Shall we dance?

One of the interesting subjects in Scripture is the topic of dance Most of the arguments in favor of Contemporary Christian Music rely on a few verses that supposedly give permission for Christians to dance during worship. The implication is, if dancing is acceptable, then the styles and genres of music that enable it are. It is significant that the English word “dance,” "dancing," “dances” is translated from six different Hebrew words. These words have varied meanings and movements and can only be determined by a comprehensive lexical study. Defining these six words as “dance” is tantamount to describing skipping, jumping, spinning, shaking, turning and dancing with one word. An understanding of the lexical, contextual and comparative definitions of these Hebrew words needs to be considered to discern what the verses mean. In this article, we will be focusing on three Hebrew words that have been translated “dance”: chuwl (חול pronounced khool), machowl (מחול- pronounced maw-khole) and machowla (מחלה pronounced mek-o-law).


It is important to notice that machowl and machowla are derivatives of the root churl. Hebrew etymologists Harris, Archer and Waltke churl list as the root word for machowl and machowla. Lexicographers Josiah Gibbs and Samuel Lee have also noted that the root of machowla is chuwl. James Strong has confirmed the connection between these words. In addition, and important to this discussion, chalal (חלל-pronounced khaw-lal) is also related to chuwl. Lexicographers Mitchell and Davies have stated that “Chalal (חלל) is akin to Chuwl (חול)- and some see the root Chalal is really one with Chuwl.” Hebrew scholar W. Osborn stated that “Chuwl [is] the same as . . . Chalal.” This is important because the basic meanings for chuwl and chalal carry over to their derivatives machowl and machowla.

Definitions of Chuwl:

  1. Verb: pain; Pain, a woman in travail; great pain; travail with child; labor; anguish

  2. Verb: tremble; trembling; to tremble; writhing; writhe

  3. Verb: shake; to shake

  4. Verb: Turn; twist; the idea of “turning around"; whirl

  5. Noun: to make an opening; hollow,

  6. Noun: bulwark; fort; fortress; rampart; fortification; strong; wall

  7. Noun: sand

  8. Noun: pipe or flute

Definitions of Chalal:

  1. Verb: penetrate, stab, pierce- through, bore, perforate, hollow out, make opening,

  2. Verb: profane, desecrate, pollute, prostitute, defile, violate, blaspheme,

  3. Verb: entrance, begin/beginning, set loose/loose, set free/free, enter an affair

  4. Verb: writhe, great pain, move around (various senses, turn around), whirl circular movements, turn, twist, travail (in labor),

  5. Verb: grief, anguish, tremble, sorrow,

  6. Verb: dance in hollow circles; often in our translations rendered ‘dance,’ but this is rather implied than expressed in the word.

  7. Noun: make a hole- pipe, piece of wood penetrated with a tool and perforated, a pipe or flute, fistular instrument of music with holes, flute of fife, flute or wind instrument, pipe

  8. Noun: hollow, a trench/ditch, cave-caverns, window, opening, aperture, valley, low ground

  9. Noun: bread, cakes perforated (like honey comb); cake, pierced or perforated with holes

  10. Noun: a necklace (pierce through), perforated ornament, bracelets

  11. Noun: sand on seashore, the sand

Definitions of Machowl:

  1. Wheeling around, dance in a circle, circular dance (the specific motions of Machowl are defined by its root word Chuwl “spinning,” “twisting,” “whirling” and “shaking”. Therefore, “dancing in a circle” or “circular dance” does not capture the true essence of the movement)

  2. Act of praise (whatever that “act” is- should be determined from the basic meanings of Chuwl)


  1. Song of praise, Chorus, Song uttered by leader, responded to by followers

  2. Circular dance, Extemporaneous dancing. (the motions of Machowla are based on those of Chuwl and Chalal- “shaking,” “Whirling,” “twisting,” etc.)

Some observations from above findings:

  1. Machowl and Machowla are derivatives of, and closely related to the roots Chuwl and Chalal.

  2. The intrinsic definitions for Chuwl and Chalal extend to Machowl and Machowla.

  3. Machowl and Machowla also have unique meanings not included in Chuwl and Chalal.

  4. The only way to know which meaning is correct- is to see which fits the context of the passage the closest.

  5. Machowl and Machowla occur not only as a verbs, but also as a nouns.

  6. The basic meanings of Chuwl and Chalal do not include our English word “dance.” Although several physical movements and motions are described, the general term “dance” is not mentioned in most

  7. Lexicons. In other words, “Dance” is too general and broad a word to be translated without specification.

  8. Lexicographer John Parkhurst has noted- “Often in our translations rendered ‘dance,’ but this is rather implied rather than expressed in the word.”

  9. Although Strongs Concordance has been a helpful resource for Bible study, it needs to be supported and confirmed with other references- “in the mouth of two or three witnesses”.

  10. The movements delineated for Chuwl and Chalal (and by extension- Machowl and Machwla) are the verbs tremble, writhing, 2) Shake, 3) Turn,Twist, Whirl. It is these movements that must be applied to the verses, when we think the English word “dance”. Therefore, the motions associated with these words should not deviate from the idea- of turning, twisting, whirling, shaking, etc.

“When he [Moses] saw the calf, and the dancing [machowla] . . .” (Ex. 32:19)

Moses “SAW the calf and the dancing”. This visual “marker” gives a clue as to how Machowla should be translated. It wasn’t the “calf” only that was offensive to Moses- he saw the “dancing“ (“twisting,” “whirling“ and “shaking”) and they stirred him to righteous displeasure.

Miriam. . . Took a timbrel in her hand . . . and all the women went out with timbrels and with dances” [machowla] (Ex. 15:20)

A few things can be seen from the context: 1 ) This was a celebration of the defeat of the Egyptians at the hand of God- it was not a worship service, 2 ) The context (v. 21) says that “Miriam ANSWERED them, SING you to the Lord..." This passage describes a celebration by the women of Israel-“singing” and “answering”- antiphonally, 3 ) There is a no visual “marker” (i.e.- no mention of “seeing” or “looking”), 4 ) Machowla can mean “to dance” (“whirl,” “spin,” “twist”) OR “a chorus,” “choir” or “Song uttered by leader, responded to by followers.” One author has noted:

[Machowla] is used in a celebration to the Lord after the Egyptians were destroyed. The next verse tells us WHAT they 'danced': 'Miriam answered them: 'SING to the Lord, for He is highly exalted; The horse and his rider He has hurled into the sea.' (Ex. 15:21) This word is clearly used in reference to a group of women, led by Miriam, in a mass choir, singing praises . . . 'Miriam's verse' is exactly the same as the first verse that Moses wrote. She is not starting her new song. She is starting the song of Moses. It is song of praise for what He has done.[cix] (emphasis mine)

With this interpretation in mind, the text could read: “and all the women went out with timbrels and in choirs (or choruses) . . .” 5) Finally, a word of caution is in order. After 400 plus years of captivity, the worship “styles” of Israel should hardly be used as a template for correct biblical worship. Who knows what kind of syncretism with Egyptian worship may have taken place- or if God had “winked at their ignorance” at this time. We know most were not keeping God’s law (God gave it at Sinai), therefore we should be careful using this passage as God’s will in regards to worship- whatever our definition. EG White seems to agree when she parallels “poetry and music” with “song and dance”: Miriam, who was richly endowed with gifts of poetry and music, had led the women of Israel in song and dance on the shore of the Red Sea.

His [Jephthah’s] daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and dances [machowla].” (Judges 11:34)

Jephthah “saw” (Judg. 11:34,35) his daughter “dancing” (whirling,” “spinning“ and “shaking“) as she came out of her tent. This visual marker confirms that it was a verb not a noun being referred to. Furthermore, this dance was some type of victory jubilation she was doing in celebration of the destruction of the Ammonites at the hand of her father. 

“The women came out of all cities . . . singing and dancing [Machowla]” (1 Sam. 18:6)

Of whom they sang one to another in dances [Machowla], saying, Saul slew...” (1 Sam 29:5)

There is no visual “marker” that “dances” was “seen” in this passage. Also, there seems to be a calling and answering between groups of women as they chant a mocking celebration of David’s conquests over Saul (much like the antiphonal singing in Exodus 15). Machowla should probably be understood as “choruses“ or “groups of women“ singing to each other. This was not a religious ceremony- and clearly not a guide for worship.

“If the daughters of Shiloh come out to dance in dances (machowla). . . And took wives... Of them that danced [machowla].” (Judges 21:21,23)

A once-a-year plan was made in which the daughters of Shilo would come out to a party and the men of Benjamin would each catch himself a lady to be his wife. The “dancing” is something that was SEEN- “Behold, and see . .”  Chuwl means to “twist,” “turn,” or “shake”. It is clarified with the derivative Machowla- “dance in circles“. The phrase could be translated “daughters of Shiloh come out to twist and shake in circular dances.” Therefore, the Hebrew word Chuwl describes the motion involved in the "dances" (Mechowla). The Benjamites were enticed by the dancing of the girls and picked out the ones they wanted. It is very interesting to notice the last verse in the chapter: "In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes." (Judges 21:25). These young virgin ladies received ungodly husbands for their actions.

“Let them praise his name in the dance [machow])” (Ps 149:3)

Like Ps. 150:4 below, the context is about singing with the instruments the timbrel and harp. There is no visual marker that signifies a movement that is being referenced. One expositor stated, “Dance [is] a translation of doubtful propriety. The word in the text [of] Psalm [149:3], stands classified as a musical instrument, and is translated ‘pipe’ in the margin of our English Bible.” And another Hebrew scholar noted that this passage should be translated “with the pipe, in a triumphal procession, which was accompanied with music...” Interestingly, the Geneva Bible translates machowl in Psalms 149:3 and 150:4 as “flute."             

The following observations can be seen:

  1. "Machowl is similar to Machowla, but it is not the same. While Machowl can mean all the things that Machowla does, it means a little more. [including] 'a musical instrument' (like a flute). The context is crucial in determining what English word fit’s the meaning of the text."
  2. There are eight musical instruments listed in the context- IF Machowl can mean a musical instrument, we should translate it that way.
  3. Machowl is a derivative of Chuwl and Chalal, both of which can mean a “pipe” or “flute.” One commentator has noted:  "'Dancing' is used in the exact middle of the list of instruments. Everything around the word is a musical instrument. . . we need to give the Hebrew word an English word that fits the context- a MUSICAL INSTRUMENT.” John Calvin agrees with this when he wrote that this verse refers to “some fistular wind instrument of music, with holes, as a flute, pipe, or fife."
  4. There is no visual marker of “dancing” in this passage. The weight of evidence tells us that Machowl should be translated as “Pipe” or “flute” in this passage. Although interesting, and showing another meaning- The Wycliffe Bible and Douay-Rheims translates machowl in Psalms 149 and 150 as “choir”. However, “choir” doesn’t fit the context as well as “flute.”

“And [you- Israel] shall go forth in the dances of them that make merry . . . Then shall the virgin rejoice in the dance, both young men and old. . .” (Jeremiah 31:4, 13)

Verse 4 is a metaphor. The text is referring to Israel. Whether or not it is referring to “dancing” is beside the point. This is not a religious service. To use this verse for support of religious “dancing” would be like using Ezekiel 16:11 to promote wearing of jewelry. However, Youngs Literal Translation translates “dance” as “choir” in both Jeremiah 31:4 and 13.

In conclusion, there is no persuasive contextual, lexical or comparative evidence to support “dancing” (“whirling,” “spinning,” “shaking,” etc.) in worship as related to the Hebrew words Chuwl, Machowl and Machowla. The weight of testimony, therefore, would negate any music or liturgy that fosters or encourages these movements. Put simply, the Bible cautions against music that facilitates, capacitates or enables a worshiper to “shake,” “twist, “turn,” “move in circles” etc. In the next article, we will look at David’s experience of dancing.

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