Musical Instruments in Biblical Israel -- By: Norman A. Rubin

Journal: Bible and Spade (Second Run)
Volume: BSPADE 14:3 (Summer 2001)
Article: Musical Instruments in Biblical Israel
Author: Norman A. Rubin


Musical Instruments in Biblical Israel

Norman A. Rubin

The English word “Psalms “ is a transliteration of the Greek title of the book; that is, Psalms is the Greek word simply spelled in English or Roman letters. The Greek word, psalmoi, was first translated into Latin as psalmi, and then into English as Psalms. The Greek word originally meant, “a striking or twitching of the fingers on a string.The related verb was used by classical writers for “the pulling of a bowstring.” From that came the idea of pulling or playing a stringed instrumenta stringed musical instrument. When the word took on an extended meaning of a song, there was always the latent background of the stringed instrumental accompaniment to the singing. So the meaning of the Greek title of the book is Sacred Songs, Sung to Musical Instruments. (Dr. Ronald Allen, as quoted by Charles Swindoll. during Insight For Living broadcast on Jan. 29, 2001)

Music was an important part of the Biblical world and the Bible is full of ancient songs. The book of Psalms is a collection of these songs, often with information about instruments used in accompaniment. This article briefly summarizes our present knowledge of ancient musical instruments.

There is a sense in which the Bible is part of every person’s heritage. It contains deep insights into the human condition and provides moral guidance which has stood the test of time. It is also replete with songs which were always accompanied by musical instruments. However, in spite of their frequent mention in the Bible, the physical appearance of the instruments is hardly ever described.

The kinnor was the first musical instrument mentioned in the Bible (Gn 4:21), Generally believed to have two arms and a wood-framed box-shaped body, it was probably the string instrument most often depicted in ancient paintings and sculptures. That is the instrument the man on the right is playing in the photo.

The beginning of Psalm 81 illustrates this for us:

Begin the music, strike the tambourine, play the melodious harp and lyre. Sound the ram’s horn at the New Moon, and when the moon is full, on the day of our Feast. (Ps 81:2–3)

For many generations, research into Biblical music and Biblical musical instruments was chiefly of a linguistic nature. Now, thanks to important archaeological discoveries of the last three decades, new horizons have been opened for research into the ancient music scene. Various finds have supplied ...

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