THE BIBLICAL "NEVEL" LYRE
Below is a video featuring a detailed discussion of this most elusive of the ancient Biblical stringed instrument...
As discussed in the video above, the other Biblical lyre referred to throughout the Biblical Text is the “Nevel” . It is mistranslated in the Old Testament as “harp” – as discussed above, there is absolutely no archaeological evidence that harp was used in ancient Israel after the end of the Copper Age, around 3200 BCE.
BIBLICAL REFERENCES TO THE ANCIENT "NEVEL" LYRE
The Biblical "Nevel" is mentioned in 1 Samual 10:5, 2 Samual 6:5, Kings 10:12, Isiah 5:12, 14:11, Amos 5:23, 6:5, Psalm 33:2, 57:9, 71:22, 81:3, 92:4, 108:3, 144:9, Chronicles 13:8, 15:16, 20, 28; 16:5, 25:1, 6; 2 Chronicles 5:12; 9:11; 20:28; 29:25, Neh. 12:27.
THE AMBIGUITY OF THE ACTUAL HEBREW MEANING OF "NEVEL"
Unlike the Kinnor, the exact meaning of the word “Nevel” is ambiguous, as the Hebrew root “nvl” can be pronounced in two different ways – either “naval” or “nevel”.
In the Hebrew language, only the consonants are written down - the vowels are added by the speaker...which causes no end of problems once the original pronunciation of an ancient Hebrew word is lost in the mists of time! John Wheeler explains:
"Nevel is such a difficult instrument to understand precisely because:
1) leather was used for soundboards both for some harps and for some lyres;
2) the root word itself has several different meanings. The name could just as well refer to a wineskin used for a soundbox, and while we don't have anything that I know of earlier than bar Kokhba illustrating that for the Hebrews, it's certainly possible given how animals' stomachs were used for other instruments"
THE TWO INTERPRETATIONS OF THE ORIGINAL MEANING OF THE HEBREW WORD "NVL"
1) If "NVL" is pronounced “Naval”, in Hebrew this can mean “carcass”, implying that the Biblical Nevel was a lyre with a skin membrane as a soundboard (similar to the ancient Greek “Lyra” – the lyre with a tortoise shell resonator, over which was stretched a soundboard of taut animal skin).
Below is a fascinating video of the legendary Luis Paniagua (who was one of the artists on the epic album from 1979, "Musique de la Grece Antique") performing on a replica ancient Greek Lyra:
Mid East Ethnic Instrument manufactures use this interpretation of the Biblical Nevel. Their interpretation of the Biblical Nevel is ideally suited to playing ancient Greek music – below is my own arrangement of “Song of Seikilos”(c.200 BCE – 100 CE) on their interpretation of the Nevel:
2) The alternative interpretation, if the word is pronounced “Nevel”, means “Skin bottle”. This could mean a lyre with a regular wooden soundboard, but shaped like a skin bottle.
As discussed in more detail below, I now believe that it is more likely that meaning (1) seems more likely from the available evidence - that the elusive Biblical Nevel may have been a skin-membrane lyre.
HOW WAS THE BIBLICAL NEVEL LYRE CONSTRUCTED?
The Nevel was made of the same materials as the Kinnor, namely Almug wood, (Kings 10:5), and was plucked by hand,as opposed to being plucked with a plectrum, as in the case of the Kinnor – we know this from the writings of Flavius Josephus (Antiquities vii 12.3) and the Biblical text (Amos 6:5). Josephus also describes the Nevel as having 12 strings, whereas the Kinnor had 10 strings.
There also is mentioned a form of the Nevel referred to as the "Nevel Asor" - the Nevel with 10 strings.
EVIDENCE THAT THE NEVEL A BASS REGISTER LYRE IN THE LEVITICAL ENESMBLE?
The ancient Jewish text, the Mishnah, also provides some fascinating details. It limits the number of Nevels in the Temple Ensemble to “no fewer than two and no more than six”, but “never fewer than nine Kinnorot, and more may be added” (Mishna, Arak 2:5).
This is the first piece of evidence that the Biblical Nevel could have been a bass register lyre - just as in a modern string orchestra, there are proportionately many more violins in the upper register, than the cellos and basses. From this piece of evidence from the Mishnah about the ratio of the numbers of Kinnors to the number of Nevels, I think that it is quite reasonale to infer, that the Biblical Nevels provided the bass line of the Levitical Ensemble and to he singing of the Levitical Choir.
The Mishnah also informs us that the strings of the Nevel were made of sheeps large intestines, whilst those of the Kinnor were made of the small intestines (Mishnah, Quinnim 3:6).
As the Nevel had more numerous and also thicker strings than the Kinnor, this implies it could be played more loudly than the Kinnor, even without a plectrum. The resonator may have been a similar shape to a wine skin or leather bag (hence the Hebrew root “Nevel”). Indeed, Isiah 14:11 informs us that the Nevel had a powerful drone. The evidence for the thicker strings used on the Nevel also implies that the Nevel was a bass register lyre in the orchestra of the Second Temple.
THE NEVEL AS DESCRIBED IN THE BIBLICAL COMMENTARY OF ALBERT BARNES
The 19th century theologian Albert Barnes tells us the following about the Biblical Nevel, in his commentary "Notes on the Bible", reference, Isaiah 5:12:
(Isaiah 5:12 KJV) And the harp, and the viol, the tabret, and pipe, and wine, are in their feasts: but they regard not the work of the LORD, neither consider the operation of his hands.
"nebel. From this word is derived the Greek word να´βλα nabla, and the Latin nablium and nabla. But it is not very easy to form a correct idea of this instrument. The derivation would lead us to suppose that it was something in the shape of a “bottle,” and it is probable that it had a form in the shape of a leather bottle, such as is used in the East, or at least a vessel in which wine was preserved; 1Sa_10:3; 1Sa_25:18; 2Sa_16:1. It was at first made of the berosh or fir; afterward it was made of the almug tree, and occasionally it seems to have been made of metal; 2Sa_6:5; 1Ch_13:8. The external parts of the instrument were of wood, over which strings were drawn in various ways. Josephus says it had twelve strings (“Ant.” B. viii. ch. x.) He says also that it was played with the fingers. - “Ibid.” Hesychius and Pollux reckon it among stringed instruments. The resonance had its origin in the vessel or the bottom part of the instrument, upon which the strings were drawn. According to Ovid, this instrument was played on with both hands:
Quaravis mutus erat, voci favisse putatur
Piscis, Aroniae fabula nora lyrae.
Disce etiam duplice genialia palmaVerrere.
De Arte Amandi, lib. iii. 327.
According to Jerome, Isodorus, and Cassiodorus, it had the form of an inverted Greek Delta δ d. Pfeiffer supposes that this instrument was probably the same as is found represented on ancient monument. The belly of the instrument is a wooden bowl, having a small hole in the under part, and is covered over with a stretched skin, which is higher in the middle than at the sides. Two posts, which are fastened together at the top by a cross piece, pass obliquely through this skin. Five strings pass over this skin, having a bridge for their support on the cross piece. The instrument has no pins or screws, but every string is fastened by means of some linen wound with it around this cross piece. The description of this instrument is furnished by Niebuhr (“Thess.” i. p. 179). It is played on in two ways, either by being struck with the finger, or by a piece of leather, or perhaps a quill hung at its side and drawn across the strings. It cannot with certainty be determined when this instrument was invented, or when it came into use among the Hebrews. It is first mentioned in the time of Saul 1Sa_10:5, and from this time onward it is frequently mentioned in the Old Testament. It was used particularly in the public worship of God; 2Sa_6:5; 1Ki_10:12; 2Ch_20:28; 2Ch_29:25; 1Ch_15:16; 1Ch_16:5. It was usually accompanied with other instruments, and was also used in festivals and entertainments; see “Bib. Repos.” vol. vi. pp. 357-365. The usual form of representing it is shown in the preceding cut, and is the form in which the lyre appears on ancient monuments, in connection with the statues of Apollo"
[Wine has been stored in a variety of vessels throughout history. Wineskins and amphorae were used by the ancient Greeks to store wine and wine barrels originated in Gaul (France in the Roman era). Glass bottles were not used for wine storage until the 17th century when thicker bottles and cork stoppers came into use.]
THE SIMILARITY BETWEEN THE ANCIENT GREEK BASS "BARBITOS" LYRE AND THE ANCIENT HEBREW NEVEL?
As described earlier, as the Hebrew meaning of "carcass" can be inferred from the Hebrew root "NVL", I think it is reasonable to argue that the Nevel was probably a bass register lyre, with a taut leather soundboard - very similar to the ancient Greek bass register skin-membrane lyre, known as the barbitos. This form of bass register skin-membrane lyre with a tortoise shell resonator, was particularly associated with the cult of Dionysus:
If indeed the Biblical Nevel did resemble the ancient Greek Barbitos, could this be purely coincidence, or possible evidence of an ancient cross-cultural exchange of musical ideas? A fascinating possibility!
THE BIBLICAL NEVEL AND THE PHOENICIAN NABLA?
Despite the initial similarity between the Barbitos and the Nevel, a more likely ancestor of the Biblical Nevel was the Phoenician Nabla - crucially, this instrument also had 12 strings!
The Phonecian Nabla was twelve-stringed instrument of the psalterion family, of Phoenician origin - significantly, just as in the description of the playing-style of the Biblical Nevel as described in the writings of Josephus Flavius, the Phonecian Nabla also was played with the bare fingers, without a plectrum.
ANCIENT ILLUSTRATIONS OF THE BIBLICAL NEVEL?
One of the earliest illustrations so far discovered (c.7th century BCE) of what may be the 12-string Biblical Nevel, was a 12-string lyre found inscribed on a small jasper seal of Princess Ma'adanah. It shows the instrument as a round-bottomed asymmetrical lyre, similar to the lyres of the ancient Egyptians:
Here are some more details about the inscription which I found here:
"A delicate lyre decorates a brown jasper seal from Jerusalem. The lyre has twelve strings connected by an oblique crossbar. On the bottom is a sound box, rounded on one side and carinated, or sharply angled, on the other. The sound box is decorated with a line of “pearls” along its outer edge and with a rosette at the center. The Hebrew inscription appears as a mirror image.
In antiquity, a seal was used to stamp a bulla or lump of clay affixed to a letter in order to prevent the fetter from being opened during transmission. Imprinted in a bulla, this seal’s seventh century B.C. Hebrew inscription would then appear in its correct orientation and name its owner: “Belonging to Ma’adanah, the King’s daughter.”
The authenticity of the seal of Ma'adanah is, however, hotly contested among experts (particularly epigrapher's), and many believe it is a forgery. Despite this contention on the authenticity of the seal, the Israeli Government thought enough of the seal to mint a gold shekel based on the design.
OTHER POSSIBLE ANCIENT ILLUSTRATIONS OF THE BIBLICAL "NEVEL"?
The larger lyre depicted on some of the Simon Bar Kokhba coins may well depict the elusive Biblical Nevel:
Many musicological sources suggest that the strings on this particular representation of this elusive Biblical lyre mysteriously "enter the soundbox", just as on a harp.
However, the picture seen on this coin, could also be interpreted as depicting the reverse of the instrument - just as illustrations of the Biblical Kinnor also seen on the Bar Kochba coins are of the reverse of this lyre as well (these depict the strap with which the Kinnor was held).
The reason why the reverse of the Biblical lyres are shown on the Bar Kokhba coins seems to me, simply to be a pragmatic one - it is simply easier to stamp a design of the reverse of a lyre onto a coin, rather than the front of the lyre..which has far more detail, and therefore is much harder to quickly mass produce by a gang of brave Jewish rebels, intent on quickly bringing about an uprising against the Roman Occupation...
It may well have been the case, that the resonator was made of ribbed wood, and the strings passed over a bridge, transmitting their vibration to a soundboard of taut animal skin?
The two designs of lyres depicted on the later Bar Kochba coins certainly seem to represent 2 distinct types of lyres which existed in ancient Israel for quite some time - earlier representations of these 2 basic lyre types seen on the Simon Bar Kochba coins, as mentioned earlier, can also be found on coins from Acco from at least 200 years before the time of the Simon Bar Kochba. Acco (also known as Acre) was a city port on the northern coast of ancient Israel from about the 9th-8th centuries BCE (For further details, please see pages 288 - 289 of Joachim Braun's book "Music in Ancient Israel/Palestine").
However, as argued earlier, in my discussion of the biblical Kinnor, it is more likely that the circular shaped lyre with horns, which we could imagine was the biblical Nevel, was in fact, a regular ancient Greek tortoise shell lyre - as only the Levitical priests themselves probably ever got to witness the performance of the sacred biblical lyres, the artisans who manufactured these coins were more likely only familiar with the appearance of the much more common kithara and tortoise shell lyres of classical antiquity!
A PHILISTINE COUSIN OF THE BIBLICAL NEVEL?
An lyre almost exactly the same as the Biblical lyre depicted on both the Bar Kokhba & Acco coins from ancient Israel, has recently been discovered on a pottery vessel from ancient Crete:
"Pyxis' from Kalamion (Chania, Crete). Lyre with 7 strings and a half-moon shaped soundbox. The object on the top of de soundbox, only finds parallels with the Phoenician/Hebrew 'nevel' and the Spanish lyre from Luna (Saragossa). [The piece dates from between 1350-1325 B.C.]"
(Angel Romain Ramirez):
More details about this fascinating object can be found at:
"Pyxis with lyre-player from Kalami. Late Minoan IIIB period, ca. 1300-1250, from a chamber tomb at Kalami loc. Koiliaris near ancient Aptera.
With decoration including a robed man holding a lyre or cithara in a field with birds, horns of consecration, and double-axes. Interpretations of the male figure have included a singer, a priest, Apollo, and Orpheus"
A COUSIN OF THE BIBLICAL NEVEL WITH PHILISTINE INFLUENCES?
For me, the most fascinating aspect of this discovery, was that it was found in Crete - which according to many renowned sources, was the homeland of the Biblical Philistines - arch enemies of the emerging Israelite Nation :
"According to biblical tradition (Deuteronomy 2:23; Jeremiah 47:4), the Philistines came from Caphtor (possibly Crete)" (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
Indeed, the style of this vessel is certainly in keeping with another verified Philistine artifact - a beer jug, which depicts a lyre very similar to the asymmetrical-shaped Israelite Kinnor lyre of the around the 7th century BCE:
This beer jug dates from 1150 - 1000 BCE and was found at Megiddo - an influential Philistine trade & cultural centre. The distinctive Philistine motifs which feature in both the Megiddo jar & the jar found at Crete is the depiction of animals:
"The motif of the lyre player in association with animals seems to have been an indigenous development in this area. Although Egyptian and Mesopotamian sources offer many examples portraying animals as musicians or incorporating animal shapes into parts of the instruments themselves (Hickmann, 1961a; Rashid, 1984), they virtually never portray animals, fish, birds, or reptiles together with human musicians in the same scene. Artists in ancient Israel/Palestine, on the other hand, began quite early portraying human musicians together with animals; significantly, the instruments in such scenes are always chordophones"
(Joachim Braun, "Music in Ancient Israel/Palestine - Archaeological, Written and Comparative Sources", page 147)
I find it fascinating that even ancient cultures who have traditionally been enemies, still quite obviously exchanged musical ideas across both their political & religious boundaries, as this evidence clearly seems to suggest? Indeed, the fact that the Philistines occupied Canaan at the same time as the emerging Israelite Nation would actually account for how this Philistine instrument was then later adopted & adopted by the Levitical Ensemble, for their performances in the ancient Temple services. The Levitical Ensemble, as described in both the Biblical text and in the writings of Flavius Josephus, may itself have had its origins influenced by the musical ensembles clearly depicted on Philistine pottery:
The idea of instruments being adapted and adopted between cultures who are historically bitter rivals is certainly not unique in History. Indeed, consider the iconic medieval double reed instrument, the Shawm - this was actually introduced into medieval fundamentalist Christian Europe during the pointless brutality of the Crusades, from the Muslim-occupied lands of Palestine, where it had been previously been played since antiquity.
I have had an interesting correspondence with Dr Richard Dumbrill on the subject of the cousin to the Biblical Nevel found at Crete, regarding the animal motifs featured in their depictions of musical instruments - which although are certainly a characteristic of Philistine art, are not unique to just the Philistines. As Dumbrill informed me, the proto-Greek Cycladic cultures also incorporated similar animal motifs in their art:
"Yes, I am well aware of this pyxis. There are depictions, or incorporation of animals, symbolically in Cycladic art, as these ancient civilisations were totemistic to start with. This lyre is very much in keeping with this Cretan object. About its philology, you rightly linked Biblical 'nev/bel' with 'nabla'. There is an interesting proposition which would find the roots of this word in the Sumerian with 'balag' through complex mutations and metathesis typical of Sumerian >Semitic languages. There the 'l' would become 'n'. The 'g' was pronounced as a Spanish 'ñ' "
However, even if the vessel is an example of Cycladic art, just maybe this culture in turn, influenced the nearby proto-Greek Philistines, who in turn, during their occupation of the emerging Israelite nation, influenced the musical culture of the Israelites with this unique lyre, until it finally and ironically, became associated with the Temple Services of the Levites? The idea of this instrument had to somehow get to Canaan/Israel...and the Philistines are the only proto-Greeks I know of, who actually occupied these lands.
THE PROBLEM WITH MODERN INTERPRETATIONS OF ANCIENT DEPICTIONS OF THE BIBLICAL NEVEL?
Another interesting point to notice in this illustration of the possibly Philistine cousin of the Biblical Nevel lyre, is that it could be interpreted that the strings are similarly depicted, as with the instrument on the Bar Kokhba coins, as possibly entering some sort of resonating chamber - this may well rule out the alternative interpretation, that the instrument on the Bar Kokhba coins was showing the reverse of the instrument, as it is very unlikely odds that the instrument on the vessel from Crete, of possibly Philistine origin, also shows the reverse of the instrument.
Therefore, it could be argued that the Biblical Nevel may well have been a sort of bass register "Lyre Harp" - an instrument similar in appearance to a lyre, but actually a harp, since the evidence from both the Acco coins, Bar Kokhba coins and the earlier Philistine version of the instrument from Crete all seem to suggest that the strings entered some sort of circular resonating chamber (likely to be made of ribbed wood over which was stretched a soundboard of taut leather).
This argument can be further supported, in the description by the first century Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, of the way the Nevel was actually played - not with a plectrum like a lyre, but with the fingers, just like all true harps are still played today...
However, the whole difficulty there seems to be in understanding the only illustrations of the Nevel we have, may be a simple lack of understanding about the way the ancients thought the "correct" way of depicting the lyre was in their illustrations of it, instead of modern the perspective we impose on how we think certain insruments should look (I have already discussed this common mistake in detail, in the last section of my page on the Biblical Kinnor)
"Consider the twelve-string lyre here... could it be that the portrayals of the nevel, nablas, etc. are foreshortened versions of this, viewed from the base toward the yoke so that the bridge actually looks like a small sound chamber? We're so used to thinking of the "front" of a FLAT lyre as viewed from a certain perspective that we view the "front" of a CURVED BOWL lyre from the same perspective. But maybe viewing such a lyre as Luis is playing from the place where the strings is attached (inasmuch as the lyre is sitting on its "back" in that position) is viewing from the real "front" as an ancient musician would think of it?"
This may well have been one of the ways the ancients depicted the lyre in their illustrations of the instrument - including the illustration of the almost identical instrument recently found in Crete as described above. Also, examples certainly exist, of lyres depicted from the back of the instrument as well, as can be seen in the illustration of the Biblical Kinnor on both the Acco & Simon Bar Kokhba coins.
Using this interpretation of the perspective intended to view this instrument, the row of dots seen on the lyre depicted on the Bar Kokhba coin now makes sense - these would be the string knots at the bottom of the instrument, and the circular structure would not be some mysterious resonating chamber, but simply the view of the bridge of a regular bowl-back lyre, but viewed from the bottom of the instrument.
Given the complete lack of any archaeological evidence of the harp being played during Biblical times in either Canaan or later in Israel, I am more inclined to take the view, that the Biblical Nevel was, therefore, a bass register 12-string bowl-back lyrerather than some sort of curious lyre-harp - the mistake modern interpretations of the illustrations we have of the Nevel on ancient Jewish coins from Acco & the later Simon Bar Kokhba coins, is a complete failure to recognize the what the ancients thought was an "acceptable" way to illustrate the musical instruments they were so familiar with in their own times.
IS THE NEVEL ASOR STILL BEING PLAYED IN ETHIOPIA TODAY?
As well as the 12 string Nevel, the ancient texts also refer to a Nevel Asor - a Biblical Nevel which had 10 strings. This would probably have been a bass register version of the Biblical Kinnor, for the reasons outlined earlier, which infer that the Nevel was a bass instrument.
In parts of East Africa, there is tantalizing evidence, that a lyre still played today by musicians of this region, and traditionally known by them as the "Begena", is an almost exact replica of the one of ancient Jewish Temple Lyres, namely the Nevel Asor - as explained earlier in the section about the Biblical Nevel, this was probably a 10 string version of the Biblical Nevel.
Exactly like the Ethiopian Begena, all the evidence outlined earlier, suggests that the Nevel Asor was also a bass register instrument, and according to the first hand writings of the 1st century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, was played with the fingers (instead of a plectrum, which he described the Kinnor being played with). Also like the Biblical Nevel, the Begena also generally has a soundboard of skin! More evidence for this fascinating possibility, can be found in my more detailed blog, "Have the Biblical Lyres Survived To The Present Day?"
RECREATING THE SOUND OF THE BIBLICAL NEVEL
My album "The Ancient Biblical Lyre" attempts to evoke an idea of the lost sound of the Biblical Nevel, using the evocation of the Biblical Nevel made by Mid East Ethnic Instruments - a many stringed skin-membrane lyre (this lyre actually has 15 strings , rather than the 12 strings of the Biblical Nevel described by Flavius Josephus):
Here is my arrangement for Mid East Ethnic Instrument's evocation of the Biblical Nevel, of the timeless Jewish folk song "Hava Nagila" ("Let Us Rejoice"):
Below is another video featuring their evocation of the Biblical Nevel, featuring my arrangement of an ancient Babylonian Jewish Wedding Song, "Ashir Shirim":
This ancient wedding song of the Babylonian Jews in Israel was carefully collected and transcribed almost a century ago by the musicologist A.Z Idelsohn.
The translation of the song is:
"I will sing songs to God at the coming of the redeemer.This terrified,innocent,& fair daughter - hurry to redeem her now.Elijah will come & she will be redeemed"
The traditional music of the Babylonian Jews is unique, as it may well be the "Invisible Baggage" of the Jews who were sent into exile there, after the destruction of the First Temple of Jerusalem by King Nebuchadrezzar II, in 586BC! These melodies therefore, may be representative of the very earliest aural memory of Jewish music, ever - from the almost Legendary Era of the Ark of the Covenant, & King Solomon's Temple...
Finally, here is a video of one of my series of "Online Lyre Lessons" describing how to play an ancient melody traditionally sang to Psalm 114, "When Israel Went Forth From Egypt":