Belly Danced: Biblical Accounts of Belly
in the Ancient Near East
Part 1 of 3
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.
Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. the Old Testament) contain
several words for dance, making one thing very clear:
The ancient Hebrews danced a lot!
word for dance stands out: The Hebrew verb chol and
its variant chyl. In its noun form, the word appears
as machol or machola.
say this word refers to some kind of circle dance primarily,
but not exclusively, performed by women. But most fail to see
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.
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
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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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
believe it even can be argued that Yahweh himself “belly
dances”in Psalms, an account to be analyzed in Part II
of this series.
“God belly danced: Biblical accounts of belly
dance in the ancient Near East”
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.
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
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:
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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!
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.
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.
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).
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.
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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