02 September 2010

Music and Musicians in the Bible

By Timothy S. Wilkinson


Ancient Israel lay at a geographical crossroads that exposed it to a tremendous diversity of cultures. It is unreasonable to assume that Israelite arts developed in a vacuum—there can be no doubt that the music of these people was at least partly shaped by that of the nations all around them.

With that being said, Israelites also saw the need to avoid adopting many of the practices of these pagan nations because of the Torah's requirement that they remain "holy" in God's sight. These pagan nations used music and sensuous dancing to arouse worshippers to participation in religious orgies. Any music that sounded similar to this must have been repulsive to the Israelites. (Puritans condemned Bacchanal music during the Reformation, and many Christian churches today discourage their followers from listening to overtly sexual, violent, or angry music).

Nevertheless, music was a constant and integral part of the Israelite's life. People sang, played instruments, and danced when armies returned successfully, when the Ark of the Covenant was transported, at weddings, funerals, and feasts, and on many other occasions. In fact, families would often hire professional musicians—including professional mourners—to attend such events to guarantee the quality of the music. After the Temple was built—and even in the years leading up to it—Levite musicians were highly organized into choruses and orchestras. 1 Chronicles 9:33 seems to indicate that they were professionals who were excused from other responsibilities in order to focus on their craft.

We have very little detailed information about either the instruments used or the type of music played—the Bible is cryptic and sparse on the subject. (In 1968 Maureen M. Barwise claimed to have deciphered some very ancient Egyptian musical hieroglyphs into "sheet music" and played the resulting tunes. Her claims have been met with very mixed acceptance). There seem to be a few basic instruments that most scholars agree about:

  • Halil: this was a hollow pipe of bone or wood with a reed similar to a clarinet's
  • Mashrokitha: this appears to refer to some kind of large flute
  • Hazora: this was a metal trumpet or bugle, typically made of silver or bronze
  • Kinnohr (Chinner): this is a sheepgut-strung harp apparently shaped like the Sea of Galilee (which is why that body of water is also called the 'Sea of Chinnereth')
  • Menanaim: similar to the Egyptian sistra, this seems to have been a type of rattle made by stringing metal plates on metal rods in a wooden frame
  • Meziltaim: copper cymbals
  • Metsilloth: probably small copper rattles; at Zechariah 14:20 they are attached to the bridles of horses
  • Nebel: the word "nebel" literally refers to a skin bottle or jar; perhaps this refers to the swollen-looking soundbox of this small harp
  • Qeren: a wind instrument made of an animal's horn
  • Shophar: a Qeren made from a ram's horn
  • Tof: a large drum played with either bare hands or sticks, and large enough that two people could play it at once
Instruments were of high quality—the scriptures speak of harps being made of "choicest alum." Apparently, the musicians were of high-quality as well—an Assyrian bas-relief shows King Sennacherib demanding male and female musicians from King Hezekiah as tribute. Curt Sachs makes the following observation in The Rise of Music in the Ancient World: East and West: "The choruses and orchestras connected with the Temple in Jerusalem suggest a high standard of musical education, skill, and knowledge. It is important to realize that the ancient Western Orient had a music quite different from what historians of the nineteenth century conceded it…Though we do not know how that ancient music sounded, we have sufficient evidence of its power, dignity, and mastership."

Music was also used therapeutically: in 1 Samuel 16:23 to calm Saul's nerves, and attempted in Daniel 6:18 to do the same for Darius.

In the historical fiction novels of Eternal Throne Chronicles, I have tried to capture some of the importance of music—both sacred and secular—to the Israelite people. While writing I often listen to recordings of traditional Middle Eastern music as well as music inspired by the same, hoping that some of its uniquely Oriental feelings would find their way into my work. I leave it to my readers to judge if it worked or not.


No comments: