- explore indications in the Bible that some of its famous stories were passed down orally through song before being written
- see how translation bridges our time and others but also obscures differences
- find out what we know about ancient music before the Bible and what it tells us about music in the Bible
- learn about the different historical and musical contexts of ancient Israel, Second Temple Judaism, and early Christianity
Biblical Music before the Bible
In the case of the  The story of Deborah and her song have also been given and treatments by Christian artists in English. Here is a choral setting of part of the song in Judges (Judges 5:2–3, 10, 12) by American composer Adolphus Hailstork.found in , the situation may be similar to that mentioned in connection with . Some scholars have sought to lying behind the present one. The words of are chanted in synagogues annually. It has also been set to music in other ways, including as well as in .
Note also thein , which may be another example of the same kind.
Translating the Bible and Music
When modern speakers of English read the Bible in a translation into their native tongue, this can obscure the enormous gulf in time and space, language and culture, that separates us and our world from that of the biblical authors and the stories they tell us. We hear words like, , and and instinctively envisage things we are familiar with. Perhaps bringing music into the picture (with assistance from archaeologists and historical reconstructions) can help jolt us out of this mind-set and alert us to the difference between the objects with which we have direct experience and their ancient counterparts. We may read that or encounter a reference to flutes in the Psalms and imagine the instruments we know. Alternatively, we may come across a reference to a lute or and not have a sense of what one is, since it is not widely used in our time and context. When we look into the terms (as we will in the remainder of this chapter), we discover how much even familiar instruments have evolved and how different ancient ones seem to have been. We are made aware of the limits of our individual knowledge as a guide to interpreting the text as well as some instances when even our collective human efforts to investigate leave us uncertain. We are also alerted to aspects of the process of Bible translation that we may not have noticed previously. If translators use a familiar term that denotes a form of an object that differs from the ancient one, the reader understands the translation but ends up with a mental picture different from what the author of the text had in mind. Does this matter? Do you think it would be better if the translator instead used a term that is more accurate but unfamiliar to the reader? What about leaving a term untranslated so that one reads about the (two Hebrew words for instruments that occur in the Bible)? In some instances, we aren’t even certain what a meant and therefore cannot hope to translate it accurately with any certainty. The process of translating the Bible and then reading and interpreting that translation can be taken for granted, although if you compare different translations, you will find they at times reflect each of the possible choices I just mentioned. The example of musical instruments, terminology, and the very sounds themselves help us make sense of not only biblical references to music but the process of reading and understanding an ancient text like the Bible more generally.
The Oldest Surviving Music
It is helpful to begin by acknowledging what we do not know and, sadly, can never know. There are no recordings of music from the ancient world. We can never hear it as it sounded. And yet what we do know is surprisingly much. We have images of instruments in engravings and on coins that often provide a sufficiently realistic depiction to allow musicologists to construct replicas. We have some  In the same era in which , their neighbors in the told stories and recorded their melodies using , a method of writing used in that time and part of the world to inscribe language on clay. While there are unanswered questions, puzzles, and mysteries, . Here is one example, in which Peter Pringle performs a modern rendering of the music that has come down to us in written form using instruments and sounds that correspond at least roughly to those used in that part of the world in ancient times.. We even have what today would be called “sheet music” or carved in stone. The “Hurrian Hymn” found at a site known as Ugarit or Ras Shamra in what is today Syria is probably the .
If you do not read music, you may be wondering what it means for music to be turned into a text that can be discovered millennia later, understood, and performed. If you want to learn that skill, there are many resources available. This book will never presume that you have a background in music, but over the course of it, you will undoubtedly pick up a number of concepts and skills along the way. If you do know music, you’ll get more out of many things discussed here, but that does not necessarily mean you need to know music before you begin reading. Taking the time to go beyond the book and learn more about music, and/or about the Bible, is worthwhile and will enrich your experience as well as your life more generally. This book does its best to allow you to benefit even if you have no background in the Bible, music, or either, and yet you get much more out of it if you do.
Music in Ancient Israel
Turning specifically to ancient Israel, we have art from places like in Israel that depict what are presumably also instruments mentioned in the Bible, such as the . Here is another performance provided by using an instrument that he built as a replica of one depicted in an inscription on ivory found in an ancient royal palace that archaeologists excavated in Megiddo.
Biblical scholars have long consulted texts from Ugarit as relevant background to the study of the ideas and practices in the Hebrew Scriptures (). Similar words for sacrifices appear, and gods and goddesses worshipped by the Israelites and their neighbors (for which biblical authors castigate and condemn them) have their stories told in texts from Ugarit. Just as these texts provide evidence of the kinds of stories, beliefs, and religious practices that were around at that time, there is good reason to think that the music of Ugarit and ancient Israel would have been similarly related. The Bible uses many musical terms that remain somewhat obscure to us. Sometimes etymology—that is, looking at the roots of a word—can be enough to allow us to deduce the meaning. In other instances, the same or similar musical terms are used in texts from other ancient cultures, and this provides important clues. For instance, the sistrum mentioned just once in the Bible ( ) apparently refers to an instrument that we know about and actually have . A sistrum is a rattle, and it was . There is some uncertainty about the meaning, and thus you may find that other translations offer a different rendering. The , for example, translates the Hebrew word (which comes from a root meaning “to shake”) as “castanets.” . The sharing of musical instruments, as well as terms for them in common, shows us that in the ancient world, just like today, music did not remain within boundaries of people groups, territorial borders, or languages but moved between cultures.
Music in Early Christianity
Thus far you have been reading about ancient Israel, the people and culture that gave rise to Judaism (from the tribe and kingdom of Judah). The texts that came to be the Scriptures of Judaism in turn also became all or part of the Christian Old Testament, depending on which Christian denomination one is referring to. Christianity comes along much later than ancient Israel—more than a millennium, later in fact—during the time of the Roman Empire. Since the first Christians were Jews, they participated in the musical traditions found in Judaism in that era.
A hymn is a religious song, usually one addressed to a deity.
There are texts in the New Testament that may have been the words to songs that early Christians sang.is a particularly good example. is another. The book of Revelation is full of singing and may have drawn on songs used in churches at that time. There may thus be , although we cannot be certain, and scholars continue to debate this question. At any rate, the texts do not provide clues about what musical accompaniment there may have been if any. We have references to singing but know little about what they sang or how they sang it, although they undoubtedly sang the Psalms, just as Jesus did ( ).
Music as Illustration
There are references to music and musical instruments in the Bible beyond those associated with the song lyrics in the Psalms or hymn-singing in churches. Jesus mentions playing music for dancing on a flute and singing a dirge (). First Corinthians includes references to a clashing gong, a clanging cymbal ( ), and a trumpet or bugle making an unclear sound ( ). In other cases, we sometimes think of things as “songs” even when there is no explicit mention of singing or music (as in the “songs” of Mary and Simeon in Luke’s Gospel, which we discuss later in this book). We won’t have room to cover every possible mention of or intersection with music here. Search for music-related keywords in an online Bible if you want to dig deeper into what the Bible has to say that is potentially relevant.
Levites, descendants of Levi, had responsibilities in the Temple which included music (see e.g. 1 Chronicles 9:33).
There are important questions that we should ask about music behind and in the Bible, which you may want to further investigate. Who made music? Was everyone involved in some way in local communities? Did men andparticipate equally in playing instruments and singing? Were there “professionals,” specialists who made music as performers for public entertainment, in a similar manner to the Levites who sang in the temple? ( is another term that misleads many people reading the Bible today, who may envisage a “synagogue” or “church” rather than a place dedicated primarily to animal sacrifice.) Who sang the Psalms in the Bible even before they were written down and became part of the collection we know today? When and where were they sung? Were certain psalms connected with specific holidays and festivals? We will look more at the Psalms separately, and they will get attention more than once in this book, since they are obviously important evidence about music in the Bible as well as texts that have continued to be set to new music ever since.
If you are interested in exploring this topic further, museum exhibits have a lot to offer that is relevant. For instance, those who wish to dig further into this subject may usefully visit an. An describes an exhibit of musical instruments from the Bible in Tulsa, Oklahoma. . Visual art from the past, such as paintings and , can provide important information about what instruments were probably like in the biblical world as well as how in light of what they were familiar with.
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- Quote provided in personal correspondence with the author, who is very grateful to Rabbi Sasso for her input as well as for her work fostering artistic engagement with the Bible in her Religion, Spirituality, and the Arts program in Indianapolis. ↵
- This performance by Debbie Friedman was recorded on December 9, 2001, at Hynes Convention Center, Boston, Massachusetts. It is shared on a YouTube channel dedicated to Friedman’s memory. ↵
- On metrical settings of Scriptures—in particular, the Psalms—see chapter 4 in this book. ↵
- There are also several songs in Spanish that set the “Song of Deborah and Barak” to music or tell her story. ↵
- “The Song of Deborah” by Adolphus Hailstork is performed here by the Choir of St. Andrew and St. Paul (Montreal, Canada), with Jean-Sébastien Vallée conducting. It is shared on YouTube by the choir. ↵
- The Hurrian civilization was based in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) and stretched through a significant part of the Near East, including into Canaan (the territory where Israel would come to be located). ↵
- This performance by Peter Pringle features a lute that he himself made. The video is shared on Pringle’s YouTube channel, which includes other examples of reconstructed ancient instruments and performances of ancient music. ↵
- Video from Peter Pringle’s YouTube channel. There is more information on his website. ↵
- On this see further Wendy J. Porter, “The Composer as Biblical Interpreter,” in Borders, Boundaries and the Bible, ed. Martin O’Kane (London: Sheffield Academic, 2002), 126–53. ↵
- Provided to YouTube by the label Harmonia Mundi. Atrium Musicae de Madrid was conducted by Gregorio Paniagua. ↵