Case in Point


This blog site will feature essays, columns and musings that deal with the intersection of Christianity and journalism and the American Songbook.

Jubal and Biblical History

Exegesis and Application

Teasing out Genesis 4:21, we find the biblical history books, the poetical books and the prophetic books all teaching that music is to convey the range of emotions from joy and sorrow, hope and fear, exhaustion and rest – every shade and variety of sentiment associated with work and play, success and failure, birth and death, wonder and despair. Thus we can rightly assume that melodies and verses were composed by the sons of Adam to express all the diverse human attitudes and feelings. The point being that singing for the Israeli man or woman was both sacred and secular, religious and earthy, profound and profane, mundane and magnificent. For the Israelite, music was part of life. It was interwoven with the fabric of community living, playing a huge range of social roles. Songs were embedded in practical, daily, common life, and all genres (i.e., love songs, military, ballads, folk songs, torch songs, dance tunes, blues, et. al.) were composed, sung and appreciated by Abraham’s children. The idea of simply listening to music in a passive fashion purely for its own sake was unknown to the Israelite culture. Furthermore, these songs were not songs of worship or adoration but rather songs about earth-bound pursuits, including human love and desire. These are the Jewish Old Testament songs of domestic life.

*Numbers 21:17-18, the “The Song of the Well” sung by the Israelites about the value of a Moabite well in the desert.

*Joshua 6:5, One of the sounds made by a ram’s horn (“shofar”) is the “teruah.” The etymology of “teruah” appears to be its apparent mimicking of the verbal shout of war (Joshua 6:10). One commentator remarks that “traditionally, the ‘teruah’ consists of a series of eight or more rapid and short (staccato), rapid blasts on the primary tone ending with an accented final tone (a total of nine primary tones).  The blowing may start with a lower pickup note that quickly moves to the primary tone.” In the Bible, the word “teruah” has wide and diverse applications. Among other things, the “teruah” was the term used for a rapid, oscillating cymbal pattern (Ps. 33:3; Psalm 150:3-5). The point of all of this is that we may have here a biblical example of syncopation and rhythmic beats.

Other rudimentary rhythmic instruments were common in Old Testament music: cymbals (Ps. 150:5), rattles (2 Sam. 6:5), bells (Ex. 28:33), tambourine/timbrel/drum (“toph;” 1 Sam. 18:6; Ps. 81:2; Ps. 150:5). God’s children have always liked musical instruments that clanged, banged, whistled, shouted, clapped or rattled (cf, Is. 55:12, “all the trees of the field will clap their hands.”)

*In 1 Sam. 16:16, 23, David “plays when the evil spirit” comes to the melancholic King Saul, implying that David will be ready with a selection of cheerful and lilting songs to lift the king’s spirits. David drives out melancholy from the heart of King Saul. We know David both sang and played an instrument (harp). The key word for us in this verse is “when” indicating David’s improvisational spontaneity and creativeness. The Jews understood the ameliorating power of songs and used music to quell the beastly heart.

*In 2 Sam 1:17f David also composes sad songs about life (“David took up this lament concerning Saul and his son Jonathan”) as well as uplifting ditties. The Hebrew word for “lament” here is “koon” and is a mournful song or dirge or elegy. The word has its linguistic roots in Cain.

*2 Sam. 6:5, has the phrase “and David and the whole the house of Israel were celebrating with all their might before the LORD, with songs and with harps, lyres, tambourines, sistrums and cymbals.” The phrase “with songs” (“bakhol atse baroshem”) is difficult to translate (most commentators use 1 Chron. 13:8 as a guide) but literally reads “with all woods of cypress or fir or pine” and thus may refer to musical instruments like the wooden clappers and, so-called” rhythm bones.” Rhythm bones are a rudimental rhythm instrument consisting of two slightly curved pieces of wood, bone or ivory that were held in one hand and rhythmically struck together. Played in a manner similar to the playing of spoons, the bones also provided a rhythmic backdrop to the dance. Along with “Tambourines, sistrums and cymbals” we may infer that rudimentary rhythm instruments are being mentioned. Thus, the point of my interpretation: a distinctive vibrant beat is being noted in this verse.

*In 2 Sam 23:1 David is also called the “minstrel of the songs of Israel” or “Israel’s singer of songs.” The Hebrew phrase can be translated as either the composer or the subject of songs. I think the writer is describing David God’s musician.

*In 2 Chron. 5:13 we read, “It came even to pass, as the trumpeters and singers were as one, to make one sound to be heard…” The phrase, “to make one sound” can be interpreted to mean that the man-made instruments are to accompany and highlight the God-made instrument – human voice. An important point here: Music in Israel was always voice oriented and not instrumental. Singing was key and instruments were primarily to accompany song lyrics (1 Chron. 15:16; 16: 41-42; 23:5; 25:1; 2 Chron. 5:13; 7:6; 29:28). R.P. Gordon cites Qumranic evidence to suggest that David’s harp playing accompanied his singing his own lyrics in 1 Samuel 16:23 (cf, 2 Sam. 23:1). Isaiah states in 38:20, “we will sing with stringed instruments.”

The point here in that in the Old Testament, the lyricist was king and the composer was the prince!


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