Asaph the Psalmist, and His Son Joseph


The_Beatles_and_Lill-Babs_1963How difficult is it to live in the shadow of a famous parent? How do you make your mark as an individual when your father or mother is a famous musician, artist, or actor? And worse, if you go into the same field as them– can you ever really escape the comparison? Could you ever live up to that? I am not sure I could. But that was the story for the first Joseph in this series, the son of Asaph: a musician and prophet of God, overshadowed by his much more famous father.

But who was Asaph? He was a Levite, a priest of David during the period before the First Temple, when the Tabernacle still sat on the Temple Mount. But he was not just any priest, he was the John Lennon of the priests. He was the very first musician-priest to say a blessing over the Tabernacle in Jerusalem, not to mention the writer of twelve of our psalms in the Book of Psalms– second only to King David in authorship. I am sure that almost no one has heard of him today, but in biblical terms is was a Big Deal.

Asaph the Psalmist and his son, the first among the musician-prophets of Jerusalem. Read on for more.

A modern model of the Tabernacle in Israel. Asaph's first performances would have been around a tent like this, rather than a constructed temple.
A modern model of the Tabernacle in Israel. Asaph’s first performances would have been around a tent like this, rather than a constructed temple.

(This post is the first in a series of looks at each of the men named “Joseph” in the bible in honor my my grandfather and my namesake. You might want to read the introductory post in this series first.)

Asaph the Seer (Asaph, son of Berekiah)

Although this post is about Joseph, we cannot talk about him without understanding his much more famous father. The first mention of Asaph in the Hebrew Bible comes in 1 Chronicles 6, when the bible helpfully provides not only a bit about Asaph’s lineage, but also a job description. Rarely is scripture this straight-forward!

These are the men David put in charge of the music in the house of the Lord after the ark came to rest there. They ministered with music before the tabernacle, the tent of meeting, until Solomon built the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. They performed their duties according to the regulations laid down for them.
1 Chronicles 6:31-32

Even Asaph’s story is really the story of David, after he emerged as king and brought the Ark of the Covenant and Tabernacle to Jerusalem. When he had completed this work, he decreed (just as it was in the Torah) the special role that the Levites would play in the service of God. The Levites were the descendants of Levi, and since the time of Moses and Aaron had made up the “priestly class” in ancient Judaism. Even though David did not get to build the Temple– that honor would be given to his son Solomon– he established the service that would be performed around the Tabernacle until the proper temple could be constructed.

After David had constructed buildings for himself in the City of David, he prepared a place for the ark of God and pitched a tent for it. Then David said, “No one but the Levites may carry the ark of God, because the Lord chose them to carry the ark of the Lord and to minister before him forever.”
1 Chronicles 15:1-2

The Levites as a whole were the only ones allowed to be directly involved in the service, but even that involved many roles. One of the key roles would be to perform the music that would accompany worship:

David told the leaders of the Levites to appoint their fellow Levites as musicians to make a joyful sound with musical instruments: lyres, harps and cymbals. So the Levites appointed Heman son of Joel; from his relatives, Asaph son of Berekiah; and from their relatives the Merarites, Ethan son of Kushaiah; and with them their relatives next in rank: Zechariah, Jaaziel, Shemiramoth, Jehiel, Unni, Eliab, Benaiah, Maaseiah, Mattithiah, Eliphelehu, Mikneiah, Obed-Edom and Jeiel, the gatekeepers.
1 Chronicles 15:16-18

The Levite leadership appointed Heman, Asaph, and Ethan as musicians with thirteen others appointed as gatekeepers. We see these gatekeepers appointed from among the musicians a few times in the text, but I do not know why they would have been appointed this way. Asaph was one of the Levites selected, but second to Heman in prominence. He was Heman’s “associate”, according to that first description from earlier:

Here are the men who served, together with their sons: From the Kohathites: Heman, the musician […] and Heman’s associate Asaph, who served at his right hand.
1 Chronicles 6:33-39

Even as the second, Asaph had an important role in producing the much-needed “joyful sound”. He, Heman, and Ethan were all given the task to sound the bronze cymbals, while other musicians were given other instruments:

The musicians Heman, Asaph and Ethan were to sound the bronze cymbals;  Zechariah, [and others] were to play the lyres […], and Mattithiah [and others] were to play the harps […]. Kenaniah the head Levite was in charge of the singing; that was his responsibility because he was skillful at it.
1 Chronicles 15:19-22

Asaph may have not been the most prominent of the musicians invited to play in the Tabernacle by David, but that is not the end of his story: Asaph was about to get a promotion.

Asaph: The First Psalmist

An illustration of the building of the first Tabernacle in the desert during the time of Moses. David's reconsecration of the Tabernacle in Jerusalem may have looked something like this.
An illustration of the building of the first Tabernacle in the desert during the time of Moses. David’s reconsecration of the Tabernacle in Jerusalem may have looked something like this.

What happened between the time that David first brought the Ark into the city of Jerusalem and when the first services were held? It could not have been a very ling time as God required near-constant services. But as we flip the page and look at First Chronicles 16, it is no longer Heman that has the pride of place in the first ceremony in Jerusalem, but rather Asaph. He was not the only one to apparently get a promotion as some of the thirteen identified as “gatekeepers” were also given steps up:

He appointed some of the Levites to minister before the ark of the Lord, to extol, thank, and praise the Lord, the God of Israel: Asaph was the chief, and next to him in rank were Zechariah, then Jaaziel, Shemiramoth, Jehiel, Mattithiah, Eliab, Benaiah, Obed-Edom and Jeiel. They were to play the lyres and harps, Asaph was to sound the cymbals, and Benaiah and Jahaziel the priests were to blow the trumpets regularly before the ark of the covenant of God.
1 Chronicles 16:4-6

What happened to Asaph’s two peers, Heman and Ethan? Heman will be mentioned later, still playing the cymbals, but Ethan will be nearly absent– although he did write a psalm. (Some scholars believe that Jeduthun, another musician who will be mentioned later, is an alternate name for Ethan.) No matter how it happened, Asaph was now given the great honor of leading the first service to God in the Tabernacle’s new home.

In the stories that we have of Asaph, we almost never get to hear his words. Only his psalms allow us to hear his true voice. And yet, at the dedication of the Tabernacle in Jerusalem, we have the words of the prayer that he spoke. They were written by David, so they may not be a good representation of what he would have said, but here are the first few lines anyway:

Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name;
make known among the nations what he has done.
Sing to him, sing praise to him;
tell of all his wonderful acts.
Glory in his holy name;
let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.
Look to the Lord and his strength;
seek his face always.
1 Chronicles 16:8-11

After this inaugural service, David placed Asaph in charge of the regular musical service. We do not know for how long he held this job, but we knew that he lived at least to the dedication of Solomon’s Temple.

David left Asaph and his associates before the ark of the covenant of the Lord to minister there regularly, according to each day’s requirements. He also left Obed-Edom and his sixty-eight associates to minister with them. Obed-Edom, son of Jeduthun, and also Hosah, were gatekeepers.
1 Chronicles 16:37-38

Asaph was undoubtedly one of the most important men in David’s tabernacle service. Before the end of his career, he will be credited with twelve psalms and his descendants will remain temple musicians. He was a musical patriarch. But what can we say about Asaph’s son?

Joseph, Son of Asaph

Not the "Heman" of this story.
Not the “Heman” of this story.

Where does Joseph fit into all of this? He first appears in our story well after Asaph, when David assembles a corps of prophets whose job it will be to use music to understand (or receive messages from) God.

David, together with the commanders of the army, set apart some of the sons of Asaph, Heman and Jeduthun for the ministry of prophesying, accompanied by harps, lyres and cymbals. Here is the list of the men who performed this service: From the sons of Asaph: Zakkur, Joseph, Nethaniah and Asarelah. The sons of Asaph were under the supervision of Asaph, who prophesied under the king’s supervision. […]
1 Chronicles 25:1-2

This brief passage tells us a few things. First, that Joseph had at least three musician brothers– and a fourth will be mentioned as a gatekeeper for the Tabernacle. I have not completed a complete genealogy of the Chronicles, as I have done for the Torah, so I could be missing someone mentioned elsewhere. These prophet-musicians were also appointed by the “commanders of the army”– was Joseph involved in some kind of “prophecy corps” to help bring success in battle? The bible is quite vague, but we know that there were many prophets in the biblical period, not just the ones that are credited with books in our bibles.

The sons of each of the musician patriarchs drew lots to determine their duties. Joseph won the first lot, suggesting that he was the first in precedence of his brothers:

Asaph, Jeduthun and Heman were under the supervision of the king. Along with their relatives—all of them trained and skilled in music for the Lord—they numbered 288. Young and old alike, teacher as well as student, cast lots for their duties. The first lot, which was for Asaph, fell to Joseph, his sons and relatives.
1 Chronicles 25:1-2

The Book of Chronicles does not tell us what Joseph “won” for getting that first lot or what his duties were. Our best chance at understanding what a musician-prophet may have done comes from the Book of Kings:

Elisha said, “As the Lord of hosts lives, whom I serve, were it not that I have regard for King Jehoshaphat of Judah, I would give you neither a look nor a glance. But get me a musician.” And then, while the musician was playing, the power of the Lord came on him. And he said, “Thus says the Lord, ‘I will make this wadi full of pools.’ For thus says the Lord, ‘You shall see neither wind nor rain, but the wadi shall be filled with water, so that you shall drink, you, your cattle, and your animals.’
2 Kings 3:14-17

That is the last we know of Joseph the musician-prophet; he is not mentioned again in the bible. But we can guess that he participated with his father in the consecration of the First Temple, under King Solomon:

 All the Levites who were musicians—Asaph, Heman, Jeduthun, and their sons and relatives—stood on the east side of the altar, dressed in fine linen and playing cymbals, harps and lyres. They were accompanied by 120 priests sounding trumpets. The trumpeters and musicians joined in unison to give praise and thanks to the Lord. Accompanied by trumpets, cymbals and other instruments, the singers raised their voices in praise to the Lord and sang: “He is good; his love endures forever.”
2 Chronicles 5:12-13

Asaph’s Legacy

That is the last we hear of Asaph and of his son Joseph. About three-hundred years later, when King Hezekiah re-consecrated the Temple, the words of “Asaph the Seer” were sung once again in the Temple. This may be the first reference we have to Asaph’s place as a preeminent psalmist:

When the offerings were finished, the king and everyone present with him knelt down and worshiped. King Hezekiah and his officials ordered the Levites to praise the Lord with the words of David and of Asaph the seer. So they sang praises with gladness and bowed down and worshiped.
2 Chronicles 29:29-30

Even up to the Babylonian captivity, the descendants of Asaph still acted as the musicians of the Temple according to Ezra.

I hope you enjoyed this look at Asaph and his son. Up next should be the continuation of the Esther story (a fantastic story, even if I am months late for Purim), but I have some Dead Sea Scrolls drafts floating around which I may try to finish.

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