Learning from a Biblical Chronology of Early Music: Part I

October 28, 2013

The inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility of Scripture guarantee the absolute truthfulness and reliability of everything that it records and reveals concerning the history of the world. Two books, Genesis and Job, provide the earliest inspired historical information about music. An examination of that information reveals several important facts.

The Earliest Information about Human Music

In the first canonical reference to music in Scripture, we learn that people in the ungodly line of Cain may have invented two musical instruments:

Gen 4:21 And his brother’s name was Jubal: he was the father of all such as handle the harp [Heb. כִּנּוֹר; a stringed instrument] and organ [Heb. עוּגָב; a wind instrument].

We know that this verse gives us the earliest inspired historical information that we have about human music because all other references to musical instruments used in early human music present people using one or both of these instruments (Job. 21:12 and 30:31 have both the same instruments as in Gen. 4:21; Gen. 31:27 has one).

The Earliest Information about Singing accompanied by Instruments

Job bemoaned that the wicked enjoyed themselves by singing to accompaniment provided by the use of instruments, including the same two instruments mentioned in Genesis 4:

Job 21:7 Wherefore do the wicked live, become old, yea, are mighty in power? . . . 12They take the timbrel (Heb. תֹּף; a percussion instrument) and harp [Heb. כִּנּוֹר], and rejoice at the sound of the organ [Heb. עוּגָב]

Job, therefore, knew of wicked people who were skilled musicians in his day who knew how to sing to musical accompaniment.[1] Because Job presents this information in a matter-of-fact statement and not as some new development in his time, we can be certain that by this time humans had extensively developed the ability to sing to the instruments that may have been invented by Jubal.

Furthermore, either Job himself was also a musician (Cf. “my harp” and “my organ” in the verse below) or someone else in his household played these musical instruments for him (conveyed by two occurrences of “my” in the verse below) or both Job and others were musicians:

Job 30:31 My harp [Heb. כִּנּוֹר] also is turned to mourning, and my organ [Heb. עוּגָב] into the voice of them that weep.

Even if we understand this statement as figurative language for Job’s joy turning to mourning, it still testifies to his knowledge about instrumental music and human singing to instrumental accompaniment.

From the combined teaching of these passages in Job, we know that at the time of Job both the wicked and God’s people knew how to sing accompanied by musical instruments.

The Earliest Information about God in relation to Human Music

Elihu testified about God’s giving His people music in some unspecified manner: 

Job 35:10 But none saith, Where is God my maker, who giveth songs in the night;

As a contemporary of Job, Elihu attests that God’s people in Job’s time knew and believed that God gave people songs, which would point to the existence of music that was sacred at least from the standpoint of its source.

If, however, we understand this verse to mean simply that God blessed people so that they sang at night, we would still have a statement that shows that His people at this time responded to God’s goodness to them with singing.

The Earliest Information about Angelic Music

Job and his readers also knew that God Himself challenged Job by asking him where he was when he laid the foundation of the earth and angelic beings extolled Him for doing so:

Job 38:7 When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

Job, therefore, was directly instructed by God about the existence of singing prior to the existence of man.[2]

The Earliest Information about Music in the Time of the Patriarchs

Laban chided Jacob for secretly leaving without allowing him to send him off properly:

Gen 31:27 Wherefore didst thou flee away secretly, and steal away from me; and didst not tell me, that I might have sent thee away with mirth, and with songs, with tabret (Heb. תֹּף), and with harp [Heb. כִּנּוֹר]?

Apparently, singing accompanied by musical instruments as part of sending off a relative was a well-established practice for Laban. We also see that this reference presents the use of music positively in a constructive group setting, unlike the negative connotation conveyed by Job’s mention of the music enjoyed by the wicked.

Furthermore, as was the case with Job, we know from this statement that either Laban himself was a skilled musician or someone else in his home was skilled at singing and playing musical instruments or both Laban and others were musicians. In fact, the mention of two different instruments that cannot be played at the same time by one person almost certainly points to at least two skilled musicians in Laban’s household (unless the same person first played one instrument and then the other).

In connection with the musical references in Job, this text further shows us that singing to musical instruments was commonplace among pagan people by this time in history.

Discussion

Scripture presents at least some aspect of music as originating in the ungodly line of Cain (Gen. 4:21 mentions a stringed instrument and a wind instrument). Because God destroyed all humanity in the Flood except for Noah and seven members of his family (1 Pet. 3:20), Noah and his family apparently played a vital role in the preservation of human knowledge about music. All human music after the Flood would seem, therefore, to have to have had in some manner its origins in the musical knowledge and activity of these eight survivors of the Flood.

After the flood, by the time of Job, we know that singing to instrumental accompaniment was commonplace among humans (Job 27:12). Wicked people had at least three types of musical instruments at this time: percussion (“timbrel”), stringed (“harp”), and wind (“organ”) instruments. The greater diversity of instruments mentioned here points to an advance from the two instruments mentioned in Genesis 4.

Both God’s people and the wicked were skilled musicians at least from the time of Job onward. Later, in the time of Jacob, singing accompanied by musical instruments was part of a well-established practice of sending off departing family members (Gen 31:27).

Conclusion

This examination of the biblical chronology of early music reveals that human knowledge and practice of music, both instrumental and vocal, was well developed before the Hebrews departed (in the Exodus) from their bondage in Egypt. This fact has important bearing on how we must interpret the references to music found in the book of Exodus, which after Genesis and Job provides us with the next earliest information about early human music.

 


[1] Cf. NET Job 21:12 They sing to the accompaniment of tambourine and harp, and make merry to the sound of the flute. The NET Notes for Job 21:12 explain why this verse teaches us about people singing to musical instruments: “29 tn The verb is simply ‘they take up [or lift up],’ but the understood object is ‘their voices,’ and so it means ‘they sing.’”

[2] The Hebrew verb rendered “sang” in this verse is not necessarily a word always pertaining to music; all major translations, however, render it as signifying singing in this verse (KJV, NAU, NKJ, ESV, NIV, and CSB).

Rajesh

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