Drums & the Bible

Do Drums Feature In The Bible?

Have you ever been asked, “Where are drums mentioned in the Bible?” Here is a brief and revealing study with a few helpful Scripture references.

In most common translations of the Bible you will find the percussion instruments tambourine, timbrel or tabret mentioned, these words are translated from the Hebrew word ‘Toph’. Tambourines and timbrels are mentioned on many occasions throughout the Old Testament and, other than cymbals, seem to be the only percussion instruments referred to. “Praise Him with the timbrel and dance.. ” Psalm 150:3-6.

In the preface to the New International Version (Hodder & Stoughton), the Committee on Bible Translation say the following:

“It should be noted that minerals, flora and fauna, architectural details, articles of clothing and jewellery, musical instruments and other articles cannot always be identified with precision.”

So what can we find out about this word ‘Toph’? ‘The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments’, says that “tambourine” in Scripture comes from the Hebrew word “Tof” or “Toph” (Hebrew; pl.tuppin), the other English translations being “timbrel” or occasionally “tabret”. It says that these are indeed frame drums, without jingles, and adds that, because frame drums were commonly used in the surrounding areas that it is likely the ancient Israelites used them as well. The Oxford ‘Companion of Musical Instruments’ says of “historical tambourines”, that they are ancient frame drums, as far as can be seen, without jingles.

The word ‘Toph’, like many names for percussion instruments, and rhythmic exercises is onomatopoeic. In other words it suggests the sound of the instrument or the action of playing it. Other typical onomatopoeic names for drums are tom tom, conga, tambour, rek, doumbek and indeed the word drum itself (drrrrrum) implies a bounce followed with a stop on the drum skin.

Drums in the bible

Tof, Toph, Timbrel, Tambret - a biblical instrument

The modern tambourine is a “jingle” percussion instrument, commonly without a skin, and often half circle or crescent shaped, (although the round, skinned types are used in Latin ensembles and for other more grass roots styled groups). It would appear that the tambourine we find in the Bible was not a tambourine (as we know it) at all.

‘Percussion Instruments and their History’ by the late James Blades, also refers to instruments of Mesopotamia and Egypt circa 1100 BC. These include frame drums, small kettledrums (baz) and vase shaped drums made of clay. Blades comments, “In biblical references the words tinkling and metal are used in connection with bells and cymbals, but not with tabret or timbrel, (commonly translated as tambourine).”

This gives us an idea of what kind of drums were used in biblical times, it also shows us that when we see the word ‘tambourine’ in Scripture we can read it as ‘frame drum’. Frame drums are still popular today and found in most cultures around the world. They vary in size and each culture has developed its own playing style – one of the more unusual being the Irish bodhran played with a short double ended stick known as a ‘tipper’. These drums are highly versatile and can provide a dynamic and powerful sound. Compared to the seemingly male dominated drumset of today, which interestingly has a history of less than 100 years – size and portability of the frame drum maybe one reason more women played them in Bible times.

Drumming Mentioned In The Bible

Here are a number of times the ‘Toph’ appears in the Bible:

“Begin the music, strike the tambourine (drum)…” Psalm 81:2.

“Let them praise his name with dancing and make music to him with tambourine (drum) and harp.” Psalm 149:3.

“Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister took a tambourine (drum) in her hand, and all the women followed her, with tambourines and dancing.” Exodus 15:20

“In front are the singers, after them the musicians; with them are the maidens playing tambourines (drums).” Psalm 68:25

“Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise Him with the harp and lyre, praise Him with the tambourine (drum) and dancing, praise Him with the strings and flute, praise Him with the clash of cymbals, praise Him with resounding cymbals. Let everything that has breath praise the LORD.” Psalm 150:3-6.

“Begin the music, strike the tambourine (drum)…” Psalm 81:2.

“Every stroke the LORD lays on them with his punishing rod will be to the music of the tambourines (drums) and harps, as he fights the battle with the blow of his arm.” Isaiah 30:32

“Let them praise His name with dancing and make music to Him with tambourine (drum) and harp.” Psalm 149:3.

“When the men were returning home after David had killed the Philistine, the women came out from all the towns of Israel to meet King Saul with singing and dancing, with joyful songs and with tambourines (drums) and lutes.” 1 Samuel 18:6

“After that you will go to Gibeah of God, where there is a Philistine outpost. As you approach the town, you will meet a procession of prophets coming down from the high place with lyres, tambourines (drums), flutes and harps being played before them, and they will be prophesying.” 1Samuel 10:5,6

There is a strong theme in the Old Testament of the use of percussion, and it seems that women were more often playing these instruments. Aaron’s sister Miriam is recorded as leading the rhythmic band in Exodus 15:20.

Although this is only scratching the surface, we can clearly see drums appearing throughout the Old Testament and can conclude that, Miriam and others were in fact drumming in the act of worshipping God.

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