Gilded Serpent presents..
God Belly Danced: Biblical Accounts of Belly Dancing
in the Ancient Near East

Part 1 of 3
By Qan-Tuppim
Background, Biblical Study


Our understanding of ancient dance comes mostly from archeology. Basically, scholars and interested parties look at reliefs, carvings, and painted pottery that exhibit depictions of dancers, frozen and stagnant, then speculate about what those dancers might be doing if they were moving. This method of analysis is, at best, a gamble. Ancient languages, however, are more revealing. In fact, the oldest linguistic evidence for belly dance might be found in the Bible.

The Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. the Old Testament) contain several words for dance, making one thing very clear: The ancient Hebrews danced a lot!

One particular word for dance stands out: The Hebrew verb chol and its variant chyl. In its noun form, the word appears as machol or machola.

Most scholars say this word refers to some kind of circle dance primarily, but not exclusively, performed by women. But most fail to see the obvious:

Throughout the Old Testament chol and chyl can mean any of the following besides dance: to give birth; to shake as if in fear; to writhe as if in pain; to revive; and it also can refer to sexual strength, stamina, or possibly orgasm.

In this word chol we possibly have the most ancient and complete word describing belly dance in accessible history. The word effectively covers shimmies, twists and isolations, as well as confirms that this dance, at the very least, mimics childbirth.

Chol and its related forms also seem to be related to the Hebrew name of Eve, more effectively rendered as Chavah or, as I like to call her, Choah. I call her this because in Hebrew “v”and a long “o”are the same letter. So, Chavah and Chol have both a “ch”and a “v”in the same order and are directly related to the Hebrew word Chi which means “life.”

In the Septuagint, the ancient Jewish translation of the Hebrew scriptures into ancient Greek, Chavah becomes Zoe the Greek word also for “life.”The word zoe can relate beyond physical life to spiritual life. But the word is more abstract and lacks the earthy connection to physical stress, shaking, childbirth and sex that Chavah embodies. A separate Greek work gennao refers to general childbearing, along the simple lines of “begat.”Hebrew has the word yaled as its the equivalent of gennao. The Greek word odino is more graphic, covering the bloody, rough aspects of childbirth, and equates more to chyl.

In the New Testament, references to Eve (2 Corinthians 11:3 and 1 Timothy 2:13) do not use the name Zoe. The Apostle Paul, author of both epistles, preferred to render the name as Eua, a transliteration of Chavah in Greek possibly pronounced (h)Effa.

Traditionally, we refer to Adam and Eve as if these both are proper names. But in reality, both the first man and Eve are “the Adam”because “Adam”in Hebrew simply means “human.”The book of Genesis more often than not simply refers to them in Hebrew as the man “ish”and the woman “isha.”

The man ultimately names the woman Chavah because she became “the mother of all living”or the “mother of life”(Genesis 3:20). This is the first time someone gets named in a manner that ultimately becomes an ancient Near Eastern tradition; Chavah earns her name after a critical event in her life.

Chavah’s name also is directly related to God’s own proper name Yahweh. In Hebrew, “v”and long “o”also are the same as “w.”Because vowels are guessed at, what we really have is CHVH for Eve and YHVH for Yahweh.

Yahweh in Hebrew means either “I am who am”or “I will be who I will be.”But in Hebrew, “to live”and “to be”are the same. Hence “I am”also means “I live,”and one of Yahweh’s titles is El Chai meaning “the living God.”So, Yahweh, Chavah, and chol and its related forms all go back to “chi”the word for “life.”

This identity connection between Yahweh and the first woman does not render Yahweh as a goddess, since Yahweh has no gender. Gender comes into existence only when Yahweh creates physical creatures, and both the man and woman are made in Yahweh’s image.

While Yahweh is not female, the man may have given Chavah a name similar to Yahweh because the woman and Yahweh had something vital in common. This commonality would not be the power to create, because both man and woman together are needed to create life. But, what Yahweh and Chavah share is the birthing process itself - the violent, shaking way that living beings come into existence.

In our current mindset “being”is a state. “Just be”means simply to sit there, take a few deep breaths and meditate. But Yahweh “will never slumber nor sleep”(Psalm 121:4) and most of the time Yahweh’s presence brings shaking, storms, wind and thunder.

Yahweh’s very being pulsates with energy and power. When Yahweh creates the world in Genesis, the process is cataclysmic, not mild. Likewise, no living human comes into being quietly, unless during a tragic stillbirth. When a nurse or doctor first induces a child to breathe, the newborn usually lets out bloodcurdling scream. That’s when you know you have a healthy baby.

A common misconception is that part of the post-Fall biblical curse on women includes the onset of birth pangs. The curse, however, is not that the pangs would happen, but that the pangs would increase (Genesis 3:16). That means even in the idyllic Garden of Eden before the Fall, childbirth still was meant to be cataclysmic and physically intense. Childbirth turned potentially deadly after the Fall, since death came upon both the man and the woman.

Yahweh, the epitome of being who decides “who I will be”not to be defined by anyone else, shakes the universe. And, like Yahweh, Chavah shakes with anyone who comes into existence through her.

Hence, I believe it even can be argued that Yahweh himself “belly dances”in Psalms, an account to be analyzed in Part II of this series.

Background to
“God belly danced: Biblical accounts of belly dance in the ancient Near East”

by Qan-Tuppim

During the course of earning a bachelor’s degree in theology and philosophy and a Master of Divinity, I studied biblical (Koine) Greek and Hebrew and learned methods of biblical exegesis. When I picked up belly dancing two years ago, finding inspiration in the nightclubs on the former Green Line in Beirut, Lebanon, I naturally decided a biblical study on dance would be worthwhile.

Sadly, while I found some information among scholarly resources, I found most to be lacking. Before I began dancing, I probably would not have been so disappointed. Now, however, I have higher expectations of what can be gleaned from scripture, fueled by dance experience and the fact I have been trained to deal with scripture in its original languages and have been encouraged to dig for information myself, rather than rely simply on what others think.

My study of biblical dance has just begun, but I already can see that many scholars have missed the obvious. For starters, they’ve missed what I believe to be a very straightforward ancient word for belly dance.

To help the reader, I would like to offer the following breakdown of what it takes to do biblical research on a topic like dance:

Properly understood, the Bible is not just a book. The Bible is more like a file, containing numerous types of documents including historical annuls and genealogies, political treaties and law codes, biographies and diaries, and poetry and prophecy.

Biblical study and preaching falls into two categories: Topical and exegetical. In studying dance, I am engaging in a topical study, with underlying exegetical study. Exegesis refers to not just doing a cursory survey of how often a topic comes up in the Bible, but unraveling complete biblical accounts where dance is involved, or accounts that may shed insight on dance even if dance is not explicitly mentioned, by translating those accounts afresh and analyzing them with historical, cultural understanding.

Biblical scholarship also basically falls into two categories: higher criticism and lower criticism. Higher criticism refers to the stance of scholars who view the Bible as non-literal, not necessarily inspired by God, and/or metaphorical. Lower criticism refers to the stance of scholars who believe the Bible is literal, God-inspired, and/or inerrant.

I personally ascribe to lower criticism, and I believe in biblical inerrancy. Properly understood, inerrancy means that the Hebrew and Greek scriptures were written with the Holy Spirit’s guidance without mistakes in their original form, the first time biblical authors penned the documents. I do not necessarily believe, however, that the myriad English versions we have available today are fully accurate, although certain translations are very good.

In my opinion, lower criticism produces better scholarship than higher criticism because the stakes for accuracy are higher. If you don’t believe the Bible is literal, then you have more freedom to manipulate or interpret a text so that it says what you want.

But, for a lower critic, since the Bible is God’s word, then you better damn well be sure about what you tell people it says!

Because of a lower critical attitude, ancient Hebrew scribes copied their scriptures under penalty of death if they made a mistake. This is why the ancient Dead Sea Scrolls have proven to be pretty much identical to Old Testament texts we have in our hand today.

In studying the New Testament, scholars have a variety of ancient Greek resources available. If I want to study the full meaning of a Greek word found in the New Testament, I can go to texts written by such greats as Plato and Aristotle to gain insight on word meanings and usage. Most of these resources are written in classical Greek, which is formal and has more complicated grammar than exhibited in the New Testament, which is written in Koine Greek. Koine Greek is more user-friendly; this is the language the ancients wrote their grocery lists in.

Expounding on Hebrew texts is more complicated. Scholars have no resources for studying this language outside scripture. But other ancient languages can help. Modern Hebrew and Arabic relate back to ancient Hebrew and Aramaic (which occasionally shows up in the Old Testament) and all of these languages relate back to even more ancient languages: Akkadian (ancient Babylonian) and its own predecessor, Ugaritic, (ancient Syrian).

The ancient Mesopotamians wrote both Akkadian and Ugaritic in cuneiform, which was developed first by the Sumerians, whose scribes pressed the letters into wet clay using a reed stylus. The resulting cumbersome dry clay tablets, which must have been a pain in the ass to drag around, proved to be almost indestructible. Tons have survived to this day. Scholars began decoding these languages less than 200 years ago, but already they offer stunning opportunities to round out the meaning of biblical words within previously confusing Bible passages.

Biblical texts used in this study include:
· Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (Hebrew scriptures)
· Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece 26th edition (Greek Scriptures)
· United Bible Society Greek New Testament, fourth edition
· Biblia-Druck, Stuttgart Septuaginta (The ancient Jewish translation of the Old Testament translated from Hebrew to ancient Greek)
· Harvest House Publisher’s New Inductive Study Bible, New American Standard Bible updated edition (the NASB is the most accurate English translation of the Hebrew and Greek texts available today.)

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