Dances called mecholot (מְחֺלוֹת) seem like an innocent way to celebrate. In this type of dancing, people form a line behind a leader, with each dancer using one hand to touch the next. The line moves in a circle, a spiral, or some other curving pattern as the dancers copy the steps of the leader. In the Hebrew Bible, the dancers chant and shake tambourines as they dance.
Song of Songs 7:1 celebrates a dancer’s beauty in a double row of mecholot. Chain dancing is cited as the opposite of mourning in Psalms 30:12, 149:3, and 150:4, and in Lamentations 5:15. And when Miriam leads the Israelite women in mecholot on the shore of the Reed Sea in Exodus 15:20-21, they are relieved and grateful to God for saving their lives.
But elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, mecholot are not as innocent as they appear.
In last week’s post, Beshalach & Ki Tisa: Dancing, we saw that when the Israelites start dancing mecholot in front of the golden calf at Mount Sinai, they think they are celebrating the return of God, but they are actually worshiping an idol.
Thanking God for the grape harvest and celebrating the return of victorious generals by dancing mecholot also turn out to be dubious activities.
Thanking God for grapes in Judges
A traveling Levite and his concubine spend the night in the Benjaminite town of Giveah. The men of the town rape and murder the concubine, and the Levite rallies men from all the other tribes to destroy Giveah. These men assemble at a watchtower in Benjaminite territory, and besides planning the battle, they vow in the name of God that none of them will marry their daughters to a Benjaminite.
The war escalates. Men from throughout the territory of Benjamin join the war on Giveah’s side, but the other tribes defeat them so thoroughly that the only Benjaminite survivors are 600 men who escaped into the wilderness. All the women and children die when the attackers burned down their towns.
Then the victors regret their vow, since it means that one of the twelve tribes of Israel will die out. How can they give the 600 men of Benjamin wives, so they can rebuild their tribe?
The elders point out that it is time for the annual festival in Shiloh in which adolescent girls perform dances to thank God for the grape harvest.
And they directed the Benjaminites, saying: “Go and lie in wait in the vineyards. And you will see them, and hey!—if the daughters of Shiloh go out lachul in the mecholot, then you go out from the vineyards and seize them, each man his wife from the daughters of Shiloh, and go back to the land of Benjamin.” (Judges 21:20-21)
lachul (לָחוּל) = to go around in succession; to dance in a circle. (A form of the verb chal, the root of mecholot.)
And the Benjaminites did so, and they made wives for their number from the dancers who they took away by force… (Judges 21:23)
Who knew that chain dancing could be so dangerous for women?
The book of Judges does not say whether the girls were warned ahead of time about what was going to happen to them. But even if they were told, they had little recourse; the male head of household arranged the marriages of all the females under his control.1
Thanking God for grapes in Jeremiah
Much later in the history of the Israelites, Jeremiah delivers a divine prophecy that someday God will bring the defeated and exiled people of Israel and Judah back to their lands, and Israelite women will once again dance in the vineyards.
“I will definitely build you up again, maidens of Israel! Your tambourines will be in your hands again, and you will go out in a mechol, playing. Again you will plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria … (Jeremiah 31:4-5)
Jeremiah expands the good news to include men in the dancing.
That is when the maidens will rejoice in a mechol, and young men and old ones together as one. (Jeremiah 31:13)
We do not know whether he means that men will dance with women, or that women will form their own chains, and young and old men will join together in other chains. Either way, everyone will get to dance. And the dancing God promises in the future definitely celebrates a harvest from God, not rape.
Celebrating victory in Judges
A story in the book of Judges about General Yiftach (Jepthah in English translations) shows him swearing a vow to God before he crosses the border to attack the Ammonites:
“If you definitively give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever happens to go out from the door of my house to meet me upon my safe return from the Ammonites will become God’s, and will be offered up as a burnt offering.” (Judges 11:30-31)
The Torah warns against making rash vows.2 But starting with Jacob after his ladder dream3 and continuing to the present day, believers in an anthropomorphic God often try to bargain with their deity, promising to do what they think God wants if God gives them what they want.
When Yiftach makes his rash vow, he forgets that women customarily celebrate the return of victorious soldiers with drumming, singing, and mecholot. He returns home victorious.
And hey! His daughter went out to meet him, with tambourines and with mecholot! (Judges 11:34)
Yiftach’s daughter must be accompanied by some female friends, since the word for tambourine is in the plural. But as the general’s daughter, and his only child, she would lead the chain dance. That means she would come out the door of his house first.
Yiftach tears his clothes (an act of mourning), and tells her he cannot retract his vow.
Celebrating victory in 1 Samuel
In the first book of Samuel, the dancing women have the last word. When King Saul and his general, the future king David, return triumphant from a battle against the Philistines,
… the women went out from all the towns of Israel for song and mecholot, to greet King Saul with tambourines and rejoicing … and they chanted: “Saul struck down his thousands, and David his tens of thousands!” And made Saul very angry, and this matter was bad in his eyes. And he said: “To David they gave tens of thousands, and to me they gave thousands. The only thing he lacks is the kingship!” (1 Samuel 18:6-8)
King Saul takes out his anger on David, not on the women. After Saul makes a number of attempts on his life, David flees into Philistine territory.
… and he came to Akhish, king of Gat. And the servants of Akhish said to him: “Isn’t this David, king of the land? Isn’t he the one they chanted about in the mecholot, saying: Saul struck down his thousands, and David his tens of thousands!” (1 Samuel 21:11-12)
David pretends to be insane, scratching on the door and drooling, so the King of Gat turns him away, and he escapes.
I bet the Israelite women who sang the chant while dancing mecholot gave it a catchy tune, so no one could forget it.
Why is chain dancing—the opposite of mourning—often associated with disaster in the bible?
From my own experience, I know that the form requires attentive cooperation; you have to concentrate to make sure you keep the right space between the dancer in front of you and the dancer behind you, and also do the steps in time to the music. Collaboration, physical energy, concentration, and singing all make the experience of dancing mecholot exhilarating.
Building a tragic tale around a well-known emotional high is good storytelling. And these stories caution us not to take anything for granted. Maybe the golden calf is not such a good idea. Maybe men and women are working at cross purposes; while women are dancing, men are making rash vows or getting jealous.
Today, when men are more thoughtful, we can safely enjoy a dance of celebration.
- One tradition based on the betrothal of Rebecca in Genesis 24:58 gives a girl veto power over a particular match, at least if the marriage means leaving her home town. But this tradition does not seem to be in play in the book of Judges.
- E.g. Deuteronomy 23:21-23, Proverbs 20:25.
- Genesis 28:20-22.