Ancient strings and pipes.
Introduction: Legitimate Claim?
“[Jabal’s] brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all who play stringed instruments and pipes.”
from the Bible – Genesis 4:21
This is the first mention of music and man-made musical instruments in the Bible. Such a seemingly simple and innocuous sentence brings a lot of controversy with it, however. Being in the early part of the Bible immediately alienates it from the majority of modern theories and interpretations of history.
According to Wikipedia,
“Until the 19th century AD, European-written music histories began with mythological accounts of how musical instruments were invented. Such accounts included Jubal, descendant of Cain and “father of all such as handle the harp and the organ”, Pan, inventor of the pan pipes, and Mercury, who is said to have made a dried tortoise shell into the first lyre. Modern histories have replaced such mythology with anthropological speculation, occasionally informed by archeological evidence.”
Yet all history is interpreted history. Facts neither exist in isolation nor have unambiguous meaning. Facts are always derived, stated, and interpreted within a framework. Assumptions are always made. Connections have to be theorised.
The term myth has two definitions:
- A traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining a natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.
- A widely held but false belief or idea.
All would agree that Genesis, the Bible’s book or origins, clearly fits the first more technical definition. While many would assert that it also fits the second definition, many, including myself, hold that Genesis is true. C.S. Lewis famously described Christianity as ‘true myth,’ the myth that really happened. The alternative, according to Wikipedia, when it comes to the invention of musical instruments, is “anthropological speculation, occasionally informed by archeological evidence.” In other words, a new mythology, albeit without the involvement of supernatural beings.
It is not my purpose to enter that debate here. My approach is to trust the Bible on its own terms as divinely inspired Scripture. Therefore I take at face value the implications of this text that I lay out below. My basic assumptions when I consider history and facts as recorded in the Bible include these:
- The Bible is the definitive true revelation from God. Therefore it is consistent: it coheres together and interprets itself, even when complex, mysterious, or apparently contradictory.
- Historical accounts in the Bible should be treated as such. (Note: similarly, Biblical poetry, prophecy etc need to be understood in terms of their own literary genres. Thus, to believe that the whole Bible is true is not the same as saying that everything in it is literally true. Context is vital, both local and global.)
- History is ordained, controlled, and sustained by God. His purposes always prevail. History has meaning and direction.
So when it comes to the book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, it is written as a historical account of early history, including specific genealogies and key stories of early man’s relationship with God. With this in mind, I will now look more closely at Jubal, “the father of all who play stringed instruments and pipes.”
Genesis chapter 4 outlines the early generations of mankind from Adam, the first man, through his murderer son Cain, and down to the 8th generation of Jubal.
- 1st generation: Adam (the first man, made by God out of the dust of the earth as the culmination of the creation week, and through whom sin and death entered the world when he rebelled and disobeyed God’s command).
- 2nd generation: Cain (who killed his brother Abel in anger, was subsequently banished, became a wanderer, then later built a city).
- 3rd generation: Enoch.
- 4th generation: Irad.
- 5th generation: Mehujael.
- 6th generation: Methushael.
- 7th generation: Lamech (who also killed a man).
- 8th generation:
“Lamech married two women, one named Adah and the other Zillah. Adah gave birth to Jabal; he was the father of those who live in tents and raise livestock. His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all who play stringed instruments and pipes. Zillah also had a son, Tubal-Cain, who forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron. Tubal-Cain’s sister was Naamah.”
The next chapter, Genesis 5, details with dates the genealogy from Adam down a different line, via his son Seth. This route takes us all the way to Noah (11th generation) and his sons. This is the Noah of worldwide flood and building the ark fame. The ages given in this chapter provide an accurate timeline from Creation to the Great Flood, as follows:
- 1st gen: Adam (0-930)
- 2nd gen: Seth (130-1042)
- 3rd gen: Enosh (235-1140)
- 4th gen: Kenan (325-1235)
- 6th gen: Mahalalel (395-1290)
- 7th gen: Jared (460-1422)
- 8th gen: Enoch (622-987)
- 9th gen: Methuselah (687-1656)
- 10th gen: Lamech (874-1651) *Adam died in 930 while Lamech was alive but before Noah was born
- 11th gen: Noah (1052-2002 (see Genesis 9:29))
- 12th gen: Shem, Ham, Japheth (1552-
- Great Flood: 1652 (approx 2350 BC, derived from other dates and genealogies in the Bible)
Assuming a similar lifespan (¬900 years) and length of generation (¬100 years) between the two genealogies, we can surmise the following:
- Jubal lived approximately 3,800-2,900 B.C., or about 600-1,500 years after Creation;
- Adam would very possibly still have been alive to meet Jubal;
- Jubal would have died before the Great Flood, but he would been a contemporary of Noah, and his children would likely have been around at the time of the flood.
Contrary to commonplace modern evolutionary and anthropological theories, the Bible’s account of early history affirms that humans were created complete and intelligent. Language was given, and Adam’s naming of the animals was his first task, involving him creating appropriate new words to describe the features and behaviour of different creatures (see Genesis 2:19-20). God tasked Adam and Eve from the very start to care for and develop first the garden, and then the world (see Genesis 1:27-30). Practical knowledge was acquired through hands-on trial and error, in the first place for cultivating food. Joyful work and learning were Adam and Eve’s purpose from the beginning. The struggle of sweat and blood and frustration that we see characterises labour through history was introduced through sin and the curse; these were not in-built problems with the original creation (see Genesis 3:17-19).
We get some small hints of the development of knowledge and culture pre-Jubal. Adam’s sons, Cain and Abel, were farmers, agriculturalists: Cain worked the soil, and Abel kept flocks (see Genesis 4:2). The division of labour in action. We are told that Adam’s son Cain later built a city (see Genesis 4:17): architecture and design. We’ll get to Jubal’s musical instruments, and his brothers’ areas of expertise, below.
So what we see in Genesis is a complete lack of prehistory. There is just history. We are left with many questions and many gaps, of course, but enough information and detail to work with and on which to base a solid approach to history and anthropology and culture. (There is one layer of prehistory that the Bible talks about, however. And that is the eternity of God: he is from everlasting to everlasting. Before he made the world he was always there. Prehistory was God’s time before he created time.)
The oddest thing about the Genesis 5 genealogy to modern readers is how long people lived, often more than 900 years! The oldest man recorded was Methuselah who reached a ripe old 969 (see Genesis 5:27)! We might be tempted to scoff at such statements, given the impossibility of us reaching even a mere 200 years of age! But aside from accepting what the Bible says here at face value there are a couple of significant factors at play that help make more sense here: slow effects of the curse, and pre-Flood climate.
Firstly, the world was created without death. Death is an intrusion, and should not be the normal end point of our life. After Adam sinned, God introduced death as judgment, and cursed both humanity and the ground (see Genesis 3:17-19 again). Although some things will have changed in the created at that point, it would also have taken time for the full effects of the curse to fully infiltrate biological processes.
Secondly, the catastrophic worldwide flood at the time of Noah made significant alterations to our planet’s geography and climate (this was possibly the first rain, up to that point the earth had been watered by a mist. See, e.g., Genesis 2:5; Genesis 7:4 for the first mention of rain falling, to start the flood; Genesis 9:13-16 the first rainbow, after the flood, and now a sign that God will not flood the whole earth again). Now that was climate change on a scale we are not dealing with these days!
It is notable, then, that the next genealogy in Genesis 11:10-32, which follows Noah’s son Shem’s line down to Abraham, reveals a steady and shortening of lifespans:
- Shem 600 years
- Arphaxad 438 years
- Shelah 433 years
- Eber 464 years
- Peleg 239 years
- Reu 239 years
- Serug 230 years
- Nahor 148 years
- Terah 205 years
- Abraham 175 years (see Genesis 25:7)
By the time we get to Moses (approx 16th century BC) we are down to our familiar 70-80 years as the optimistic life expectancy. See these extracts from Psalm 90 that Moses wrote:
2 Before the mountains were born
or you brought forth the whole world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
3 You turn people back to dust,
saying, ‘Return to dust, you mortals.’
4 A thousand years in your sight
are like a day that has just gone by,
or like a watch in the night.
10 Our days may come to seventy years,
or eighty, if our strength endures;
yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow,
for they quickly pass, and we fly away.
Back to Jubal’s era and before, there are some massive implications to living to 900+ years: large families, a lot of time to learn, increased specialisation and the division of labour, cumulative and shared knowledge, and so on. Under those circumstances it is more than completely reasonable to imagine the rapid development of practical and intellectual skills and crafts.
What would pre-Flood life have looked like? Obviously a major component was working the land for food. We already noted that specialisation begian already with Adam’s sons, and this would have naturally led to increased diversification. But one primary uniting factor was the rhythms and cycles of nature. In fact we are told in Genesis 1 that one of God’s intended functions for the sun and moon and stars was to serve and bless mankind by marking times and seasons. The rhythms of work and rest, sowing and harvesting, are wonderful gifts! Knowing the land, understanding the seasons, learning about different kinds of crops and plants, observing the functions of creatures, seeking balance with the created world while also harnessing its potential for cultural development – all these have been central elements to life and society from the start.
The possibility and roles of music would have emerged through noting the functions of sounds and noises from creatures and the elements (warning and communication, identification, associations with different times and seasons, etc) alongside discoveries and experiments with the sound-making properties of the human voice and of various materials.
It is not hard to imagine (for imagine we must) the rhythms and songs of nature inspiring and influencing forays into percussive rhythms, clapping, singing, humming, and so on. It is well-documented in American slave culture how negro spirituals sprang out of the rhythms of toil, and the common unity and hope expressed in working together.
Mankind was designed for love, service, and community. Music as a didactic tool in education, as a unifying mode of celebration and mourning, as an accompaniment to both work and play, and as an integral element of ritual and religion – these are not latecomers in human history, but developed in these early generations.
Livestock and Tools
The Bible’s account of early history unsurprisingly tucks in a mention of livestock (architecture) and tools (technology) as these are universally recognised as vital components of human civilisation. And so in Genesis 4:20 we read of Lamech’s son Jabal, ‘the father of those who live in tents and raise livestock,’ and two verses later of Jabal’s half-brother Tubal-Cain, ‘who forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron’ (from which we can verify that bronze and iron were both in use by approx 4,000 B.C.)
What is striking to me about Jabal is that he does not represent the first to create dwelling-places (tents), for we already know that Adam’s son Cain (so six generations older than Jabal) built a city (see Genesis 4:17)! So clearly the understanding and development and use of materials and tools had been well in existence before Jabal’s time, but he was evidently some kind of pioneer or expert or leader in the nomadic lifestyle of a mobile farmer/herder.
Lutes and Flutes (ok, I took a bit of poetic licence with the instrument names there!)
But perhaps even more striking than the brief mentions of architecture, agriculture, and technology is our friend Jubal, tucked between his brother Jabal and half-brother Tubal-Cain. Jubal, ‘the father of all who play stringed instruments and pipes.’ How delightful that the arts are deemed significant enough to the writer of Genesis to include as vital information from our earliest history! And that the arts – whatever exact form they took at that time – were clearly seen as essential and meaningful that early in civilisation. Music shouldn’t be an afterthought or an optional extra to our life and culture. Rather, music and the arts are one of the key indicators and expressors of our very life and humanity.
Of course we are curious to know much more about Jubal and his stringed instruments and pipes than we are told. Was he primarily a musician, or also an instrument-maker? I suspect both but we cannot be sure. What forms did music take at that time? What kinds of melodies? What harmonic awareness? What kinds of rhythms? Were these instruments used for backing to songs, or for instrumental music, or both? What functions did music play in his family and wider community? Was Jubal a song-writer, creating his own melodies? Was he just an instrumentalist, or also a lyricist and/or singer. If so, what would he have sung about? Everyday life, family relationships, love, work, nature, religion? How widely was he known in his day? What was his influence? And what were his creative roots? What strands of music-making and instrument-making did he gather together and draw upon? What set him on his musical path, what sounds inspired him? Did he use Tubal-Cain’s metalworking expertise to fashion instruments of metal or bronze? Or did he use wood and bone? What kinds of experiments did he conduct to refine his knowledge of the natural properties of different materials and shapes, resonances, vibration, etc? Was this how he earned his living? Was he a music teacher, the community performer, an instrument seller? We can only speculate.
The word translated harp or lyre is the Hebrew כִּנּוֹר, kinnôwr, from a root meaning ‘to twang.’ It occurs 42 times in the Old Testament, and is the same word as used for some later temple instruments and also the instrument played by King David whose songwriting and playing was (and is) legendary. A forthcoming article in this series will study the famous incidents of David’s harp-playing which soothed the anger and madness of King Saul (see 1 Samuel 16:14-23).
And then the word translated pipe or flute is the Hebrew עוּגָב, `ûwgâb, which has the original sense of ‘breathing.’ It has been speculated variously as the forerunner to the flute or panpipes or even a reed-instrument like the organ (being a multi-piped instrument). This word only occurs 4 times in the Old Testament, the other 3 instances being in poetic literature (Job and Psalms).
Doubtless both terms refer generally to their respective type or family of instruments, rather than to any specific instrument or design. They represent two very different methods of creating tones: vibrating strings and vibrating air.
And then the word translated play is the Hebrew תָּפַשׂ, tâphas, means to catch, to handle, to lay hold of, to seize, to wield, to use skillfully. This shows that Jubal’s main skill and renown was for his musicianship, presumably his dexterity and ability to coax effective tones and melodies and feeling out of his instruments.
Since the worldwide flood of Genesis 7 took place after Jubal, all traces of human civilisation up to that point would have been completely destroyed in the unimaginable cataclysm of the violent floodwaters, seismic shifts, geographic turbulence and extreme pressures that were involved in that unique event. But archaeological finds of early (i.e. post-flood) instruments give us hints as to some possible instrument types and designs and materials that may have been similar to Jubal’s instruments. For example, a number of flute-like instruments have been found, with three to eight holes, made using hollowed bones from e.g. swans, bears, and vultures. Organic materials used to make strings do not survive the ravages of time, so clues for the earliest stringed instruments come from cave art.
(Note: I am well aware of how much Biblical chronology is at odds with other theories of the history and timeline of earth, the prehistoric age, archaeological dating methods, and so on. I don’t have space to get sidetracked here, but I will just note that all scientific dating methods rely on specific assumptions being made, and these assumptions are not universally held by scientists and archaeologists. In fact, the starting assumptions are usually driven by a certain theory or belief about origins, the continuity of processes, the past state of the earth, etc. Radiocarbon dating is a prime example which is relevant for dating ancient artefacts, resting on the assumption that relative levels of carbon 12 and carbon 14 in the atmosphere have remained essentially constant in earth’s past. But not only is this idea of a fixed standard for carbon levels inconsistent with observed fluctuations, but a dramatic shift in these levels are neatly explained by the nature and impact of the worldwide flood that the Bible reports as destroying almost all life on earth approximately 2,300-2,400 B.C. Science and archaeology are never neutral.)
Here is a great picture of some flutes found in China, carved from the wing bones of red-crowned cranes, reckoned to be from a few thousand years B.C.:
Now we come to the key word that describes Jubal, the father of all who play stringed instruments and pipes. The word translated father is the Hebrew אָב, ʼâb (pronounced awb), which occurs 1,215 times in the Old Testament. It is almost always translated as ‘father,’ and means, variously:
- father of an individual
- of God as father of his people
- head or founder of a household, group, family, or clan
- ancestor: a) grandfather, forefathers — of person b) of people
- originator or patron of a class, profession, or art
- of producer, generator (figurative)
- of benevolence and protection (figurative)
- term of respect and honour
- ruler or chief (speculative)
The context clearly indicates that the fifth usage is the definition in view: ‘originator or patron of a class, profession, or art.’ The idea of authoring, inventing, creating, owning, or being skilled at can also be part of this meaning.
It may be that Jubal pioneered stringed and piped instruments altogether, but I think it more likely that he drew on, developed, and consolidated others’ preliminary efforts. Clearly his skill brought him renown and influence, whether as a teacher or as a travelling musician. But being designated a father of musicians likely indicates that he taught others, maybe as apprentices for taking music (his songs/compositions?) to other communities for whatever purposes music was sought. The ‘teacher’ role may well have been much more fluid than we are familiar with today, with more interactivity in community, call-and-response, creating music together but somewhat guided by the chief musician. Beyond that, though, he was named the father, leader, patron, pioneer of all string players and pipists. Thus this would also include King David himself, 2-3 millenia later. And if we extend the thought to its conclusion, Jubal retains this status in relation to the current-day free jazz saxophonist and the heavy metal shred guitarist!
Which leads me to my final musings, on the legacy of Jubal.
Jubal was born through the line of Adam’s son Cain. We are given no other specific details about Jubal’s lifestyle or character. However, he was part of the mass of humanity who had forsaken God. Worshipping the creation instead of the Creator, was music Jubal’s idol of choice? You may ask whether it really matters? But in terms of the Biblical priorities of faith it is actually the only thing that matters.
As I noted earlier, Jubal would very likely have been a contemporary of Noah’s (who came from the line of Adam’s son Seth) but would almost certainly have died before the Great Flood. When we reach the account of Noah and the flood in Genesis 6-8, we are told that only Noah and his wife, and their three sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth and their wives, were rescued in the ark (see Genesis 7:13). The reason given is that there were no other righteous families on earth at that time, and that the world was full of corruption and violence, in rebellion against God (see Genesis 6:9-13).
So Jubal’s sons or grandsons would have perished in the deluge. And not only his biological sons, but also his ‘musical sons’ to whom he was a leader/tutor/master. Rather shockingly, then, his musical legacy was very short-lived, and all trace of it destroyed apart from his name, preserved in the memory, words, and writings of Noah and his sons. Evidently they must have known Jubal, at the very least by reputation if not personally. It is not impossible that one of Noah’s sons could have been a musician too, but that is probably unlikely.
However and whenever it was that the subsequent development of musical instruments took place, the name of Jubal would have been remembered and passed on, perhaps with other stories and even melodies of his if Noah and his sons had been acquainted with his work. The following generations of musicians could also claim Jubal as their ‘adoptive father,’ the bond of music over blood being a not unfamiliar idea to us today – bands and fans and subcultures not infrequently claiming primary allegiances.
So what lasts? What is remembered? What makes a legacy that endures? Originators are surely to be remembered and valued for the breakthroughs, even though their accomplishments will be surpassed. The debates over who discovered a new instrumental technique first, or who penned a particular melody first, or who created a new style of music first, and so on, are not insignificant. People often care about these things, not least the originators themselves! And there is good reason for this. Credit where credit is due. But at the end of the day what does it matter if your family is destroyed and only your name lives on? Humility and the passing on and encouraging of the next generation are surely fitting. But most of all, humility and gratitude to the Great Giver of all gifts, our Creator God himself. Music and art are among God’s universal gifts for all to enjoy and partake in.
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows
from the Bible – James 1:17
The Bible confronts and challenges the natural inclinations and assumptions of mankind across the ages. In this way it is not an easy or comfortable book to read and digest. But when approached with an open mind and a humble heart before its divine authorship and authority it is a precious foundation of truth and a wonderful framework for working towards lasting purpose and hope.
As a musician myself, I take encouragement from Jubal’s fleeting appearance in Scripture. I acknowledge and appreciate Jubal’s pioneering efforts, and marvel that the legacy of musical innovation and artistry cascades through history. The vital place of music in human culture will never die, no matter what disasters befall. But I heed the warning too: I mustn’t seek a name for myself to last after I’m gone; rather, I must humbly submit my art to God, and trust in him to keep me safe from the death that never dies. I trust him to keep me safe to the other side, until the new creation in which there will be no more suffering or frustration or death. I trust him on the basis of Jesus Christ’s perfect righteousness being given to me through his death and resurrection. I dare not trust myself, my efforts, my passions, or my art. But, being grateful for all his good gifts, I endeavour to apply myself to making something worthwhile with my efforts, passions, art as a lifestyle of gratitude to God and hopefully as a small blessing to others.
Jubal, by Giotto, Florence Cathedral (1330s):