Adventists Affirm LogoWorship v. Performance

Summer 2000 (vol. 14, no. 2)

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Shall We Dance? - 2

Part 1


Social Dancing

Another important consideration which discredits the attempt to use the Bible to justify dancing as a component of divine worship and as a form of social entertainment is the nature of dancing in the Bible itself. A survey of the Bible's twenty-eight references to dance indicates that dance was essentially 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.

The Bible never depicts men and women dancing together romantically as couples. As H. Wolf observed, "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."8

The dances mentioned in the Bible were social events with religious overtones, because they often took place within the context of religious events, such as the celebration of annual festivals. They could be compared to the annual carnival celebrations that take place today in many Catholic countries, with colorful dancing. No Catholic would consider such dances to be part of the worship services.

Men and women danced in Bible times, not romantically as couples but separately in processional or encircling dances. In view of the religious orientation of the Jewish society, such folk-type dances are often characterized as religious dances. But there is no indication in the Bible that any form of dance was ever associated with the worship service in God's house.

Those who appeal to the biblical references to dance in order to justify modern romantic dancing inside or outside the church ignore the fundamental difference between the two.

Few people today would want to participate in the folk dance mentioned in the Bible, simply because there was no physical contact between men and women. Each group of men, women, and children did its own "show," which in most cases was a kind of march with a rhythmic cadence.

In Ethiopia, where numerous Jewish customs still survive, including Sabbath keeping, I witnessed "The Dance Around the Ark" by Coptic priests. Frankly, I could not understand why they called it "dance," since it was merely a procession by the priests who marched in a circular fashion around the ark with a certain rhythmic cadence. To equate the biblical notion of dance with modern dance is misleading to say the least, because there is a world of difference between them. Moreover, the Bible gives no indication that any form of dance was ever associated with the worship service in God's house. In fact, we shall now see that women appear to have been excluded from the music ministry of the Temple, synagogue, and early church, apparently because their music was associated with dancing and entertainment.


Women and Music in the Bible

Numerous Bible passages refer to women singing and playing instruments in the social life of ancient Israel (Ex 15:20, 21; 1 Sam 18:6, 7; Judg 11:34; Ezra 2:64, 65; Neh 7:66, 67), but no references in the Bible mention women participating in the worship music of God's house. Curt Sachs has noted that "Almost all musical episodes up to the time of the Temple describe choral singing with group dancing and drum beating. . . . And this kind of singing was to a great extent women's music."9 Why were women excluded first from the music ministry of the Temple, and later from that of the synagogue and early church? This is surprising because, after all, women were the main music makers in the Jewish society.

Scholars who have examined this question suggest two major reasons. One reason is musical in nature and the other sociological. From a musical perspective, the style of music produced by women had a rhythmic beat which was better suited for entertainment than for worship in God's house.

Robert Lachmann, an authority on Jewish cantillation, is quoted as saying: "The production of the women's songs is dependent on a small store of typical melodic turns; the various songs reproduce these turns--or some of them--time and again. . . .The women's songs belong to a species, the forms of which are essentially dependent not on the connection with the text, but on processes of movements. Thus we find here, in place of the rhythm of cantillation and its very intricate line of melody, a periodical up and down movement."10

Women's music was largely based on a rhythmic beat produced by tapping with the hand the tabret, toph, or timbrel. These are the only musical instruments mentioned in the Bible as being played by women, and they are believed to be the same or very similar. The tabret or timbrel seems to have been a hand drum made of a wooden frame around which a single skin was stretched. They were somewhat similar to the modern tambourine.

"It is interesting to note," wrote Garen Wolf, "that I have not been able to find a single direct reference to women playing the nebel [the harp] or the kinnor [the lyre]the instruments played by men in the music worship of the temple. There can be little doubt that their music was mostly of a different species than that of the male Levite musicians who performed in the Temple."11 The tabret or timbrel was played largely by women in conjunction with their dancing (Ex 15:20; Judg 11:34; 1 Sam 18:6; 2 Sam 6:5, 14; 1 Chron 13:8; Ps 68:25; Jer 31:4). The timbrel is also mentioned in connection with strong drink (Is 5:11, 12; 24:8, 9).

Secular Nature of Women's Music

From a sociological perspective, women did not participate in the ministry of music of the Temple because of the social stigma attached to their entertainment type of music. "Women in the Bible were often reported as singing a non-sophisticated kind of music. Usually at its best it was for dancing or funeral mourning, and at its worst to aid in the sensuous appeal of harlots on the street. In his satire about Tyre, Isaiah asks: `Shall Tyre sing as an harlot?' (Is 23:15, KJV; or as rendered in the margin, `It shall be unto Tyre as the song of an harlot')."12

Significantly, female musicians were used extensively in pagan religious services.13 Thus, the reason for their exclusion from the music ministry of the Temple, synagogue, and early Christian churches was not cultural, but theological--the theological conviction that the music commonly produced by women was not suitable for the worship service, because of its association with secular and, sometimes, sensual entertainment.

Numerous scholars have recognized this theological reason. In his dissertation on Musical Aspects of the New Testament, William Smith wrote: "A reaction to the extensive employment of female musicians in the religious and secular life of pagan nations was doubtless a very large factor in determining Jewish [and early Christian] opposition to the employment of women in the musical service of the sanctuary."14

The lesson from Scripture and history is not that women should be excluded from the music service of the church today. The Bible never forbids women to sing or play instruments in the services of worship. Praising the Lord with music is not a male prerogative, but the privilege of every child of God. It is unfortunate that the music produced by women in Bible times was mostly for entertainment and, consequently, not suitable for the divine worship.



There are no indications in the Bible or history that dance was ever a component of divine worship in the Temple, synagogue, or early church. Furthermore, the Bible offers no support for the kind of romantic or sensual dancing popular today. Nothing in the Bible indicates that men and women ever danced together as couples. Dancing was essentially a social celebration of special events, such as a military victory, a religious festival, or a family reunion. Most of the dancing was done by women who were excluded from the music ministry of God's house, apparently because their entertainment type of music was deemed unsuitable for the worship service.

The lesson that the church today needs to learn from Scripture and history is that secular music associated with entertainment is out of place in God's house. Those who are actively involved in pushing for the adoption of such music in the church need to understand the biblical distinction between secular music used for entertainment and sacred music suitable for the worship of God. People in Bible times understood and respected this distinction, and we must respect it today if the church is to remain a sacred sanctuary for the worship of God rather than becoming a secular place for social entertainment.

At a time when the distinction between sacred and secular music is blurred and many are promoting modified versions of secular dancing music for church use, we need to remember that the Bible calls us to "worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness" (1 Chron 16:29; cf. Ps 29:2; 96:9).



1. Steve Case, "Dancing with a User-Friendly Concordance," in Shall We Dance? Rediscovering Christ-Centered Standards, ed. Steve Case (Riverside, Calif., 1992), p. 101.

2. Bill Knott, "Shall We Dance?" in Shall We Dance? Rediscovering Christ-Centered Standards, ed. Steve Case (Riverside, Calif., 1992), p. 69.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid., p. 75.

5. Garen L. Wolf, The Music of the Bible in Christian Perspective (Salem, Ohio, 1996), p. 153.

6. Timothy Gillespie, "Dancing to the Lord," in Shall We Dance? Rediscovering Christ-Centered Standards, ed. Steve Case (Riverside, Calif., 1992), p. 94.

7. Garen L. Wolf (note 5), p. 287.

8. H. M. Wolf, "Dancing," The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, ed. Merrill C. Tenney (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1976), 2:12.

9. Curt Sachs, The Rise of Music in the Ancient World (New York, 1943), p. 90.

10. Cited by Curt Sachs (ibid.), p. 91.

11. Garen L. Wolf (note 5), p. 144.

12. Ibid.

13. For discussion and illustrations from pagan antiquity regarding the employment of female musicians in the social and religious life, see Johannes Quasten, "The Liturgical Singing of Women in Christian Antiquity," Catholic Historical Review (1941), pp. 149-151.

14. William Sheppard Smith, Musical Aspects of the New Testament (Amsterdam, 1962), p. 17. See also Eric Werner, The Sacred Bridge (Hoboken, N.J., 1984), pp. 323-324; A. Z. Idelsohn, Jewish Music in its Historical Development (New York, 1967), p. 18; Philo, De Vita Contemplativa 7; Babylonian Talmud Berakot 24a.

Adapted from the symposium The Christian and Rock Music: A Study of Biblical Principles of Music (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Biblical Perspectives, 2000).

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