Glossary of Terms



Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

You are strongly recommended to add to your library the excellent revised edition of Harper's Bible Dictionary titled, The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition [book review], edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, with the Society of Biblical Literature (NY: Harper Collins, 1996). It is currently the best one-volume Bible dictionary in English, and it is available at Border's Books, Christian Science Reading Rooms,, or

Music, instrumental and vocal sounds having rhythm, melody, or harmony. Secular and sacred music played no less a role in the lives of the people of biblical times than it does in our own day. It added to the pomp of national celebrations, bolstered the soldier’s courage, enlivened work and play, lent comfort in times of sadness, and provided inspiration in religious expression. The sound of early Near Eastern music would seem less strange to the modern ear than previously thought. Though we are not informed about ancient rhythms and tempos, we do know that heptatonic, diatonic scales, familiar to us from Western music, also existed in antiquity. A number of stringed instruments would have produced sounds similar to modern small harps, lyres, and lutes. Other instruments, notably woodwind, percussion, and the simpler stringed instruments, were merely less sophisticated forms of modern orchestral or folk instruments, and some are still in use in the traditional cultures of the contemporary Near East.

Mesopotamian and Egyptian Music: On the earliest Sumerian clay tablets from Uruk (ca. 3000 b.c.) appears the pictographic sign for the typical boat-shaped Sumerian harp; and the earliest depiction of this instrument is found on a seal impression from Chogha Mish (modern southwest Iran) dating ca. 3200 b.c. An actual example of such a harp, together with nine ornamented lyres and a set of silver pipes, was found at Ur—the traditional home of Abraham—in the royal graves of Queen Pu-Abi and her retinue (ca. 2650 b.c.). An inlaid panel that once decorated one of the lyres shows an animal orchestra, a common early folk theme, that included a lyre-playing donkey, a clapping and singing bear, and a jackel keeping time with a sistrum and a percussion instrument. By the end of the third millennium, textual evidence, including collections of divine hymns, hymns to temples, and hymns to and for the kings of the third dynasty of Ur—featuring many musical terms—attests even more directly to a well-developed Sumerian musical tradition.

Even more is known about Assyrian and Babylonian music in the second and first millennia. Illustrations, particularly first millennium Assyrian reliefs, depict a varied assortment of instruments, and encyclopedic lists of names of instruments were compiled in the scribal schools. A large repertoire of hymns, laments, and liturgical litanies gives some notion of the use of song in religious ritual, especially those that were provided with labels indicating their type or purpose or the nature of their accompaniment or manner of performance.

Mesopotamian sacred and courtly music was apparently performed or directed by families of professional musicians, perhaps not unlike David’s levitical guilds of musicians. Professional musicians were trained in the temple schools, and it was probably such musician-scribes who set down on cuneiform tablets dating from ca. 1800 to ca. 500 b.c. the Mesopotamian theory of music, whose details have gradually come to light over the last several decades. Assyriological and musicological research has shown that the Mesopotamian musical system knew seven different heptatonic-diatonic scales, one of them like our own major scale; the Mesopotamian material therefore provides evidence for the antiquity of Western music some fourteen hundred years before the earliest Greek sources. One complete piece of music whose explicit notation uses technical Akkadian interval names followed by number signs was found at ancient Ugarit in Syria; the piece is a Hurrian cult hymn to the moon goddess Nikkal and dates to ca. 1400 b.c.

Egyptian music also has a long history, with graphic and written remains stretching from ca. 3000 b.c. to Roman times. More importantly, many instruments depicted in illustrations or mentioned in written documents have actually survived intact and serve as a valuable source of comparative data for the study of both Mesopotamian and biblical instruments. These include several types of lyres, harps, and lutes, a copper and a bronze trumpet from the tomb of Tutankhamen (1347-1338 b.c.), true end-blown flutes as well as double reed-pipes of both the clarinet and oboe varieties, and many percussion instruments such as drums, cymbals, sistrums, bells, rattles, and clappers.

Hebrew Secular Music: Biblical references to music begin with the mention of Jubal, ‘the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe’ (Gen. 4:21). It is no coincidence that his name is related to the Hebrew word for ‘ram’ (yobel), from whose horns the primitive signal-horn (shophar) was made.

References to the popular enjoyment of music are common in early biblical history. It was always a part of celebrations, whether a farewell party complete with ‘mirth and songs, with tambourine and lyre’ (Gen. 31:27); a joyous homecoming (Judg. 11:34); or the feasts of the idle rich, who spend their days with ‘lyre and harp, timbrel and flute and wine’ (Isa. 5:12). Singing accompanied work as well as play, and many work songs or chants have been recorded, e.g., those of the well diggers (Num. 21:17-18), the watchman (Isa. 21:12), and the pressers of grapes (Jer. 25:30; 48:33).

Warfare gave rise to martial songs. Such heroic ballads were probably set down in the lost ‘Book of the Wars of the Lord’ (Num. 21:14) and the ‘Book of Jashar’ (Josh. 10:13; 2 Sam. 1:18), and were no doubt sung by itinerant minstrels and bards (cf. Num. 21:27-30). Miriam sang of Moses’final defeat of Pharaoh (Exod. 15:20-21); and Deborah celebrated Israel’s victory over Jabin with a song of triumph (Judg. 5). Samson exulted over his slaying of the Philistines (Judg. 15:16) in a rhythmic victory chant like the one the women sang back and forth at Saul’s homecoming (1 Sam. 18:6-7). But Israel was not always victorious, and songs were also composed for fallen heroes, such as David’s moving lament for Saul and Jonathan (2 Sam. 1:19-27).

Hebrew Sacred Music: Music was not apparently an important part of Israelite religion in the early days of biblical history. With the monarchy (after ca. 1040 b.c.), however, and the growth of the Temple came professional musicianship both at court (1 Kings 1:34, 39-40; 10:2; Eccles. 2:8) and in religious ritual. Some have expressed doubts that the organization of Temple ritual and liturgy, as described in 1 Chronicles 15 and 16, was the sole handiwork of David; and doubt has also been cast on his role in the composition of the Psalter. Certainly the David reported in the OT is a larger than life figure, and the levitical guilds of musicians established by him may have attempted to enhance their own prestige and prerogatives by attaching his name to some of the works of others. But there are too many indications of David’s skill as a musician to discount his traditional accomplishments without more solid evidence. He was a composer of songs and lamentations, a skilled lyre player (1 Sam. 16:16-18), an inventor of instruments (Amos 6:5), a valued court musician (1 Sam. 19:9), and even a dancer (2 Sam. 6:14-15). The literary record of his many abilities is foreshadowed only by that of the Sumerian king Shulgi of Ur (2093-2045 b.c.), who celebrated his own remarkable talents in music, athletics, and statesmanship in a number of finely crafted hymns. In any event, Temple music doubtless featured both trumpet calls (cf. Num. 10:10; Ps. 98:6) and the singing of songs of thanksgiving, praise, and petition following the sacrifices (2 Chron. 29:20-30). At the reestablishment of the Second Temple (late sixth century b.c.), the descendants of the original levitical musicians (Ezra 2:41) reassumed responsibility for the music of the liturgy, and the influence of those hereditary guilds can be seen in the references to their founders in the psalm headings. Some idea of how the vocal music may have been performed may be gotten from the structure of many psalms. Refrains and acclamations (e.g., ‘Hallelujah’) , divisions into strophes, and above all the common devices of poetic parallelism all strongly suggest types of responsorial or antiphonal performance.

Musical Instruments: Much of what is known about the instruments of the Bible comes from literary evidence: the Scriptures and their earliest translations, and the descriptions and comments of the rabbis, church fathers, and classical authors. Additional evidence has come from archaeological discoveries, both the remains of actual instruments and the abundant pictorial representations of instruments and musical scenes from throughout the entire Near Eastern and Mediterranean world. Even so, identifications are difficult and usually represent merely the best guesses that biblical scholarship presently has to offer.

The shophar, or ram’s horn, is the most frequently mentioned biblical instrument, and the only ancient instrument still in use in the synagogue. The word may ultimately come from the Akkadian name for the ibex, or wild goat, but the instrument was usually made from the horn of a ram, sometimes softened with heat and straightened or shaped. It was a simple instrument that could only produce two or three notes, and it was used mostly for signaling, especially in times of war (Judg. 3:27; 6:34; Neh. 4:18-20) or of national celebration (1 Kings 1:34; 2 Kings 9:13).

The trumpet (Heb. khatsotsrah) was made of metal, either bronze or silver. It was probably a short, straight instrument, with a high, bright tone and a range of only four or five notes. Its early uses are well summarized in Num. 10:2-10. It was played by the priests, usually in pairs, but occasionally in large choirs (2 Chron. 5:12-13), and it numbered among the sacred gold and silver utensils of the Temple (2 Kings 12:14; cf. Num. 31:6).

The kinnor, David’s ‘harp,’ was actually a lyre, a portable rectangular or trapezoid-shaped instrument with two arms, often of unequal length and curved, joined at the top by a cross-piece; the strings were of roughly the same length (unlike a harp’s). This instrument was popular all throughout the ancient Near East, and the word itself appears in the cuneiform vocabularies of ancient Ebla in Syria (ca. 2400 b.c.), and in Assyrian, Hurrian, Hittite, Ugaritic, and Egyptian texts. It was an instrument of joyful celebration, generally used to accompany singing.

Another stringed instrument, always mentioned together with the lyre, was the nebel, either a kind of angular harp with a vertical resonator such as is often depicted on first millennium Assyrian reliefs, or another kind of lyre with an unusual waterskin-shaped sound-box known only from depictions on coins from the Bar-Kochba period (a.d. 132-135). The rsv usually translates it ‘harp’ (but also ‘lute’ in Ps. 150:3).

The principal biblical wind instrument was the khalil (rsv: ‘flute’ or ‘pipe’), which consisted of two separate pipes of reed, metal, or ivory, each with its own mouthpiece containing either a single (clarinet-type) or double (oboe-type) reed. The pipes were played together, one probably acting as a drone accompaniment. The khalil was primarily a secular instrument, generally used on joyful occasions (1 Kings 1:39-40; Isa. 5:12), but it was also suitable for mourning (Jer. 48:36; Matt. 9:23).

The ugab is usually considered another kind of pipe, perhaps a true flute, though the Septuagint considers it a stringed instrument. It is mentioned together with other stringed instruments in Gen. 4:21 and Ps. 150:4.

Percussion instruments included the toph, a small tambourine without jingles (also called a ‘timbrel,’ ‘tabor,’ or ‘tabret’), small bronze cymbals 4 to 6 inches in diameter, which may have been played with an up-and-down motion, and a kind of noisemaker (2 Sam. 6:5), variously translated as ‘castanets,’ ‘rattles,’ ‘sistrums,’ or ‘clappers.’ The bells attached to the high priest’s robe (Exod. 28:33-34; 39:25-26) are better translated as ‘metal jingles,’ since true bells with clappers were unknown in Israel before the ninth century b.c. They served a protective rather than musical function.

In Dan. 3:5, 7, 10, and 15 appears a list of instruments reportedly played by the court musicians of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar (604-562 b.c.). They are either Aramaic terms or Aramaic forms of Greek words, and the identification of most of them is still not entirely certain. They probably included a curved horn, a flute or, less likely, a Panpipe, a lyre, a small boat-shaped harp, and a second kind of lyre or possibly an early type of zither. The last term (rsv: ‘bagpipes’) is an Aramaic form of the Greek word symphonia, which may simply mean several instruments ‘sounding together,’ and therefore ‘music.’

Four different instruments are mentioned in the NT, the double-pipe (rsv: ‘flute’), the lyre (rsv: ‘harp’), the trumpet, and the cymbals. The ‘noisy gong’ mentioned by Paul in 1 Cor. 13:1 probably refers to the large brass vases that were placed at the rear of Greek theaters to help amplify the actors’ voices.

The Psalm Headings: About two-thirds of the psalms designate their authorship in their headings: either David, the ‘sweet psalmist of Israel’ (2 Sam. 23:1), or, with only a few exceptions, founders of families of levitical musicians connected with the original establishment of the Temple liturgy. Other terms and expressions in the headings refer more directly to musical matters, the nature, purpose, or manner of performance of individual compositions.

Some songs are called ‘psalms,’ from the Greek translation of Hebrew mizmor; both terms refer to a song with instrumental accompaniment. Other titles include ‘song’ (Heb. shir, a word ultimately derived from Akkadian and Sumerian), ‘song of praise,’ and the common word for ‘prayer’ (also applied to the misplaced psalm Hab. 3). The meanings of the untranslated terms Maskil and Miktam are unknown; they come from roots meaning ‘to have insight’ and ‘to cover, conceal.’ Shiggaion in Ps. 7 (and Hab. 3) is related to the Akkadian word for a kind of lament or cry of woe.

Some comments refer to the manner of a psalm’s performance, e.g., ‘upon stringed instruments [neginoth]’ or ‘for the flutes [nehiloth]’—although these translations are not entirely certain. Alamoth (Ps. 46) and Sheminith (Pss. 6; 12) may refer to a type of harp tuning and the playing of a melody an octave higher. Mahalath (Pss. 53; 88) may refer to a type of dance, perhaps to a rhythm.

Also found in the headings are song cues, the titles or opening words of popular older songs to whose tunes the psalms were to be sung, e.g., ‘Hind of the Dawn’ (Ps. 21), or ‘Lilies’ (Ps. 45).

The frequently occurring word Selah, which appears within or at the ends of certain psalms, is probably also a kind of performance indication. The word’s meaning is unknown, but based upon the translation of the Septuagint it is thought to indicate a pause in the singing, possibly signaled by the sounding of cymbals. At such points musical interludes may have occurred, or a different group of performers may have taken up the singing.

Music in the NT: In addition to the names of several instruments (see above, ‘Musical Instruments’), there are some references in the NT to singing in the context of worship (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16b), although there is no indication of who did the singing or when in the worship service it occurred. The references to singing by the inhabitants of heaven in Revelation (e.g., 4:10) and the hymnic fragments cited (e.g., 4:11; 5:9; 7:15-17; 11:17-18) may provide an insight into the kind of music that was used in early Christian worship.

Ann Draffkorn Kilmer & Daniel A. Foxvog


Topical index of terms
Edited for by Robert Nguyen Cramer
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