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Ancient Musical Instruments: What Did David’s Lyre Look Like? BAR 8:01, Jan-Feb 1982.

A delicate lyre decorates a brown jasper seal from JerusalemA delicate jasper seal may tell us

“The spirit of Yahweh had forsaken Saul, and at times an evil spirit from Yahweh would seize him suddenly. His servants said to him, ‘You see, sir, how an evil spirit from God seizes you; why do you not command your servants here to go and find some man who can play the harp? Then, when an evil spirit from God comes on you, he can play and you will recover.’

“Saul said to his servants, ‘Find me a man who can play well and bring him to me.’

“One of his attendants said, ‘I have seen a son of Jesse of Bethlehem who can play. He is a brave man and a good fighter, wise in speech and handsome, and Yahweh is with him.’

“Saul therefore sent messengers to Jesse and asked him to send him his son David …

“And whenever a spirit from God came upon Saul, David would take his harp and play on it, so that Saul found relief; he recovered and the evil spirit left him alone.”

(1 Samuel 16-14–23)

The Hebrew word here translated “harp” is kinnor. Although the word is customarily translated “harp,” even in modern Bible translations, the latest scholarship suggests that the word should be translated as “lyre.”a

But what did this lyre look like? Were there really such instruments so long ago?

To answer the second question first, actual remains of lyres have been found in the royal tombs of Ur, dating from the third millennium B.C.b In Egypt, a wall painting dating to about 1900 B.C. depicts a Semitic tribesman from Asia playing the lyre indicating that the instrument was probably not indigenous to Egypt. Other Egyptian paintings of lyres date to the fifteenth century B.C. From the twelfth century, we have a Canaanite ivory plaque uncovered at Megiddo that depicts a woman playing a lyre before an enthroned king. A Philistine jug from Megiddo dating to the eleventh century also shows a figure playing a lyre.

It is unquestionable, then, that the lyre was a common musical instrument during the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries, when David lived and reigned.

One of the finest representations of a lyre, however—and perhaps the first true Hebrew rendering of this instrument—is on a seal which has recently been published by Professor Nachman Avigad of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It is said to have come from Jerusalem, although no one can be sure of the provenance of the seal because it was not uncovered in a controlled excavation.

The seal is made of brown jasper with orange-colored spots. On it is engraved an asymmetrical lyre, consisting of a sound box at the bottom, two elegantly outcurved arms of unequal length connected by an oblique crossbar or yoke to which are fastened twelve strings. The sound box, rounded on one side and carinated on the other, is decorated by a line of pearls along its outer edge and a lovely rosette at the center.

This is, no doubt, a very fine example of a lyre because an inscription on the seal tells us that it belonged to the daughter of the king. The inscription—in Hebrew—reads- “Belonging to Ma’adanah, the king’s daughter.”

Unfortunately, we are not told which king, and Ma’adanah cannot otherwise be identified. From the forms of the Hebrew letters, Professor Avigad believes the seal dates from the seventh century B.C.
We can only guess whether the royal princess Ma’adanah held a special position which necessitated the use of a seal or whether her distinguished status was enough to entitle her to a private seal. In either event, we are grateful to her for showing us so beautifully what an ancient lyre looked like. No doubt she loved music and played the lyre herself, a message now wordlessly communicated across the millennia.

(For further details, see Nachman Avigad, “The King’s Daughter and the Lyre,” Israel Exploration Journal, Vol. 28, p. 146 (1977).)

a. See C. Sachs, The History of Musical Instruments, (1940). Also see B. Bayer, “The Finds That Could Not Be,” in this issue.

b. See James Pritchard, ed., The Ancient Near East in Pictures, (1954), Figs. 191–193 and “World’s Oldest Musical Notation Deciphered on Cuneiform Tablet,” BAR 06-05.

1 Comment on "Ancient Musical Instruments: What Did David’s Lyre Look Like? BAR 8:01, Jan-Feb 1982."

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  1. Md Linkon says:

    Great article here

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