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    Dance of Transformation: From Family to Dynasty for King David in 2 Samuel 6

    By msondesigns | March 29, 2011

    Dancers love to find incidents of dancing and its importance throughout history. I am no exception. Neither are F. Berk and D. Rosenblatt in their article in The Second Jewish Catalog: “According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, the high level of interest and development in choreography can be noted by the fact that the Bible has eleven verb forms to describe dancing.” The eleven verb forms don’t exactly prove, in my opinion, a development of choreography in the Bible, but it does mean that dance was a part of early Hebraic culture. A search of the dancing moments in the Hebrew Bible is a little like uncovering a moving past that has been stilled through time, assimilation, and layers of interpretation.
    Many of the instances of dancing mentioned in the Hebrew Bible are led by women, and often after a war victory of some sort, (Exodus 15:20, Judges 11:34, 1 Samuel 18:6). Some are led by women during the summer festival of Tu B’Av, where women in Shiloh dance in a field to secure future husbands (Judges 21:21, 21:23). Some of the dances by women use taunting or mocking lyrics or chants, as in 1 Samuel 18:6. There is a famous female dancer in Song of Songs (Song 7:1). Non-gendered instances of dance are found in the Psalms, such as Psalm 150:4 and 149:3. However, the dancing that this author has found written about the most by scholars is performed by a man, King David, while bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. The scholarship of an arguably marginalized form of human expression (at least seen as marginalized in contemporary American culture) creates a further marginalization due to gender.
    This paper will follow the scholar’s lineage by focusing on David’s dancing journey with the Ark, both before and after Uzzah’s death upon touching the Ark in 2 Samuel 6. This story is repeated in 1 Chronicles 13, 15 – 16. Uncovering more of the women’s role in dance in the Hebrew Bible will have to be left to other writers, but I will refer to some of the qualities of the women’s dances in order to investigate possible meanings behind King David’s dancing. Specifically, I will focus on how the dance of King David serves as a metaphor of transition between the rule of the Saul royal family to the larger and more dynastic Davidic rule which transforms a people into a nation, meaning a people with a centralized city and within the next generation a centralized Temple. The word “nation” and the idea of nation-building belies some of the sources I have used; the focus I take is on telling the story of a transformational shift between Saul and David that also led to the aggrandizing of David within Jewish tradition and some Biblical scholarship. I will focus on the act of dancing itself and how this act helped create this shift from the perspective of a David-loving scholarship, and from the perspective, as I see it, of the writer/narrator of 2 Samuel 6. The celebrations of the dancing women mentioned above also mark changes of status, as when Miriam danced with the women to mark the new freedom of the Israelite slaves (Exodus 15:20), and in David’s case the transformation seems even more connected to the dance itself: how it is performed, what precedes and what follows his dancing.
    Hebrew words for David’s actions in 2 Samuel 6 and in 1 Chronicles 15:29 include rqd and krkr, meaning skip and whirl, respectively. Mayer Gruber finds corroborations with Curt Sachs’ interpretation of the word rqd through noticing that rqd is used in the Hebrew Bible as the “activity of rams (Psalm 114:4-6), calves (Psalm 29:6) and he-goats (Isaiah 13:21). “The interpretation of kirker [krkr] as a whirling dance is based primarily on the view that kirker is an intensive of the verb karar ‘rotate’.” Gruber finds further support for krkr as dancing, specifically as whirling or pirouetting, through the numerous uses of the verb and derived nouns in Rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic referring to dancing. The verb pzz is used in 2 Samuel 6:16 as rqd is in 1 Chronicles 15:29. In his short conversation with Michal after she sees him dancing, David says he intends to do more dancing, and uses the verb shq, which besides dancing also connotes ‘to play.’
    Tal Ilan finds that throughout the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic literature, the verbs for dance are gendered, i.e., either used for men or used for women. The root for females dancing is hwl while for males it is rqd. This suggests that the activity of dancing was separated; men danced with men, women with women. However, this does not inform us as to whether men or women were watching each other. In the female dances at Shiloh, the precursor for the holiday Tu B’Av, women danced for men for courtship purposes, and in the water-drawing ceremony in the Temple, men danced as women watched. Ilan finds that the differently gendered verbs for dance also reveal different kinds of dancing. Based on other interpretations of hwl and rqd, she surmises that hwl refers to circle dancing, or forming a circle, while rqd refers to leaping, or bouncing, up and down.
    This becomes a little complicated when looking at what King David was doing, and who he was doing it for, in 2 Samuel 6. (From now on in this paper I will mostly focus on the 2 Samuel rather than the 1 Chronicle telling of this story, as there is more text to the story and Michal plays a larger role.) Music and dancing were part of both processions of the Ark to Jerusalem, the first being before Uzzah’s demise, the second after when David processes again, this time with more ritual and intention. In the first procession, the instruments cited, according to David Wright, are the voice, lyres, hand-drums, rattles and cymbals. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, according to Carol Meyers, the hand-drum is the instrument that women play. She finds evidence for this in Exodus 15:20-21, 1 Samuel 18:6-7, Judges 5:1, and Judges 11:34, among others. In the second procession, Wright explains that while the only horns and ritual shouting are mentioned as musical elements, the implicit evidence of other instruments in the second procession is the presence of joyous dancing. And, dancing was often accompanied, as mentioned, with hand-drums, played by women. Therefore, in both processions, we can assume the presence of both men and women. (And of course Michal’s words about David’s dancing in front of other women confirm this.) What we are not able to completely pinpoint is whether the men and women were dancing together. However, given that it was a procession, and the instruments and song go hand in hand with the dancing, we can safely assume that the dancing, if separated by gender, was not hidden from either gender, and could have been mixed. One could wonder whether women were dancing in circles while men were jumping, or due to the joyousness of the occasion, this type of step differentiation might have been forgotten, and the usual boundaries transgressed. This possible transgression, whether it was through David dancing with women or perhaps at times like a woman, could have aided the disgust Michal voiced, as well as signaled a highly transformative moment – one in which transgression can create new meaning for the surrounding community as well as popularizing the transgressor.
    There were other differences between the first and second procession, differences which I feel created a transformative effect on David and served as a greater transformation for the people he ruled. Wright discusses how the horns could not be alone in the second procession due to the dancing, but the addition of horns may signal a difference in intention. Horns “are mainly used to summon people together, signal an announcement, mark the beginning of cultic events and times…” and in war. David wanted to clearly mark the difference between the first, failed attempt at bringing the ark to Jerusalem, and the second, in which he set out more clearly ritualistic and cultic parameters for all to follow.
    David sees that the Ark has blessed Obed-edom and his family, with whom the Ark was housed for three months between processions. David seeks the same blessings, and thus creates an atmosphere immersed in ritual. Wright speaks of a more “intensified form of dance” in the second procession as a result of a “greater volume of music and community excitement.” And the appearance of the horns in the second procession over the first “conveys the impression that David and the people are now more deeply committed to transferring the ark to Jerusalem. They reveal a greater emotional involvement in the ceremony and, implicitly, a greater reverence for the deity.” This complements other changes in the second procession: carrying the Ark on the shoulders instead of on the cart that David had devised, offering sacrifices at the beginning of the procession, and David leading the procession. Also, David started the procession but had all involved in it halt after six steps (2 Samuel 6:13). Any time a procession starts, and then stops, especially after a set number of steps, signifies an important moment, a reckoning, a “pregnant pause”, if you will. The sacrifice followed this pause. David also wears a special piece of clothing, a linen ephod, which is associated with priestly clothes (2 Samuel 6:14). It is sometimes questioned whether there was dancing at all in the first procession, as the verbs can also be translated as “to play” as in play an instrument. However, using various connections with other uses of the verb and how it is used in the later Chronicles story, Wright argues that indeed dancing existed in the first procession, but the dancing in the second procession was clearly more vigorous and therefore, I feel, possibly more transformational, than in the first.
    Wright focuses on transformation in that he speaks to this type of vigorous dancing as similar to various forms of “self-affliction, that is, fasting or more strenuous forms of self-abuse, such as cutting or scarring the skin.” Although vigorous dancing in theological situations can indeed have self-afflicting qualities, such as Sufi dancers who use knives against themselves while whirling into a frenzy, this is not the only outcome of that kind of vigor. Bradford Keeney, an anthropologist, speaks about the cross-cultural dance of shaking, a convulsing, jumping, whirling of the body that is used to create religious fervor and connection, transformational states of being, and shamanistic healing. This shaking “medicine” as he refers to it has been a part of cultures from Africa, Asia, to our own Shakers and Quakers in North America. David completed his ritualistic transfer of the Ark to Jerusalem through the vessel of his own body, physically transferring the power of the deity from the Philistines, to a neutral other space, to the city where his reign will continue through his son, Solomon.
    This transfer of power, especially from the Saul royal family rule to what becomes the dynastic Davidic rule, is further enhanced by the ending of 2 Samuel 6 and the beginning of 2 Samuel 7. Here in the conversation between Michal and David, many scholars and creative writers have found rich material. And, after this influential conversation, the last line of 2 Samuel 6 (where we learn that Michal will be barren for the remainder of her days) seems almost literally like a punch line. Directly after this, in 2 Samuel 7, David’s continued rule and his relationship to the creation of his dynasty are discussed. It seems clear that the ending of 2 Samuel 6 must be directly related to the enhancement of David’s power.
    Bruce Rosenstock argues that David’s wild dancing is akin to Bakhtin’s “carnivalizing” and is connected to pan-Mediterranean rituals which involved “dance, genital display, and mocking speech designed to elicit laughter.” He also contends that Michal rejects David’s behavior as unworthy of a King, and that according to her ideology, based in her family’s rule, royal glory mirrors divine glory and is supposed to be invisible, or at least contained. Rosenstock goes into great detail about the wording of their dialogue, and how they play off of each other’s words and meanings. Since they are doing this, Rosenstock surmises, it is possible that they are participating in a ritual of mocking that goes horribly wrong. He likens the mocking words of Michal – “What glory the king of Israel got for himself today when he was revealed today before the eyes of the servant girls of his subjects just like the way one of those worthless men reveal themselves,” (6:20) and the self-deprecating response of David – “I will be lowly in my own eyes and with the servant girls you spoke of, with them I will get myself glory” (6:21-22) as the give and take of ritual mockery. And part of the ritual Rosenstock references is about enhancing fertility. This he sees evidenced in the fertile blessings bestowed upon Obed-edom upon housing the Ark, and later upon David’s blessing the crowd and all of corporate Israel with a cake that is identified by Hosea with the worship of foreign fertility divinities. David carries the blessings back to his home, where the ritual language takes place. Michal engages in ritual language, which connects to fertility rituals in Greece where women engage in abusive language, deriding their husbands, eliciting laughter, although, this language is usually not to their husband’s faces. The mocking language is reminiscent of the mocking language of the dancing women earlier when greeting Saul with “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.” (1 Samuel 18:6) The question is if both Michal and David were engaged in a ritual of mocking and derision, what went wrong? Rosenstock suggests that the ritual “misfired”; Michal expected David to play the more serious role and she the mocking, and David expected the opposite. This “misfiring of the ritual reverses the normal expectations, bringing childlessness rather than reproductive blessing to Michal and David.”
    Rosenstock and other writers talk about jealousy as a motivation for Michal to be disapproving. Michal was brought back to David after marrying another man, and after he acquired other wives. They hadn’t yet seen each other after her return. Rosenstock writes that Michal “also resents the fact that the king’s glory, which had only been hers to see, is now shared with the servant girls.” This however, seems a bit of a stretch, as Michal is aware of David’s other wives, and therefore his glory is not her sole property anymore.
    What is important in Rosenstock’s analysis is that David is clearly aware of his important role in the heightening of his power through this ritual. Through other Biblical passages where the heroic warrior is received with dancing and singing, to C.L. Seow’s collection of evidence from mythic narratives celebrating the return of the divine warrior through dance, and then the warrior’s enthronement, David is ritually enacting his own enthronement and perhaps finalizing his takeover of Saul’s family rule. This is further emphasized by the final sentence in 2 Samuel 6; Michal’s barrenness completes the takeover with no heirs to fight for Saul’s lineage. It is also worth noting that throughout the narrative, (2 Samuel 6:16, 6:20, and 6:23) Michal is referred to as the “daughter of Saul” rather than the wife of David. This shows that the narrator of 2 Samuel 6 was interested in creating a rift between the house of Saul and David’s future reign.
    Robert Alter emphasizes the gap between the end of verse 22 and the beginning of verse 23 (when Michal is pronounced barren) as a strategic one. Michal’s silence to David’s retort, and the breaking off of the dialogue at this point is “implicit commentary. David has the last word because, after all, he has the power, as he has just taken pains to point out to Michal. The daughter of a rejected royal house and by now a consort of only marginal political utility to the popularly acclaimed king…Michal can do nothing…” David’s word is final. The Biblical narrator marks the space that changes the history of the Jewish nation with silence.
    Walter Brueggemann also sees this exchange as a final step in the transformation of the house of Israel. “David uses Michal’s words to dismiss her. Michal as no future, no claim on Israel, no prospect for life. In David’s utter abandonment to dance and in his liturgic, social, royal extravagance, a new order is authorized, wrought out of unrestrained yielding and worship.”
    The most powerful textual sign that a new rule is announced is the fact that the next chapter, 2 Samuel 7, David’s rule is firmly established. It is worth quoting Nathan, the prophet with whom David consults, and his vision from YHWH, since it mentions this transfer of power, the taking away of God’s love from Saul, and the continued rule of David through his heirs in 2 Samuel 7:8-16. “Now then, tell my servant David, ‘This is what the LORD Almighty says: I took you from the pasture and from following the flock to be ruler over my people Israel. I have been with you wherever you have gone, and I have cut off all your enemies from before you. Now I will make your name great, like the names of the greatest men of the earth. And I will provide a place for my people Israel and will plant them so that they can have a home of their own and no longer be disturbed. Wicked people will not oppress them anymore, as they did at the beginning and have done ever since the time I appointed leaders over my people Israel. I will also give you rest from all your enemies. The LORD declares to you that the LORD himself will establish a house for you: When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. When he does wrong, I will punish him with the rod of men, with floggings inflicted by men. But my love will never be taken away from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.”
    As I asked in the beginning of this essay: who was David dancing for - his God, as he states (2 Samuel 6:21), for the crowd and specifically for the women in the crowd, as Michal suggests (2 Samuel 6:20), or for the sake of celebration? David’s dancing was the catalyst for the transformation of the nation of Israel from Saul’s royal family to his own kingdom. David was dancing for the power change on which the narrator in 2 Samuel 6 is focused. The nature of the dancing itself, the rituals that surrounded it and enlivened it, and the reaction of Michal and the inferred consequences all contribute to creating and then finalizing this historic shift of power and fate for the Israelites.


    F. Berk and D. Rosenblatt, “Dance,” The Second Jewish Catalogue, ed. Sharon Strassfield and Michael Strassfield (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1976) 337.

    Schwartz, Regina, “Adultery in the House of David: The Metanarrative of Biblical Scholarship and the Narratives of the Bible,” Semeia, 1991, 35-55. In this text the author proposes that the past two centuries of Biblical scholarship has created a reading of the Bible as a consistent, uninterrupted narrative rather than focusing on the text itself, which is more inconsistent and interrupted, and even somewhat, if defined loosely, “post-modern.”

    Mayer I Gruber, “Ten Dance-Derived Expressions in the Hebrew Bible,” in Dance as Religious Studies, Doug Adams and Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, editors, OR: Crossroads Publishing Co., 1993

    Curt Sachs, World History of the Dance, trans. Bessie Schonberg (New York: W.W. Norton, 1937) 30.

    Gruber, 53.

    Ibid., 54


    Ibid., 58 – 59

    Tal Ilan, “Dance and Gender in Ancient Jewish Sources,” Near Eastern Archaeology, 66 No. 3, (2003), 135

    Ibid., 136

    Carol Meyers, “Women with Hand-Drums, Dancing: Bible”, in Jewish Women’s Archive, jwa.org, retrieved 3/30 from http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/women-with-hand-drums-dancing-bible
    David P Wright, “Music and Dance in 2 Samuel 6,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 121 no 2 Summer 2002, 209

    Pendergast, Donna and Erica McWilliam, “Marginal Pleasures: Teachers, transgression and transformation.” Paper presented at The Australian Association of Research in Education annual conference, Melbourne, Nov-Dec 1999. This paper discusses the various ways in which transgression in the act of teaching, instead of subverting hegemonic teaching practice, can create new knowledge and popularize the teacher, thereby creating a stronger teacher/student relationship.

    Wright., 210

    Ibid., 215


    Ibid., 223

    Bradford Keeney, Shaking Medicine: The Healing Power of Ecstatic Movement. Destiny Books, 2007.

    Bruce Rosenstock, “David’s Play: Fertility Rituals and the Glory of God in 2 Samuel 6,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 31:1, (2006) p. 63

    Ibid., 67-68

    Ibid., 73

    Ibid., 71

    Ibid., 67

    Robert Alter, “Characterization and the Art of Reticence,” in Telling Queen Michal’s Story: An Experiment in Comparative Interpretation, Clines, David J.A. and Eskenazi, Tamara C., editors, Sheffield: Sheffield Academy Press, 1991, 72-73

    Walter Brueggemann, “2 Samuel 6” in Telling Queen Michal’s Story

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    Topics: Dance in the Bible |