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The Sounds of Music in Ancient Israel

The Sounds of Music in Ancient Israel

 The Sounds of Music in Ancient Israel

MUSIC formed an integral part of the culture of ancient Israel. Trumpets and horns were blown to call people to worship and to signal momentous events. Harps and lyres were plucked and strummed to pacify royalty. (1 Samuel 16:14-23) Drums, cymbals, and rattles were beaten and shaken to celebrate a joyful occasion.​—2 Samuel 6:5; 1 Chronicles 13:8.

Jubal, a descendant of Cain, is mentioned in the Bible as “the founder of all those who handle the harp and the pipe.” (Genesis 4:21) He may have invented both stringed and wind instruments.

The Bible describes many events in which music played a part. Yet, it says very little about the instruments themselves. By means of archaeological discoveries and ancient writings, however, scholars have tried to determine the appearance and sounds of ancient musical instruments. Some conclusions are conjectural, but let’s look at a few well-documented examples.

Tambourines, Sistrums, and Cymbals

After God miraculously led Moses and the Israelites through the Red Sea, Moses’ sister, Miriam, accompanied by “all the women,” went out “with tambourines and in dances.” (Exodus 15:20) Although no tambourines as we know them today have been recovered from the Biblical era, ancient pottery figurines of women with small handheld drums have been found in Israel in places such as Achzib, Megiddo, and Beth-shean. This instrument, often referred to as a tambourine in Bible translations, was probably a simple wooden hoop with an animal skin stretched across it.

In patriarchal times, tambourines were played by women on festive occasions, and they were accompanied by singing and dancing. The Bible explains that when the Israelite leader Jephthah returned home after an important victory in battle, his daughter ran to meet him “with tambourine playing and dancing.” On one occasion, women celebrated David’s achievements “with song and dances” and “with tambourines.”​—Judges 11:34; 1 Samuel 18:6, 7.

When David, as king, brought the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem, the people “were celebrating before Jehovah with all sorts of instruments of juniper wood and with harps and with stringed instruments and with tambourines and with sistrums and with cymbals.” (2 Samuel 6:5) Later, the temple in Jerusalem had its own orchestra, which included trained musicians who played cymbals, trumpets, and harps, as well as other stringed instruments.

Although we have an idea of what tambourines looked like, what were sistrums? They were evidently musical rattles that had a small oval metal frame with a handle. Shaking one would produce sharp, ringing sounds. The Bible mentions sistrums only once. That was on the occasion when the ark of the covenant was brought to Jerusalem. Jewish tradition,  however, holds that the sistrum was also played during sad events.

What about ancient cymbals? You may think of them as large metal disks that were clashed together. Some cymbals from ancient Israel, however, were only a few inches (some 10 cm) in diameter, being similar to castanets, and produced a tinkling sound.

Harps and Stringed Instruments

The kinnor, most often referred to as a “harp” or “lyre,” was an instrument commonly used in ancient Israel. David played it to soothe King Saul. (1 Samuel 16:16, 23) Scholars have at least 30 representations of the lyre from depictions found on ancient rock walls, coins, mosaics, plaques, and seals. The form of the instrument varied through the centuries. The player held it in his arms and strummed or plucked the strings with his fingers or with a plectrum.

The nebel was similar to the kinnor. There is uncertainty as to how many strings the nebel had, how large it was, and whether it was plucked or strummed. Most scholars, however, are of the opinion that both the nebel and the kinnor could be carried about by the musician.

Trumpets and Horns

Moses was instructed by God to make two trumpets. They were to be made of hammered, or beaten, silver. (Numbers 10:2) The  priests used them to announce many events associated with the temple and various festivals. Different sounds were produced depending on the purpose, including a loud and sustained sound or a shorter blast. The actual physical appearance of these trumpets is still unknown, since no trumpet from Bible times has been recovered. We have only artists’ interpretations, such as the one found carved on a bas-relief on the Arch of Titus in Rome.

The horn, or shofar, is mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures over 70 times. A horn from either a goat or a ram was used to fashion this instrument. According to Jewish sources, the horn had two forms​—one straight with a gold mouthpiece and the other curved and decorated with silver. The horn was often used as a signaling instrument because it could produce a far-reaching, hollow sound of two or three tones.

In ancient Israel the horn was used to signal certain religious events, such as the beginning and the end of the Sabbath. But it was also used in other ways​—for example, in times of war. We can just imagine the frightening blasts that issued from the 300 horns immediately before Gideon’s army made their surprise nighttime attack on the Midianites.​—Judges 7:15-22.

All Sorts of Musical Instruments

Such instruments as bells, flutes, and lutes were also used in Bible times. Jehovah’s prophet Daniel, who was exiled in ancient Babylon, wrote of the orchestra of Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar. It included the zither, the pipe, and the bagpipe.​—Daniel 3:5, 7.

This brief look at a few of the instruments mentioned in the Scriptures confirms the fact that music was part of everyday life in ancient Israel and probably in other ancient civilizations as well. The sounds of music were heard in the royal court and places of worship, as well as in villages and homes.

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A sistrum was shaken like a rattle

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King David was skilled at playing the harp

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The tambourine has been used since patriarchal times

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The trumpet was used to announce many events

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Figurine of a woman holding a percussion instrument, eighth century B.C.E.

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Coin depicting a stringed instrument, second century C.E.

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This stone from the temple enclosure in Jerusalem is inscribed with the words “to the place of trumpeting,” from the first century B.C.E.

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Pottery figurine: Z. Radovan/​BPL/​Lebrecht; coin: © 2007 by David Hendin. All rights reserved; temple stone: Photograph © Israel Museum, Jerusalem; courtesy of Israel Antiquities Authority