GIlded Serpent presents...
God Belly Danced, Part III:
Biblical Accounts of Belly Dance
in the Ancient Near East

y Qan-Tuppim

No character in the Bible has been so misunderstood as Salome. Critics condemn her as a wanton slut. Supporters embrace her as a symbol of oppressed female sensuality.

Neither is true. You see, Salome's performance during Herod's birthday party was more akin to Shirley Temple singing and tap dancing away with "The Good Ship Lollipop" than to a strip-teasing seductress.

Even worse, some who promote Salome as a symbol actually do more damage. For example, author Wendy Buonaventura in her book Serpent of the Nile incorrectly states that Salome's story is an adaptation of a pagan myth, specifically the "Dance of the Veils of Ishtar" (Serpent of the Nile, page 35).

Buonaventura's attempt to merge Salome with Ishtar is just one example of shoddy scholarship inflicted on the poor girl by so many. By taking this route, Buonaventura degrades Salome's existence by disallowing that her dance was historical. Bounaventura and others have failed to examine truly the case, which, when all the evidence is in, shows that Salome's dance is biblically vindicated, not vilified.

The Real Salome
Salome's name is not recorded in the New Testament; we know her name from non-Christian historical sources such as Josephus. She wasn't the only Salome in her family. She was the daughter of Herodias (also not the only one in her family) and Herod Philip, whom Herodias dumped to marry his brother, Herod Antipas, our birthday boy.

For starters, based on the story of Jephthah's daughter (see "God belly danced: Part II"), we know that it was perfectly appropriate for Hebrew women to belly dance for male relatives.

The rest of how the real story goes depends on how it was recorded originally in Koine Greek.

Two key Greek words in the biblical accounts (Mark 6 and Matthew 14) make it very clear that Salome's honorary dance was not salacious.

First, Salome is referred to as a korasion, meaning, a little girl not yet old enough to be married. Basically this means she had no breasts and had not menstruated yet. Second, the word used for dance here is orxeomai, which not only means dance, but the playful goofing off of young children.

Furthermore, Salome's performance simply "pleased" Herod. Had the biblical authors wished to convey something lewd, they could have instead said that her dancing aroused him, or that he lusted after her, but the Greek word used here is aresko, which does not convey any kind of sexual titillation.

Some commentators have concluded that for Herod to promise the girl whatever she wanted, "up to half my kingdom," she must have ignited his hormones! This could not be farther from the truth.

Ancient Near Eastern rulers quite often promised faithful friends and associates "up to half my kingdom" as a formal compliment and public sign of favor.

The recipient of the complement was not really expected to say, "Okay, since it's your idea, I WILL take half your kingdom." When Queen Esther broke ancient Persian court etiquette at the risk of her life to initiate a meeting with her husband, King Ahasuerus (a.k.a. Xerxes or Artexerxes), the king was actually pretty happy she wanted to see him. He also guessed something serious was on her mind for her to risk her life by breaking custom.

So, the king extended his scepter to her (indicating she was accepted in his presence, and her life was spared) and then Ahasuerus offered Esther half his kingdom to compliment her in front of his court. Esther responded by basically saying, "Thanks, but I just wanted to do lunch." (Esther 5).

A greedy prophet in 1 Kings 13 even raised the "half kingdom" issue before a king, letting it be known he would respond to a bribe (Reis, page 201-202). However, the king did not fall for manipulation, and did not offer half his kingdom.

So, when Salome danced for Herod in public, it would have been an insult had Herod NOT offered her half his kingdom.

Also, because Herod's court officials, advisors, and various power players were at the party, and the girl still probably had yet to be betrothed, his compliment served another purpose. Herod possibly was announcing to everyone present that Salome came with his personal and financial favor, and that she would be a good catch for any of their sons.

One final thought in defense of Salome: Had Salome been so seductive and conniving, do you think she would have run to her mother before asking Herod for anything? Would she not have already had a reward in mind for herself? Also, would Herodias, who indeed was the manipulative character here, have sent her daughter to dance for Herod if Salome were sensuous enough to pose a threat to her place in Herod's court?

Young Salome did not even seem to bat an eyelash at her mother's request to have John the Baptist's head on a platter and obeyed her immediately, to Herod's chagrin. Salome likely was too young to really know what she was asking for; or at least too young to disobey her mother.

Salome's story is not about portraying dancing as evil. The story is about the tragedies that can result from the actions of an abusive, manipulative parent. Herodias' "fifteen minutes of fame, gruesomely tacky as they were, remain a twisted inspiration to stage mothers everywhere," (Leon, page 123).

Salome should have been allowed to bask in the appropriate admiration of her stepfather. Instead, Herodias ruined it for her, and ruined her husband's birthday.

What would Jesus dance?
Now that we've dealt with Salome, on to the most important question regarding dance in the New Testament: What did Jesus say about dance? At first glance, it seems he says little - he mentions dance only twice.

Jesus first mentions dancing in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15). Jesus mentions dancing as a positive and assumed part of a party, namely in the context of the party that the prodigal son's father throws for his wayward child who has returned home. The Greek word used here is xoros, meaning, a group or troupe dance.

The second time Jesus mentions dance is recorded both in Matthew 11 and Luke 15: "To what shall I compare this present generation, and what are they like? They are like children who sit in the market place and they call to each other and say, 'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge and you did not mourn.'"

The word Jesus uses for dance here again is orxeomai, the same word used of Salome. The Greek word for mourn is threneo, which does not refer to dance, but still implies a dramatic physical expression. 

The meaning of this whole statement is made clear by what Jesus says before and after the highlighted comment. Just prior to the comment, he talks about people, namely Pharisees and lawyers, rejecting God's purpose for their lives. Right after the highlighted comment, Jesus says John the Baptist was accused of being possessed by demons while he did not drink and party, but Jesus also is being accused of being possessed by demons because he DOES go to parties, drinks alcohol, and enjoys being social.

What Jesus is basically saying here is that the Pharisees and lawyers think that it's up to them to set what is proper - that they make the rules and decide when people can enjoy themselves and when they have to act properly, but, it's really up to God to "play a flute" or "play a dirge" and set the pace.

Because Koine Greek does not offer the reader as earthy nor as varied vocabulary for dance as Hebrew, we cannot glean details on whether people were specifically belly dancing in New Testament accounts. We can surmise gospel characters were engaging in Middle Eastern-style dancing, however, because the characters were mostly Semitic, not Greek. We also know that ancient Greek dances involved such belly dancing-related items as finger cymbals, and that some ancient Greek rhythms strongly resembled ancient Near Eastern rhythms.

In summation, what's most interesting in the New Testament is that according to Jesus, God is like a musician and human beings benefit when they willingly dance to his tune. Jesus' statement echoes David's Psalm 29, where David describes Yahweh as a belly dancing frame drummer (see "God belly danced, part I").

Jesus compares our decision to choose or reject following the pace God sets for our lives to music and dance. That Jesus would use the example of dance to make such an important theological point clearly shows his approval of it.

Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece 26th edition (Greek Scriptures)
United Bible Society Greek New Testament, fourth edition
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.)
Reading the Lines: A Fresh Look at the Hebrew Bible by Pamela Tamarkin Reis; Hendrickson Publishers; 2002.
Life in Biblical Israel by Philip J. King and Lawrence E. Stager; Westminster John Knox Press; 2001.
Music in Ancient Israel and Palestine by Joachim Braun; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; 2002.
Uppity Women of Ancient Times by Vicki Leon; MJF Books; 1995.
Serpent of the Nile by Wendy Buonaventura, Interlink Books; 1998.
"Secular Music of Greek Antiquity, Vol. 2"  CD by Petros Tabouris; FM Records.

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