The Bible: Music in Ancient Israel

By Victor H. Matthews, Ph.D., professor of Biblical Studies at Southwest Missouri State University.

Even in its most primitive forms, music would have been employed by human communities for a variety of purposes…. While engaging in strenuous or monotonous work (e.g., treading grapes — Jer 25:30 and 48:33 — or digging irrigation canals or wells — Num 21:17-18 — or raising a new house or barn), musical chants could be used to help maintain the rhythm of the workers and speed completion of the day’s toil.

Coins from A.D. 134-135, during Jewish revolt against Rome, recall the music of the temple, destroyed more than 70 years earlier. The kinnor (left) is the most-often-mentioned stringed instrument in the Old Testament. The silver trumpet was the quintessential priestly instrument.
Click here for a limestone wall relief from Carchemish showing musicians playing horn and drum.

Yet another common use for music and dance would have been in celebrations, both large and small. They were used to mark the major events in the life of the people or just to express their joy and contentment with life. Thus, in Eccl 3:4, in the litany of the events of life, dancing is contrasted with mourning (see also Lam 5:15 and Ps 30:12 — Eng v 11 [citations in Psalms from the Hebrew Bible are often one verse different from the English citations]). Not all frivolity was acceptable to the biblical writers, however. For example, a mocking drunkard’s song is mentioned in Ps 69:13 — Eng v 12, and in Job the sufferer observes with incomprehension that the children of the wicked dance while the wicked themselves sing to the rhythm of the tambourine, lyre, and pipe (21:11-12)….

Since the economic base for most of the population, even during the monarchic period, was primarily a mixture of pastoral and agricultural activity, planting, harvesting, and sheepshearing would have been occasions for mass get-togethers and religious celebrations. Thus the maidens of Shiloh danced each year beside their vineyards (Judg 21:19-21), and the sons of David made merry at a feast following the shearing of Absalom’s sheep (2 Sam 14:28). In the case of the Shiloh festival and the maiden’s dance in Cant [Song of Songs] 6:13, dancing provided an opportunity for eventual matchmaking, serving both a religious purpose and aiding in the perpetuation of the community (Eaton 1975: 137)….

With the establishment of a royal court, new applications for music and dance were introduced. The coronation of kings was announced by the blaring of trumpets (2 Sam 15:10; 1 Kgs 1:39), and in Solomon’s case a procession marching to the tune of pipes (1 Kgs 1:40). The latter marks an intentional paralleling of his father’s career. David had also entered Jerusalem in procession as the ark of the covenant was brought to the new capital city. On that occasion the people sang as they marched to the sound of lyres, harps, tambourines, castanets, and cymbals (2 Sam 6:5). Upon reaching the city, David both worshiped and demonstrated his right to rule through the power or Yahweh and the ark by dancing “with all his might” as horns played (vv 14-15). It is quite likely that David’s dance and procession were subsequently reenacted by his successors to the throne, thereby legitimizing their rule and invoking the covenant Yahweh made with David (see Psalm 132; Eaton 1975: 138).

There are in fact a whole group of “enthronement psalms” (among them Psalms 2; 20; 72; 89; 101; 110; 144) which reiterate the Davidic dynasty’s right to rule and which were probably used in an autumnal festival to commemorate its founding (Johnson 1967: 68-72; Mowinckel 1962: 152).

Among the events that would have taken place in this annual festival is a grand procession, perhaps using Psalm 68, which exhorts the people: “Sing to God, sing praises to his name” (v 5 — Eng v 4), in its opening chant. Priests and nobles, advisers and representatives of designated tribes, would march through the streets of Jerusalem to the temple with “the singers in front, the minstrels last, between them maidens playing timbrels” (v 26 — Eng v 25)….

Once enthroned in their palaces, kings and their wealthy nobles would have wanted to add all the luxuries found at other royal courts. Thus, as described in Eccl 2:8, they “gathered …silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces…singers, both men and women, and many concubines, man’s delight.” Singers and musicians became one of the trappings of power (2 Sam 19:35), both for entertainment and ostentation (Isa 5:12). Such extravagance led to social criticism by the prophets. Among these voices of dissent was that of Amos, who chastised the wealthy who “stretch themselves upon their couches, and eat lambs from the flock…, who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp….” (6:4-5).

The military also made use of music, but this was principally to rally their forces (Judg 3:27; 6:34), to guide disparate groups of men on the battlefield, or to signal troops to advance (Num 10:9) or retreat. Sendrey (1969: 469-70) suggests there may have been preparatory “war dances” prior to battles. He cites Ezek 6:11, “Smite with your hand, and stamp with your foot,” as an allusion to such a dance. Isa 13:3, which enjoins the soldiers to “consecrate themselves” before the coming battle, may also be an indication of ritual activity, including dance.

The trumpets used by Gideon (Judg 7:15-24) served the additional function of startling the Midianites and aiding in the Israelites’ surprise attack. Similarly, the blasting of rams’ horns by the Israelite priests in the siege of Jericho added to the psychological effect after the people had marched in silence before the city for six days (Josh 6:3-16).

Victories, of course, sparked spontaneous celebration and joy (Judg 11:34). To commemorate these occasions heroic ballads and songs of praise to Yahweh were composed. Among the best examples of these hymns of thanksgiving are the “Song of the Sea” (Exod 15:1-18), the ballad of victory over Sihon and the Amorites (Num 21:27-30), and the “Song of Deborah” (Judg 5). Each of these epic poems, as well as the shorter boastful chants of Lamech (Gen 4:23) and Samson (Judg 15:16), have a rhythmic style. The instrumental accompaniment, while subordinate to the reciting of the verses, would have helped to create mood, heighten tension, and add to the symmetry of the composition (Polin 1954: 14). Dance, too, would have been a part of these celebrations, as processions of women with hand-drums performed a “round-dance” (mahol) as they joined the victorious soldiers or priests on their way to the sanctuary of Yahweh (Eaton 1975: 137).

Less elaborate chants, designed to accompany rhythmic dancing, were also composed. The progressive phrase sung by village women to welcome Saul and David — “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands” (1 Sam 18:7) — must have haunted King Saul…. There was probably at one time an entire body of heroic epics and chants which is no longer in existence. They may have been included in either of the lost resources of the biblical writers: the Book of the Wars of the Lord (Num 21:14) or the Book of Jashar (Josh 10:13; 2 Sam 1:18).


J.H. Eaton, “Dancing in the Old Testament,” ExpTim, 1975, 86: 136-40.

A.R. Johnson, Sacral Kingship in Ancient Israel, 1967, Cardiff.

S. Mowinckel, The Psalms in Israel’s Worship, 1962, Nashville.

C.C.J. Polin, Music of the Ancient Near East, 1954, New York.

A. Sendrey, Music in Ancient Israel, 1969, New York.

Reprinted with permission from The Anchor Bible Dictionary, edited by David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), pp. 4:931-34.

Author: Victor H. Matthews, Ph.D

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