The expression of the full range of human emotions vocally or instrumentally through the art of music was as much a part of the lives of biblical people as it is of modern times. Workers bringing in the harvest might sing a vintage song (Isaiah 16:10
; Jeremiah 48:33
), while the working song of people digging a well (Numbers 21:17
) is heard as well. Indeed all of life could be touched by song. The celebrations of a community, ritual practices of worship, even the act of warfare gave rise to song.
In such a musical climate, celebration through dance found a natural place in both the religious and secular life of ancient Israel. A variety of musical instruments was available to provide instrumental accompaniment to both song and dance.
Music Music as performed in early Near Eastern times has become better known through archaeological finds of descriptive texts and the remains of actual instruments. Heptatonic and diatonic musical scales reflective of ancient Mesopotamian practice have been discerned through the research of Assyrian culture which has, over the last few decades, brought to light much pertinent information on the subject. The discovery of four Akkadian cuneiform texts describing the Mesopotamian theory of music from about 1800 to about 500 B.C. offers evidence 1400 years earlier than previously known in Greek sources for the antiquity of Western music. Giving evidence of seven different heptatonic-diatonic scales, the musical system of ancient Mesopotamia shows one similar to the major scale known today.
Textual evidence from the end of the third millennium B.C. shows ancient Summer, the earliest center of civilization in the Fertile Crescent, to have enjoyed an expansive musical tradition. A variety of hymns offering divine praise or designed to or for kings and temples, many with musical terms, have survived and are joined by actual discoveries of instruments at the ancient site of Ur, in biblical tradition the ancestral home of Abraham (Genesis 11:31
A cuneiform text found at ancient Ugarit in Syria dating from about 1400 B.C. is a complete piece of Hurrian cult music. As a hymn to the moon goddess Nikkal, the piece uses a notational system consisting of technical Akkadian terminology for interval names followed by numerals.
Going back to about 3000 B.C., the pictorial and written clues to Egyptian music tradition that have survived the centuries are particularly valuable in the appreciation of musical instruments, providing background information for instruments mentioned in the biblical text as well as comparative study with Mesopotamian data. Illustrations or references within the Egyptian sources include a variety of lyres, harps, and lutes. Flutes, double reed pipes, and a succession of percussion instruments (such as drums, bells, rattles, clappers) have been identified.
The secular and religious music of ancient Israel found its home against this background of Ancient Near Eastern music in which all of life could be brought under the spell of song. In reading the Old Testament, Genesis 4:21
stands as the first reference to music. As one of Lamech's sons, Jubal “was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe” (NAS). Jubal brought the advent of music to the portrayal of cultural advance. The name Jubal itself is related to the Hebrew word for “ram” (yobel), the horns of which served as a signaling instrument in ancient Israel.
The joy taken in music is evidenced by its prominent role in the celebrations of life. A farewell might be said “with joy and singing to the music of tambourines and harps” (Genesis 31:27
NIV); a homecoming welcomed “with timbrels and with dances” ( Judges 11:34
; compare Luke 15:25
). Work tasks of everyday living enjoyed the music evidenced by the songs or chants of the well diggers (Numbers 21:17-18
), the treaders of grapes (Jeremiah 48:33
), and possibly the watchman (Isaiah 21:12
Under certain circumstances musical celebration brought condemnation. The account of—Moses' return from the mountain to be confronted by the singing and dancing of the people around the golden calf (Exodus 32:17-19
) symbolized a condition of broken covenant. The prophet Isaiah's rebuke of the idle rich who have “lyre and harp, tambourine and flute and wine” at their feasts is cast against their failure to take notice of the deeds of Yahweh (Isaiah 5:12
NRSV). Both the scorn of mockers ( Job 30:9
) and the acclamation of heroes (1 Samuel 18:6-7
) were expressed in song.
Victory in warfare provided impetus for numerous songs. The song of Miriam, one of the oldest poetic verses in the Old Testament, celebrated the defeat of Pharoah at the Sea (Exodus 15:21
). Judges 5:1
stands as musical witness to Israel's victory over Jabin, the king of Canaan. Known as the “Song of Deborah,” the verses are the musical celebration of a narrative event. Chants of victory on the lips of the victor (compare Samson following his slaying of the Philistines recorded in Judges 15:16
) or those greeting the one successful in battle (compare 1 Samuel 18:7
) establish music as a medium for uncontainable joy. Celebration erupted into song. Emotions that might be limited by the restriction of prose, expressed themselves through the poetry of music as seen in David's moving lament at the death of Saul and Jonathan (2 Samuel 1:19-27
In the early days of Old Testament history a special place seems to be accorded women in musical performance. The prophetess Miriam and Deborah, a prophetess and judge, were among Israel's earliest musicians. Judges 11:34
pictures Jephthah's daughter greeting his victorious return from battle against the Ammonites “with timbrels and with dances.” David's reputation for valor spread through the singing of women's voices: “Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands” ( 1 Samuel 18:7
). The depiction of dancing women entertaining at festive occasions found on Egyptian tomb paintings provides early Near Eastern background for the role of women in musical celebration.
The establishment of the monarchy about 1025 B.C. brought a new dimension to the musical tradition of ancient Israel with the appearance of professional musicians. Egypt and Assyria, neighboring countries to Israel, had known the tradition of professional musicians much earlier. Such musicians took their place both at court (1Kings 1:34,1 Kings 1:39-40
; 1 Kings 10:12
; Ecclesiastes 2:8
) and in religious ritual. An Assyrian inscription, praising the victory of the Assyrian king Sennacherib over King Hezekiah of Judah, lists male and female musicians as part of the tribute carried off to Nineveh.
Although much uncertainty remains concerning the specifics of Temple worship, biblical references offer clues to the role music played in cult observances. As a hymn proclaiming the future rule of God in all the earth, Psalm 98:1
calls for the employment of music in praise:
”Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises! Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody! With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord!” (Psalm 98:4-6
Worship featured trumpet calls (compare Numbers 10:10
) and songs of thanksgiving, expressions of praise and petition sung after the offering of sacrifices (2 Chronicles 29:20-30
The Psalms show not only the emotional range of music from lament to praise but also provides words for some of the songs used in Temple worship. Guilds of musicians, known through reference to their founders in some psalm headings (for example, “the sons of Korah”), were evidently devoted to the discipline of liturgical music.
During the Babylonian Exile the question, “How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?” (Psalm 137:4
), arose. Psalm 137:1
further alludes to the demand of the Babylonians for the Hebrew captives to “sing us one of the songs of Zion” ( Psalm 137:3
). The return from Exile and reestablishment of the Temple saw the descendants of the original Levitical musicians (compare
) reassume responsibility for liturgical music. Strabo's statement that the singing girls of Palestine were considered the most musical in the world shows that music continued in importance in Israel during Hellenistic times.
The structures of some psalms offer evidence for conjecturing the nature of vocal performance. Refrains (such as the “Lift up your heads, O ye gates; even lift them up, ye everlasting doors” of Psalm 24:1
) and acclamations such as “Hallelujah” as well as divisions into strophes stand as performance clues. The common device of poetic parallelism, whereby a thought is balanced synonymously or antithetically with a second thought, provides further evidence for surmising the nature of musical performance, responsive and antiophonal performances being possibilities.
In light of the recognized obscurity in many of the headings, one can speak in general terms of five different types of information provided by the Psalm titles. Representatives of this classification are titles that identify psalms with persons or groups of persons (see Psalm 3:1
; Psalm 72:1
; Psalm 90:1
); titles purporting to indicate historical information concerning the psalm, particularly with respect to David (see Psalm 18:1
; Psalm 34:1
); titles containing musical information (see Nehemiah 4:18-20
7 ; Psalm 5:1
); titles with liturgical information (see Psalm 92:1
; Psalm 100:1
); and titles designating the “type” of psalm in question (see Psalm 120:1
, “a song of ascents”; Psalm 145:1
, “a song of praise”).
Nearly two thirds of the psalms contain terms indicating collections, compilers, or authors in their headings: David, portrayed in biblical tradition as a composer, instrumentalist, court musician, and dancer, being most often mentioned. Others mentioned include the sons of Korah, Asaph, Solomon, Heman the Ezrahite, Ethan the Ezrahite, Moses, and Jeduthun.
Deriving from the Greek translation of the Hebrew mizmor , the word psalm is applied to some fifty-seven songs. As a technical term appearing only in the Psalter, psalm refers to songs with instrumental accompaniment. Other terms indicating the type of psalm include “ shiggaion ” (Psalm 7:1
), sometimes argued to indicate a lament; “miktam ” (Psalm 16:1
; Psalm 56-60 ) connected to the Akkadian meaning “to cover”; “maskil ” (Psalm 78:1
) whose meaning is still unknown. Some thirty Psalms include in their heading the word song (Hebrew shir ), with “song of praise,” “Prayer,” “a song of love,” and “a song of ascent” also occurring. Headings may include as well terms which indicate the liturgical aim and usage of the particular psalm (for instance, “for the thank offering,” “for the memorial offering,” “for the sabbath”).
Some fifty-five psalms contain the expression “to the choirmaster” in their headings. Other technical musical expressions consisting of remarks that concern types or kinds of performances include “with stringed instruments” (“neginoth ,” see Psalm 4:1
; Psalm 6:1
; Psalm 54:1
, perhaps meant to exclude percussion and wind instruments) and “for the flutes” (“nehiloth ”), though both meanings are dubious. The terms “higgaion ” (perhaps “musical flourish”), “sheminith ” (“on the eighth,” perhaps an octave higher), and “the gittith ” (Psalm 8:1
; Psalm 81:1
; Psalm 84:1
) remain obscure as to meaning.
The singing of psalms to other tunes popular at the time is suggested by headings such as “Hind of the Dawn” in Psalm 22:1
(RSV) and “to Lillies” used in Psalm 45:1
; Psalm 69:1
; Psalm 80:1
Although found some seventy-one times in the Psalter, the interpretation of the term “Selah” remains uncertain. Suggestions range from understanding the term according to its earliest Greek translation, generally thought to indicate a type of musical interlude or change in singing, to a call for repetition of the verse, louder singing, or the kneeling and bowing down of worshipers.
Musical Instruments Pictorial representations as well as remains from instruments discovered through archaeology aid in our present knowledge of ancient musical instruments. A wide scope of literary remains gives further evidence. Descriptions and comment on musical instruments are to be found in both the Old and New Testament, their early translations, rabbinic and patristic literature, and the writings of Roman and Greek authors. Caution, however, must be applied in using the data available, leaving many identifications difficult and at best hypothetical.
The most frequently named musical instrument in the Bible is the “Shophar” (ram's horn). Limited to two or three nores, the “Shophar” often translated “trumpet”) served as a signaling instrument in times of peace and war (Judges 3:27
; Judges 6:34
; 1618646296_10 ). Having as its chief function the making of noise, the Shophar announced the new moons and sabbaths, warned of approaching danger, and signaled the death of nobility. As the only ancient instrument still used in the synagogue today, the “Shophar” found a prominent place in the life of Israel, noted by its function in national celebration (1 Kings 1:34
; 2 Kings 9:13
Similar in function to the “shophar” was the trumpet, a straight metal instrument flared on the end and thought to have had a high, shrill tone. Sounded in pairs, the trumpet was known as the instrument of the priests (compare Numbers 10:2-10
for a description of usages; see also 2Chron.
where some twenty trumpeters are mentioned. The sound of the trumpets introduced Temple ceremony and sacrifice, the trumpet itself being counted among the sacred Temple utensils ( 2 Kings 12:13
; Numbers 31:6
As the instrument of David and the Levites, the lyre (Hebrew, “kinnor ”; KJV, “harp”) was employed in both secular and sacred settings (compare Isaiah 23:16
; 2 Samuel 6:5
). A popular instrument throughout the Ancient Near East, the lyre was often used to accompany singing. The number of strings on the lyre could vary; its basic shape was rectangular or trapezoidal.
The harp was a favorite instrument of the Egyptians. In Hebrew the designation nebel , though admittedly uncertain, may imply a type of angular harp with a vertical resonator or represent another type of lyre. Mainly a religious instrument in biblical tradition, the “nebel ” is rarely mentioned in secular functions (compare Isaiah 5:12
; Isaiah 14:11
). Like the lyre, the harp was often associated with aristocracy, thus being often made from precious woods and metals (see 1 Kings 10:12
; 2 Chronicles 9:11
Chief among “flutes” and “pipes,” woodwinds generally associated with secular usages, was the “khalil,” the most popular wind instrument in the Ancient Near East and principle among the biblical wind instruments. Perhaps better described as a primitive clarinet, the “khalil ” (NAS, “flute” or KJV,” pipe”) was an instrument consisting of two separate pipes made of reed, metal, or ivory; each pipe having a mouthpiece with single or double reeds. Used in the expression of joy (1 Kings 1:39-40
) or mourning (Jeremiah 48:36
; Matthew 9:23
), the khalil was primarily a secular instrument that could be played at funerals or feasts.
Other musical instruments mentioned in the biblical texts include the timbrel or tambourine (Hebrew toph , often symbolic of gladness, Genesis 21:27
), cymbals, bells (presumably metal jingles without clappers; see Exodus 28:33-34
; Exodus 39:25-26
where they are attached to the high priest's robe), and a rattle-type noisemaker translated variously as castanets, rattles, sistrums, cymbols, or clappers ( 2 Samuel 6:5
Mentioned in the New Testament are pipes (RSV, “flute”), the lyre (RSV, “harp”), cymbals, and the trumpet. The “sounding brass” of 1 Corinthians 13:1
is perhaps understood through rabbinic literature in which it is seen as a characteristic instrument for weddings and joyous celebrations.
Dancing As rhythmic movement often performed to music, dancing enjoyed a prominent place in the life and worship of Israel. Various Hebrew words in the Old Testament used to express the idea of dance seem to imply different types of movement: to skip about (raqadh , Job 21:11
), whirling about (karar , 2Samuel 6:14,2 Samuel 6:16
), and perhaps twisting or writhing (makhol , Psalm 30:11
). Pictured in the homecoming welcome of victorious soldiers by women, dancing could be accompanied by song and instrument music (1 Samuel 18:6
celebrates Israel's deliverance at the Sea of Reeds by dancing with singing and musical accompaniment. Judges 21:16-24
accords dancing a role in the celebration of the yearly feast at Shiloh, and David is pictured as dancing before the Lord as the Ark was brought to Jerusalem ( 2 Samuel 6:14
). Psalm 150:4
calls God's people to praise Him with the dance.
As in Israel, dancing was a part of the religious practices of other peoples in the ancient Near East. Male and female dancers are known to us from Egyptian reliefs, and cultic dancers are attested in Mesopotamian texts. As an idolatrous act, dancing is mentioned in the golden-calf story (Exodus 32:19
) and in the worship of Baal at Carmel (1 Kings 18:26
In the New Testament, the return of the prodigal son was celebrated with music and dancing (Luke 15:25
). The practice of dancers entertaining at royal courts in Hellenistic and Roman times is attested by the dance of Herodias' daughter, Salome, (Matthew 14:6
). See David ; Levites ; Psalms, The; Shiloh .