Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

The Rich Musical Legacy of the Bible

Posted by foryourfaith on February 7, 2012


No single book has had more influence on the music of the Western world than the Bible. Its songs have been sung continuously by Jews and Christians ever since ancient times. They shaped the liturgy in both the early church and synagogue. Their modes have been much altered by passing time, to be sure, but they live on in the chanting of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches and in the cantillations of cantors in the synagogue. Their words and style are found in the gospel singing of today. Thus the tradition of King David of Israel has been alive for more than 3,000 years, and we are part of it.

Israel’s sacred instrumental music was lost after the destruction of the Second Temple in AD 70 – the sages banned such music in the synagogues as a gesture of national mourning. However, archaeological discoveries and the study of the instruments and traditions of Israel’s neighbors are giving scholars a plausible handle on what music was like in the ancient Holy Land.

Old Testament people lived in extended families, clans, and tribes, and their original nomadic way of life lent itself to the group singing of work songs, battle cries, songs to a water hole in the desert, songs of blood vengeance and of farewell. The early books of the Bible abound in these, starting with the mention in Genesis 4:21 of the progenitor of all professional musicians, Jubal, “father of all those who play the lyre and pipe.” Songs celebrated major events in the life of an individual or family as well. For instance, in Genesis 31:27, Laban complains that Jacob’s hasty departure has prevented the customary send-off, “with mirth and songs, with tambourine and lyre.”

The prophets made use of music frequently. First Samuel 10:5 lists four instruments – the lyre (a stringed instrument), the tambourine (a hand drum), the flute, and the harp – as equipment used by them to achieve that trance in which the Lord would speak through their mouths. According to 2 Kings 3:15, Elisha called for a minstrel in the presence of the king. “And when the minstrel played, the power of the Lord came upon him. And he said, ‘Thus says the Lord, “I will make this dry streambed full of pools.”’”

Music was in fact a regular part of the prophetic message; one among many examples is bold denunciation of Judah that Isaiah sang, in a bitter parody of a vintage festival tune: “My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill” (Isaiah 5:1).

In a similarly satirical vein, Ezekiel was to inveigh against Egypt and Tyre in mock-dirge style (Ezekiel 32, 27). Most poems in the Bible, whether long or short, are actually songs – including the textured love lyrics of the Song of Songs, and the victory hymns attributed to the prophetesses Miriam (Exodus 15:21) and Deborah (Judges 5). Women were often not just participants but leaders in music-making. The victories of Saul and David were celebrated by the women of Israel in song and dance (I Samuel 18:6-7).

The most important musician of the Bible was David, singer of Israel. The Psalms, many attributed to David, have been the premier hymnbook of Jewry and Christendom for 3,000 years. They are full of references to music and dance. “Sing to the Lord!” and similar phrases recur in the Psalter. Amos 6:5 credits David with inventing new musical instruments, as well.

Instruments mentioned in the Bible fall into three main groups, stings, winds, and percussion. The latter included tambourines, cymbals, and bells; the strings included lyre, harp, and lute; and the wind instruments included the ram’s horn shofar as well as a metal trumpet of more modern type, and several kinds of pipes and flutes. The precise translation of the names of some 20 instruments mentioned in the bible is often a guess based on related words in other languages, various interpretations and translations, surviving pictures of various instruments in ancient near Eastern art, as well as the occasional archaeological find.

The New Testament often quotes for or alludes to the Psalms. Psalm-singing was a regular part of services in the early Christian church (as it was in the synagogues of the same period.) From start to finish the Bible is a musical book for music-oriented people, whose lives seem to have been punctuated with alleluias and amens.


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