Musical Instruments in the Bible

    -- by Ivor Jones

In this 2-part essay, Dr. Jones categorizes instruments using three charts based on the standard Sachs-Hornbostel classification system (inexplicably, chordophones are left out). Each instrument is listed first by its Hebrew name, then by a general equivalent term in English such as “shakers” or “horn.”

The translation of each Hebrew term is then compared in eight contemporary Bible translations, including German and French. Other older translations such as the Vulgate are also referred to. The advantages and disadvantages of potential translation choices are discussed for each Hebrew term.

A second set of charts lays out the “componential factors affecting translation choice.” For each of the three categories of instruments, these comparative charts include factors such as sound, size, action used to produce sound, material, shape, and context of performance.

The author states that 1 Samuel 10:5 includes the typical elements of what can be described as the Canaanite orchestra: a round frame drum, double reed pipe in a V-shape (aulos), and lyre with an asymmetrical frame. (A harp is sometimes also included, as in this biblical reference.)

For the notoriously difficult word 'sumponyah' in Daniel 3, Jones prefers the translation “kettle drum” (some early translators in English used bagpipes, hurdy-gurdy, or dulcimer). Concerning woodwinds, he states that, “Usually the word ‘flute’ is used in modern translations of the Bible, whereas we shall argue that ‘reed’ [vertically-held pipe with a reed] is more appropriate in most cases.”

The article is heavily documented with extensive footnotes. It refers to findings from archaeology, organology, and earlier studies such as two books entitled Music in Ancient Israel (one from an Israeli museum and the other published in London in 1969) and Biblical Music and its Developments (1977). Excellent drawings based on archaeological evidence are included.

As well, a number of instruments are compared with “contemporary cousins,” that is, instruments that have partial similarity to the ancient Hebrew instruments and are still used by a few cultures today. The author makes the majority of these comparisons with instruments found in Kenya.

I found the multiple sets of charts to be quite helpful in thinking through issues of instrument identification. The article is essential for those involved with Bible translation, and it will be helpful to all who are interested in the subject.


Article published in The Bible Translator (Technical Papers) by the United Bible Societies. Vol. 37, No. 1: 101-116, Jan. 1986 (Part 1) & Vol. 38, No. 1: 129-143, Jan. 1987 (Part 2).

    --reviewed by Paul Neeley

Published in Vol.1, No.4 of

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