Bob Dylan recently won the Nobel Prize for literature. It is actually rare that songwriters receive this award, so with Dylan we see recognition of an intriguing writer. In my experience in Nashville songwriters will tell me that song writing is a form of poetry. The artist is trying to express an inner meaning in their narrative. In looking at Bob Dylan’s work, we will begin to see the mastery of how he implants deep meaning into his writing. Moreover, the messaging in his narrative acts as a pointing finger to the ultimate answer – God.
Father Robert Barron once wrote that Dylan’s work is drenched in Biblical imagery. Dylan grew up in an orthodox Jewish family. In these crucial forming years of his youth, Dylan was in an environment of Biblical knowledge. In his adult years, Dylan seemed to separate himself from any organized religion but was very much guided by a sense of the Divine in his writings. While Dylan may not come across as devout or holy by any means, he certainly admires the Bible and has many times used the stories in the Bible in his literature. In fact, Dylan mentioned in an article in Rolling Stone that John Wesley Harding was his “first Biblical rock album.”(see here)
If Dylan, a man revered in the pop culture used Biblical imagery in his writings, then his work can be a bridge in which to introduce Biblical themes to those typically not interested in anything religious.
However, Dylan’s Biblical themes are not overly front and center and they tend to be layered underneath other themes. Like most poets, he hides the meaning of his writings in a subtle way in which he makes the audience hunt for it. He wants his work to be somewhat elusive so he keeps the audience at bay with a cloud of mystery as to the true meaning of his writings. However, in Dylan you can see patterns. Every great artist will leave echoes of themes implanted within their work. If we know that throughout Dylan’s career he used Biblical motifs, we can begin to see a pattern emerge. Perhaps, the most famous of Dylan’s song contains a deep running Biblical theme. In his song Blowing in the Wind, Dylan asks the elementary questions in the following verses:
“How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man? How many seas must a white dove sail before she sleeps in the sand?”
Throughout the song, he’s asking such deep questions as – Who am I? What’s life about? When where there be peace? And then comes his famous answer. “The answer my friend is blowing in the wind.”
With this answer the audience kind of assumes Dylan is giving them a vague, abstract answer – the wind. What does this mean? Is the wind blowing by me? Past me? We think this wind is allusive and it’s blowing away from me. Ahh, but when you read it through Biblical lens, the profound meaning of the song makes sense. In the Bible, the Holy Spirit is always associated with wind. In John 3, Jesus told Nicodemus “to be born of water and spirit.” Nicodemus had no clue what this meant, and Jesus went on to connect that this Spirit is associated with wind (see John 3:8).
The Hebrew word for the Spirit of God is ruach – which means wind and breath. Genesis 1 describes how “The earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the ruach (wind/spirit) of God was hovering over the waters.” The wind is, in fact, the Holy Spirit. Wind is meant to signify the very breath of God, and from this breath comes all of creation (see also John 20:22). In Exodus 14:21, it was a strong driving wind that separated the waters of the Red Sea and lead the Israelites to freedom. Therefore, Dylan is alluding that the deepest answer to our most fundamental questions of who am I, what is life about is not found in politics, or through our efforts. The answer to these pressing questions is found in the Holy Spirit – the 3rd person of God. That is, to know the meaningful questions in life, you’ll find the answer in the very entity that created you – God.
Another deep Biblical work of Dylan’s is Tangled Up In Blue. This writing seems to be about two people – a man and a woman, who have a lot of baggage and despair in their lives. The line of tangled up in blue can be interpreted as a metaphor in which they are chained up in their dysfunction of sin. Then, in the middle of the song Dylan writes,
“Then she opened up a book of poems and handed it to me – written by an Italian poet from the fifteenth century. And every one of them words rang true. And glowed like burning coal. Pouring off of every page like it was written in my soul from me to you.”
Who was this Italian poet from the 15th century? It is none other than the great Catholic writer Dante Alighieri. And the poetry Dylan is referring to is Dante’s famous work in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Indeed, Tangled Up in Blue mirrors the work of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Here, Dante illustrates his journey from the dark depths of sin, to the mountain peak in which the human person is free from the chains of sin and can now fly. In Dylan’s mind, this same freeness comes when a person breaks away from being tangled up in blue (i.e., sin). The idea being that sin causes a person to be “tangled up” or bound in self-destructive patterns. Here, they cease to be their real, authentic self. Much like Dante, Dylan alludes that to break away from this tangled state a person will be truly free as he writes in the song that the goal was to be “like a bird that flew.”
Dylan’s Biblical themes continue in his song, Gotta Serve Somebody, a 1979 number that won him a Grammy for best song. It is based on a passage from the 24th chapter of the book of Joshua. After the Israelites had completed their conquest of the Promised Land, Joshua assembled the people and posed to them a blunt choice: either you worship the Lord or you worship the gods of the people you have conquered. Then he says, unambiguously, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24: 15). Dylan translates this into his distinctive poetry:
“You might be the ambassador to England or France. You might like to gamble, you might like to dance. You might be the heavyweight champion of the world. You might be a socialite with a long string of pearls, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody. It might be the devil, or it might be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
There it is, as stark as Joshua’s challenge: either follow the true God or follow the dark power that lies behind the treasures of this world. We are all guided by some entity on how to act, how to think, and where all the answers lie. In this song, Dylan might as well be asking people which entity are you going to follow – the pop culture or God?
The Biblical themes keep rolling along in his song Gonna Change My Way of Thinkin’. The next to last stanza of this tune is: “Jesus said be ready, you know not the hour which I come. He said, ‘He who is not for me is against me’. Just so you’d know where he was comin’ from.”
Even Dylan’s explicitly political protest songs were rooted in the prophetic tradition of ancient Israel and almost without exception called the judgment of God on wicked rulers and unscrupulous financiers. What was that “hard rain a-gonna fall” if not the flood of Noah? Also, in The Wicked Messenger Dylan takes a line directly from Proverbs 13:7: “a wicked messenger falleth into mischief.”
His song Highway 61 Revisited is a Jewish retelling of the sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22 -“Oh, God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son!’ Abe says, ‘Man, you must be puttin’ me on.”
Dylan’s Every Grain of Sand is littered with classic Christian assumptions of a flawed man brought to realization of his past sins. Dylan connects the sins of mankind by the famous episode of Cain and Able in Genesis 4 as he writes, “Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break. In the fury of the moment I can see the master’s hand.” The reference that he “can see the masters hand in every leaf that trembles” illuminates the Biblical idea of an ultimate judgement haunting man. Further in the song, Dylan showcases how temptation is always calling man’s name and that “every hair is numbered like every grain of sand.” This line is reminiscent of Jesus statement: “The very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (Luke 12:7). Also, given the sparrow reference in Luke’s verse, it’s interesting that Dylan concludes his song by saying, “I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man. Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand.” Here, Dylan is most likely bringing the Luke passage out in his song almost like he’s testing this verse to see if man’s fate is, in fact, more than that of the sparrow.
In Forever Young, Dylan poetically rewrites a father’s blessing over his children at the Sabbath table in the several “may you” lines. These lines are invoking the blessings Isaac gave to Jacob in Genesis 27, and similarly Jacob’s dream of a ladder leading up to heaven as Dylan writes –“May you build a ladder to the stars. And climb on every rung.” And of course, Dylan connects the blessings in the Old Testament with the famous blessings Jesus delivers at the Sermon on the Mount when Dylan writes in the song, “May you always do for others and let others do for you.” (see Matthew 7:12).
Another of Dylan’s classic song, Like A Rolling Stone, has deep Biblical meaning embedding in it. On the surface, it appears as if the song is blaming or mocking this other fellow.
“Once upon a time you dressed so fine. You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you? People’d call, say, ‘Beware doll, you’re bound to fall.’ You thought they were all kiddin’ you. You used to laugh about everybody that was hangin’ out. Now you don’t talk so loud. Now you don’t seem so proud. About having to be scrounging for your next meal.”
It seems like he is putting down someone who was doing great, but now finds himself in a lowly state. However, if we apply the Biblical theme displayed throughout Dylan’s work, this song begins to make sense. He’s not so much pointing out what this person has lost, he’s pointing out what this person has gained precisely because he’s lost all this stuff. This can be summed up in Jesus mantra, “When you lose yourself, you find yourself” (see Matthew 10:39). What the saints point out is that the key to the spiritual life is detachment of all the things of this world. Notice in the song that Dylan comments how this person lost all these pleasures of the modern culture.
What the saints declare is that when a person fills his ego up with pleasure, materialistic possessions, money, power, status, he’ll get off the trial of his true self. If we become addicted to the pleasures of the world we’ll lose our real self and replace it with a fake, consumeristic self. At this point the person will be yearning for something outside of the pleasures of this world.
In short, the human person is hard wired for God, but instead of pursuing God we replace God with all this “stuff” in the world. This naturally creates a void within that person. However, once a person detaches himself from the “stuff” of the world, he becomes free and can begin to be his real version. Indeed, St. Francis of Assisi became a saint once he left his rich lifestyle and embraced a monk-like lifestyle where he was detachment from the typical pleasures of the world. Therefore, when a person is stripped away from the stuff of this world (e.g., money, toys, technology, etc.), God’s seeds can better grow within them. We can see this in Dylan’s next verse:
“How does it feel – To be without a home? Like a complete unknown. Like a rolling stone.”
This line is not so much downing that person, it’s a freeing of that person. How does it feel now that you a striped of all the superficial junk of this world? One of the great lines of that song is; “When you aint got nothing you got nothing to lose.” When you lose the chains of debris of this world (money, status, power) you are free. At this stage, you are like a rolling stone. A rolling stone is able to move; able to live. And finally, a rolling stone is powerful. This song can be interpreted as a person receiving the voice of God. His life has been rocked around, but it is now liberated and free to be his real, powerful self. Indeed, Dylan called this song about a journey home. We can understand that the true self void from the “stuff” of this world, is when a persons reaches their real home.
Another of Bob Dylan’s song that is drenched in Biblical themes is All Along The Watchtower. It’s been covered by numerous artists (I prefer the Dave Matthews version). The imagery in this song comes right out of the 21st chapter of the prophet Isaiah when a watchman on the watchtower see two riders approaching. Before Bob Dylan brings the watchtower scene together, he starts with a conversation between a joker and a thief. The joker speaks first and says,
“There must be some way out of here” said the joker to the thief
“There’s too much confusion”, I can’t get no relief
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.
Here, the joker and the thief represent two people that are caught in this fallen, desolate world in which there appears no way out. The confusion the joker mentions alludes to the fact that they have been pulled in many directions from all the various governing powers that have instructed them how to live. However, these governing powers have all simultaneously plowed and stolen their land by force. Indeed, in Biblical times Israel’s land had been conquered by the armies of Egypt, Persia, Babylon, Greece, and Rome.
Then, the thief speaks back to the joker.
“No reason to get excited”, the thief he kindly spoke
“There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.”
Here, the thief is attempting to calm the joker so as to bring him to peace by indicating that this world of suffering won’t be their fate. In this, he’s relating to the joker that yes, we’ve been through much turmoil and while it might seem that life is a joke – there is, in fact, more to life than our current state. The thief then brings up a common biblical line “the hour is getting late.” The hour is getting late can be seen as a reference to God’s presence – God’s breaking into this fallen world. In other words, the thief instructs the joker because the hour is getting late we shouldn’t fool around with this idea that life is meaningless.
When we look at this conversation between the joker and the thief, we naturally ask who the thief is from the Biblical perspective. Here, we draw a line to the good thief on the cross next to Jesus. Indeed, the good thief on the cross had been through the despair of life. As some have speculated the conversation between the thief and the joker is the conversation between the good thief and the bad thief on the cross in Luke 23. In this reading, the joker represents the bad thief precisely because the joker is falsely declaring that there is nothing beyond the despair of this life; there is no sense of the Divine. Indeed, the bad thief by denying Jesus is expressing this very statement. In Luke’s description, the good thief is attempting to convince the bad thief no don’t give up, don’t despair. There is a Divine presence; in fact, God is right next to you being crucified himself.
Then, the next verse Dylan presumably shifts to Isaiah 21 as the watchers are on the watchtower keeping watch for potential armies. As the passage continues, two riders appear approaching the watchtower as the wind begins to howl. These two riders are two messengers that have good news to announce. Their message to Jerusalem is that Babylon has fallen. Babylon the great evil empire of dysfunction and sin has been destroyed. Therefore, how this scene reads is that the old world of sin, and destruction has passed away. So, the thief was right when he told the joker – no, the old world will be defeated and better things will come. This idea only makes sense as the thief announces to the joker this precisely through the Biblical lens of the resurrection. The cross signifies that the old world of in which we experience hopelessness, death of the soul, and the idea that suffering is meaningless has now passed.
When you combine the Isaiah 21 scene with the Luke 23 scene an interesting convergence seems to take place. Here, it is interesting to contemplate about Dylan’s song is that on the watchtower sits all of humanity. As we sit on the watchtower how do we view the cross of Jesus? You either look at the cross from the vantage point of the good thief or the vantage point of the joker (bad thief). The thief says, “Yes, I’m flawed, and life is full of hardships. But, there is more to life than this and the time has come where the old world of evil will be defeated.” Or, you look at life as the joker. “Life is hard and meaningless. There is no divine and we were just put her by a product of a random act. As this is true life is just a cruel joke.”
I can’t read Dylan’s mind and like a good artist he only gives his audience clues about his writings. But, if we add up the Biblical themes scattered throughout his writings we can make the conclusion that Dylan wants us to be the thief – and not the joker.
Bob Dylan is a poetic genius, but I would emphasis that you have to read him through a spiritual lens. We can also notice that Dylan is not approaching the Bible as some overly pious, holy man. He’s approaching the Bible as a real person who acknowledges his flaws, acknowledges his bruises, but ultimately knows that the deeper meaning in life comes from God.
Today, literary song writing is largely devoid of God. Instead of Biblical motifs, we hear the same old water-downed gruel in pop music emphasizing the tired and cheap themes of sex, money, and power. Let us turn to the classics like Bob Dylan where we can at least hear an echo of the Biblical message.