What is a Timbrel in the Bible?
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What is a Timbrel in the Bible?

Have you ever wondered what a timbrel is when reading your Bible? You may have come across passages that reference timbrels but been unsure exactly what they are. In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the fascinating history and meaning behind the timbrel in Scripture. Get ready to learn about this ancient percussion instrument and its spiritual significance.

An Introduction to the Timbrel

A timbrel is a percussion instrument that consists of a handheld wooden or metal frame with metal jingles attached around the circumference. It is similar to a modern tambourine but without the drumhead. Timbrels produce a rhythmic jingling sound when shaken or struck. They are one of the most ancient musical instruments, dating back thousands of years.

In the Bible, the Hebrew word for timbrel is toph. Timbrels are mentioned several times in the Old Testament as an instrument of praise and worship, particularly by women. The first reference is in Genesis 31 when Rachel secretly takes her father’s idols and hides them under a timbrel. Timbrels were small enough to be concealed but also valuable items.

Other Old Testament passages describe timbrels being used in victory celebrations and festive dances. The Book of Psalms encourages praise with timbrels and dance. After the Israelites miraculously crossed the Red Sea, Moses’ sister Miriam led the women in joyful singing with timbrels. Likewise, after David’s defeat of Goliath, women came out singing and dancing with timbrels.

So in the Bible, the timbrel represents praise, rejoicing, festivity and victory. The rhythmic beat of the timbrel created energy and excitement. It was an accessible and portable instrument that women could play while singing, dancing and worshipping.

What is a timbrel in the bible?

The Importance of the Timbrel in Scripture

Why does the Bible highlight the timbrel so frequently? What is the deeper significance of this percussion instrument? Here are some key reasons why the timbrel holds special meaning:

A Call to Praise

Playing the timbrel represented a call to praise God. The jingling beats punctuated songs of thanksgiving after experiencing God’s blessings and miracles. It energized worship and inspired joyful singing. The writers of the Psalms knew that praise with timbrels Stirred spiritual fervor.

Celebrating Victories

The timbrel’s festive sound marked occasions when God’s people triumphed over enemies and obstacles. The victory at the Red Sea was a definitive moment of divine salvation for Israel. Of course, Miriam led praise with the timbrel! Similarly, defeating the Philistines’ champion Goliath against all odds was a landmark event. Naturally, Israel’s women celebrated with timbrels.

A Women’s Instrument

Unlike other instruments like harps and trumpets, timbrels in Scripture were predominantly played by women. While men led public worship, women often worshipped separately and provided musical accompaniment with timbrels. It was a portable, accessible instrument well-suited for group music-making.

Timbrels empowered women to fulfill a vital spiritual role through worship music. Despite limited public leadership opportunities, they could lead praise before God’s ark or prophetically declare His victories through song.

Connection to Temple Worship

In the Old Testament temple, timbrels were part of the sacred music. According to 1 Chronicles, temple musicians included those who played cymbals, harps, lyres and timbrels. The scale and splendor of temple worship incorporated timbrels alongside other instruments.

Part of Festive Celebration

The Jews used the timbrel to celebrate special days of remembrance and thanksgiving. In the Feast of Tabernacles, Temple musicians played timbrels while people sang, danced, and waved branches. On pilgrimage festivals, timbrels helped set a tone of community joy as people traveled to Jerusalem.

Just as we use noisemakers and horns today, timbrels contributed to the energy and excitement of special observances. The festive rhythms proclaimed, “God is good! He has blessed us!”

Timbrels in the Ancient Near East

To gain a deeper perspective on timbrels in the Bible, it helps to understand how surrounding civilizations utilized them. Timbrels originated in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt long before Israel’s history. Women played frame drums like timbrels in both religious rituals and secular events.


In ancient Mesopotamia, timbrels were associated with the goddess Inanna. By the 18th century BC, timbrel-playing priestesses served at Inanna’s temples. The rhythmic timbrel sound was thought to imitate Inanna’s heartbeats. Temple hymns also mention timbrel music in rituals.


Timbrels are depicted in ancient Egyptian art and burial sites dating back to 2500 BC. Musicians shake timbrels to keep the beat. Egyptian women playing timbrels often wore Hathor masks symbolizing the goddess of music. They used timbrels in both sacred rituals and everyday entertainment.


As a percussion instrument, the timbrel migrated from Mesopotamia to Canaan between 1720-1540 BC. Hand-held frame drums like timbrels were part of Canaanite religious music. When Israel entered Canaan, timbrels were already an established musical tradition.

Israel embraced the timbrel but infused it with new spiritual meaning as an instrument to worship Yahweh instead of pagan gods. They transformed it into a tool to celebrate God’s presence and redemptive acts.

Variations of the Ancient Timbrel

Timbrels came in different shapes and sizes in the ancient world. Archeologists have discovered numerous depictions and remains of timbrel-type instruments. Here are some of the most common varieties:

  • Small hand drums – These circular frame drums were 6 inches to 1 foot in diameter. Women held them in one hand and beat them with the other.
  • Large hand drums – These timbrels measured 1 to 2 feet in diameter and produced louder tones. Players gripped them under one arm and struck them with a stick in the other hand.
  • Tambourine-style timbrels – Some timbrels featured a hook or handgrip so players could shake them to create jingling sounds.
  • Ornate and ceremonial timbrels – Elaborately decorated timbrels were used in religious services and processionals. Priests and leaders carried these timbrels.
  • Double-sided timbrels – These frame drums had jingles on both sides so they could be played two ways.
  • Cymbal timbrels – Small cymbals were mounted on handles and played like mini timbrels.
  • Timbrel pairs – Musicians sometimes played a timbrel in each hand to create complex rhythms.

So while all timbrels shared the same basic anatomy, they came in different forms to produce a wide musical range. But in every case, they created lively rhythmic sounds to energize worship.

How to Picture the Timbrel

When the Bible references timbrels, you may wonder exactly what instrument is playing in the background. Here are some details to help you envision and imagine the ancient timbrel:

  • The timbrel’s circular wooden or metal frame was probably around 10 inches in diameter – suitable for holding in one hand.
  • Metal disks or jingling plates were attached around the rim, making a joyful clanging sound when shaken or struck.
  • Timbrels were light enough for dancing and processionals. Israelites could carry them on long pilgrimages.
  • Women held the timbrel by the frame in one hand and struck it with the other hand or tapped it on their thigh.
  • Skilled timbrel players could produce steady beats, syncopated rhythms, accents and flourishes.
  • The jingling timbrel sound rose above voices, reinforcing songs of celebration and praise.
  • Groups of women often played timbrels together, creating communal energy.

So imagine a joyful band of Israelite women singing to the Lord with timbrels in hand. Their nimble fingers tap lively beats to punctuate prayers of thanksgiving. The atmosphere is spirited and reverent all at once. That’s the ancient timbrel in action!

Timbrel Music in the Bible

The timbrel brought danceable rhythms and lively energy to religious occasions in Scripture. Here are some key examples of how timbrels were incorporated:

Victory songs – After winning battles, women celebrated victories with timbrel music, singing and dancing. Miriam led the women in procession with timbrels after Pharaoh’s army was defeated at the Red Sea (Exodus 15:20). And after David killed Goliath, women welcomed King Saul’s army with singing, dancing and timbrels (1 Samuel 18:6). The timbrel’s festive sound marked their joy.

Wedding processionals – Young women often celebrated a bride and groom with singing, dancing and timbrel music as part of wedding rituals. They might play timbrels and other instruments to lead a wedding party through the streets on the way to the ceremony.

Pilgrimage songs – Pilgrims sang timbrel songs on their journeys to Jerusalem for annual feasts and sacrifices. The familiar timbrel rhythms lightened the traveling mood.

Temple musicians – Among the musicians appointed for temple worship were those who played timbrels (1 Chronicles 25:6). The timbrel was part of creating solemn, joyful music appropriate for sacred spaces.

Festive rituals – Playing timbrels was a regular part of celebration rituals for annual feasts like the Feast of Tabernacles (Psalm 81:2). Lively timbrel rhythms punctuated the people’s expressions of joy to God.

Prophetic pronouncements – When prophetess Miriam sang out, “Sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted,” she didn’t just speak the words; she proclaimed them with a timbrel beat (Exodus 15:21). The timbrel underscored her authority as a Spirit-filled worship leader.

Psalms of praise – Several psalms encourage praising God with timbrels and dancing for His mighty acts of righteousness and salvation (Psalm 68:25, Psalm 149:3, Psalm 150:4). The timbrel’s unique sound was inseparable from rejoicing in the Lord.

So whenever a festive spirit was appropriate in worship, the timbrel helped set the tone. Its unique rhythms and joyful energy stirred praise for God’s gifts and victories.

Spiritual Meaning of the Timbrel

Beyond a percussion instrument, the timbrel took on deeper spiritual symbolism for the Israelites. Here are some key implications of the timbrel in Scripture:

God’s presence – The “heartbeat” sound of timbrels symbolized that the living God was present among His people. The rhythmic beats declared, “The Lord is here with us!”

Faith in God’s promises – Timbrels sounded in victory celebrations even before battles took place. The music displayed confidence that God would deliver the victory as promised.

Reverent joy – Though loud and festive, timbrels were played in a worshipful manner, not for rowdy parties. The spirit was celebratory but still focused on God.

Freedom in worship – Dance and timbrels expressed freedom to worship God with the whole body and spirit, not just prescribed rituals. The music came from the soul.

Unity – As women played and danced together, it demonstrated communal trust, support and joy. Their teamwork pleased God.

Inclusion – Unlike most instruments, timbrels afforded women important roles in worship leadership and prophecy as Miriam’s song shows.

Blessing – The timbrel’s sound proclaimed God’s blessings. Its rhythms aligned with the goodness and salvation that comes only from the Lord.

So when you read about timbrels in the Bible, let the passages come to life. Imagine the timbrel’s special sound and its spiritual resonance that drew people’s hearts to praise God.

The Timbrel Tradition Continues…

The rich heritage of the timbrel did not end in Bible times. The tradition has continued in amazing ways:

  • Timbrels are still used in traditional music across the Middle East and North Africa today. You can enjoy their festive rhythm in Jewish and Arabic folk songs.
  • The tambourine as we know it evolved from ancient timbrels. While tambourines have a drumhead, they continue the tradition of jingling rhythms.
  • Timbrels feature in art, literature and movies about biblical times. Anytime artists want to evoke biblical praise, timbrels help set the scene.
  • Some believers still play timbrels in worship, especially Messianic Jews and charismatic Christians. The timbrel’s prayer-punctuating beat endures.
  • Though not common in Western worship, timbrels have influenced modern percussion used to energize praise like drum kits, cymbals and hand percussion.

Don’t be surprised if the Lord taps you on the shoulder one day and says, “Take up your timbrel and dance!” There may come an occasion to reintroduce this ancient instrument as you lead others into joyful worship. Who knows what festivities the Lord has planned for His people?

When that day comes, the beat of the timbrel will ready our hearts to sing and move in the Spirit just as powerfully as it did for Miriam, Deborah and David. Something new and yet very old will resonate to create a song of salvation and celebration.

Conclusion: Embracing the Heartbeat of Praise

What an amazing journey we have taken to uncover the history and heritage of the timbrel in Scripture! This percussion instrument so integral to worship in Old Testament times still has much to teach us about magnifying the Lord.

The next time you come across one of the many biblical references to timbrels, I hope you will dig deeper into the passage. Consider how the timbrels contributed to the worship atmosphere. Imagine their unique sound energizing praise. Reflect on their deeper symbolic meaning too. Let the Word come alive as you enter into its richness.

Most of all, ask God if now is the time to reintroduce timbrels – or similar instruments – into your worship experience. Join the long line of women and men who have played timbrels from Bible days until today. Become part of the living heritage of praise!

The spiritual heartbeat pulsing through ancient timbrels still resonates today. It calls all believers into deeper joy and freedom in the presence of the Lord. Why not embrace that holy rhythm again? Take up your timbrel and lend your voice. Then watch how the Spirit moves through you!

Key Takeaways:

  • Timbrels are ancient percussion instruments similar to tambourines that were played by hand.
  • In the Bible, timbrels accompanied singing, dancing, and celebrations.
  • Women like Miriam predominantly played timbrels as instruments of praise.
  • Timbrels brought festive energy and joy to worship.
  • The timbrel’s sound symbolized God’s presence with His people.
  • Playing timbrels together unified women in worship leadership.
  • Timbrels have continued through history as symbols of celebratory praise.
  • Believers can embrace timbrels’ heritage by adding percussion to energize worship.
Pastor duke taber
Pastor Duke Taber

Pastor Duke Taber

All articles have been written or reviewed by Pastor Duke Taber.
Pastor Duke Taber is an alumnus of Life Pacific University and Multnomah Biblical Seminary.
He has been in pastoral ministry since 1988.
Today he is the owner and managing editor of 3 successful Christian websites that support missionaries around the world.
He is currently starting a brand new church in Mesquite NV called Mesquite Worship Center, a Non-Denominational Spirit Filled Christian church in Mesquite Nevada.