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Bible Encyclopedias

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Musical Instruments of the Hebrews

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The obscurity attaching to this subject has long been felt and complained of. The rabbins themselves know no more of this matter than other commentators who are least acquainted with Jewish affairs. The older writers on the subject had no means of assisting their speculations by examining any representations of the actual instruments in use, either among the Hebrews themselves or in the neighboring nations. But much light has of late been thrown, by the discovery of Egyptian and Assyrian monuments, upon the instruments which were used by these two great peoples the nearest neighbors of the Hebrews, and with whom, at different periods of their history, they came into close and long-continued contact; and we have now the advantage of being able to infer, with a high degree of probability, if not with absolute certainty, from these collateral examples what were the forms and powers of at least the principal instruments referred to in the Hebrew Scriptures. This recent enlargement of our knowledge, however, still leaves much room for further light, especially in regard to the precise instruments intended by particular Hebrew words. There is yet much difference of opinion among Hebrew scholars and antiquarians upon this point of primary importance; and indeed, in the absence of all direct means of identification, and of any clear and steady tradition among the Jews themselves upon the matter, it is hardly to be expected that the obscurity which still encumbers this part of the subject can ever be entirely removed. We see certain instruments different from our own in use among the modern Orientals, and we infer that the Hebrew instruments were probably not unlike these, because the Orientals change but little, and we recognise in them the peoples, and among them the habits and the manners described in the Bible. We find also many instruments presented in the sculptures of Greece and Rome, and we need not refuse to draw inferences from them, for they derived their origin from the East, and the Romans distinctly refer them to Syria (Juvenal, Sat. 3; Livy, Hist. 39:5). When, however, we endeavor to identify with these a particular instrument named by the Hebrews, our difficulty begins, because the Hebrew names are seldom to be recognised in those which they now bear, and because the Scriptures afford us little information respecting the form of the instruments which they mention.

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I. Stringed Instruments. We begin with these, because upon almost all occasions of the use of instrumental music, either in public or private, we find them. occupying the principal place; while in point of antiquity of date they were not inferior apparently to other instruments of a simpler and ruder character chief varieties of this class of instruments may be arranged as follows:

1. The כַּנּוֹר, kinnor, commonly translated in our version harp; in the Sept. κιθάρα; Chald. כַּתְרָא ; Daniel 3:5; Daniel 3:10, קַיתְרוֹס . This is the stringed instrument ascribed to the invention of Jubal, and the only one referred to by Laban in his remonstrance with Jacob (Genesis 31:27). It is mentioned among the instruments used by the sons of the prophets in their schools (1 Samuel 10:5); and it was the favorite instrument of David, of which he became so celebrated a master. In the first ages the kinnor was consecrated to joy and exultation, hence the frequency of its use by David and others in praise of the divine Majesty. It is thought probable that the instrument received some improvements from David (comp. Amos 6:5). In bringing back the ark of the covenant (1 Chronicles 16:5), as well as afterwards at the consecration of the Temple, the kinnor was assigned to players of known eminence, chiefly of the family of Jeduthun (1 Chronicles 25:3). Isaiah mentions it as used at festivals along with the nebel; he also describes it as carried round by Bayaderes from town to town (Isaiah 23:16), and as increasing by its presence the joy of vintage (Isaiah 24:8). When Jehoshaphat obtained his great victory over the Moabites, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem was accompanied by the nebel and the kinnor (2 Chronicles 20:27-28). The sorrowing Jews of the captivity, far removed from their own land and the shadow of the sanctuary, hung their kinnors upon the willows by the waters of Babylon, and refused to sing the songs of Zion in a strange land (Psalms 137:2). Many other passages of similar purport might be adduced in order to fix the uses of an instrument, the name of which occurs so often in the Hebrew Scriptures. They mostly indicate occasions of joy, such as jubilees and festivals. Of the instrument itself the Scripture affords us little further information than that it was composed of the sounding parts of good wood, and furnished with strings. David made it of the berosh wood, or cypress ("fir"); Solomon of the more costly algum (2 Samuel 6:5; 2 Kings 10:12); and (Genesis 4:21).

The common name for all such instruments in Hebrew is נְגַינוֹת (negointh), from a root denoting to strike, like the Greek root ψάλλω, to strike, which yields in like manner ψαλτήριον , with a like general meaning. But in this genus were included a great variety of species of stringed instruments, some of which are of constant occurrence in the Old Testament; while others are limited to those books which belong to the period of the Babylonish captivity, and are to be regarded rather as Babylonian than Hebrew instruments. Keeping this distinction in view, the Josephus mentions some composed of the mixed metal called electrum. He also asserts that it was furnished with ten strings, and played with a plectrum (Ant. 11:12, 3), which however is not understood to imply that it never had any other number of strings, or was always played with the plectrum. David certainly played it with the hand (1 Samuel 16:23; 1 Samuel 18:10; 1 Samuel 19:9), and it was probably used in both ways, according to its size. Kitto (Pict. Bible, note on Psalms 43:4) demurs to its being regarded as a harp, and argues at great length in favor of its being a lyre; the chief difference of these two being that, while in the harp the strings were free on both sides throughout their whole length, in the lyre they were carried in part over the face of the sounding-board, and could in that part of their length only be struck on one side with one of the hands. But it is obvious that a difference of this kind was only a modification of form, and did not involve any essential difference in the principles of construction. The main principle of construction was the same in both instruments, viz. the production of differences of sound by differences in the length of the strings, whatever modifications of form might be used in order to obtain this difference of length, and whatever modifications of size and shape might be called for, when the instrument was to vary in power, and according as it was to be employed either in solo or in choir. The lyre was only a modification of the harp. Even in Greek the words κιθάρα and λύρα were anciently used convertibly, as Dr. Kitto admits; and it is highly improbable that the Hebrew word kinnor did not originally include all instruments of the harp kind, whatever might be their differences in size or shape, or subordinate arrangement.

Harps for single use would usually be made portable and light. Those intended for choral performances in the Temple service would probably be made large and powerful, so as to stand upon the ground when played instead of being carried. Some would have a larger, some a smaller number of strings, according to the degree of perfection wanted. In point of fact all these varieties are actually to be found upon the Egyptian monuments, and we see no good reason why the same generic name might not be applied to them all. The most eminent lexicographers are clearly of this mind. While Gesenius defines kinnor to be a species of harp or lyre, and Furst renders it by the single word harp, Winer expresses himself in such a way as to indicate an opinion that the Hebrew instrument so named might be either harp, lyre, or lute. Engel leans to the same opinion as Dr. Kitto, but does not appear to have added anything to the arguments by which the latter has sought to support it. "It is uncertain," he thinks (page 281), "which of the Hebrew names of the stringed instruments occurring in the Bible really designates the harp." Still he thinks also that the kinnor, the favorite instrument of king David, was most likely a lyre; although he owns in another place (page 310) "that the reasons which can be given in support" of this opinion "are certainly far from conclusive." When he urges that the kinnor was a light and very portable instrument; that king David, according to the rabbinic records, used to suspend it during the night over his pillow; and that all its uses mentioned in the Bible are especially applicable to the lyre rather than to the harp-these considerations are all such as have already been fully met in the observations made above; and it is answer enough to them to refer the reader to the accompanying monumental illustrations, which make it plain and certain that the harps of ancient nations were extremely various in size and power, and that some of their varieties were as light and portable as the lyre itself.

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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Musical Instruments of the Hebrews'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/tce/m/musical-instruments-of-the-hebrews.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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Wednesday, June 3rd, 2020
the Week of Proper 4 / Ordinary 9
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