How they made a joyful noise

To celebrate National Bible Week, Nov. 21-28, we decided to listen in on the music of the ancient Mideast.

If you want to join a band or orchestra at your school, you can choose from among many instruments - from a tiny piccolo to a huge sousaphone. In Israel at the time of the Bible, musicians also had a few choices. But Bible scholars are still trying to figure out what some of them were, based on how they are mentioned in the Bible.

It isn't always easy to figure out what was meant by words that have been translated as "dulcimer" or "sackbut," but the picture is becoming clearer as archaeological detectives uncover clues to the music of the past.

The Bible often mentions that people sang or played instruments at different times, at religious rites, family parties, weddings, and other celebrations. It sometimes mentions the instruments being played, but it doesn't describe them. Why? Because everyone at that time already knew what they were.

What makes it so hard to identify the instruments now? Ancient instruments were often very simple. A harp might use only a few strings, a pipe would have a few finger holes. As the instruments were improved, older versions of them disappeared, including many that were used during the time of the Old and New Testaments. (The events in the Bible took place between about 2000 BC to AD 70.) The words for the instruments also changed, so that now we sometimes have few clues to help us understand what some of the ancient instruments were.

People didn't write things down thousands of years ago, either. They told each other the stories and lessons. Sometimes they used songs to record their history and teach lessons. As their stories were shared with people from other traditions and cultures, the name of an instrument might change because the listeners had never heard of that particular instrument. As the story was retold, a different instrument, one more familiar to listeners, might be inserted in the tale.

Over the centuries, Bible translators had problems figuring out what an instrument was in another language. Ancient Hebrew, in which the Old Testament was written, was not always clear to later interpreters.

For example, the book of Samuel (chapter 10:5) mentions a "halil" in Hebrew. "Halil" has been translated at various times as an oboe or clarinet, a dance, a drum or cymbal, or as a stringed instrument. Other early texts suggest that this instrument could be made of bronze, copper, or reeds. Many modern scholars say it was probably a type of oboe or clarinet. The King James Version of the Bible calls it a pipe.

Many musical instruments mentioned in the Bible are understood more clearly through discoveries of ancient coins, drawings, and instruments. Coins sometimes show a picture of an instrument. Pictographs (writing using pictures) found in Egyptian tombs show musicians playing instruments. Researchers try to match the picture to the right Bible instrument.

Figurines have been found of men and women playing cymbals and drums. It is thought that women often played a type of tambourine or triangle at celebrations. The New Testament describes an instrument, aulos in Greek, that was played at weddings. Archaeological evidence of a single or double aulos in the Roman period shows that it was a reed instrument.

A passage in the book of Revelation describes an instrument called the kithara. The sound of it is compared to the rushing of many waters and the rolling of thunder. A Roman instrument of the time called a kithara was a type of lyre.

Have you ever heard of a sackbut? It's mentioned in a Bible story about Daniel, where he is told to bow down and worship an idol when he hears the sound of the "cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer, and all kinds of music." (See Daniel, chapter 3.) The sackbut, from the Hebrew sabbeka, has been variously interpreted to mean a type of pipe, oboe, harp, guitar, and even something like a trombone, although there were no known trombones in biblical times.

In English medieval literature the sambuca is a woodwind instrument, so some thought the sabbeka might be similar. Another document, the 9th century Psalter of Boulogne, has a picture of a sambuca as an instrument with strings. Many people now think the sackbut was a kind of harp.

The psaltery was probably a stringed instrument, too - a harp or maybe a lyre. (A lyre is a small harp.)

Then there's the dulcimer. It has been translated as a drum and even a type of bagpipe. It appears several times in one story in Daniel. It's always the last instrument in the list. Many scholars now say it wasn't an instrument at all, but describes a method of playing in which all the instruments join together.

Some instruments have evolved while their names have remained the same - the lyre and harp, for example. The shapes and number of strings have varied, but these employ some of the oldest ways of making music: causing a string to vibrate. (Early strings were made from the large intestines of sheep.)

One of the most notable instruments preserved since Old Testament times is the shofar. It appears more often than any other instrument mentioned in the Bible. The Hebrew means "ram's horn," but horns from other animals were also used. It is a signaling tool more than a musical instrument. It does not produce a wide range of tones. Shofars were used to announce the beginning of the sabbath, the death of a noble, the start or end of a war, the coming of the new moon, and other occasions. It was a call to assembly and a warning of danger. It is still used to proclaim Jewish ceremonial events. You can listen to a shofar at:

Another difficulty in understanding the music of biblical times is to figure out the tunes. People didn't write down music the same way we do now. Sometimes the words were written down, as in Psalms. All the psalms are thought to be songs, originally. But the tunes were not indicated. However, some ancient musical notations do exist. Anne Kilmer of the University of California at Berkeley has been working on how to translate these notations and play the music. The earliest known example of written music is from clay tablets discovered in the 1950s. They date back to 1400 BC and contain a hymn to the moon god's wife, Nikal. That's not a Bible story, but it does come from ancient times. (Listen to a musical interpretation of this notation at

Many people like to explore the details of music in biblical times. Others are happy just knowing that singing, dancing, and music were used even then to worship God, to celebrate events, to liven up a party, and to help people feel better when they were sad. How do you like to use music today? You may find you have something in common with people who lived thousands of years ago.

Many times for music in biblical times

References to music and instruments occur throughout the Bible. Music was a big part of life in the home and in the temple. Here are some Bible references that show the different ways music was used.

Victory celebrations (I Sam. 18:6): When David returns from war, women meet King Saul with singing and dancing, using tabrets (triangles) and other 'instruments of music.' That usually means harps or lyres.

Family parties (Luke 15:25): When the prodigal son returns, his father calls for a celebration with music and dancing.

Coronations (I Kings 1:39): A trumpet blows when Solomon is anointed king.

Stress relief (I Sam 16:23): David plays the harp to soothe a troubled King Saul.

Worship (Mark 14:26): Jesus and his disciples sing a hymn after they celebrate the Passover. In II Samuel (6:5), David and all Israel play music before the Lord, using 'all manner of instruments.'

A call to battle (Judges 7:18): Gideon instructs the army to blow on trumpets before a battle. The sound of a trumpet carried far and was helpful in alerting a large army, and also in frightening an enemy.

Lamentation (Matt 9:23): Minstrels (musicians) mourn a girl's death before Jesus restores her to life.

At work (Num. 21:17,18): It was not uncommon to sing while working - planting, harvesting, cleaning, and more. Some songs helped to make the work go faster, others included instructions for doing the work.

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