Bob Dylan, the Bible, and the Jews
by Michael Fraade
An anonymous heckler tosses out the vitriolic accusation, and the crowd erupts with jeers. Onstage, Bob Dylan tunes his guitar. It is May 1966 in Manchester, England, and Dylan, folk star and idol of the Civil Rights Movement, has enraged his audience by performing with an electric band backing him up, in violation of the tacit laws of folk. Until mid-1965 Dylan had played only with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica, and going electric is seen by many of his fans as selling out.
The accusation clearly stings. Once hailed as a prophet, Dylan’s image has been utterly inverted—now he is a false prophet, a materialist. The framing of the insult itself was keenly hurtful, if perhaps unintentionally so: the shout of “Judas” was “a wounding, cruel remark with unintended depth of intensity when thrown at a Jew” (Boucher 91). But Dylan has faced a booing crowd all night, and he has no intention of giving in to them now. “I don’t believe you,” he snarls back at the heckler. Then, after a brief pause, “You’re a liar!” Turning to his band, he gives them a single instruction—“Play it fucking loud!”—and they launch into the last song of the set, “Like A Rolling Stone.” They are met at the end of the arduous night by long-awaited applause, and a tired Dylan pants a small “thank you” into the microphone.
The Manchester concert was one of many concerts in which the newly electric Dylan was forced to fight a hostile crowd. His new sound was the first of many radical stylistic transformations he was to undergo; during a career of almost fifty years, Dylan would experiment with everything from folk to gospel. The controversies of 1966 were the first growing pains of a figure who continued to strain against genre-based constrictions on musicianship. He would also help to break the musical precedent of “cutting,” established by Tin Pan Alley composers years prior, in which composers wrote pieces that were then recorded, or “cut,” over and over by a number of different artists. Dylan’s albums, by contrast, featured music, lyrics, and performance that were all the work of the same artist. As a consequence of this increased artistic freedom, music became more susceptible to the erratic interests of the musician, more driven by his personality and impulse. As Dylan personally transformed, he brought his audience along for the ride.
Yet despite Dylan’s multifaceted personality, he continues to be pinned down by political, aesthetic, and cultural groups with their own agendas. Because of his monumental impact on American popular music, it is not uncommon for certain groups to claim Dylan’s work and project a given ideology onto him. In this respect, Jews are no exception. In some way, Jews who wish to claim Dylan—who was born Robert Zimmerman and whose grandparents had fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe forty years before his birth—are comparable to the folk fans that booed Dylan in the sixties. Dylan was raised as a Jew, just as he began exploring music as a folk singer. Yet to define him exclusively by his Judaism is to blatantly ignore his self-conscious complexity. The anger and embarrassment many Jews felt when Dylan eschewed Judaism—he briefly became a born-again Christian from 1978 to 1981—parallels the heckler’s cry upon hearing Dylan’s electric set. It disregards the fact that the artist—indeed, any individual—cannot be owned by a given movement or creed. Rather, Dylan was formed by a wealth of experiences but not bound to any of them.
In Stars of David, an exploration of Jewish rock ‘n’ roll history, Scott Benarde presents the case that Dylan’s career is, in fact, a direct result of his Jewish influences. In his argument, he points to “decades filled with ‘Jewish’ acts and activities, compared with his relatively brief exploration of Christianity,” and says, “aside from 1978-1981, the Torah, not the New Testament, appears to have been a primary influence on Dylan’s social and political perspective and worldview” (Benarde 1, 63). Benarde also justifies Dylan’s early name change as a result of the wider sentiment among performers at the time that the public was not ready to revere Jewish artists, and that Jewish performers should therefore hide their identities in order to duck prejudice and achieve success on their own merits (Benarde 4). Yet Benarde’s hypotheses directly conflict with Dylan’s presentation of his own motivations and influences. In interviews, Dylan has attributed the name change to a desire to completely reinvent himself, rather than a circumstantial need to shield his true identity. “I always knew that there was something out there that I needed to get to. And it wasn’t where I was at that particular moment,” he said in a 2004 interview. “You’re born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents…You call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free” (Leung).
What about Benarde’s claim that the Torah was a major source of inspiration for the majority of Dylan’s work and worldview? Dylan’s work indisputably features Biblical references, but contrary to Benarde’s claim, he is just as likely to reference the New Testament as the Hebrew Bible. More important is the fact that those references can rarely, if ever, be construed as explicitly Jewish in content rather than as a literary reference. Dylan drew upon the Bible not as a religious text, but as a source for linguistic and mythological allusion, using the world’s most widely read text as a means to convey his message in the most potent manner possible.
As Dylan moved from folk to electric, his lyrics—and, consequently, his scriptural allusions—evolved as well. The close relationship between Dylan’s use of the Bible and his stylistic reference suggests that Benarde’s analysis is incorrect—Dylan’s Biblical ties do not result from any particular Jewish sentiment on his part, but rather express his artistic visions and evolve alongside his music.
Dylan—at the time still Robert Zimmerman—was undoubtedly influenced by Judaism during his childhood. He spent his formative years in the small Jewish community of Hibbing, Minnesota, which included a thousand Jews, a synagogue, and a kosher butcher. He also attended Jewish summer camp in Wisconsin for many years. But his passion was always music: Dylan listened to the radio frequently from a young age, and formed a number of bands in high school. Jewish experiences sometimes had a musical side to them, too. Speaking of the rabbi who helped to prepare him for his Bar Mitzvah, Dylan said, “[He lived] upstairs above the cafe, which was the local hangout. It was a rock and roll cafe where I used to hang out…I used to go up there every day to learn the stuff, either after school or after dinner. After studying with him an hour or so, I’d come down and boogie” (Yudelson).
In 1961, at the end of his freshman year of college, Dylan dropped out and moved to Greenwich Village, hoping to meet and perform with his idol, Woody Guthrie. For the next two years Dylan wrote protest, spoken-blues, and political songs, and played them around New York. He also legally changed his name to Bob Dylan. The 1963 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan gained national attention, turning him into a figurehead for the budding Civil Rights Movement; songs such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” served as national protest anthems and were covered by dozens of performers, including Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Stevie Wonder, and Peter, Paul, and Mary.
During this early period, Dylan often used Biblical references in his lyrics to drive home a message. In some cases such as “With God On Our Side,” he did not refer to a specific story, but still expressed skepticism toward the prevailing wisdom by evoking the concept of divine authority:
“The reason for fighting
I never got straight
But I learned to accept it
Accept it with pride
For you don’t count the dead
When God’s on your side.”
Here, as in bitingly sarcastic protest songs like “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” Dylan criticizes common beliefs of the time. In other songs he used allusions to well-known Biblical stories to lend moral authority to his message, in keeping with the traditions of folk and spirituals. In “Masters of War,” he condemns those who manipulate war for their own political and financial gain:
“Like Judas of old you lie and deceive…
But there’s one thing I know
Though I’m younger than you
Even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do.”
The images of Judas, the ultimate betrayer, and Jesus, the ultimate forgiver of sin, are used to symbolically illustrate how far beyond the moral pale these men have passed. “When The Ship Comes In” features a similar sentiment: the title refers to the metaphorical ship of change that comes to sweep away the forces of hatred, and the warning to the corrupt is just as strong.
“But we’ll shout from the bow,
‘Your days are numbered,’
And like Pharaoh’s tribe
They’ll be drowned in the tide
And like Goliath, they’ll be conquered.”
Again, the reference to classic representatives of evil—Pharaoh and Goliath—unambiguously condemns the characters’ contemporary counterparts. Such works draw from religious tradition in the same manner as spirituals—the references, though not particularly innovative, link Dylan’s message to the Bible, evoking both his listeners’ political indignations and their spiritual affinities. They reflect Dylan’s musical roots more than they do his religious ones, and while the allusions are powerful in their own way, they cannot compare to the later genius that would set Dylan’s music apart from his contemporaries’.
By 1964, Dylan began producing work that was not directly tied to the Civil Rights Movement, though many songs were still influenced by folk and spoken-blues. Dylan’s reconsideration of his role in the movement came to a head with his first electric concert set at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1965. Actively shifting away from his old folk work, he moved toward a more complex style that incorporated rock, jazz, and other influences.
In early 1965 Dylan released Bringing It All Back Home, which had one acoustic and one electric side; this was followed by Highway 61 Revisited in August 1965 and Blonde on Blonde in July 1966, both of which featured electric instrumentation. The lyrics of all three albums similarly departed from Dylan’s earlier work: while previous albums had used the standard lexicon of sixties folk, the new albums contained music that was more lyrically and thematically complex. The trio of albums released in 1965 and 1966 would go on to become some of Dylan’s most renowned work, and Dylan himself said that they were “the closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind…that wild mercury sound” (Varesi 48). Nevertheless, they met with mixed reviews at the time, and the Manchester performance of May 1966 is a snapshot of the tail end of the two-year change, when the tensions over the transition ran high between Dylan and his followers.
In light of the maturation of Dylan’s style and the break with his previous fan base, it should come as no surprise that Biblical allusions took new forms in his 1965-66 trio of studio albums. Early work alluded to the most widely recognized stories and figures, evoking listeners’ anger, hope, or compassion with straightforward emotional citations. Yet the works that mark Dylan’s transitional period are rarely so direct: their Biblical references tend to play on or invert the text’s original meaning rather than invoking them in a straightforward fashion. An analysis of these allusions shows the more mature Dylan continually drawing from the Bible as a source of common reference, with poetic and political—rather than religious—aims.
Bringing It All Back Home, the first of Dylan’s albums to feature any electric work, introduces this new style with a number of lyrical references demonstrating the change that has taken place. The first examples come from “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” in which Dylan (as narrator), seeking shelter, “rapped upon a house/with the US flag upon display,” only to be threatened by the owner. “They refused Jesus, too,” says Dylan, but the man responds, “You’re not Him/Get out of here before I break your bones.” Along with the overt Jesus reference comes a less obvious one—“get out of here before I break your bones” corresponds to the Gospel of John’s explanation of how on the day of Jesus’ death the Israelite guards broke the legs of every crucified man except Jesus (John 19:36). This, in turn, connects Jesus with the Paschal lamb, which was to be without blemish or broken bones (Exodus 12:46). The correspondence suggests that the man with the US flag is threatening a representative of God, rejecting a gospel of peace and forgiveness in favor of violence and atomization.
The song “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” is also rich with brooding Biblical allusion. The first line, “Darkness at the break of noon,” recalls multiple accounts of the sky darkening just before Jesus died on the cross. Matthew tells us that as the sky darkened, Jesus cried out “Eli, eli, lama sabachtani?”—“My lord, my lord, why have you forsaken me?”—and then breathed his last (Matthew 27:46). In Dylan’s song, the darkness casts itself over a world that “makes everything front toy guns that spark/to flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark” and where “goodness hides behind its gates.” “It’s easy to see without looking too far,” he remarks, “that not much is really sacred.” Dylan later distances himself from this dystopic society by casting himself as a prophet—a role that, in the Bible, often involved the condemnation of corrupt societies. He sings, “You lose yourself, you reappear/you suddenly find you got nothing to fear…while a trembling, distant voice unclear/startles yours sleeping ears to hear/that somebody thinks they really found you.” The lines allude to the story of Elijah: it is after Elijah’s return from exile that he performs his most famous deeds as God’s champion against idolatry. Dylan may have been “exiled” from the folk movement, but his transformation can be seen as the “reappearance” of a more disillusioned, complex figure than the Greenwich Village singer. Meanwhile, the “trembling, distant voice” refers to the passing of God before Elijah (Kings 19:11-13), which summoned the prophet to action. The reference, then, is an implicit reassertion of his lease on the title of “prophet,” a title jeopardized by his decision to go electric. Standing in opposition to the iniquities of the world, Dylan shows himself able and willing to serve as moral compass.
Bringing It All Back Home represents a stylistic break from Dylan’s preceding music, with electric instrumentation and a new approach to songwriting. Yet it thematically reiterates his prior work. Dylan is represented as both as a prophet and specifically as Jesus, while other references allude to his alienation from a society in which the sacred has been replaced by fear, violence, and false idols. His frequent references to Jesus counter the assertion that the work is strongly inspired by Judaism—the work must be seen as a reflection of his break with the folk movement, rather than as a reflection of his long-standing faith. Biblical allusions here refer back to the folk movement more immediately than they do to religion itself.
Songs on Highway 61 Revisited move in a more overtly political direction: they feature not only commentary about a society in which “not much is really sacred,” but also specific references to the government and the War in Vietnam. As in Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan takes poetic license with the Bible in order to create this commentary. “Tombstone Blues” features both John the Baptist torturing a thief and Jezebel as a nun, inverting their traditional roles as a bringer of salvation and a self-interested murderess of prophets, respectively. John’s character further deviates from the original by looking up to the Commander-in-Chief as his hero; scriptural accounts relate his imprisonment and execution after rebuking King Herod’s wrongdoings. It should also be noted that Jezebel’s position of authority has switched from political to spiritual—corrupt morals are worse than corrupt politics, and so her new position allows her to mock decency even more than her previous one.
Yet most noteworthy in “Tombstone Blues” is the extended reference to the Samson and Delilah story, stretching over four verses, which Dylan uses to condemn the Vietnam War. The reference begins with the king of the Philistines, who “his soldiers to save/puts jawbones on their tombstones and flatters their graves.” In the Bible, Samson uses an ass’s jawbone to kill one thousand Philistines (Judges 15:15)—to put jawbones on the soldiers’ tombs can be seen as a twisted way of memorializing their violent and ultimately senseless deaths. Yet even as the king memorializes his dead, he “fattens the slaves/then sends them out to the jungle,” where they continue the destruction by burning down Vietnamese villages.
In the next verse,
“The geometry of innocent flesh on the bone
Causes Galileo’s math book to get thrown
At Delilah who’s sitting worthlessly alone
But the tears on her cheeks are from laughter.”
If the death of innocents—either soldiers or villagers—seems an affront to reason, Delilah feels no remorse. As the king’s co-conspirator, she still expects to come out on top, no matter who else dies. Her callous disregard for human life leads to Dylan’s wish to “give Brother Bill his great thrill/I would set him in chains at the top of the hill/then send out for some pillars and Cecil B. DeMille/he could die happily ever after.” DeMille was the director of the 1949 film “Samson and Delilah,” an epic portrayal of the story that glorifies Samson’s martyrdom. In Dylan’s interpretation, those who glorify war (DeMille) or profit from it (Delilah) are the proverbial Philistines, worshipers of false gods who threaten the moral integrity of Israel. It is Dylan’s duty as prophet not to let them act unchallenged, and even though DeMille, Delilah, and the Philistine king appear to have the upper hand for now, their sins will eventually come crashing down on their heads.
Dylan issues a similar lament over the abuse of power in Highway 61 Revisited’s title track, whose first verse recalls the sacrifice of Isaac:
“Oh, God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son’
Abe says, ‘Man, you must be puttin’ me on’
God say, ‘No,’ Abe say, ‘What?’
God say, ‘You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run.’
Well, Abe says, ‘Where do you want this killin’ done?’
God says, ‘Out on Highway 61.’”
Abraham’s initial opposition to the murder of his son is quickly overcome by his fear of punishment. While Abraham is thus partially responsible for the sacrifice, Dylan’s depiction does not treat God kindly either. God sends Abraham to Highway 61, a place filled with con men, gamblers, and warmongers trying to execute various schemes. Abraham and God’s presence among degenerates casts aspersions on their plot. Indeed, R. Clifton Spargo and Anne K. Ream note in their essay “Bob Dylan and Religion” that Abraham is dealing with a God “suited to the needs of the people of this strange land” rather than with one who exclusively pursues justice (Ream and Spargo 93). In other words, God’s status as a source of absolute morality has become compromised in modern society—using God to justify human sacrifice is a subversion that turns God into a false idol, espousing ideals that cannot be just. Dylan’s implicit indictment of God (or, more precisely, the image of God used to justify immoral actions) serves as a pointed criticism of those who would trust authority out of fear rather than because that authority is morally correct.
Highway 61 Revisited features a number of differences from preceding albums, including a shift away from Dylan’s first-person narration and the inversion of the moral identity of traditional characters like John the Baptist and God. In Dylan’s previous works, Biblical heroes were associated with their traditional values; here, he twists their identities. However, the fact that the album includes more references to the Tanach than to the New Testament does not necessarily imply that to the work is intended to express Jewish roots or values. As with Dylan’s other work, the references convey a message that is clearly more political than spiritual in nature—the Bible serves as commonly known reference material, allowing Dylan to convey an external message.
Blonde on Blonde, Dylan’s next album, continues to comment on political power and pride. Consider “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again:”
“Now the senator came down here
Showing everyone his gun,
Handing out free tickets
To the wedding of his son.
An’ me, I nearly got busted
An’ wouldn’t it be my luck
To get caught without a ticket
And be discovered beneath a truck.”
The story recalls Jesus’ Parable of the Great Banquet, in which a king hands out invitations for his son’s wedding to everybody whom his servants find on the street after the original invitees decide not to attend. At the wedding, a peasant guest arrives without a proper robe, and the king orders him thrown “into outer darkness” when he offers no explanation for his offense. After all, the king says, “many are called, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:13-14). The parallels between this episode and Dylan’s vignette are clear, but Dylan has inverted the moral roles in a way similar to his work in “Highway 61 Revisited.” His skepticism of authority—even when its agents associate themselves with a higher power or cause—has already been established. Thus, in the context of a song in which the bemused narrator recounts nonsensical tales of the world around him, Dylan does the right thing by avoiding the wedding. The senator is not preaching truth the way Jesus or the king in the parable did; he is simply a showman, flaunting his gun. Dylan, who recognizes the absurdity of the situation, “nearly got busted” for not playing the senator’s game, and will not rest until the senator and others who abuse the concept of divine power for personal gain are forced to acknowledge their hypocrisy. In reality, Dylan implies, they are no better than those they rule. “Not even you can hide. You see, you’re just like me,” Dylan says to a self-righteous priest a verse later. “I hope you’re satisfied.”
“Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” Blonde on Blonde’s final song, plays on the same discontent, this time drawing from the book of Ezekiel. In a song where he praises the virtues of his sad-eyed lady, the narrator asks, “The kings of Tyrus…are waiting in line for their geranium kiss…but who among them really wants just to kiss you?” Ezekiel speaks of a king of Tyrus (or Tyre), who began as a righteous man, unparalleled in beauty and virtue. Yet he soon succumbs to sin, tainted by violence and corruption, and as a result of God’s subsequent rejection he is “cast…to the ground…exposed…in the sight of all who knew [him]” (Ezekiel 28:17-18). Dylan has his own interpretation of the story: the king is not only a sinner but also a beggar, desperately seeking the favor of Dylan’s anonymous subject. This reinvented story is almost prophetic: the mighty have fallen, victims of their own sin, and kneel at the feet of the righteous. Dylan’s rhetorical question “Who among them really wants just to kiss you?” suggests that their humility is a posture. However, the song’s ending question—“With your holy medallion…and your saintlike face…who among them do you think could destroy you?”—implies that the lady’s righteousness protects her from their schemes, and that the mighty shall not rise again once they are fallen. The time has come for the true believers to rule instead of the false prophets.
Blonde on Blonde more subtly approaches politics and civilizational discontent than do Dylan’s previous two albums. The only directly referenced Biblical character, Tyrus, is minor by comparison. Dylan’s focus has moved away from using Biblical parallels to condemn—instead, Dylan sees through the games of the senator, and gestures toward the eventual victory of the righteous over the proud. Once again, Biblical allusion is used to send a specific message, but never a religious one—Dylan draws from a folk tradition in order to reinterpret that tradition.
These references in Dylan’s trio of transitional albums demonstrate that Biblical allusions remained a part of Dylan’s repertoire even as his style underwent major changes. Dylan clearly knew the text (and its Christian counterpart) well enough to adapt it to any number of situations and messages. But the primary purpose of the songs was artistic, not devotional. Dylan’s use of the Bible to invert conventional interpretations, as well as the fact that he was as likely to use New Testament references as Tanach ones, counters the assertion that his songs were a direct product of Judaism. “I had always read the Bible, but I only looked at it as literature,” Dylan stated in a 1980 interview. “You can find anything you want in the Bible…You can twist it around any way you want and a lot of people do that. I just don’t think you can legislate morality [with it]” (Hillburn 163-4).
Thus, while it has been tempting for many Jews to claim Dylan’s music as a product of the Tribe, his own convictions show the limits of their ability to do so. Dylan passed through a number of phases, from folk legend to reclusive poet to born-again Christian, and his Judaism, too, evolved. Although he has explicitly rejected Judaism at times, Dylan has also considered making aliyah, and he has been reported to drop into services on occasion. He even had a brief stint as a member of the Jewish Defense League, and struck up a correspondence with Meir Kahane. His music’s evolution stemmed from a variety of shifting influences, not just his fluctuating attitudes toward religion. To treat Dylan’s scriptural references as specifically Jewish is thus misleading. As Dylan scholar Bert Cartwright noted, it is far more likely that the references serve to “meld…the music of America’s poor whites and African-Americans with the sophistication of an informed and inquiring mind,” creating something that is both accessible and potent (Gilmour 9).
Dylan sought the common ground on which he could combine many strands of American music into his own unique sound, and the Bible, as the most well-known text in the country, was an excellent tool for such a purpose. Dylan’s Bar Mitzvah education helped introduce him to the Bible, but we should avoid reading much more Judaism into his references than that affords. With the exception of his born-again period, the Bible was always a way to achieve great music for Dylan, not the other way around. Judaism, while formative, was only one facet of a greater, enigmatic persona—and to give it more importance than that is to fundamentally misunderstand Dylan and his music.
Benarde, Scott R. Stars of David: Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Jewish Stories. Lebanon, NH: Brandeis University Press, 2003.
Boucher, David. Dylan and Cohen. New York: Continuum, 2004.
Gilmour, Michael J. Tangled Up In The Bible. New York: Continuum, 2004.
Hillburn, Robert. “I Learned That Jesus Is Real And I Wanted That.” The Bob Dylan Companion. Ed. Carl Benson. New York: Schirmer Books, 1998.
Leung, Rebecca. ”Dylan Looks Back”. Updated 12 June 2005. CBS News Online. Accessed 24 December 2010. <http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/12/02/60minutes/main658799.shtml%20>
Ream, Anne K and Spargo, R Clifton. “Bob Dylan and Religion.” The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan. Ed. Kevin J.H. Dittmar. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Varesi, Anthony. The Bob Dylan Albums. Toronto: Guernica, 2002.
Yudelson, Larry. “Bob Dylan: Tangled Up In Jews.” Updated 1991. Radiohazak.com. Accessed 26 December 2010. <http://www.radiohazak.com/Tangled.html>