The Lack of Music Related Laws in the Old Covenant

At some point in the past (sometime within the last year), I was reading specifically about viewpoints that tend to go back to the Old Testament texts that reference music and use them as prescriptions for New Testament church services.  In thinking about various reasons I don’t think this is very appropriate to do (please read this correctly – using OT texts as prescriptions, not examples of principles, etc.), I was struck with the very significant lack of references to music in the actual Law/Torah.  This post will hopefully explain exactly why I was this was so strikingly odd to me and why I think it may be significant.  I am surprised that I had not (and still have not) read about this … though, admittedly, I haven’t gone off in search of obscure articles on the topic. :)

Cultural Separation Laws

Most of us are likely familiar with parts of the Law that deal with things such as not eating certain animals, not having certain weaves, only using certain incenses, not combining certain foods, not eating blood, etc.  These laws set Israel apart from the other surrounding nations.  They were different, especially in their cultic (cultic in this usage does not refer to a deviance from orthodoxy) temple worship, from the other nations and cultures.  They were a holy people, set apart, and many of the laws God gave them clearly set them apart from the other nations – and, especially, the other nation’s cultic worship practices.

Musical Separation Laws

From what I have read and searched (admittedly, I have not exhaustively looked through all mentions of instruments/music in the Torah … yet), there are no laws in the Torah dealing with music.  God apparently did not give them any laws to separate their music from the music of the nations around them.  This is striking, especially in light of what we can determine from the musical culture then …

Music in Ancient Israel/Palestine

I recently acquired and am reading through a book entitled Music in Ancient Israel/Palestine.  It looks at… well, music in Ancient Israel 😉 … through both archaeological and textual sources.  Some of what I’ve learned already has made this lack of musical separation even more striking; for example, certain instruments in those cultures were highly associated with cultic rituals… and, even further, some were associated with sexual cultic rituals (fertility, etc.).

There were a few major instrument groups… primarily, though, you had some chordophones (harps, lyres), membranophones (basically, percussion that utilizes a stretched skin or other membrane source), and idiophones (instruments that make their sound by the actual body vibrating; for example, a shaker).

The membranophones part is particularly interesting, because we would commonly call these “drums.”  Specifically, think of Miriam’s song in Exodus 15; English translations will commonly say that she used a timbrel, or a tambourine.  The Hebrew word is top (or tof, toph, tov…)… and actually refers to what we might call a frame drum.  These are still commonly used; on the right is a Persian frame drum known as a daf (which can have small symbals on the frame as well).

Of course, the size varied greatly; some were small enough to tuck under the arm (from terra-cotta figurines found) and were more hourglass shaped; some were shaped similar to a tambourine but apparently lacked the cymbals (so they looked more like the image on the right, only smaller). Some were played directly in front of them, as we might play a tambourine, and some were played off to the side, as we might play a bodhran.

The frame drums were often used in dancing; dancing was often part of cultic rituals, and often had overt sexual connotations (fertility gods, etc.).  Female frame drum players were quite common, apparently, too.  All this is interesting when one considers the fact that there were no regulations on musical instruments used by the Israelites.  I would have expected there to be just as many as there were in the areas of diet and clothing to set them apart from the pagan cultures’ music, but there aren’t.


Well, I don’t really have a conclusion yet… 😉  But I find it quite striking and quite interesting that there weren’t musical instrument regulations in light of all these pagan worship and sexual associations.  I am hesitant to directly draw the correlation to today, but I think it should definitely play into how we think about using or not using things from current day musical cultures in an effort to make the church “different from the world.”  How?  Well, I haven’t quite thought about it enough to talk about that yet, I guess.  :)

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