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Shall We Dance?

by Samuele Bacchiocchi

Does the Bible support dancing as part of the worship service?

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Should Seventh-day Adventists today accept dancing as a legitimate form of social entertainment and/or as a component of divine worship? Historically, the answer has been "No!" The reason has been the belief that the Bible does not sanction the modern type of dancing done by couples, nor does it ever mention dancing in the context of the worship service. In recent years, however, the question has been reexamined, especially by some Adventist youth leaders who claim to have found biblical support for dancing.

New Trend

A good example of this new trend is the symposium Shall We Dance? Rediscovering Christ-Centered Standards. This research wasproduced by twenty contributors and is based on the findings of the "Valuegenesis Study." This study is the most ambitious project ever undertaken by the Adventist church to determine how well the church transmits its values to the new generation.

The back cover of Shall We Dance? indicates that the book is "jointly sponsored by the Department of Education of the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists, the John Hancock Center for Youth Ministry, La Sierra University, and La Sierra University Press." This combined sponsorship suggests that the content of the book is endorsed by major Adventist institutions.

Even so, the opening statement of the introduction plainly says: "The book is not an official statement of the Seventh-day Adventist Church regarding standards and values. Rather it is an invitation to open discussion regarding lifestyle issues. Hopefully even better biblical principles will become the bedrock for our distinctive lifestyle as we move from the peripheral, but ever-present issues to the weightier matters of living the Christian life."

The clarification that the "book is not an official statement of the Seventh-day Adventist Church" is reassuring, because, in my view, some of the conclusions hardly encourage the development of "even better biblical principles." A case in point is the four chapters devoted to dance and written by four different authors. These chapters present a superficial analysis of the biblical references to dance and differ from the historic Adventist position on dancing.

The superficiality of the study is reflected, for example, in the chapter entitled "Dancing with a User-Friendly Concordance," which consists primarily of a listing of twenty-seven Bible references to dancing, without any discussion whatsoever. The author assumes that the texts are self-explanatory and supportive of dancing during the worship service. This is indicated by the fact that he closes the chapter by asking: "How could we dance before the LORD today? What type of dance would it be? Why do people dance nowadays?"1 Surprisingly, the author ignores the fact that no dancing was ever allowed in the religious services of the Temple, synagogue, or early church.

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Is Dance a Component of Divine Worship?

The symposium Shall We Dance? derives five principles from an examination of the biblical view of dancing. The first one is, "Dance is a component of divine worship. When we study Scripture we find that what it says about dance and dancing is not only not condemnatory, but in some cases positively prescriptive: `Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! Praise him with timbrel and dance; praise him with strings and pipe' (Ps 150:3, 4)."2

The author continues: "A half hour with a good concordance leaves the lingering impression that there is more to a truly Biblical perspective on dance than has previously met our Adventist eyes. Of some 27 references to dance (dance, danced, dances, dancing) in the Scriptures, only four occur in a clearly negative context, and even these references nowhere describe dancing as the object of God's displeasure."3

The chapter presents this surprising challenge to the Adventist church: "As challenging as it is to our notion of respectability and decorum, it seems evident that Adventists should give new thought and study to the inclusion of dance as part of the worship of God, at least in selected communities and on special occasions."4 Though the author does not draw it himself, the implication of this interpretation is self-evident. If dancing is a component of divine worship in the Bible, then why should it not also be accepted as a legitimate form of social entertainment? After all, what is done in the church serves as a model for the Christian life in general.

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Four Major Flaws

After spending not "a half hour" but several days examining the biblical data regarding dance, I find this conclusion unsubstantiated and its challenge unnecessary. For the sake of clarity, I wish to respond to the position that in the Bible "dance is a component of divine worship" and consequently an acceptable form of social entertainment outside the church, by submitting four major lines of evidence which discredit this position.

  1. Scripture and history indicate that dancing was never part of divine worship in the Temple, synagogue, and early church;
  2. Of the twenty-eight references to dance or dancing in the Old Testament, only four can be considered to refer to religious dancing (Ps 149:3; 150:4; 2 Sam 6:14-16), but none of these relate to worship in God's house, and two of them may not actually refer to dancing at all;
  3. Social dancing in Bible times was done mostly in conjunction with the celebration of religious events, especially the annual festivals. The dance was performed outside the Temple by women, children, or men, as separate groups, and not as male-female couples.
  4. The women, who did most of the dancing, were excluded from the music ministry of the Temple, synagogue, and early church apparently because their style of music was associated with dancing and entertainment.

No Dance in the Worship Service

In the Bible there is no trace of dancing by men or women in the worship services of the Temple, the synagogue, or the early church. This absence can hardly be attributed to negligence, because the Bible gives clear instructions regarding the ministry of music in the Temple. The Levitical choir was to be accompanied only by stringed instruments, the harp and the lyre (2 Chron 5:13; 1 Chron 16:42). Percussion instruments like drums and tambourines, which were commonly used for making dance music, were clearly omitted. What was true for the Temple was later also true for the synagogue and the early church. No dancing or entertainment music was ever allowed in God's house.

After his extensive analysis of "Dance in the Bible," Garen Wolf reached this conclusion: "First, dancing as part of the Temple worship is nowhere traceable in either the first or the second Temple. Second, of the 107 times these words [Hebrew words translated as "dance"] are used in the Bible, only four times could they be considered to refer to religious dance. Third, none of these references to religious dance were in conjunction with the regular established public worship of the Hebrews."5

It is important to note that David, who is regarded by many as the primary example of religious dancing in the Bible, never instructed the Levites regarding when and how to dance in the Temple. Had David believed that dancing should be a component of divine worship, no doubt he would have given instructions regarding it to the Levite musicians he chose for the ministry of music at the Temple.

After all, David is the founder of the music ministry at the Temple. He gave clear instruction to the 4,000 Levite musicians regarding when to sing and what instruments to use to accompany their choir (1 Chron 23:25-31). His omission of dancing in the divine worship can hardly be an oversight. Rather, it tells us that David distinguished between the sacred music performed in God's house and the secular music played outside the Temple for entertainment.

An important distinction must be made between religious music played for entertainment in a social setting and the sacred music performed for worship in the Temple. We must not forget that the whole life of the Israelites was religiously oriented. Entertainment was provided, not by concerts or plays at a theater or circus, but by the celebration of religious events or festivals, often through folk dancing by women, children, or men, each of them performing as a separate group.

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"Dance" or "Dancing" in the Old Testament

"Praise Him with Dance."

There are four explicit references in the Bible to so-called "religious dancing" (Ps 149:3; 150:4; 2 Sam 6:14-16). Two of them consist of an invitation to praise the Lord "with dancing" (Ps 149:3; 150:4) and two describe David's dance before the ark (2 Sam 6:14-16). For many people these texts provide an all-sufficient biblical support for religious dancing in the church and social dancing outside the church. In view of the importance attached to these texts, we take a closer look at them by examining first the invitation to praise the Lord "with dancing" (Ps 149:3; 150:4) and then the episode of David's dancing before the ark.

It is important to note first of all that the invitation to praise the Lord with "dancing" is based on a disputed translation of the Hebrew term machowl, rendered as "dancing" in Psalm 149:3 and as "dance" in Psalm 150:4. Some scholars believe that machowl is derived from chuwl, which means "to make an opening"--a possible allusion to a "pipe" instrument. In fact this is the marginal reading given by the King James Version. Psalm 149:3 states: "Let them praise his name in the dance" [or "with the pipe," KJV margin]. Similarly Psalm 150:4 reads: "Praise him with the timbrel and dance" [or "pipe," KJV margin].

The marginal reading of the KJV is supported by the context of both Psalm 149:3 and 150:4, where the term machowl occurs in the context of a list of instruments to be used for praising the Lord. Besides machowl, in Psalm 150 the list includes eight instruments: trumpet, psaltery, harp, timbrel, stringed instruments, organs, cymbals, clashing cymbals (KJV). Since the Psalmist is listing all the possible instruments to be used to praise the Lord, it is reasonable to assume that machowl also is a musical instrument, whatever its nature might be.

Another important consideration is the figurative language of these two psalms, which hardly allows for a literal interpretation of dancing in God's house. Psalm 149:5 (RSV) encourages people to praise the Lord on the "couches." In verse 6, the praising is to be done with "two-edged swords in their hands." In verses 7 and 8, the Lord is to be praised for punishing the heathen with the sword, binding kings in chains, and putting nobles in fetters. It is evident that the language is figurative because it is hard to believe that God would expect people to praise Him by standing or jumping on couches or while swinging two-edged swords.

Similarly, Psalm 150 speaks in a highly figurative way of praising God. The psalmist calls upon God's people to praise the Lord "for his mighty deeds" (v. 2) in every possible place and with every available musical instrument. Included in the psalm are some specific places to praise the Lord, namely, "his sanctuary" (where His people can go) and "his mighty firmament" (where they cannot go); the reason to praise the Lord, namely, "for his mighty deeds . . . according to his exceeding greatness" (v. 2); and a selection of instruments to be used to praise the Lord, namely, the eight (or nine) listed above.

This psalm makes sense only if we take the language to be highly figurative. For example, though God's people can praise Him in His sanctuary, there is no way for them personally to praise the Lord "in his mighty firmament," because they live on earth and not in heaven. The purpose of the psalm, then, is not to specify precisely and literally the location and the instruments to be used to praise God musically in the church. Nor it is intended to give a license to dance for the Lord in church. Rather, its purpose is to invite everything that breathes or makes sound to praise the Lord everywhere. To interpret the psalm as a license to dance or to play drums in church misreads the intent of the Psalm and contradicts the very regulations which David himself gave regarding the use of instruments in God's house. We will consider those regulations shortly.

David's Dancing Before the Lord

The most important example of religious dancing in the Bible is undoubtedly the story of David's dancing "before the Lord with all his might" (2 Sam 6:14) while leading the procession that brought the ark to Jerusalem. Many view the example of David as the most compelling biblical sanction of religious dancing in the context of a divine service.

Shall We Dance? has a chapter "Dancing to the Lord," written by a Seventh-day Adventist youth leader. He asserts, "We can dance to the Lord like David, reflecting an outburst of excitement for the glory of God; or we can introspectively turn that excitement inward, reflecting on ourselves and our selfish desires."6 The implication of this statement seems to be that if we do not dance unto the Lord like David, we repress our excitement and reveal our self-centeredness. Is this what the story of David's dance teaches us?

Ellen G. White's position on the matter is helpful in clarifying the real issues. First, her view of David's dancing is distinctly more sedate than that of our author, for she describes David's dancing in this way: "in his gladness keeping time to the measure of the song." Such a description is reminiscent of the kind of festal marching, called a "dance," which I witnessed in Ethiopia, and of which I will say more later.

Second, Mrs. White contrasted David's activity with modern dancing. She wrote that "David's dancing in reverent joy before God has been cited by pleasure lovers in justification of the fashionable modern dance, but there is no ground for such an argument." She noted the moral effects of modern social dancing, which lead away from God, prayer, and devotion. "This test should be decisive," she wrote. "The music and dancing in joyful praise to God at the removal of the ark had not the faintest resemblance to the dissipation of modern dancing. The one tended to the remembrance of God and exalted His holy name. The other is a device of Satan to cause men to forget God and to dishonor Him" (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 707, emphasis mine).

Can proponents of dance in worship today claim that its movements, which are often sensuous in themselves, have "not the faintest resemblance" to secular modern dance? On what basis can they claim that the effect of their proposed innovation would tend to the remembrance of God and exalt His holy name? Would it not rather introduce a carnal element into the worship of God?

Further, despite its religious associations, David's dance was not a part of the worship service, nor was it done in the precincts of the place devoted to the worship of God. The example of David provides no basis for bringing into our worship services the kind of dancing we are being urged to embrace. This is bringing "strange fire" before the Lord in His house.

Regardless of what David's activity may have specifically entailed, it is important to distinguish between the descriptive and prescriptive elements of Bible stories. Not all that worthy Bible characters did should be imitated. For example, we are told that when "David perceived that the Lord had established him king over Israel, and that he had exalted his kingdom for the sake of his people Israel" (2 Sam 5:12), he "took more concubines and wives from Jerusalem" (2 Sam 5:13). We find no explicit judgment of his actions in the story itself, though in Deut. 17:17 kings are forbidden to multiply wives. But since we are not kings, shall we feel free to follow David's example by taking more "concubines and wives" when we perceive that the Lord has blessed our endeavors? Obviously not. We simply recognize that even great people like David sometimes acted in ways that God would not be pleased for us to follow.

No Dancing Music or Instruments in the Divine Service

In assessing the story of David's dancing during the procession that brought the ark to Jerusalem, we must take into account the context of music ministry in the Temple, which David himself established. If David had believed that dancing should be a component of divine worship, he would have instructed the Levitical choir on how and when to dance during the Temple service. After all, it was David who instituted the times, place, and words for the performance of the Levitical choir. He also "made" the musical instruments to be used for their ministry (1 Chron 23:5; 2 Chron 7:6); these were called "the instruments of David" (2 Chron 29:26-27).

Note that David never instructed the Levites to accompany the Temple's choir with the percussion instruments associated with dancing, instruments such as the timbrel, tambourines, or drums. Instead, he established that the Levitical choir was to be accompanied by lyres and harps. These were called "the instruments of song" (2 Chron 5:13) or "the instruments of God's song" (1 Chron 16:42). As their descriptive name indicates, their function was to accompany the songs of praise and thanksgiving to the Lord (1 Chron 23:5; 2 Chron 5:13). The musicians who played the harps and the lyres would themselves sing the song to their own accompaniment (1 Chron 9:33; 15:16, 19, 27; 2 Chron 5:12-13; 20:21).

In his book The Music of the Bible in Christian Perspective, Garen Wolf observes that "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."7 Great care was taken to ensure that the vocal praise of the Levitical choir would not be overshadowed by the sound of the instruments.

Percussion instruments were never allowed in the religious services of the Temple, not because their sound was evil per se, but because such instruments were commonly used to produce entertainment music which was inappropriate for worship in God's house. By prohibiting instruments associated with the dancing type of music, the Lord taught His people to distinguish between the sacred music played in the Temple and the secular, entertainment music used in social life.

The restriction on the use of instruments was meant to be a binding rule for future generations. When King Hezekiah revived Temple worship in 715 b.c., he meticulously followed David's instructions. We read that the king "stationed the Levites in the house of the Lord with cymbals, harps, and lyres, according to the commandment of David . . . for the commandment was from the Lord through his prophets" (2 Chron 29:25). The cymbals were used to mark the transition between stanzas, and not to accompany the singing.

Two and a half centuries later, when the Temple was rebuilt under Ezra and Nehemiah, the same restriction applied again. No percussion instruments were allowed to accompany the Levitical choir or to play in an orchestra at the Temple (Ezra 3:10; Neh 12:27, 36). This confirms that the rule was clear and binding over many centuries. The singing and the instrumental music of the Temple were to differ from that used in the social life of the people.

Dancing in Pagan Worship

Other references to religious dancing in the Bible need not detain us, because they have to do with the apostasy of God's people. For example, there is the dancing of the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai around the golden calf (Ex 32:19). The Bible alludes to the dancing of the Israelites at Shittim when "the people began to play harlot with the daughters of Moab" (Num 25:1). The strategy of the Moabite women was to invite Israelite men "to the sacrifice of their gods" (Num 25:2), which normally entailed dancing.

Apparently the strategy came from the apostate prophet, Balaam, to Balak, king of Moab. Ellen White commented: "At Balaam's suggestion, a grand festival in honor of their gods was appointed by the king of Moab, and it was secretly arranged that Balaam should induce the Israelites to attend. . . . Beguiled with music and dancing, and allured by the beauty of heathen vestals, they cast off their fealty to Jehovah. As they united in mirth and feasting, indulgence in wine beclouded their senses and broke down the barriers of self-control" (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 454, emphasis mine).

There was shouting and dancing on Mount Carmel by the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:26). The worship of Baal and other idols commonly took place on a hill with dancing. Thus, the Lord appealed to Israel through the prophet Jeremiah: "Return, faithless people; I will cure you of backsliding. . . . Surely the idolatrous commotion on the hills and mountains is a deception" (Jer 3:22, 23 NIV).

Part 2

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Shall We Dance? - 2

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