12 Jul 2022

Jesus of Nazareth, the Psalms, and Instruments

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Jesus, Jewish Backgrounds, Music, Psalms, Worship

Sing joyfully to the Lord, you righteous;
it is fitting for the upright to praise him.
Praise the Lord with the harp;
make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre.
Sing to him a new song;
play skillfully, and shout for joy
(Psalm 33.1-3)

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises.
Sing praises to the LORD with the lyre,
with the lyre and the sound of melody.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the
King, the LORD

(Psalm 98.4-6)

I was sitting on my couch meditating on my daily Psalm reading (Psalms 98-102). I had some music playing in the background as I often do. An album came on I have not heard in a while. It was one of my favs for a few years. “City on a Hill” has material by Third Day, Caedmon’s Call, Jars of Clay, Sixpence None the Richer and others.

I found myself just leaning back and letting the music flow through my mind and fill my body. I was uplifted. In fact I was literally drawn into the worship of the One who is enthroned upon Israel’s praise (Ps 22.3). Chronicles captures it like this,

in unison when the trumpeters and the singers were to make themselves heard with one voice to praise and to glorify the Lord, and when they lifted up their voice accompanied by trumpets and cymbals and instruments of music, and when they praised the Lord saying,

‘He indeed is good
for His loving kindness [hesed] is everlasting,

then the house, the house of the Lord, was filled with a cloud” (2 Chron 5.13).

Worship. Song. Music. The Glory of the Lord.

After a few minutes, my mind returned to this morning’s Psalm reading. Music filled me. Music is not merely vocal. Music is not merely instruments. Music is both. Music connects the entire human with the glory of the Lord.

Replica of the Lyre of Meggido dating to about 1000 BC

The Psalms are both. They are music. There are plenty of instruments in the Psalms. Instruments are mentioned in the Psalms and in their headings (Headings in the Hebrew Bible are literally the first verse of the psalm). Instruments appear already by Psalm 4.1, “with stringed instruments.”; 5.1, “for the flutes“; 6.1, with stringed instruments“; 54.1, “with stringed instruments“; etc. In the temple, King David, at the command of God, had 4000 Levites trained (yep trained) as both singers and instrumental musicians (1 Chron 23.5). He divided them into 288 courses (that is groups of 13) under the leadership of Asaph, Jeduthun and Heman.

There seems to be nine basic instruments mentioned in the Psalms themselves which can be divided into three basic kinds of instruments:

  • stringed instruments
  • wind instruments
  • percussion instruments.

The “lyre” (kennor) we know what this instrument looks like and even what it sounds like. Depictions of temple “lyre’s” can be found on Jewish coins from the Bar Kokhba period and Semite’s playing them in ancient Egyptian art. Right in Israel the “Lyre of Megiddo” was excavated by Gordon Loud in the 1920s that dates to about 1000 B.C, nearly contemporary with David. We find specific references to this beautiful instrument in 33.2; 43.4; 57.8; 71.22; 81.2; 92.3; 98.5; 108.2; 137.2; 147.7; 149.3; 150.3 among others.

Several different kinds of wind instruments are mentioned. The “pipes” (halil) are typically translated as “flutes.” This is another ancient instrument we know what it looked like thanks to archeology. An Israelite terracotta figure is playing one of these instruments. These instruments were used in the Psalms and during the holy festivals of Israel. Isaiah speaks of the gladness of God’s people ascending the Mount Zion to the sound of the “halil” on the night “holy festival is kept” (Isa 30.29).

In Jesus’s temple the “halil” was played during those festivals and sacrifice. Jesus and his disciples would have heard it the night of the Last Supper. We learn in the Mishnah,

On twelve days in the year was the halil played before the altar: at the killing of the first Passover sacrifice, at the killing of the second Passover sacrifice, on the first festival day of Passover, on the festival day of Pentecost, and on the eight days of the Feast [of Sukkot/Tabernacles].”

The “trumpets” are of two varieties: the shofar and silver trumpets. We know exactly what the latter looked like in Jesus’s day and the early church. For 2000 years the Arch of Titus, near the Coliseum in Rome, has depicted booty laden Roman soldiers carrying off the sacred vessels of the Temple: the Menorah, the table of shewbread, and the sacred trumpets.

Coins minted during the years of Simon bar Kokhba depicting temple lyre of the first century

With these sacred trumpets (and all these instruments), the Way would be quite familiar. According to the Book of Acts, the Way gathered daily “worshiped in the Temple” (Acts 2.46, NLT) and gathered for “the prayers” at the “hour of prayer, three o’clock in the afternoon” (Acts 3.1-2, NRSV). The “hours of prayer” coincided with the daily sacrifices at Jesus’s temple: at 9 am and at 3 pm. These trumpets were used as part of the sacrificial and prayer service.

They never sounded less than twenty-one tekia in the temple, and never more than forty-eight. Every day they blew twenty-one tekia in the temple, three at the opening of the gates, nine at the daily morning sacrifice, and nine at the daily evening sacrifice. At the additional sacrifices they sounded an additional nine; and on the eve of the sabbath they added six …”

During Jesus’s day and the early Way, an additional instrument was used in the Temple. When I learned this I was just stunned. That is the “magrefah.” The “magrefah” was an early organ. The Mishnah tells us the organ was placed between the Temple portico and the altar (M.Tam 5.6).

The Gospels depict Jesus as zealous for “my Father’s house” (Jn 2.16) and frequently there. He even made it to Hanukkah which celebrates the renewal of the Temple by the Maccabees (Jn 10.22ff). In the Court of Women, where rabbis like Jesus would teach regularly and participate in worship, there were fifteen steps. On these steps the Levites would gather and lead the pilgrims in worship and the women (and men) would dance in joy before the Lord. The Psalms they played were the Songs of Ascents perfectly blending music; vocal and instrumental.

My mind went wandering all because a song came on. Most of today’s disciples know very little about the Psalms and even less about the Temple. Jesus’s temple was alive with music, the praise of Yahweh. As the Psalter ends,

Let everything that has breath, praise Yahweh.”

Blame the old CD

One Response to “Jesus of Nazareth, the Psalms, and Instruments”

  1. Ben Putnam Says:

    Great summary, Bobby. I appreciate this article. If I may, I’d like to offer a clarification on the “organ” mentioned at the end.

    The מַגְרֵפָה magrefá does not actually seem to have been an organ at all. From all appearances, it was a handheld item, a spade, shovel, or rake. Mishna Tamid 2:1 says the priests would pick up a shovel and a rake to clean the ashes off the altar in the morning, and then 5:6 says one of the priests would pick it up and toss it between the Entrance Hall to the Sanctuary and the Outer Altar. This cannot be an organ.

    “The previous mishna described the performance of the removal of the ashes by the priest who was selected to perform this task. This mishna continues: The brethren of the priest who removed the ashes, i.e., the other members of the patrilineal family, saw that he had descended from the altar with the coal pan, and they would run and come to the Basin. They made haste and sanctified their hands and their feet with the water in the Basin, and then they took [נָטְלוּ] the shovels [הַמַּגְרֵפוֹת] and the forks [הַצִּנּוֹרוֹת] and ascended with them to the top of the altar. The shovels were for shoveling the ashes to the center of the altar, while the forks were required to remove from the altar those limbs that had not been consumed. With regard to the limbs of burnt offerings and the fats of other offerings that had not been consumed and burned to ashes during the time from the previous evening, the priests would clear [סוֹנְקִין] them to the sides of the altar. If the remaining limbs and fats were so abundant that the sides of the altar were unable to hold them, the priests would arrange them on the ramp, opposite the surrounding ledge of the altar.”
    (Mishna Tamid 2:1, Sefaria translation)

    “The priest with the spoonful of incense and the priest with the gold coal pan filled with coals reached the place between the Entrance Hall to the Sanctuary and the outer altar, on their way to the Sanctuary. One of them took [נָטַל] the shovel [הַמַּגְרֵפָה] and threw it [וְזוֹרְקָהּ] between the Entrance Hall and the outer altar. No person could hear the voice of another speaking to him in Jerusalem, due to the sound generated by the shovel [הַמַּגְרֵפָה]. And that sound would serve three purposes: Any priest who hears its sound knows that his brethren the priests are entering to prostrate themselves in the Sanctuary at that time, and he would run and come to prostrate himself with them. And any Levite who hears its sound knows that his brethren the Levites are entering the courtyard to stand on their platform to recite the psalm accompanying the libation, and he would run and come to sing with them. And the head of the non-priestly watch, which stands in the courtyard as the agents of the Jewish people, would position the ritually impure priests and singers at the eastern gate of the courtyard, to make it clear that those priests were not performing the Temple service due to their ritual impurity.”
    (Mishna Tamid 5:6, Sefaria translation)

    The usual meaning of the term מַגְרֵפָה magrefá in mishnaic Hebrew is ‘spoon, ladle, trowel; spade, shovel’.

    And today in modern Hebrew, a מַגְרֵפָה magrefá is a rake.

    One of the definitions Jastrow gives for מַגְרֵפָה is that it is “a sort of tympanum,” which is a hand drum. I am not convinced of this definition. However, it would be more probable than the definition “organ” or even “some kind of early version of an organ.”

    The fanciful descriptions in y.Sukka 5:6 and b.ʿAraxin 10b–11a do not seem to be historically accurate or in line with other rabbinic descriptions of this item—or with how this term and related terms were used. See the Jewish Virtual Library article, “Organ,” below, which states unequivocally that the idea that this was an organ is merely a legend.

    And even in b.ʿAraxin 11a, where one of these fanciful descriptions appears in a barayta, it says:

    “The magrefá was one cubit wide and one cubit tall, and a handle protruded from it.”

    The rabbinic cubit was a mere 22.6 inches (57.4 cm). (See pages 136–43 of _The Beit HaMikdash: The Temple and the Holy Mount_ Compact Size.)

    The Hebrew noun מַגְרֵפָה magrefá derives from the Hebrew verb גָּרַף garaf, with the performative mem prefix (instrumental ◌מ). A magrefá is something one uses in order to do the action of this verb. What does the verb refer to?

    In biblical Hebrew this verb occurs in Judges 5:21 where it is used to refer to a torrent of water “sweeping” or “washing away” an enemy.

    In mishnaic Hebrew, this verb means “to scrape, sweep, esp. to remove ashes and coal from the stove; to scrape together, collect” (Jastrow).

    See also Joel 1:17 where a related noun appears in biblical Hebrew (spelled the same as the mishnaic term but vocalized differently). This term apparently meant ‘shovel; spade; hoe,’ as well (see HALOT). Or it may have referred to ‘something that is shoveled’ (e.g., “a clod of dirt”) with the preformative mem creating a noun that indicates an abstraction rather than an object used to perform the action of the verb (see Klein).

    According to the Jewish Virtual Library article:

    “It was the late Roman and Byzantine organ, with its multiplicity of pipes and – for that time – astounding tone-volume, that gave rise to the late talmudic identification of the magrefah (‘rake’) as an organ supposed to have been used in the Second Temple. The development of the legend, for such it is, can easily be traced. The Mishnah (Tam. 2:1; 3:8, and 5:6) states that a magrefah was among the implements used for cleaning the altar in the morning before the new daily sacrifice; and that the noise of its being thrown on the floor was one of several ‘noise-cues’ which the priests used to ensure the smooth running of the ceremony (cf. The Letter of Aristeas 92; 94–96) in the absence of perceptible orders during the service. A hyperbole states that all these noises were audible ‘unto Jericho’ (Tam. 3:8). The equating of magrefah with hydraulis must have occurred in the time of the *Tosefta, since Tosefta Arakhin 1:13–14 quotes R. Simeon b. Gamaliel as saying: ‘There was no hydraulis [הדראוליס] in the Temple since it confuses the voice and spoils the tune.’ The Jerusalem Talmud (Suk. 5:6, 55c–d) quotes R. Simeon b. Gamaliel, and then goes on to identify the biblical ugav with ardablis, and states that the magrefah had ten holes (or pipes) each emitting a hundred tones, or a hundred holes (or pipes) each emitting ten tones. Finally, in Arakhin 10b the identification magrefah-hydraulis appears as a categorical statement. Henceforth the identification of magrefah with organ remained practically unquestioned by most commentators and musicologists, although there is Rashi’s compromise-exegesis to Arakhin 10b: ‘but it seems that there were two magrefot, one for [raking] the altar-remnants and one for song/music.’”
    (“Organ,” Jewish Virtual Library)

    In light of the above evidence (and more that is available in the lexica), I do not believe Rashi’s compromise here represents the reality of the Second Temple.

    In fact, the sound of a rake or shovel being thrown down onto a stone floor inside of a massive, maze-like structure such as comprised the Second Temple probably did produce a rather loud, echoing/reverberating sound—not music, but certainly some kind of noise.

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