Ancient musical instruments (Psalm 5)

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A modest number of remains of musical instruments have recently been discovered by archaeologists. We do, however, have abundant evidence in ancient texts (such as the Psalms) and the art (such as Egyptian tomb paintings) that attest to the varied use ancient people made of instruments to create music. Thus, the paucity of relics of ancient instruments is a metter of their fragility, not their scarcity. Indeed, a few of the more durable ancient instruments that have been found, such as cymbals, can still produce sound. Also, the vocabulary of musical instruments in the Biblical Hebrew is fairly extensive. There can be no doubt that such instruments were widely employed in the ancient world, including Israel.

Bilderesultat for Ancient musical instruments

Precise translation of many Hebrew words for instruments is made difficult by the lack of Biblical descriptions. Even ancient translators, such as those working on the Greek Septuagint, often had little understanding of the meanings of the Hebrew musical terms. Also, moden association with certain names can be misleading. For example, shofar is often translated “trumpet”, calling to mind a brass instrument rather than what it actually was: a ram’s horn. The English “tambourine” suggests a hand drum with metal rings that jingle when shaken, but ancient Israelite hand drums probably lacked the rings. On the other hand, ancient artwork from Egypt and Mesopotamia provides us with clear images of what many instruments looked like. The Israelites, like their neighbours, used three basic types of instrumentation:

  • Stringed instruments, like the lyre and harp. The lyre is well attested from ancient Israel, but the harp is more problematic. Some authorities argue that the word translated “harp” may actually refer to a kind of brass lyre or even a to a lute. On the other hand, an instrument that is obviously a harp is attested from ancient Egypt and thus may have existed in Israel as well.
  • Percussion instruments of two kinds: Drums and tambourines were constructed from animal skin stretched over a frame. “Idiophones” produce sound by vibrating but have neither strings nor skin membranes. Examples are objects such as bells, gongs, rattles, clappers and cymbals. These may have been made of various materials, including metal, wood, hardened clay or bone. 2 Samuel 6:5 and Nehemiah 12:27 both refer to their use.
  • Wind instruments, like pipes, trumpets of the shofar (ram’s horn), are well-attested in the Bible (flute-like instruments at 1 Kings 1:40, silver trumpets at Numbers 10:2 , the shofar at Joel 2:1).

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Such instruments were widely used for entertainment and boisterous parties (Isaiah 5:12), but also for celebratory worship (Psalm 81:2, 150:1-5). The first reference to musical instrument in the Bible is in Genesis 4:21, where Jubal, one of Cain’s descendents, is described as “the father of all who play the harp and flute“. Musical instruments were used at celebration of various kinds (Genesis 31:27, Job 21:11-12), including military victories (Exodus 15:20). The shofar was employed primarily for signalling, especially during war (Judges 3:27, 1 Samuel 13:3, Jeremiah 6:1). Starting with the period of the monarchy, instruments were used at court (1 Samuel 19:9), as well as the temple. Religious lyrics (such as those preserved in Psalms) often called for instrumental accompaniment (Psalm 150:3-5, Amos 5:23).

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David playing his harp for king Saul


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