Skip to content

Should David Be Normative For Modern Worship?

November 4, 2010

There’s a lot going on in the biblical text, and because of the diversity of that material, any reader, pastor, or theologian is, by the very nature of the material, most likely going to have to suppress some elements of it (or ignore them altogether) and elevate others.

I would suggest that it would be nigh impossible to come up with a holistic theology from all of the Bible that didn’t at some point dispense with some elements as “cultural”: don’t wear mixed fibers (Leviticus), greet each other with a holy kiss (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians), drink some wine for the stomach’s sake (1 Timothy) or didn’t have to engage in some serious exegetical, historical, theological, and hermeneutical gymnastics to explain the ‘oneness’ of Yahweh of Hosts and Jesus. There are verses in the Bible such as: “O daughter of Babylon, you devastated one, How blessed will be the one who repays you with the recompense with which you have repaid us. How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones against the rock” (Ps 137:8–9). Compare that wonderful verse of retribution and revenge to, “The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love” or “For God so loved the world…”

Like I said, there’s a lot going on in the text. Sometimes, a lot more than you think.

However, every once in awhile an interpretation takes root that is overly simplistic, and tends to suppress a great deal of scripture in its wake–not to mention good sense and logic sometimes! One of these arguments from scripture concerns David dancing before the Lord to justify some sort of worship behaviour. The argument is fairly straightforward.

  • David was either naked or clothed with only a linen ephod
  • David was ‘worshiping’ before the ark and danced for the Lord
  • David became so undignified everybody saw his manhood
  • David was determined to become more undignified
  • Your incorrect judgement of our worship is equal to Michal’s invalid judgement of David’s
  • Therefore, like David, our worship is legitimate

I’m fairly certain with the usual readers here, most of you have encountered this form of legitimation. Probably more than once. Heck, some of you probably more than a hundred times. But is the legitimation legitimate?

Probably the issue that the average (and below average!) preacher, lay interpreter, and beginning exegete struggles with the most in their theological interpretation and argumentation is the great amount of time and space conceptually, linguistically, socially, politically, and religiously that exists between the time-periods of the authors of the biblical texts and our own. Add to that struggle, a set of interpretations and assumptions that have been handed down and unexamined, and you can encounter interpretations in which the gap between then and now has become so narrowed that there is almost a one-to-one correlation between the story in the biblical text and the way the ‘meaning’ for the modern audience is presented.

So, from this point on, let me throw out a few random thoughts, and you can decide if perhaps the ancient David to modern worship correlation/legitimation might often be made with too much haste.

A) Was David Naked? Often in the presentation of this argument David is either naked or ‘girded’ with only a linen ephod which leads to him to uncovering himself and being undignified in the extremity, er, make that, extremeness of his dancing.

David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom into the city of David with gladness… And David was dancing before the LORD with all his might, and David was wearing a linen ephod… But when David returned to bless his household, Michal the daughter of Saul came out to meet David and said, “How the king of Israel distinguished himself today! He uncovered himself today in the eyes of his servants’ maids as one of the foolish ones shamelessly uncovers himself!”

Now this is where the sort of “hand-me-down” theology comes into play, and in this case from the KJV I think. Often in that text people are ‘girding up their loins,’ so when David is ‘girded’ in an ephod, it follows logically for them that he must be naked, and the ephod is around his loins. However, this is where it pays to know some languages, as ‘gird’ does not mean “to cover your loins” rather it has more the sense of putting on (sometimes in a military sense), or readying for activity (which is why you would gird your loins in the first place). But there is another account of this event in the Hebrew Bible:

And David assembled all Israel at Jerusalem to bring up the ark of the LORD to its place which he had prepared for it… Now David was clothed with a robe of fine linen with all the Levites who were carrying the ark, and the singers and Chenaniah the leader of the singing with the singers. David also wore an ephod of linen.

Now for those unfamiliar with synoptic readings of the text there are more than a few differences in how these stories are presented that are worthy of consideration, however, let’s note one for the present discussion: David is wearing a robe and an ephod. So David is wearing a robe in this account (and I hope you all know what that is), but what’s an ephod? Isn’t it a loin cloth? An ephod is a priestly garment, like a shoulder-cape or mantle; worn by ordinary priests made of white stuff (Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon , 65).

David is ceasing to act like an ancient Israelite king, not ceasing to act like a modern conservative worshiper

I think there is just as much reason, especially considering who Michal was and how she was acquired, that the “undignity” in this particular narrative was David taking of his kingly garb, ceasing to act like an ancient Israelite king–not ceasing to act like a modern conservative worshiper!–and putting on common clothes and celebrating with common people like a commoner. This is a minor point. I don’t believe David was ‘naked’ or flashing his kingly flesh scepter at anyone, but ultimately, with what follows below, it doesn’t really matter if David was naked or not.

B) What was going on? As I mentioned above we all have a proclivity to suppress some verses, chapters, and books in favour of others, but in this particular interpretation elements of the same story are elevated and suppressed (that’s why there’s ellipses in the above quotes). So here’s a very important question: what context is David’s dancing taking place in?

Now it was told King David, saying, “The Lord has blessed the house of Obed-edom and all that belongs to him, on account of the ark of God.” David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom into the city of David with gladness. And so it was, that when the bearers of the ark of the Lord had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling.

Here’s our context: they are bringing the ark to the house of Obed-edom, the future site of the Temple, and they are sacrificing. The context is cultic. The modern correlation to worship (i.e., singing) is false. It’s not as if there is a tabernacle or temple where the worship is conservative, and suddenly into this legalistic worship scenario, a church/temple like David’s suddenly springs forward with “free” and “undignified” worship because the Lord is “doing a new thing” and using the “foolish to confound the wise.”

The context is cultic. The modern correlation to ‘worship’ is false.

He is sacrificing animals before the ark of the covenant. If you ever think that your Sunday morning sing-song “worship” was anything like David’s you are sadly mistaken. Sacrifice was a brutal business. If you were a “worshiper” you brought your animal and butchered it, and the priest would sprinkle its blood and fat on the altar. Did you get that? The priest didn’t butcher the animal, you did. It was visceral. Messy. There was blood; lots and lots of blood.

This is the context of David’s “dancing.” I would suggest it wouldn’t matter if he was naked or wearing a parka; a speedo or a suit; if he was dancing, crawling, spinning, spitting, or moonwalking. His actions are in a cultic setting, which in almost no way is paralleled in modern services. In this setting suggesting that David’s dancing is co-terminous to modern worship would be akin to suggesting that his gathering two-hundred foreskins is something every modern Christian male ‘should” do before they get married.

C) Why was David sacrificing? There’s still more to the text; more questions. Not only was David probably not naked, not only were his actions in no way in a context that could any way be construed as modern worship, the wider context leads to this question: why was David sacrificing? Well, David decides to bring the ark to Jerusalem, but Uzzah touches it and dies:

And the anger of the Lord burned against Uzzah, and God struck him down there for his irreverence; and he died there by the ark of God. David became angry because of the Lord’s outburst against Uzzah, and that place is called Perez-uzzah to this day. So David was afraid of the Lord that day; and he said, “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?”

So David is afraid of the Lord and the ark. So what does he do? He takes it to the house of Obed-edom and he leaves it there! But, as many of you know that’s not the whole story:

Thus the ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite three months, and the Lord blessed Obed-edom and all his household. Now it was told King David, saying, “The Lord has blessed the house of Obed-edom and all that belongs to him, on account of the ark of God.” David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom into the city of David with gladness.

Ultimately, David is afraid of the ark, and doesn’t want it, but when blessings are attached to it, he has to get it to Jerusalem somehow. But what to do? The only thing an ancient person can in a cultic setting: sacrifice and hope it placates the angry God (and if you are the Chronicler, have Levites carry the ark on poles!) and hopefully get this ‘blessing’ to Jerusalem so you can be blessed and defeat your enemies.


That, dear friends, is context. We have an ancient Israelite king not acting very kingly, but leading the people and the priests with an ark into the city while butchering animals and dancing around. A very nervous and scared David. Maybe a tad wild eyed, as he dances to YHWH and hopes the blood stays the hand of an angry God. The scene is from a worldview, socially and religiously that is so far from our own we can hardly comprehend it.

It is in no way comparable to our sanitized Sunday morning services where we show up in our nice clothes, listen to a few songs–even if we dance around and emote like we’re in pain–and then listen to some speeching. And as much as we wish it were otherwise, justifying odd modern religious practice is not so simple as saying “David danced” and then engaging in any sort of sophomoric, immature ‘worship’ behaviour we wish.

Like I said earlier, “There’s a lot going on in the text, sometimes more than you think!”

18 Comments leave one →
  1. November 4, 2010 8:02 am

    Do you think there is a connection between David “dancing before the Lord” and the priests of Baal “limping about the altar” in 1 Kings 18:26?

    • November 4, 2010 8:15 am

      Different verb in each narrative, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you could connect ritual dancing/leaping at altars with ANE ritual. Would have to do some reading to find out of course.

  2. November 4, 2010 8:40 am

    But Carman said in a song years ago “the Holy Ghost hit King David and he just started to dance.” Surely he was right and you are wrong? You’re just trying to put down charismatics! 😛

  3. November 4, 2010 8:42 am

    I’m dubious of the traditional interpretation of this passage as well, but I’m not sure how the criticism of Michal fits into your reading of this passage. If he wasn’t naked, why was she pissed at him? I’d be interested in knowing if and how the word translated “uncovered” is used in other texts in the Hebrew Scriptures. Perhaps that could shed some more light on the subject.

    • November 4, 2010 9:08 am

      I think she’s ‘pissed’ because she is a political wife and her husband is not acting like a king. She’s not in “love” with David and ‘jealous.’ The verb is galah and in the niphal means uncover, or make naked. It is usually translated in the reflexive, but I’m not sure it couldn’t be in the passive here. “What glory to the king of Israel this day who was revealed/revealed himself as…” Ultimately what I am saying in the post is int he context of the passage I don’t think it matters if he was naked or not (and I will maintain that I think it possible he is not being portrayed that way necessarily), and this verse is used illegitimately as a modern legitimation.

      • November 8, 2010 7:38 am

        I’ve long suspected that Rene Girard (and probably Rebecca Adams too) could have a field day exploring how “worship” seems to be described in the Psalms/Samuel versus how the NT/Jesus seems to express it. David (even in his “worship”) seems to be the epitome of someone motivated by mimeses 😉

    • A.M.M. permalink
      November 5, 2010 7:42 pm

      It’s interesting that in 1 Sam 18, the narrator says that Michal loved David (18:28). In 1Sam 25, Michal is referred to as “David’s wife.”

      But here in 2 Sam 6, Michal is referred to 3 times as the “daughter of Saul” rather than the wife of David. (2 Sam 6: 16, 20, 23). Shows that by the time of the dancing incident, something has changed for Michal; her loyalty is no longer with David.

  4. November 4, 2010 10:26 am

    It’s remarkable how often people assume that all the “good” Bible characters held the same worldview and theology as they do.

  5. Grant permalink
    November 4, 2010 2:35 pm

    I don’t know if it qualifies but at least he has room to move

  6. Uriah the Hittite permalink
    November 4, 2010 4:51 pm

    Sure. Why not? He could also be normative for supervisor subordinate relationships.

    • Peter permalink
      January 24, 2011 12:18 pm

      I am guessing you are NOT really wanting this comment to be taken seriously but on the off chance you really do think it to be valid then you may wish to consider that David was not rebuked or chastised for his dancing by G-d, but he was for his treatment of Uriah and related infidelity. David was described by G-d as “a man after My own heart” and if you have missed this you will join Phil_Style in dismissing him as a role model. David was not perfect but he chose to humble himself – a choice that that is exceptionally attractive to G-d.

  7. WenatcheeTheHatchet permalink
    November 4, 2010 9:03 pm

    It is interesting how David’s dancing before the Lord is easier to invoke to defend worship odditities than his marriages to consolidate political alliances or his sometimes absentee/favorites-playing approach to parenting. Maybe super-charismatic preachers these days should reverse things and avoid the crazy stuff but point out how David, as the Lord’s annointed, was totally okay with marrying multiple wives to consolidate his empire/ministry. Some of them already seem to have gone through life with that approach in practice anyway.

    • November 8, 2010 7:41 am

      bam! nice one.

      I’ve never really thought of David as a role model.

  8. Derek permalink
    November 23, 2010 4:17 pm

    I just found this page – here’s a question for anyone who’s still around: what about the other references to dance in worship in the bible? Specifically Exodus 15 (Miriam & c0) and Psalms 149 & 150 . Should we write these off as “old covenant” as well? And what about the singing and musical instruments (see the parallel passage in 1 Chronicles 15) that were present there? Why aren’t they considered cultic? Why do we keep these but drop dancing? I’m just curious – it strikes me that there’s a lot of “tradition” where worship is concerned – things that are traditional (hymns and organs) are accepted without question, but things that are not (dancing) get a theological pasting. Are we interpreting the Bible to justify the way things are?

    • November 26, 2010 3:39 pm


      What’s going on in Exodus 15? Is it a church service? They are celebrating the defeat/death of the Egyptian army. If an army of foreigners are chasing me to return me to slavery and God opens up a sea/lake/river for me to cross and save me, rest assured, I will probably be dancing! But, I see little correlation from this story to a modern worship service.

      As far as Psalms 149 and 150 I would suggest they are clearly cultic. Ps 149:1 “Praise the LORD! Sing to the LORD a new song, And His praise in the congregation of the godly ones.” In the congregation of the godly ones means the Temple, and if we are going to apply this verse as normative for worship then don’t forget the beautiful worship refrain at the end, “Let the high praises of God be in their mouth, And a two-edged sword in their hand, To execute vengeance on the nations, And punishment on the peoples” Ps 149:6–7.

      Praise Jesus!

      Psalm 150 is more explicitly cultic, “Praise God in His Sanctuary” Ps 150:1. I think the real issue here is that the Psalms are not “worship songs” as we would think of modern worship songs. The way many of them function in the cult, sung by the Temple personnel for different cult days or for coronations in ways that are so foreign from a modern church service that a one=to=one correlation between the Temple personnel and operations and worship leaders and church services is false.

      But hey, if someone thinks that this gives them a good reason to dance: knock yourself out. Just don’t ask me to believe that an English gloss of a word can undergo a totality transfer of meaning across all contexts linguistic and historical.

      On a side note, an interesting study can be what words are used for ‘worship’ in the OT and the NT and examine if this means ‘singing’ or ‘dancing’.

      • Derek permalink
        November 29, 2010 3:01 am

        So why then aren’t you claiming that singing and music (which we see in Exodus 15 and Psalm 149, etc) isn’t also cultic and therefore obsolete?

        And why do you use the word “modern” quite a bit – surely the principles that govern worship are unchanging?

        Doesn’t the greek word for worship carries the idea of bowing, which is a movement concept, OK it’s not dancing but it suggests physical expression. And, more importantly, I think all the hebrew words for joy and rejoicing (which are frequently related to worship) are associated with dancing or expressive movement.


  1. Flotsam and jetsam (11/4) « scientia et sapientia
  2. Articles of Interest 11-27-10 | Onward, Forward, Toward...

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: