1 Ancient Music behind and in the Bible

In this chapter you will

  • 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

Some of the oldest traditions in the Bible may have been transmitted through music. The story of the exodus was probably passed on in song long before it became a focus of a written tale. Miriam, the sister of Moses, and other women are said to have sung of the event and to have led the people in song (Exodus 15:20–21). Of this, Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso has said, “When the people of Israel crossed the Sea of Reeds to freedom, Miriam took her timbrel and led the women in dance. Because of Miriam and Moses’ Song of the Sea, generations remember the crossing. It forms an important part of the Jewish liturgy. A generation later, when Joshua led the people across the Jordan, another miracle happened. However, no one sang, and so no one remembered.”[1] In turn, Debbie Friedman, a songwriter who had a powerful impact on contemporary synagogue music, wrote a song of her own about Miriam’s song.[2]

In the case of the “Song of Deborah” found in Judges 5, the situation may be similar to that mentioned in connection with the “Song of Miriam” in Exodus. Some scholars have sought to detect an earlier version lying behind the present one. The words of Deborah’s song are chanted in synagogues annually. It has also been set to music in other ways, including in the original Hebrew as well as in a metrical hymn in English with seventeen verses.[3] The story of Deborah and her song have also been given contemporary gospel and death metal treatments by Christian artists in English.[4] Here is a choral setting of part of the song in Judges (Judges 5:2–3, 10, 12) by American composer Adolphus Hailstork.[5]

Note also the “Song of the Well” in Numbers 21:17–18, which may be another example of the same kind.

Translating the Bible and Music

Lyre from Royal Cemetery of Ur in ancient Mesopotamia
Silver lyre from Royal Cemetery of Ur (in the British Museum). Silver lyre, PG 1237, Royal Cemetery of Ur.jpg, by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg), is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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 lamp, house, and city 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 David played a harp 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 lyre 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 kinnor and tof (two Hebrew words for instruments that occur in the Bible)? In some instances, we aren’t even certain what a term 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 very ancient texts about music. We even have what today would be called “sheet music” or musical notation carved in stone. The “Hurrian Hymn” found at a site known as Ugarit or Ras Shamra in what is today Syria is probably the oldest example.[6] In the same era in which Israel first began to be mentioned as a people in the land of Canaan in ancient sources, their neighbors in the ancient Near East told stories and recorded their melodies using cuneiform, 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, musicologists and scholars of the ancient world can figure out a great many things from these texts. 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.[7]

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 Megiddo in Israel that depict what are presumably also instruments mentioned in the Bible, such as the lyre. Here is another performance provided by Peter Pringle 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.[8]

Biblical scholars have long consulted texts from Ugarit as relevant background to the study of the ideas and practices in the Hebrew Scriptures (what Jews call the Tanakh and Protestants refer to as the Old Testament). 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 (2 Samuel 6:5) apparently refers to an instrument that we know about and actually have surviving examples of from ancient Egypt. A sistrum is a rattle, and it was used in Egypt, especially in religious contexts. There is some uncertainty about the meaning, and thus you may find that other translations offer a different rendering. The NRSV, for example, translates the Hebrew word (which comes from a root meaning “to shake”) as “castanets.” Examples of that instrument have also been found in ancient Egypt. 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. Philippians 2:6–11 is a particularly good example. Colossians 1:15–20 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 hymns that are quoted by New Testament authors, 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 (Matthew 26:30).

Our earliest Christian music with notation—that is, with the music written down and not only the words—was found on a papyrus at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt.[9] You can read a translation and see pictures of the manuscript online in various places. Here is a modern attempt to record what that text indicates, performed by Atrium Musicae de Madrid.[10]

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 (Matthew 11:17; Luke 7:32). First Corinthians includes references to a clashing gong, a clanging cymbal (13:1), and a trumpet or bugle making an unclear sound (14:8). 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.

Exploring Further

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 and women participate 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? (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 online exhibit at the Penn Museum featuring Mesopotamian musical instruments. An article in Forward describes an exhibit of musical instruments from the Bible in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Potsdam Public Museum in New York has a collection. Visual art from the past, such as paintings and inscriptions on coins, can provide important information about what instruments were probably like in the biblical world as well as how later generations imagined them in light of what they were familiar with.

For Further Reading

Bayer, Bathja. “The Finds That Could Not Be.” Biblical Archaeology Review 8, no. 1 (1982): 20–33.

Burgh, Theodore W. “Music and Musical Instruments in the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel/Palestine.” The Bible and Interpretation. Accessed September 20, 2022. https://bibleinterp.arizona.edu/articles/Music.

———. “The Music of Israel during the Iron Age.” In The Cambridge Companion to Jewish Music, edited by Joshua S. Walden, 75–83. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Cosgrove, Charles H. An Ancient Christian Hymn with Musical Notation: Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 1786; Text and Commentary. Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2011.

Dumbrill, Richard. “The Truth about Babylonian Music.” Near Eastern Musicology Online 4, no. 6 (August 2018): 91–121. https://nemo-online.org/archives/1669.

Evans, Craig A. “Celebrating Victory from the Sea of Reeds to the Eschatological Battle Field: Miriam’s Timbrels and Dances in Exodus 15 and Beyond.” Biblical Theology Bulletin 51, no. 4 (November 2021): 206–14.

Franklin, John Curtis. Kinyras: The Divine Lyre. Hellenic Studies Series. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2016.

Friedmann, Jonathan L. “A Musical People: The Role of Music in Biblical Life.” PhD diss., North-West University, 2012.

———. Music in the Hebrew Bible: Understanding References in the Torah, Nevi’im and Ketuvim. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2013.

Gurney, Oliver R. “Babylonian Music Again.” Iraq 56 (1994): 101–6.

Kilmer, A. D., and M. Civil. “Old Babylonian Musical Instructions Relating to Hymnody.” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 38, no. 1 (1986): 94–98.

Knohl, Israel. “The Original Version of Deborah’s Song, and Its Numerical Structure.” Vetus Testamentum 66, no. 1 (2016): 45–65.

Mirelman, Sam, and Theo J. H. Krispijn. “The Old Babylonian Tuning Text UET VI/3 899.” Iraq 71 (2009): 43–52.

Mitchell, T. C., and R. Joyce. “The Musical Instruments in Nebuchadnezzar’s Orchestra.” In Notes on Some Problems in the Book of Daniel, edited by D. J. Wiseman, 19–27. London: Tyndale, 1965.

Montagu, Jeremy. Musical Instruments of the Bible. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2002.

Porter, Wendy J. “The Composer as Biblical Interpreter.” In Borders, Boundaries and the Bible, edited by Martin O’Kane, 126–53. London: Sheffield Academic, 2002.

Pulver, Jeffrey. “Israel’s Music-Lesson in Egypt.” Musical Times 56, no. 869 (1915): 404–7.

Rupeikaitė-Mariniuk, Kamilė. “Musical Images in the Tanakh: Between Their Essence, Context and Interpretation.” In Of Essence and Context: Between Music and Philosophy, edited by Rūta Stanevičiūtė, Rima Povilionienė, and Nick Zangwill, 71–81. Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2019.

West, M. L. “The Babylonian Musical Notation and the Hurrian Melodic Texts.” Music & Letters 75, no. 2 (1994): 161–79.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. On metrical settings of Scriptures—in particular, the Psalms—see chapter 4 in this book.
  4. There are also several songs in Spanish that set the “Song of Deborah and Barak” to music or tell her story.
  5. “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.
  6. 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).
  7. 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.
  8. Video from Peter Pringle’s YouTube channel. There is more information on his website.
  9. 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.
  10. Provided to YouTube by the label Harmonia Mundi. Atrium Musicae de Madrid was conducted by Gregorio Paniagua.


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The Bible and Music by James F. McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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