Raya’s Dance – Analysis and Conclusion
This story depicts a culture drastically different from modern America and much of the Western world. It tells of a people with social stigmas and taboos that almost seem an inversion of our own. A man happily allows his wife to reveal herself to others, and joins these others in a commentary on her body and their sex life without reservation. Yet at the same time, some in attendance are appalled at the impropriety of kissing in public, though as with any other culture, there are rebels like Dôdi and Raya who would buck the system.
The telling of this scene at Dôdi and Raya’s wedding celebration might have contained some elements that seemed vaguely familiar to some readers, but the overall plotline of a new bride publically dancing practically nude might have been foreign enough to dismiss any apparent familiarity as coincidence. Surely not, you might think. Yet this familiarity wasn’t unwarranted.
While I admit to exercising some creative license with the details, I wrote this story with intent to remain true to what I see happening in the final verses of chapter six and the majority of chapter seven in the Song of Songs.
That’s right. I believe the Bible’s most erotic book includes a demonstration like Raya’s and a public commentary as seen from Dôdi and his peers, and I even believe its positive and jovial tone regard such a scene in an approving light (at least in this specific context).
I filled in some details and made some guesses, sure. The personalities, feelings, and much of the dialogue had little to work with in the original, so I took a few (what I believe to be) reasonable liberties.
Steps of the Dance
For example, we know nothing of the choreography of the dance of Mahanaim, or the dance of two lines as some translations call it. However, the name in Hebrew does portray a certain image of two opposing sides in a large group dance, and context does indicate it was a female dance (men and women didn’t usually dance together in that culture as they do in ours).
Researching dances of the era, I learned of their frequent purpose to demonstrate the agility of the dancers by means of jumping about amid the dance steps. Marvin H. Pope suggests that šûbî (translated often as the entreaty to “return” or “come back” in 6:15) is tied to the Arabic cognate for “to leap”, which would indicate the request was to begin such a dance, independent of those the bride notes are already dancing.
“Most commentators and translations assign the whole unit 7:1-9 to the lover as he responds to her question, but the context (i.e. the plural forms in 6:13 and the last colon in 7:5) makes it clear that these five verses [7:1-5] are spoken by the onlookers, not by the lover himself.”
—G. Lloyd Carr
This interpretation of 6:15 (“let us watch you dance”) should prove less uncomfortable than a group asking her to come back to her sexual fancies with her husband (“let us watch you have sex”) so that they could “gaze” upon her. And it certainly fits the scene better, given the context of a public dance.
Akka, Yada, Rheha, and Allup
Another liberty I took was the separation of onlooker voices into the roles of Akka et al. (who, as with all the characters in the story, have names based on Hebrew words). There’s no such specificity of voices in the first five verses of chapter seven.
However, the original Hebrew does support the set of erotic descriptions of her body coming from a group of friends rather than the husband.
Dr. Lloyd Carr writes, “Most commentators and translations assign the whole unit 7:1-9 to the lover as he responds to her question, but the context (i.e. the plural forms in 6:13 and the last colon in 7:5) makes it clear that these five verses [7:1-5] are spoken by the onlookers, not by the lover himself.”
Which begs the question: how are they able to make commentary on her breasts (šal), thighs (yārēk, or “the fleshy upper part of the thigh where the leg joins the pelvis”, per Carr, and as seen in Jacob’s famous wrestling injury in the hip), belly (beţen, specifically the rounded area below the navel), and the vulva itself (šor, often translated as navel, as seen in Ezekiel 16:4, but it actually means something more like “center” like the belly; since the belly is already addressed and none of the poetic indicators of Hebrew parallelism present, this is far more likely to be a reference to the vulva, particularly given the comparison made; see Carr’s work for more details) unless these parts were as visible as the neck, eyes, and hair they also commented on?
In answer, consider the request that preceeded this exchange in 6:13: “Leap, Leap, o Shulammite; leap, leap, so we can gaze on you.” (Some believe “Shulammite” to be a feminized version of Solomon, which would suit with the well-documented tradition of treating newlyweds during the seven days of celebration as kings and queens at these ceremonies, particularly if the Song was written during or soon after his reign.)
Those who take this dance scene seriously offer a few perspectives on the details. R. Gordis suggests the woman I’ve named Raya danced completely naked or at most in diaphanous veils. On the other hand, Franz Delitzsch suggests she simply removed her outer garments and danced in the kind of next-to-nothing attire common to shepherdesses. Either way, it’s clear that she “displayed all her attractions before them” as Delitzsch writes. I obviously opted for a compromise with a negligee, possibly like the one she removed for bed in 5:3.
Perhaps the most arbitrary and speculative injection into the story is Dôdi’s tongue-tied state prompting this dance and subsequent critique. This is pure fiction, an attempt to produce a plausible circumstance that could lead to the outcome seen in the text.
The idea of Dôdi being tongue-tied isn’t much of a stretch, naturally. In 6:5, the friends (his brother Akka in my story) describes the lover as captivated, which doesn’t seem unreasonable. The thrill of marrying the woman he adores, the excitement of a days-long honeymoon, and the potency of seeing her body being so prominently displayed… it’d be rather insulting to Raya if Dôdi wasn’t blown away.
It’s quite possible that there was no preamble at all, but instead the wedding guests simply asked her to strip down and dance for no reason beyond “that we may gaze upon you.”
Rather, for entertainment purposes, I’ve speculated that his rapt state prompted this ordeal, and the text purports nothing of the sort. The plot it weaves is far more conspicuously direct than in my rendition.
In 6:13, we see the friends make their request of her without preamble, saying essentially, “Dance for us, so we can see the beauty we’ve been hearing about.” Then, she responds with humility, asking why they want to check her out when the big dance is going on with lots of other beauties to check out. But the very next verse (7:1) is their foot-to-head commentary on her body, followed immediately by the husband’s contribution to the commentary (vv. 6-9).
So, despite her self-effacement, they clearly convinced her, assuming she required convincing. Perhaps her question was only an expression of modesty, not a genuine resistance, asked as she prepared to begin her dance.
So while my presentation isn’t in conflict with the scene in the Song, it’s quite possible that there was no preamble at all, but instead the wedding guests simply asked her to strip down and dance for no reason beyond “that we may gaze upon you.” Either way, it’s clear she obliged.
I also made educated guesses at the location (near Raya’s family home), the attire (calling her royal robe a gown, her girdle a sash, and her undergarment a chemise, or even the presence of an undergarment), the jewelry (armbands she couldn’t afford but was temporarily privileged to wear for the celebration), the weather (and Dôdi’s prayers for well-timed gusts of wind), and more. Still I tried each time to posit possible elements based on research into customs, geography, local textiles, and the context provided in the rest of the Song (like her self-consciousness about her premarital bronzed complexion from working in her family’s orchard [1:5-6]).
I tried to make everything plausible, realistic, and entertaining so I could perhaps capture if not the precise details of the moment, maybe the spirit of blameless sensuality I see depicted in this ancient passage.
I think we could learn a lot about the nature of beauty, respect, and monogamy by authentically engaging with this small scene despite (or perhaps because of) how it so thunderously rattles our cultural rafters. It shows a man and woman proud of their God-given love and desire, willing to let those closest to them share in it on some level, but it also shows how they reserve the best for each other.
Unfortunately, the church has let its early gnostic influences shape it into a body that glorifies asceticism, as seen in its continual focus on penance, “deals” with God, and sacrifice for sacrifice’s sake (despite biblical warnings against all that).
While much of the church has been growing closer and closer to a more biblical worldview in recent decades, this long-established paradigm of the church has worked throughout its history to shape Western (and other) culture according to its ideals of austerity, particularly in carnal and sexual subjects which are decidedly and inherently evil under the gnostic worldview.
As a result, we find ourselves in a society built upon this rigidly formal foundation, and it manifests in how we respond to a story like this, even if we do accept its biblical origins.
We try to allegorize it, saying it’s about divine love. Divinity, we say, is permitted eroticism where humanity is not (which seems painfully presumptuous to me: who is giving Whom permission here?).
We try to dodge erotic details as we translate. We ignore indications of publicity like the pluralized context surrounding the bodily commentary. We ignore contextual and poetic indicators that a vulva, not a navel, is spoken of (though we at least deign to give ground on the many mentions of breasts).
We refuse natural interpretation; we won’t believe that it seems erotic because it is erotic and that’s okay. That goes against centuries of dogma.
We seek refuge in unclear symbolic language and foreign cultural concepts. We assure ourselves it’s all mild innocence since we don’t get it. It’s certainly not blatantly sexual/carnal/evil.
We’re outraged at a commentator (or a blogger?) that would suggest such an indecent scene. After all, we all know public nudity is egregious sin and bawdy talk is offensive, even in this most intimate of company.
We say, “This can’t be what it says; God wouldn’t allow such things into His Bible.”
We refuse natural interpretation; we won’t believe that it seems erotic because it is erotic and God says that’s okay. Such an interpretation would be counter to centuries of dogma.
As Dr. Carr writes, “It is only a community which is uncomfortable with such a concept that excommunicates those who understand the Song in its natural sense, or those who, having understood it correctly, refuse to allow ‘such a book’ to be a part of God’s revealed word.”
Thankfully, things are getting better. In the second edition of The New Bible Dictionary, Dr. D. A. Hubbard writes “As biblical teaching concerning physical love has been emancipated from sub-Christian asceticism, the beauty and purity of marital love have been more fully appreciated. The Song, though expressed in language too bold for Western taste, provides a wholesome balance between the extremes of sexual excess or perversion and an ascetic denial of the essential goodness of physical love.”
Not Instruction, but Insight
To be certain, I don’t mean this to be instructive. I don’t intend to suggest Christians should be required to include a bridal striptease at the reception party, perhaps between the cutting of the cake and the Macarena. Although, to be fair, it could give the Macarena some redeeming value for the first time in two decades.
Instead, I mean to relate a cultural insight that reveals an underlying truth. We must all interpret and apply the word of God for ourselves, so you should decide what you can learn from the passage.
What I Learned
I learned that not all social stigmas are scripturally grounded, even (especially?) among the ones originating from the religious establishment.
I learned that love and its intimate expressions always have a place in marriage and should be celebrated, even (again, especially?) among the closest friends and family.
And on a practical level, I learned there’s nothing wrong with appreciating the beauty of the human body, provided you can handle that appreciation with integrity and honor for the sanctity of the undefiled marriage bed. This is a character thing, and it requires a lot of humility (also a character thing) to be able to honestly assess whether we can handle it appropriately. Perhaps not everyone can, even after much prayer and growth. But perhaps it’s something to reach for in maturity, much like eating meat sacrificed to idols, or attending a pagan festival, or other things Paul taught on.
Once again, I find God’s word steering me toward internal attitudes, perceptions, and love. The external stuff we get so hung up on (like the Pharisees before us) matters only insofar as it affects that internal stuff.
The Christian walk requires knowing yourself very, very well, and — while God certainly has some explicit instructions regarding holiness — it has far less to do with the rigid rules and regulations church culture often fosters.
“But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.”
Romans 7:6, NASB
Originally posted 2016-05-30 08:00:26.