Was David Dancing in His Tighty Whities? (2 Samuel 6)

Was David Dancing in His Tighty Whities? (2 Samuel 6)
Tighty Whities copy

2 Samuel 6 has always puzzled me. The chapter contains numerous ambiguities, but the one that has always bothered me most is Michal’s disgust with David (2 Sam. 6:16, 20). Usually, interpreters presuppose that David was scantily clad when he did his dance before the ark, and this is why Michal lambasts him when he returns home. [1] Plus, all the major English translations lend support to this perspective, most overtly the NIV (1985) which has David “disrobing” before the servant girls’ eyes. [2] But if David was indeed scantily clad, and he danced in front of other women revealing his privates, then I’m with Michal! She’s totally right! Flinging yourself around in your tighty whities (or a loosie loincloth) invites scorn.

Tighty whities
Borne out of this skepticism was a paper I presented long ago at the Southwest Region Society of Biblical Literature conference entitled, “David, the Dancing Girls, and Michal’s Disgust: A pas de trios in the Dance of Davidic Kingship. The paper itself contains a much more in depth discussion of this issue and others. Astute readers will notice that my endnotes are dated. I will update the post with more recent commentaries when I can. I’ve also transliterated the Hebrew words rather than using Hebrew because (a) I can’t figure out how to do Hebrew in WordPress and (b) transliterated words are easier for non-Hebrew readers to sound out).

But I thought the question, “Was David Dancing in His Tighty Whities?” would make an intriguing blog post. Besides, Breaking Bad has made tighty whities cool again . . . sort of.

So, was David scantily clad while whirling and twirling in front of the common women?

Two mutually dependent assumptions are necessary to conclude that David’s dance involved bodily exposure. First, most interpreters assume that David was clothed only in a linen ephod and that the ephod was similar to a loin cloth (i.e. it didn’t leave much to the imagination). [3] For instance, Robert Alter states, “The ephod was probably a short garment tied around the hips or waist, and so David whirling and leaping might easily have exposed himself, as Michal will bitterly observe.”[4] But is this implied by the text? Verse 14b says: “And David was girded with a linen ephod.” The Hebrew does not say “girded only with a linen ephod,” nor is that inherently implied. In other passages where the passive participle of chagar (“to gird”) is used, one never assumes that those being girded were wearing nothing else (cf. Judg. 18:11, 16, 17; 2 Sam. 20:8b; 2 Sam. 21:16). For instance, Judg. 18:11 states that six hundred men were “girded (chagur) with weapons of war.” Does this mean that six hundred men, scantily clad with only their swords, went off to do battle? That would make for a very interesting movie scene starring, oh, say, a younger Mel Gibson, but, no, that’s not what the text is saying.

Naked Battle
Moreover, elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible when ephods functioned as garments they were never worn alone. For instance, the High Priest’s ephod was an apron-like garment made of gold and fine twisted linen (shesh), affixed over the shoulders with stones, and worn with an ankle-length robe (cf. Exod. 28:6-14, 31-35; 39:2-7, 22-26). However, David’s ephod is described in a distinct manner: a linen ephod (‘ephodh badh), not one of gold and fine twisted linen. Was his ephod more analogous to priestly undergarments which were also made of linen (mikhnese-se-badh) (Exod. 28:42; 39:28; Lev. 6:3; 16:4)? Not really. The only commonality between the two terms ‘ephodh badh and mikhnese-se-badh is the word badh. Thus, one must first presuppose that David’s ephod was loincloth-like to compare it successfully with the priestly undergarments, and that presupposition is questionable, as we will see in a moment.

The priestly ephod, which was also made of linen, just a more expensive, elaborate kind, seems much closer in nature to David’s linen ephod than are the priestly undergarments. Regardless, neither the high priest’s ephod nor the priestly undergarments were worn alone. Why should we assume David’s linen ephod was? Interpreters often conjecture that the linen ephod was a loin cloth. [5]  Apparently this is based on the fact that the only other person “girded with a linen ephod” is the little boy, Samuel (1 Sam. 2:18). Samuel’s linen ephod is presumed to be a little boy’s underwear. One interpreter extrapolates from this that David was therefore wearing a little boy’s garment (several sizes too small) and that’s why he exposed himself! [6] So, David was not only an exhibitionist, but he also preferred little boys’ clothing? Now this is getting interesting!

Ephod
These conclusions obviously involve several ridiculous leaps in logic. One must infer that, like David, Samuel was wearing only a linen ephod, and that, because he was a boy, not a priest, his ephod must not be a priestly ephod. However, this misses the point of the narrative in 1 Samuel 2-3 which is to contrast pious Samuel with Eli’s wicked sons. The detail that Samuel was girded with a linen ephod is there to indicate his priestly legitimacy in contrast to Eli’s sons. If Samuel’s ephod was just underwear, why is it mentioned at all? The ephod indicates Samuel’s status as a priest because he was wearing a priestly uniform.

High Priest Garments
Perhaps, then, the verb chagar, “to gird,” itself implies that the linen ephod was a loincloth. Girding certainly can refer to placing something (a belt, sword, sash) around one’s waist (cf. Deut. 1:41; Judg. 3:16; 18:11, 16; 1 Sam. 17:39; 25:13, etc.). Maybe this means David and Samuel’s ephods were worn around the waist. But this seems unlikely for two reasons. First, the verb chagar also has a derived meaning of “to put on.” [7] In other words, “he was girded” could mean that David (and Samuel) donned a linen ephod, without implying that it went around the waist. Second, “girded with a linen ephod” may simply be an idiomatic way of describing one uniformed in priestly garments, or, even more importantly, one vested with the priestly role. [8] It is an expression similar to “he was wearing a priestly collar” indicating that one is a priest (and no one assumes this means that’s all the priest is wearing!) Thus, nothing in the brief statement “And David was girded with a linen ephod” necessitates that he was wearing a tiny loincloth of any sort!

The second assumption of those who believe David exposed himself is that galah in Michal’s complaint (v. 20) refers to bodily exposure. However, several things mitigate against such a conclusion. First, while galah can mean “to uncover [the nakedness] of someone,” when it does, it always appears with the noun, ‘ervah “nakedness” or with a term for “skirt.” [9] Furthermore, galah refers to uncovering nakedness only in the Torah and prophetic literature. It never means uncovering nakedness in 1 and 2 Samuel or in the rest of the Deuteronomistic History, unless this verse is the exception. But the only reason to assume 2 Sam. 6:20 is an exception is the presupposition that David was scantily clad in the first place.

Second, when galah is used in 1 and 2 Samuel it typically means “to reveal” or “to disclose.” [10] For instance, in 1 Sam. 3:21, Yahweh “revealed (galah) himself to Samuel.” In 1 Sam. 14:11, Jonathan and his armor bearer “revealed”(galah) themselves to the Philistines. In other words, in the books of Samuel galah refers to displaying oneself openly or revealing something that was once hidden. Why should one assume it means something different in this context, especially since David is in the act of revealing once and for all, publicly, his kingship by bringing the ark into Jerusalem? Apparently how he reveals his kingship is what causes Michal’s scorn.

No. David was not dancing in his tighty whities. He was dressed as a priest and dancing in a twisting, rollicking manner in front of the commoners in Jerusalem’s streets. This was what Michal was upset about. David was not acting dignified like a king should. He was strutting his priestly/kingly stuff in front of everyone and his slave girl in the biggest parade of his kingship. It was his “coming out as king” party, and she felt he should have done it in a dignified, cultured way rather than dancing in the streets as a priest-king.

Priestly Dance
To be honest, I still think Michal may have been correct. I’m not convinced that David had the right to take on the priestly role while also being king. Perhaps Michal’s voice, smothered by the narrator’s harsh condemnation (6:23), was a voice of reason—the only voice of reason as David consumed more and more power under his Heisenberg hat . . . um, “crown.”

Endnotes:

1.  Robert Alter, “Characterization and the Art of Reticence,” in Telling Queen Michal’s Story: An Experiment in Comparative Interpretation, ed. David J. A. Clines and Tamara C. Eskenazi, JSOTSup, 119 (Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1991), 72; A. A. Anderson, 2 Samuel, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1989), 105; Bruce C. Birch, “The First and Second Books of Samuel: Introduction, Commentary and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998), 1250; George B. Caird, “The First and Second Books of Samuel: Introduction and Exegesis,” in The Interpreter’s Bible, ed. George Arthur Buttrick (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1953), 1080; Tony W. Cartledge, 1 & 2 Samuel, Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary, ed. Mark K. McElroy (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001), 441; David J. A. Clines, “Michal Observed: An Introduction to Reading Her Story,” in Telling Queen Michal’s Story, 59-60; idem, “The Story of Michal, Wife of David, in Its Sequential Unfolding,” in Telling Queen Michal’s Story, 138; Hans Wilhelm Hertzerg, I & II Samuel: A Commentary, trans. J. S. Bowden, Old Testament Library (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1964), 280-81; Lillian R. Klein, “Michal, the Barren Wife,” in Samuel and Kings, Feminist Companion to the Bible (Second Series), ed. Athalya Brenner (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 42; P. Kyle McCarter, II Samuel, The Anchor Bible, ed. William Foxwell Albright and David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1984), 186, n. 20; Joy Osgood, “1 & 2 Samuel,” in The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary, ed. Catherine Clark Kroeger and Mary J. Evans (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 173-74; Gnana Robinson, Let Us Be Like the Nations: A Commentary on the Books of 1 and 2 Samuel, International Theological Commentary, ed. Fredrick Carlson Holmgren and George A. F. Knight (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 184; Adin Steinsaltz, “The Princess and the Shepherd,” in Telling Queen Michal’s Story, 284; and Ronald F. Youngblood, “1, 2 Samuel,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 3, Deuteronomy-2 Samuel, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 877.  While Robert Polzin, David and the Deuteronomist: A Literary Study of the Deuteronomic History, part 3, 2 Samuel, Indiana Studies in Biblical Literature, ed. Herbert Marks and Robert Polzin (Bloominton, IN: Indiana Univ. Press, 1993), 66, points out that David’s exposure of his body is unsupported by any clues in the text, he makes no effort to substantiate his claim.

2. Other modern translations: CEB, “exposing;” CEV, “half-naked;” ESV, “uncovering;” HCSB, “uncovered;” NAS, “uncovered;” TNIV, “half-naked;” RSV and NRSV, “uncovering;” JPS, “uncovered;” KJV, “uncovered;” NKJV, “uncovering;” etc.

3.  See all the interpreters listed in endnote 1. A few exceptions are Robert D. Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel, New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996), 333, who asserts that David was well covered because the Torah requires that priests wear linen undergarments (Exod. 20:26); David M. Gunn, The Story of King David: Genre and Interpretation, JSOTSupp, 6 (Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1978; reprint, 1982, 1989), 74, concludes that David was “showing off” not “‘uncovering himself’ literally” because he believes the Michal episode originally followed David’s coronation in 2 Sam. 5:1-3 rather than the ark’s entry into Jerusalem (thus eliminating David’s dance altogether). Joyce Baldwin, 1 & 2 Samuel: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale OT Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity, 1988), 210 cites Gunn, but states that Michal’s disgust was because David had removed his royal garments not all his garments. Robert Polzin, “A Multivoiced Look at the Michal Narratives,” in Telling Queen Michal’s Story, 267, also emphasizes that the text does not require exposure, due to his belief that the expression “girded with a linen ephod” connects David with Samuel who prefigures him.

4.  Robert Alter, The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel (New York: W. W. Norton, 2000), 227.

5. This is the view of A. Phillips, “David’s Linen Ephod,” Vetus Testamentum 19 (1969):487, who says, “The linen ephod is not to be understood as a special priestly garment, but a brief loin cloth suitable for young children.” See also the commentators listed in notes 1 and 3.

6. Ibid. Phillips says, “The answer must lie in the fact that while the linen ephod was an entirely appropriate garment for a child to wear, it was not fitting for an adult. By wearing only a brief loin cloth normally found on young children, David indecently flouted the proprieties.”

7.  See B. Johnson, “chagar,” in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, 215, who notes that the verb “comes close to the meaning of labash.”

8. Ibid. Johnson states, “Apart from the question of what the ephod looked like, the girding in these cases [1 Sam. 2:18; 2 Sam. 6:14] has an element of ceremonial investiture..” Note that the priests were girded (‘aphad or chagar) with the artistic band of the ephod, a special sash made of gold and fine twisted linen (Exod. 29:5; Lev. 8:7; cf. Exod. 28:8, 27, 28; 39:10, 21). Thus, chagar describes being outfitted in priestly apparel, specifically the ephod.

9.  Galah with `ervah appears in the Nifal stem: Exod. 20:26; Isa. 47:3; Ezek. 16:36; 23:29; in the Piel stem: Lev. 18:6-19; 20:11-21; Ezek. 16:37; 22:10; 23:10, 18; Hitpael stem: Gen. 9:21 (although `ervah does not occur in this verse, it does appear in v. 22). Galah with shul or kanaf: Deut. 22:30; 23:1; 27:20; Jer. 13:22; Nah. 3:5.

10. Galah translated “reveal” occurs in 1 Sam. 2:27; 3:7, 21; 14:8, 11. Galah is also used in the expression “uncover the ear” which means “reveal” in 1 Sam. 9:15; 20:2, 12, 13; 22:8; 17: 2 Sam. 7:27. Otherwise galah means “depart” (1 Sam. 4:21, 22) or “exile” (2 Sam. 15:19). See also Hans-Jürgen Zobel, “galah,” in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, 476-88, who discusses galah as a term of revelation (both visual and audible), though he obstinately translates it “uncover” in 2 Sam. 6:20.

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8 thoughts on “Was David Dancing in His Tighty Whities? (2 Samuel 6)”

  1. First of all, I will now never think of David without thinking of Walter White. But also, I always assumed that the root of this story was earlier (1 Samuel 18-19, 2 Samuel 3) when Michal loves David and even saves his life, only to have him tear her away from her new husband, who clearly loved her even to the point of weeping over her loss.

    Maybe Michal was seeing something about David’s character being “galah’ed” that everyone else totally missed in all the excitement. In any case how healthy can a marriage that began with a bag of foreskins be?

    1. I totally agree. In fact, in the larger paper I discuss the Paltiel episode as a possible reason for Michal’s deteriorating relationship with David. And, yes, a marriage that starts with a foreskin bouquet has to be troubled. Or were they scattered like rose petals as Michal walked the aisle? I can’t go to weddings anymore without thinking of David’s wedding “present” and the possibilities of how the foreskins might have been used. But, then, I have a sick, sick mind.

  2. Yahweh “revealed (galah) himself to Samuel.” In 1 Sam. 14:11, Jonathan and his armor bearer “revealed”(galah) themselves to the Philistines.

    Am I going to hell because, given the context, this made me giggle like a middle-schooler and it brought up images of a scene in the movie Braveheart? ;p

    1. If you’re going to hell, I’m going with you because that’s exactly what I was thinking when I did the study on galah. If it means exposing yourself then that makes what Jonathan and his armor bearer did seem like the proverbial dirty old man in a trench coat!

  3. I find it interesting that you fall under the assumption that David was ‘consuming power’ as he danced in his ephod. I respectfully disagree with that assumption. His actions gave an appearance of foolishness, so I find it interesting that you would determine that his actions were power seeking. This is my first time to your blog and I have not had a chance to see more of your work, but I see that you are very studious. I’m interested to see more of your work.

    In the meantime, I wish to share a couple commentaries with you to consider. I personally have had a few of my own, ‘dancing in an ephod’ moments. Moments where it would have appeared completely inappropriate and foolish to respond with such vigor in reverence to God, yet I did it anyway. Moments of such joy, reverence, and excitement towards God that I didn’t care who was watching.

    Certainly if this were David’s standard operating procedure, he would be seen as foolish, attention seeking, which I would translate to ‘power seeking.’ However, my perspective of King David was as the bible says, ‘A man after God’s own heart.’ I see him as a man who truly loved God and wasn’t afraid to show it.

    Anyway, interesting read. I’m looking forward to reading more of your work. Blessings to you!

    Commentary by Wesley: 2 Samuel 6:14
    Danced – To express his thankfulness to God by his outward carriage, according to the manner of those times. Linen ephod – The usual habit of the priests and Levites, in their sacred ministrations yet sometimes worn by others, as it was by the young child Samuel; and so David, who laid by his royal robes, and put on this robe to declare, that although he was king of Israel, yet he willingly owned himself to be the Lord’s minister and servant.

    Commentary by Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown
    with all his might — intimating violent efforts of leaping, and divested of his royal mantle (in a state of undress), conduct apparently unsuitable to the gravity of age or the dignity of a king. But it was unquestionably done as an act of religious homage, his attitudes and dress being symbolic, as they have always been in Oriental countries, of penitence, joy, thankfulness, and devotion.

    1. Most interpreters do view David’s dance in a positive light, and I am well aware of that. They see him as dancing without inhibition as worship before the Lord. That is certainly a legitimate and popular interpretation. Michal, then, is viewed as failing to recognize David’s worship and criticizes him improperly for acting like a fool. Most who hold this interpretation believe that the narrator’s comment “and she had no child” (2 Sam. 6:23) means God struck her with barrenness, but the text is ambiguous. It may simply mean that she and David never slept with one another again. It does not clearly indicate divine judgment.

      My suggestion that David may be acting in a power-hungry, illegitimate way is based on a more complex reading of the text. Prior to bringing the ark into Jerusalem this time, he went to retrieve it from Kiriath-Jearim and failed to transport it properly, resulting in a man’s death. When he heard that Obed-Edom was being blessed, David wanted the ark for himself (2 Sam. 6:12).This time the ark is transported properly, but David has taken the role of High Priest. He’s wearing the High Priest’s ephod (v. 14), he leads the procession dancing a curiously ritualized dance, he makes sacrifices, and he later blesses the people (a role specifically given to the priests in Num. 6:22-27). In other Ancient Near Eastern cultures, the king often served as High Priest, but Israel is not supposed to be like other cultures. The roles of leaders are clearly outlined (cf. Deuteronomy 17), and nowhere does the text say that a king is supposed to also be the High Priest. Perhaps Michal, then, is not calling David a fool just for dancing a jig, but because she sees his act as a prideful disregard for the boundaries of kingship. He announces his kingship by taking all the religious power in his hands in front of all the common people: the ark, the priesthood, the blessing. If so, perhaps Michal’s rebuke has some legitimacy to it. I find it interesting that in the very next chapter, God puts limits on David by not letting him build the temple. Maybe he had gone too far.

      The OT never overtly calls David “a man after God’s heart,” by the way. In 1 Sam. 13:14 Samuel tells Saul that God has chosen a man after his heart to rule, but at this point it’s not clear that the man is David. When Samuel considers Jesse’s sons, God considers the heart rather than the physical appearance. It’s only in the NT that the statement “David was a man after God’s heart” is clearly made (Acts 13:22).

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