This article continues from Seven Days: An Examination of Faith Crisis And Apocalypse
by Paul Robert Thomas
Suggesting that there is more ‘pathology’ in the obsessive need for commentators to ascribe Dylan’s ‘rebirth’ to anything but the action of God,” he asks why we cannot accept that Dylan’s conversion was an actual encounter between God and Dylan?
To those who would be willing to accept this if Jesus wasn’t involved they should examine what it is that enrages them for Dylan’s conversion marked the final dissolution of the Hippy fantasy of universal love and humanist libertarianism.
“Suddenly Dylan was telling us there was a God who had given us all a moral code and that man was free to follow it or lose his soul; not good news for the intellectually and morally stunted remnant of ‘the age of Aquarius’.
I ask as a Jew, why Dylan could not find the assurance he so needed in the Torah, Prophets and Wisdom Literature of his own faith? My own feelings about Christianity are that it shares more than we often recognize; The Old Testament Bible, many aspects of eschatology, a belief in Divine and moral law and faith in God’s ultimate promise of redemption. All of these are common ground between Jew and Christian. What Judaism doesn’t have, indeed is prohibited from having, is a concrete image or representation of God (YWL). It is my belief that in the person of Christ Bob Dylan found, at the center of his suffering and sense of alienation, the law and prophets made manifest in man, in Jesus of Nazareth.
One commentator who wishes to remain anonymous, suggests that it is not impossible to find in Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection a model of God’s servant, Israel. But I believe another reason Dylan responded as he did to Christ was the role he plays in The Revelation of John, the last and perhaps the most difficult book of The New Testament. It is purely a subjective opinion but I feel that, through his lyrics, Dylan is shown to have a temperamental bias towards an eschatology which purges the world of all evil in a final confrontation with God before establishing “a new heaven and a new …. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God…. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying “See the home of God is among mortals, He will dwell with them as their God, they will be his people, and God himself will be with them, he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Rev.2 1ff)
Dylan’s lifelong sense of justice and his hunger for peace coupled with an increasing disgust with a world of relative values and ‘situation ethics’ must have responded to this powerful vision to be realized with the return of Christ. But what of his loyalty to the faith of his fathers and forefathers?
I believe Dylan saw no anomaly in holding fast to his heritage whilst responding to Jesus as an embodiment of Torah and The Prophets. As a Jew, I find it difficult to answer the question which I am most concerned with. Has Dylan committed apostasy and denied God? I cannot say, God, alone knows. And everything works to His Glory.
For My plans are not your plans, Nor are My ways your ways - declares the LORD But as the heavens are high above the earth, So My ways are high above your ways And My plans above your plans. (Isaiah 55.8-9)
I like to fancy that Dylan might have this text come to mind as he faced the conflicting and confusing feelings when they reached flood level in 1978/9. Meanwhile others use a certain delicacy in attempting to deal with the ‘problem’ of Dylan’s ‘conversion. To Rabbi Kostel, speaking in 1982, Dylan was a confused Jew…. “He’s been going in and out of a lot of things, trying to find himself. As far as we’re concerned he was a confused Jew.”
In the same year Paul Esmond of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship said diplomatically, “I don’t think he ever left his Jewish roots, I think he is one of those fortunate ones who realised that Judaism and Christianity can work very well together because Jesus is just (Jesus the Messiah). And so he doesn’t have any problems about putting on a yarmulke and going to a bar mitzvah because he can respect that.”
“l try my best to be just like l am But everybody wants you to be just like them (?)"
Dylan has never publicly renounced Jesus but none of us can know how he sees him, responds to him. And Dylan has never renounced his roots in Judaism or his reliance on Torah on the TANAKH (the Jewish Bible) or the rich religious tradition of his people. If we want to explore the possibilities of Dylan’s religious ‘worldview’ then I suggest that the most rewarding and accessible way to do so is to explore his work.
“And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it” (Gen 13)
It is now that I will attempt to explore what I believe Dylan was writing about, and referring to, when he wrote Seven Days with reference to his life, race and religion; and to other songs which forced themselves upon me as I wrote.
The (sacred) number seven is of great significance among religious Jews and within the mystical tradition, Kabbalah, which is a complex system of interpretation which makes use of the correspondence between the Hebrew alphabet and its numerical equivalent. In Judaism The menorah, based on the seven branched candlestick which YWH ordered Moses to make, can be found in every observant Jew’s home and, in Kabbalah, also stands for the mystical ‘tree of life’.
The occurrence and symbolism of seven and of its Kabbalistic importance is so profuse that it cannot be explored here – though it seems worth mentioning that the number 7 occurs no more, nor less than 700 times in The Old and New Testaments and 55 of those times it makes up the composite ‘Seven days’. Jewish and Christian mystical tradition has placed God in the highest part of the seventh heaven, and, universally, the number has come to symbolize perfection and completeness as well as complexity.
Its occurrence in Christian imagery can be found in Jesus’ injunction to forgive your enemies not 7 times but seventy times 7 e.g. completely. But it is in the Revelation To St John that the number 7 is used to such dramatic effect, symbolizing the final battle between Christ and Satan, the Church and the enemies of God. In this instance 7 comes to symbolize evil as much as good – perfect, complete evil perhaps?
Kabbalah warns us that “The number 7, which plays a prominent part in Biblical institutions is enveloped in deep mystery which only a few can only understand”. However, beyond Judaism and Christianity the number 7 has religious or occult significance in Islam, Tao, Sufism, Astronomy, and psychology and, finally, Freud gave each of the 6 analysts, who made up the Inner Circle of his disciples, identical rings, keeping the seventh for himself, the ‘ringmaster’. (1 thought I’d share that with you).
However, the reason for citing the above is to provide a concise backdrop to how I believe Dylan uses images and symbols from The Bible in the composition of his songs. For, while I believe that Dylan may pick up a lot of influences unconsciously, often skimming books or retaining a phrase or cliche until he can use it, I believe that he has read and continues to read The Bible with great attention and, given his nature, has been drawn to and influenced by Kabbalah. Seven Days is pregnant with biblical meaning but like the number 7 it conceals this deeper meaning in its apparent mundanity. The song is written on an apparently simple musical framework and the language of frustrated love. However, as a love song its imagery is trite:
She been gone ever since I was a child Ever since I made her smile, I ain't forgotten her eyes. She had a face that could outshine the sun in the skies
The rhyme is embarrassing, the imagery of the first line confusing and, with the second line, suggests the narrator is childishly dependent. The song seems to be trying to put cliche to good use but ‘fighting every inch of the way’ and losing.
Yet, in performance it’s powerful and intriguing, a crowd pleaser, when performed at its best. This has made me ask whether Dylan wants us to look deeper and beyond the apparent sense of the lyric and a literal interpretation to something much richer. The source which provides this understanding of the song is The Revelation to John from The New Testament, (New Jerusalem Translation) and through the Jewish apocalyptic literature which the author was steeped in, e.g. the books Jeremiah, Daniel, Joel, and Late Isaiah. At the center of the song is the anonymous figure ‘She’. I believe this is a reference to two figures from Revelation. The first is reported in Revelation 12.1.
“Now a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman, robed with the sun, standing on the moon, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant, and in labour, crying aloud in the pangs of childbirth.”
This figure, probably inspired or adapted from Osiris/Isis mythology, might be seen as Israel awaiting its Messiah, or the early church awaiting the return of Christ or, to the author of Revelation, a combination of the two with Christ’s return being read as synonymous, with the ‘New Jerusalem’. it may also have come to refer to Mary, the mother of Christ who quickly became seen by the ordinary people of the early church as The Mother of God. Taking into account the way ‘train’ has become a figure for faith and renewal in interpreters of Dylan’s songs I believe that Dylan may have one or more of these possibilities in mind in verses one and two of the song.
Seven days, seven more days she'll be comin' I'll be waiting at the station for her to arrive Seven more days, all I Seven more days, all I gotta do is survive.
This might be an allusion to ‘The New Jerusalem’ or to the ‘Bride of Christ’, that is The Church, Christ’s mystical body on Earth. Chapters 12 to 19 of Revelation deal with the great final battle between The Church and its enemies, probably the Romans and all the unrighteous. The woman’s adversary is depicted as a dragon, Satan’s emissary in chapter 12 but in chapter 17 as Babylon, the great prostitute, a woman riding a scarlet beast which had seven heads and – had blasphemous titles written all over it. Did Dylan associate this with the woman who was “telling him about Buddha, you were telling him about Mohamed in one breath
You never once mentioned the man who came and died a criminal's death. (?)
Many of us, I suspect, would, in the grip of a crisis, bring the sacred and profane into the turmoil within. Sara, to whom it seems likely the above verse is aimed, has been spoken of as having a deep spirituality which explored the way of Tao, of oriental harmony between opposites and had played a crucial role in Dylan’s spiritual recovery after the ‘accident’ in ’66. And if she is the inspiration for Visions of Johanna or Sad Eyed Lady of The Lowlands we have two penetrating studies of a deep spirituality and –
This is a song about marriage
Sara, Sara, Sweet virgin angel sweet love of my life. Sara, 0 Sara, Radiant Jewel, Mystical Wife Sleepin' in the woods by a fire in the night where you fought for my soul and went up against the odds I was too young to know You were doing it right And you did it with strength That belonged to the Gods
(Dylan’s emphasis in performance)
This version of Sara performed and, thank God, recorded on Dec 1 1975 at Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto is, surely truer inspirit, performance and lyric than the ‘official’ version cut for Desire? And it confirms the enormous influence of Sara, as wife, lover, muse. How do you cut such love out of your life but to put a new found faith up against its inevitable flaws. How do you get to be so ruthless and vindictive? You speak from a position of fearing for your soul.
Part 3 follows shortly
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