will change to incorporate the incorrectly identified person, and whatever traces might still point to the actual perpetrator will be, essentially, overwritten.
This can also happen collectively. Some people call it the Mandela Effect, named for former South African President Nelson Mandela, because one example of this effect are the substantial number of people who are absolutely convinced that Nelson Mandela died in prison and, therefore, did not become the first black president of South Africa. Another example are the hordes of people who will swear that they saw a movie, called Shazaam, featuring the comedian Sinbad playing a genie. These same people insist that they are not just mis-remembering the movie Kazaam, in which basketball player Shaquille O’Neil played a genie, but that these are in fact two distinct movies…except that Shazaam never existed.
We can think of this another way: imagine a couple at an play. The cast has performed flawlessly, the couple is genuinely enjoying themselves until, in the final act, just a few minutes before the end, someone’s cell phone rings. One of them, walking out the door, declares that the cell phone ruined the whole experience.
It did not. The experience was great, up to the end. The ringing phone ruined the memory. The memory is shaped not by the whole of the experience, but by those portions that most stood out, by the moments that were most memorable.
It is important that we keep this in mind when we read the Hebrew Bible. There are many who want to make scripture into something like a contemporary textbook, but what we really have is more like a recording of collective memory. Texts like first and second Samuel are interpretive, trying to capture what later writers and editors considered important to the story not just of how the Davidic Dynasty came into being, but also looking for the ways God was at work in supporting Israel and David and what that might say to later generations.
Our lection for today from Second Samuel skips over several verses, jumping from verse 5 to the second clause of verse 12. If we leave that section out, this is a story about David’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem with the ark of God. This is a story about David establishing Jerusalem as both the religious and spiritual center of the still young kingdom.
If you look at the verses that we skipped, however, we see a slightly different picture. Listen to verses six through eleven:
“When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen shook it. The anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah; and God struck him there because he reached out his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God. David was angry because the LORD had burst forth with an outburst upon Uzzah; so that place is called Perez-uzzah, to this day. David was afraid of the LORD that day; he said, “How can the ark of the LORD come into my care?” So David was unwilling to take the ark of the LORD into his care in the city of David; instead David took it to the house of Obed-edom the Gittite. The ark of the LORD remained in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite three months; and the LORD blessed Obed-edom and all his household.”
When we include these verses, this becomes less a story of David establishing a religious and political capitol and more a story of the power of God. This becomes a story about how God must be treated carefully, because a wrong move, even a well-intentioned one, like reaching out to stop the ark from falling, can lead to death. This frightens David, and they stop taking the ark to Jerusalem, leaving it in the house of Obed-edom for three months to see what happens.
Only after these three months, only after David seeks a further understanding of the ark and of God, does David return and resume the ark’s journey to Jerusalem, a journey during which David seeks safety with the sacrifice of an ox and a fatling, with dancing and music and praise—not in an act of triumphal entry, but in an act of worship and praise to God in hope that God will not strike down anyone else for moving the ark.
During this dancing, we read that Michal, daughter of Saul, saw David and “despised him in her heart.” If we kept reading past our lection, we would read of the text engaging in a bit of selective memory, working to elevate David and remove the last surviving child of Saul from the story. The text has established that David’s dancing was an act of praise and worship to God, and so Michal’s criticism of that dancing as “vulgar” shows how she is undeserving of God’s favor.
But this is an act of forgetting. This is the first time Michal’s name has come up in the lectionary this season, but it is not the first time Michal appears in the text. Michal is the daughter of Saul, yes, but she is also David’s first wife. Earlier the text told us that Michal loved David, and so Saul gave her to David as a trap, promising David that he would become a royal son-in-law and marry Michal if he could kill 100 Philistines in battle. David succeeded and married Michal. Saul sent men to kill David, and Michal hid him and helped him to flee. Michal loved David, and from that love, Michal risked her own life to save his, and in return, both Saul and David abandoned her. Further, by the time of David’s entry into Jerusalem, David has been involved in the deaths of almost everyone else in her family. Michal is the only child of Saul left alive, she is the first wife of David, and now that she is no longer politically useful, she is, once again, cast aside.
We want to remember the easy, simple story. We want to remember the story where we, or our family, or our heroes, are pure and perfect and good, but even as the scriptural text starts to point us in that direction, we have also, in the body of scripture, stories like that of Michal, the stories that remind us we need to try to remember the past as it was so that we can always learn to do better. Michal’s story may be reduced, it may be broken up and spread out, but it remains in the scriptures so that we do not forget her despite David’s attempts to silence, sideline, and marginalize her. Scripture holds onto the story of Michal so that we do not just remember the rosy myth of David’s rise to power, but the cost as well so that next time we might learn and do better, learn and be better. In the end, God’s grace forgives our mistakes, not that we may repeat them, but that we might learn from them. Thanks be to God.