Dance in the Bible
Adventists and other conservative Christians have generally opposed social dancing, so popular today. However, the Psalmist twice invites the faithful to praise God “with dancing” (Psalm 149:3; 150:4). Does this mean that dancing is appropriate for Christians inside the church but inappropriate outside?
Many see these references in Psalms as supportive of religious dancing in the church and social dancing outside. They reason that if dancing in the Bible is a component of worship, then it must be a legitimate form of social entertainment. This assumption is based on a superficial reading of the two texts and on a misunderstanding of the nature of social dancing in the Bible.
Scholars dispute the translation of the Hebrew term machowl as “dancing” in Psalm 149:3 and as “dance” in Psalm 150:4. Machowl is derived from chuwl, which means “to make an opening,”1 a possible allusion to a “pipe” instrument. In fact KJV renders this as the marginal reading.
The KJV marginal reading is supported by the context of both passages, where machowl occurs in the context of a list of instruments to be used for praising the Lord. Since the Psalmist is listing all the possible instruments to be used in praise, it is reasonable to assume that machowl also is a musical instrument. The parallelism of expression, so typical of Hebrew poetry, also supports this conclusion.
Further, the figurative language of these two psalms hardly allows for a literal interpretation of dancing. Psalm 149 encourages people to praise the Lord on the “couches” and with “a twoedged sword in their hand”—obviously figurative descriptions. The same is true of Psalm 150. The purpose of these passages is not to specify the location and the instruments to be used to praise the Lord during the divine service. Nor is it intended to give a license to dance for the Lord in church. Rather, the purpose is an invitation to praise.
David founded the music ministry at the Temple. He instituted not only the times, place, and words for the performance of the Levitical choir, but he also “made” the musical instruments to be used for their ministry (1 Chronicles 23:5; 2 Chronicles 7:6).
The two instruments that accompanied the Levitical choirs were the lyre and the harp, which were called “instruments of music” (2 Chronicles 5:13, KJV) or “instruments for the songs of God” (1 Chronicles 16:42, NASB). Their function was to accompany the songs of praise and thanksgiving to the Lord (1 Chronicles 23:5; 2 Chronicles 5:13).
Garen Wolf says: “String instruments were used extensively to accompany singing since they would not cover up the voice or the ‘Word of Jehovah’ which was being sung.”2
The Bible speaks of dance 28 times. Each reference is to a social celebration of special events, such as a military victory, a religious festival, or a family reunion. The dances were either processional, encircling, or ecstatic. They were done mostly by women and children, who performed separately.
The Scriptures do not indicate that men and women danced together romantically as couples do today. As H. M. Wolf observes, “While the mode of dancing is not known in detail, it is clear that men and women did not generally dance together, and there is no real evidence that they ever did.”3
Those who appeal to the biblical references to dance to justify modern romantic dancing inside or outside the church ignore the vast difference between the two. To apply the biblical notion of dance to modern dance is misleading, to say the least.
Samuele Bacchiocchi (Ph.D., Pontifical University, The Vatican), the author of many books, taught theology and church history at Andrews University. This response is based on chapter 7 of his book The Christian and Rock Music (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Biblical Perspectives, 2000). Address: 4990 Appian Way; Berrien Springs, Michigan 49104; U.S.A. E-mail: email@example.com Web site: http://www.biblicalperspectives.com
Notes and references
- See, for example, Adam Clarke, Clarke’s Commentary (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, n. d.) 3: 688.
- Garen L. Wolf, Music of the Bible in Christian Perspective (Salem, Ohio: Schmul Publ. Co., 1996), p. 287.
- H. M. Wolf, “Dancing,” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Merrill C. Tenney, ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1976), 2:12.