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Prophetic Dance
By Mary Jones

Prophetic movement and dance in the Bible

When we look at Scripture we find that movement and symbol were often used by prophets. In the days of the early prophets Samuel, Elijah and Elisha we read that there were schools of prophets often called sons (or followers) of the prophets. The word "prophesying", used to describe their activities, is naba which is the same one used of all prophesying in the Old Testament. From the descriptions in 1 Samuel l0:5-13; 19:20-23; 1 Kings 18:25-26, 1 Chron.25:1 prophecy seemed at this time to indicate not only speaking but ecstatic behaviour which included movement, dance, as well as speaking, shouting, singing and playing. The word is used to describe both true and false or idolatrous prophets and prophecy. The prophets of Baal danced around the altar cutting themselves; Saul and his servants "prophesied" when they came into the presence of Samuel and a group of prophets who were prophesying as a company; and another time Saul is described as prophesying when an evil spirit came upon him and while David was playing the harp (1 Sam.18:10-11). The word "prophesy" in these cases seems to suggest ecstatic movement together with singing or speaking.

With the later prophets the meaning of naba appears to have changed and describes primarily the words that are spoken and their written equivalent. With these written accounts there are descriptions of prophetic action given by God to enhance or initiate the prophetic word. God told Jeremiah to buy a belt and wear it around his waist. Then God directed him to go to Perath and hide it in a crevice in the rocks. Many days later he was instructed to go and retrieve it only to find that it was ruined and useless. This scenario was to express to Judah and Jerusalem that God had bound them to him like a belt as his people but they had refused to listen and had gone after other gods. They were now useless to God (Jeremiah 13:1-11). This visual image would be better understood and remembered than just words. The prophet Ezekiel lay on his left side without speaking for a year and a month and on his right side for forty days. He lay next to a picture he had drawn of Jerusalem against which he had set up model siege works. God directed him to do all this as a warning that God was going to bring siege and famine against Jerusalem (Ezek.4). What an impact this must have had on the community and how well they would have listened when Ezekiel did eventually speak the message with words. Another time God told him to pack up his belongings while the people were watching, dig through the city wall and walk away from the city as if going into exile (Ezek.12).

With the coming of the Holy Spirit to all believers after Pentecost there was a change in the role of the prophet. Under the old covenant the community was dependant on the few anointed with the Holy Spirit or the priests with access to the Umim and Thumim*1 to hear what God was saying. Now all believers could know the voice and leading of the Holy Spirit both through the written word of God and in their hearts and minds. Paul talks about the role of prophet in the church but at the same time in 1 Cor. 14, as previously noted, encourages all to prophesy (1 Cor. 15).

When we look for examples of prophetic movement in the New Testament we find the example of Mary of Bethany who broke the alabaster jar of pure nard, an expensive perfume worth a year's wages, to anoint Jesus' head and feet in an act of worship and love. She was criticised for wasting the money by some of those at the table but Jesus described her action as a "beautiful thing" and preparation for his burial - a prophetic action (Mk 14:1-11; Jn12:1-10). In the time of the early church the prophet Agabus took Paul's belt, tied his own hands and feet and prophesied that this is what the Jews of Jerusalem would do to the owner of the belt and that they would hand him over to the Gentiles (Acts 21:10).

From these examples it is clear that there is ample evidence for dramatic action being used in prophecy but the evidence for dance is not as numerous or obvious. There are, however some indications that dance was used by the prophets in Scripture. As well as the sons of the prophets discussed above, we have the much earlier description of Miriam the prophetess leading the women out with tambourines and dancing after the crossing of the Red Sea (Ex.15:19-21). She sang to them, "Sing to the Lord for he is highly exalted. The horse and rider he has hurled into the sea". Even though this short account of the story is placed after the more detailed account which includes a long song starting with these same words and called the Song of Moses, I believe it is more likely that these words were first sung by Miriam and were then added to by Moses. In our present day terms Miriam is the worship leader with a prophetic edge who is calling the people to celebrate what God has done, declaring it to be his work and urging the people to praise him for their deliverance. This is expressed in song and dance with tambourine.

David, as well as being a king with a priestly role, was a prophet. Several of the psalms have messianic prophecies and were fulfilled and quoted by Jesus or the New Testament writers (eg Ps.22 - Matt.27:46, Jn.19). His spontaneous dance in front of the ark was "before the Lord" and an expression of his worship. But it might also be argued that it had a prophetic function in his leadership of the people, indicating to them that they should honour Yaweh above the king as the centre and law-giver of their communal life and encouraging them by example to enthusiastically express their worship and joy in Him.

There are no examples of dance used prophetically or in any other way in worship in the New Testament although we know from the Talmud (Mishnah Sukkah 51 a-b) that dance was still found in the temple. From the writings of the early and mediaeval church we read that dance and movement are found in worship up to the l7th century.

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- International Christian Dance Fellowship
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