Sunday, November 16, 2014

Audition For Battle

[I had to rewrite a section based on comments from John Wheeler. I am grateful to him, and I'm glad that it is more accurate and less speculative.]

Imagine this. You’re the king, but three armies are bearing down on you. You can’t withstand one of them, much less three. What do you do? Surrender? Call your generals? Fight to the last man? Hide? Or maybe like Jehosaphat of ancient Israel, you audition a choir. That’s right, audition a choir. 
2 Chronicles 20:1. It came to pass after this also, that the children of Moab, and the children of Ammon, and with them other beside the Ammonites, came against Jehoshaphat to battle. 
  ...Skipping to vs 21...
21. And when he had consulted with the people, he appointed singers unto the LORD, and that should praise the beauty of holiness, as they went out before the army, and to say, Praise the LORD; for his mercy endureth for ever.

 It is easy to read over that and not get the impact of what Jehosaphat actually did here. I have never led an army but I have directed choirs, so when it says he appointed singers, that sounds like an audition to me. I see two choices – take soldiers and see if they can sing or take singers and see if they will go into battle, note that it says the singers went before the army. That would perhaps be more of an interview than an audition. It appears Jehosaphat chose the latter, that is, take singers, and sent them into battle. Teaching soldiers to sing would take more than the 24 hours they had. Verse 19 actually tells us it was the temple singers "And the Levites, of the children of the Kohathites, and of the children of the Korhites, stood up to praise the LORD God of Israel with a loud voice on high".  (1 Chr 6:31-38 tells that David set Kohathite and Korhites over the song service of the temple.) The temple singers were already on the scene participating. 

I told the story out of order to emphasize the “audition”, but actually Jehosaphat did all the right things even before that. He sought the Lord, proclaimed a fast, prayed with the tribe of Judah, got an answer from a prophet (and believed it), consulted with the people, THEN he auditioned his singers. This isn't my idea - I got it from Hebrew Word Study: A Hebrew Teacher's Search for the Heart of God [1] by Chaim Bentorah. His words:

Now try to imagine this. Jehoshaphat has twenty-four hours to prepare for war against an overwhelming army, and how does he prepare? He sets up auditions and organizes a choir! And this choir is taught one song and one song only: “Praise the Lord. His mercies endure forever.” 

Jehosaphat was the king and probably didn't handle the auditions himself, he would have delegated.  According to the Pulpit Commentary [2], 

he possibly simply "conferred with" those who were over the singers, as to who should be the most prominent in leading the service of praise, or as to what should be the words sung and other like matters of detail; or more probably, considering the exact form of language used
[I was going to stop here, then this idea popped into my head...]

What did it sound like? 

We may have an idea of what it sounded like. The Old Testanment Hebrew text is notated with “cantillation marks”, which are directions on how the text is to be chanted or sung. The exact meaning of these cantillation marks had been lost for over 1000 years, but the late Suzanne Haik Vantoura claimed to have deciphered the marks. Her book "The Music of the Bible Revealed [3]" explains the research, but has its critics.  The cantillation marks are above and below the Hebrew text. Her insight was that the marks below the text were notes of the scale, and she worked out which marks were which notes. The marks above the text were ornamentation like mordents.

Jamieson-Fausset-Brown [4] states that they sang Ps 136, which by the way repeats the refrain "His mercy endures forever" 26 times. Hmmm, 26, a very interesting number. So 2Chr 20:21 only lists the refrain, like the title of a well known psalm. For example, we would refer to "The Lord's My Shepherd" for Ps 23. This is what Ps 136:1 looks like.  The darker section "SIGNS BELOW"  is directly from Haik Vantoura's book, p 38. In this passage, there are no signs above the text. The Hebrew text is from Mechon Mamre [5]. The other markings not highlighted are vowel sounds. Some people object to using God's name YHVH and substitute Adonai instead. I left it in because that's what the text says. 


How can we even know what music sounded like 3000 years ago? We can be certain the scale was the same because it's a math and physics thing, not something of arbitrary human invention. Even birds use the same scale (Birds found using human musical scales for the first time [6]). And archaeology has uncovered ancient musical instruments which show the notes in use. How do we know if Haik Vantoura was right? That's harder to know.  I've read the book, but don't follow everything in it. The deciphering method itself is logical and consistent. It does create melodies, singable melodies. Any doubts I have stem from not understanding the research well enough.

And how do I know I deciphered her system correctly? I don't have to guess - thanks to John Wheeler [7], we have Vantoura's own deciphering of Ps 136 to go by. Yes, it's hand written. It is the same as mine.

According to Haik Vantoura, this is the melody they sang when they marched into battle  that day.  I added bar lines to highlight the march characteristic. Click here to hear, please forgive the poor quality of the built in microphone.

Ps 136:1 Transliterated with Modern Music Notation [8]

What did that look like?

What did it look like, this army and these Levites marching to battle? This takes a little more imagination. Consider that soldiers have been marching to music for millenia. "Music has been an integral part of warfare and the soldier's life since the dawn of history" (historynet [9]).  The Peloponnesians had their flute players "meant to make them advance evenly, stepping in time, without breaking their order, as large armies are apt to do in the moment of engaging." (Peloponesian-war [10]) We are familiar with the sight of armies marching, how would this have been any different?

Verse 21 says the singers should "should praise the beauty of holiness", which according to Barnes' Notes [11] means "in rich apparel and ornaments suitable to a holy occasion". In other words, they were dressed in Temple clothes1

There is also a clue in the word for praise "hodu". It's not the normal word translated praise that we are all familiar with - "halleluia". Hodu is derived from the word for hand "yod", so taking linguistic license, "Lift up your hands to Jehovah, who is merciful forever". See Ps 63:4. Maybe the Levitical singers, dressed in holy garments, did just that, lifted up their hands in praise to God while they marched.

I've never done well at this, but one possible lesson from 2 Chr 20 could be - 

When life gives you a trial, Come out singing.




  1. Thank you for linking to my blog on Suzanne Haik-Vantoura's work, specifically the page on the composer. There is a Blogspot blog I created as well.

    I'm afraid you missed the mark widely as far as what the melody to either Psalm 136 or its counterpart in the narrative of Jehosaphat goes. Actually the melodies are in two completely different styles and the Levites would not have used the *prosodia in 2 Chronicles 20. *Prosodia is sung to speech rhythm, and "rubato". *Psalmodia is sung to syllabic rhythm, and in the case of Psalm 136, could be marched to.

    Even more important, THERE IS NO NEED TO ASSIGN A METRIC FOOT OF ANY KIND TO PSALM 136. I cannot overemphasize that, as people are too prone to assign modern ideas (based on Greek ideas) to Semitic sung poetry. That poetry was sung according to the principle of the accent, not according to the principle of the metric foot. We have known this since at least the middle of the last century. SHV inferred that in the Bible, *prosodia has speech rhythm and *prosodia syllabic rhythm, but with rare exceptions where dance music really is involved (as in Miriam's Song), there is NO METER as we understand it.

    Syllabic rhythm means you give one beat per syllable, and at the right tempo, that means you can take one step per beat. Psalm 136 was no Sousa march - it was a gracious tune of praise, the exact opposite of military in spirit (which was the whole point). Here is the original melody as SHV deciphered it:

    As for SHV's critics, the fact is no one else in literally 1900 years to the year, 70-1970 AD, has ever given anything like a coherent interpretation of the musical accents. She did because she "let the Bible interpret the Bible", just as the Masoretes did, but from the opposite premise which they took on under Talmudic influence: the accents are primarily melodic, not primarily syntactic as the Masoretic paradigm would have us believe. No one else has tried this approach!

    Her critics without fail do not understand her logic and in some cases have misrepresented it badly. That's what happens to some people when their own sacred cows are gored (mixing metaphors there). Some simply argue from the authority of the Masoretic paradigm without seeing how inadequate that paradigm is in the first place.

    Two other sites may prove helpful to you and your readers, although some pages need considerable updating:

    The entirety of SHV's published work is available from me on THE BIBLICAL CHANT LIBRARY DVD-ROM.

  2. Many thanks again for writing to me. I read Haik Vantoura's book years
    ago, but didn't understand it all - still don't. I took my best shot at
    deciphering 2Chr20:21. I wouldn't say I was wildly off. I admitted I am
    influenced by western music, and that I wanted it to be march like.

    I tried for hours to find Vantoura's deciphering of Ps 136. I have the
    book, the supplemental documents and the biblical chant CD, couldn't find
    it. I REALLY appreciate the PDF. I got the cantillated text of Ps 136 from and did my own deciphering. I
    came up with the same notes as Vantoura, no ornaments. A png file is

    I know you say meter need not be assigned, but it still seems they had to
    march to it so rhythm was a factor. I put bar lines in to help me count
    footsteps. I'm still puzzled about key. Vantoura's Ps 136 is written in
    Eminor, but has a G#. That's not really Eminor.

    I think I was wrong in taking the cantillation from 2Chr20:21, maybe for
    different reasons from you. I think vs 21 is simply naming the Psalm they
    sung while marching - we often refer to psalms by their first line, the
    author probably did the same. I thought the marching cantillation may have
    been different from the temple cantillation. Now I'm thinking they marched
    to Ps 136.

    I mentioned critics in an attempt at fairness. I explained Vantoura's
    reasoning, I didn't give any space to the critics. What criticisms I did
    make were entirely my own, mostly that I didn't understand some aspects.

    I will be reworking that part of the article based on your feedback. It
    will take a few days. Let me know what you think of my deciphering of Ps

    Thanks again,

    John Freeman

    1. Dear John,

      Thanks for contacting me and for replying here - and for revising your blog using the source. You're welcome to borrow graphics from this page if they will help you:

      I'd like you to consider another possibility. I discovered that at least this Psalm in Hebrew, while melodically it is still driven by accentual impulse and not by either ancient metrical foot or by equal measures as we know them, can be sung to a rhythmic foot (at least for the first several verses), maintained by clapping the hands in a particular manner:

      (Psalms 47:1-2 RSV) To the choirmaster. A Psalm of the Sons of Korah. (This is the Hebrew verse 1, and is sung in syllabic time but not metrically.)

      Clap your hands, all peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy!
      For the LORD, the Most High, is terrible, a great king over all the earth.

      I didn't test further at the time. I think the rule holds to verse 3, and possibly verse 4 which ends in "Selah (Weigh this! - likewise sung)". Anyway, here is a clip from a presentation I made for a SDA church here in Houston some years ago: