by Paul Robert Thomas
This article continues from
Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.
Dylan’s conversion had the immediate effect of charging his music with a new power on Slow Train Coming yet the words, though sung with as much intensity as anything he had ever sung before, (never more so than in the final song When He Returns which I place alongside the unreleased recordings of She’s Your Lover Now and Born In Time), were anathema to his ‘fans’. A friend, and a collaborator in a previous article, (Dignity #5) has described the effect Dylan’s conversion had on him.
“I had been baptized by immersion about 2years before, a powerful experience, and I had been reading The Bible a lot, and studying it formally, and had picked up that something new was going on in the last track of Street Legal. It seemed to leave a void. The album was over yet there was no ending just a cry of naked pain. No other Dylan album that I can remember has had that effect; there is no sense of an ending just the desperate shout of a man burning up with conflict and loneliness with no resolution. Before that I had picked up the references to St. John on Abandoned Love and had been struck by the apocalyptic images of priests and destruction and ‘the lone soldier’ in Idiot Wind, and so when I heard that Dylan had become a Christian I should have been pleased. A lot of people in my church were very excited but I kept thinking ‘Oh no! Not you too!’ I had found what I was looking for but I thought Dylan was beyond all that. Perhaps I should say ‘Bob Dylan was my last idol’. I know that most non-Christians hated the songs in a way they would never had admitted to hating verses from The Bible or Jesus but the odd thing was that hardly any of the songs on Slow Train Coming or Saved can be said to be written by Bob Dylan. They are nearly all made up from stringing pieces of the Old and New Testaments together; whole verses have been lifted from the letters of Paul or from the Gospels or the Prophets. Bob Dylan no more wrote Pressing On or Saving Grace than Roger McGuinn wrote Turn Turn Turn. McGuinn ripped off Ecclesiastes just as Dylan got most of his stuff from St Paul. Dylan was just passing on what he had been soaking up in California for four months. It’s a wonder that someone didn’t claim St Paul’s Royalties”.
In Every Grain Of Sand Dylan uses The Bible but much less consciously. Aware that becoming a Christian didn’t exempt him from temptations he echoes the letter of James in the following verse.
I gaze into the doorway of temptations angry flame And every time I pass that way I always hear my name Then onward in my journey l come to understand That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand.
Dylan is still tempted, still falls, but now he hears the voice of his Lord calling out his name like the father of the prodigal son. Temptation is part of the Christian ‘journey’ towards salvation but one who has surrendered his life to Christ can never lose it according to Christian doctrine. The first two verses are those that bring the letter of James to mind:
“My brothers count it all joy whenever you fall into temptations of any kind, knowing this that the testing of your faith produces patience and endurance Let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. If any of you are lacking in wisdom ask God who gives generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given to you.” (James l.2-6)
The latter two verses display an explicit faith that he still believes he’s ‘gonna make it’ but the triumphalism has gone that was so disturbing to some of those who objected to Saving Grace and Gotta Serve Somebody. The last line is a direct reminder of God’s love for his creation with references which hark back to the Gospels, particularly Jesus’ words to his disciples concerning their worth in God’s eyes:-
“Are not two sparrows sold far a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs on your head are numbered. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Mathew 10:29-30)
In Psalms (40:12 & 69:4) the references to the ‘hairs on my head’ are analogies with sin or the psalmist’s enemies (they are more than the hairs on my head). Yet the psalm always ends with a trust in God, sins are forgiven, enemies vanquished.
The penultimate verse has Dylan using a kaleidoscope of biblical references, or more accurately, images strong with biblical associations. Like Job he looks back on a life in which fame and fortune are fickle. The first half of the line is undermined by the second:
I have gone from rags to riches,/ in the sorrow of the night
Rather than Dylan charting his rise to material wealth and fame, could he be talking about his journey from spiritual rags to the riches of The Kingdom of God. Verse four concentrated on temptation – testing. Job was tested by Satan with God’s approval. His trust in God and his insistence on knowing the meaning of his suffering caused him to become rejected by his friends (the epitome of hypocritical and smug religion – but ultimately vindicated by God), whom God addressed, suggesting that the point of Job’s suffering was to teach them of their own shortcomings and lack of charity. God restored Job to a place amongst the righteous – the story has similarities to the Suffering Servant Songs in Isaiah. In Phillipians, Paul writes:-
“I have learnt to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going ….. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Phillipians 4:12-1 3)
Earlier he had written:-
For his (Christ’s) sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ (Phill3:8)
When Dylan places this first line in context is “In the violence of a summer’s dream, in the chill of a wintry light”, images of a fevered, disordered spiritual condition as well as cold bleak half-light. And the broken mirror of innocence must be a slanted reference to the reflection of lost innocence that Adam and Eve saw in each other after tasting the forbidden fruit of self-consciousness (over God Consciousness).
This hymn, so simple in structure and so rich in associations and possible allusions, ends with an indirect reference to Eden and an evocation of Dylan’s Jewish ancestral line going back to Abraham whose footsteps followed God’s path, which led to his change of name (from Abram) and his becoming Father of the Jewish Nation. Whilst Dylan has embraced Christ he has not denied his race not its religious obligations – he has had his son Bar-Mitzvah’d and has never denied his Jewish roots since his conversion. At the same time I am put in mind of Paradise when God walked in the garden and held man in the balance of his love and justice, in harmony with the Creation of which man was the crown. Man’s reality today is separation, confusion, but Dylan reminds us that God still holds us, still cares for us:-
“Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand”
“For now we see as in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known”.
These words of Paul in his 1st Letter to the Corinthians are the goal that unite Jew and Christian in their journey for in the Christians faith and in the Jewish Torah the aim is
Faith, hope and love, these three; and the greatest of these is love. (l.Cor. 13:8-13)
I have tried to show how Dylan has fused his experiences of Christianity and Judaism in this song and hope to have produced an argument supporting my assertion that this is unequivocally a religious song in the purest meaning of ‘religious’. It is a song of praise and faith and it draws not on a private interpretation of The Bible but on Orthodox Jewish and Christian interpretations of God’s revelation to man in The Jewish TANAKH and the Christian Bible – by which I mean The New Testament and the particular reading of the TANAKH that assigns certain prophetic passages to Jesus. I cannot hazard a guess why Dylan should have converted to Christianity but I dare to suggest that, as a Jew, he is aware more fully than some Jews and some Christians that Jesus is never to be prayed to as a God. Jesus mediates between God and His people and Christian doctrine, whilst having developed the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, is nevertheless a monotheistic religion just as Judaism is. Dylan had a Paul-like conversion experience. He felt a presence in the room and heard Jesus ask him why he was resisting him. Like Abraham he responded to this voice although it must have seemed in direct opposition to everything he felt as a Jew. But Abraham could never have expected God to demand the sacrifice of his only son and Job was amazed to find his righteousness apparently brought him only misfortune and grief. The Ten Commandments are followed and held sacred by Jews and Christians alike. Of the first “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me” Fr. Gregory has drawn my attention to the exegesis of this commandment in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
“The one and true God reveals his Glory to Israel. (I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other Gods before me.) When we say “God” we confess a constant, unchangeable being always the same, faithful and just, without any evil.” 12
Every Grain of Sand begins with an almost direct quote from Psalms (Ps. 77) and journeys through the Old and New Testaments to finish with an almost direct quotation from the New Testament tracing the long spiritual journey which brought him to the acceptance of Jesus Christ. In the 1965 Playboy interview Dylan was asked what he had to look forward to, Dylan answered ‘Salvation, just plain Salvation… and praying’. May we hope that he has found it? Both Judaism and Christianity affirm that God is Spirit. Perhaps what Dylan found in Christ was a person who personified that spirit as many others have done. Every Grain of Sand opens with an almost direct quote from Psalms and ends with a direct allusion to the Old Testament fused with the new, a glimpse of Eden and a final line directly paraphrasing Jesus. As a convert to Judaism I cannot help but be perplexed by Dylan’s conversion yet God is bigger than we can ever realise and ‘His ways are not our ways’.
In researching this article I came upon (was led to) an apparent numerical significance in the song Every Grain Of Sand which may yet produce further readings and insights into this work (for there are as many interpretations of Dylan’s songs as there are grains of sand?) The only flaw I can see in what follows is that as The Bible is translated into all languages and translators often add or subtract words to aid understanding by the different cultures they translate for there cannot be said to be a definitive text of The Bible. 13 Even scholars involved in the constant study of the original scrolls make fresh discoveries. But the significance struck me so forcefully that I could not ignore it. I was using a translation of the TANAKH closer in language to the King James Version of The Bible but I am told that my findings ‘work’, but for a page number, with a modern translation approved by the Catholic Church.14 The translations I have used for the following have been the JPS edition of TANAKH and The New Jerusalem Bible which are considered by Jewish Rabbinical Scholars and Orthodox Roman Catholic Scholars, as well as many Professors of English to be the most faithful translation in English at present. The key word and only name in this song is Cain who appears in Chapter 4 of Genesis. Every Grain Of Sand contains 263 words.
In the book of Genesis Ch 4. verses 2, 6, 3, each refer to Cain. Cain is the 56th word in Dylan’s song. The 55th- & 56th words in Genesis 4 are ‘Cain brought’ and the 55th & 56th words in Every Grain Of Sand are ‘like Cain’. The 3rd word of Every Grain Of Sand is ‘Time’ and the third line of Genesis 4 reads “And in the process of time”. The 25th word in verse I of Every Grain Of Sand is ‘seed’ and the 25th verse of Genesis 4 contains ‘Seed’ and the story of the birth of Seth to Adam and Eve “For God, said she, hath appointed me another seed instead of Abel who Cain slew”. Seth is the name of Dylan’s son born in 1969. The 18th word in verse I of Every Grain Of Sand is ‘tears’ and the 18th verse of Genesis 4 refers to Lamech who slew Cain. The 22nd word in verse I of Every Grain Of Sand is ‘flood’ and the 22nd verse in Genesis 4 refers to Zillah, the wife of Lamech who gave birth to Noah, who alone with his family survived the Flood which was God’s retribution on the sins of mankind. The 21st word in verse I of Every Grain Of Sand is ‘Name’ and the 21st line in Genesis 4 mentions name – “and his brother’s name was Jubal – father of all that handle the harp and organ”.
In Genesis 4 the name Cain appears as the 12th, 38th, 55th, 97th, 107th, and 120th words. The corresponding 12th, 38th, 55th, 97th, 107th, and 120th words from Every Grain Of Sand spell out the following hidden message!
Deepest Danger Like Weeds Of Time
The 17th word, 2nd verse of Every Grain Of Sand is ‘Cain’ and the 17th verse of Genesis 4 refers to Cain’s generation ‘chain’. The 34th word, 2nd verse of Every Grain Of Sand is ‘Master’s’ and the 34th word of Genesis 4 is ‘Keeper’. The 3rd word of verse 3 of Every Grain of Sand is ‘Flowers’ and the corresponding 3rd verse of Genesis 4 refers to fruit. The 7th word of verse 4 of Every Grain Of Sand is (doorway of) ‘Temptation’ while the 7th verse of Genesis 4 states “sin lieth at the door”.
I invite you to pick up your Bible, turn to chapter 4 of the Book of Genesis and verify or try to disprove the above numerical connections between Every Grain Of Sand and Genesis. It is hard to believe that Dylan has made these numerical connections unconsciously and by accident.
I am indebted to Father Gregory CSJ whose patience, generosity and teaching concerning Christian Doctrine and The New Testament have been enlightening as well as invaluable. Thanks too to K.H for introducing us.
The Author of this article is a convert to Orthodox Judaism from Christianity who now resides in Israel and is currently undertaking research into Dylan’s use of notation in his works, known as Kabbalah. He invites input from any Dylan follower on this subject, particularly from musicians, concerning Dylan’s use of musical notations – contact firstname.lastname@example.org
* Seven Days. Time and space did not allow me to treat this song in the depth I feel it deserves but I refer the reader to the bridge after the third and final verse and to Jeremiah 4.6, Genesis 7.4, 1 Samuel 10.8.
- Bob Dylan quoted in notes to Biograph. See also Bob Dylan A Man Named Alias p.156, Richard Williams. Pub. Omnibus 1991.
- Robert Shelton footnote to p.156 No Direction Home, Pub. Beech Tree Books. William Morrow N.Y. 1986.
- Chris Williams p.93 Bob Dylan In His Own Words, pub. Omnibus 1993.
- Quoted from the lyrics of Up To Me, Rams Horn Music 1974, 1976, from Lyrics 1962-1985, Paladin Grafton 1987.
- Chris Williams, Bob Dylan In His Own Words, pp. 87-93
- Paul Williams, Performing Artist Vol 2 – The Middle Years, pub. Underwood Miller 1992.
- The Psalms: Grail Edition, Translated from the Hebrew with translators Introduction and a commentary preceeding each Psalm, pub. Collins 1962, 1991.
- The Catechism Of The Catholic Church ‘The Ten Commandments’ p.455 ref 2091, pub. G. Chapman, Cassell, London 1994.
- For an account of Dylan’s emotional and spiritual condition at the time of the divorce see Farida McFree’s comments in Clinton Heylin’s Behind The Shades, pp 296-300.
- Bob Dylan to Jules Siegal. Saturday Evening Post, 30/7/76.
- Extract from a letter from Kim Hatton 6/6/96, used with permission.
- The Catechism Of The Catholic Church ‘The Ten Commandments’ pl53454 ref 2084-2086, pub. G. Chapman, Cassell, London 1994.
- For an example of how translations differ, the recently published TANAKH has the following line in the Psalms:- (102.6-7)
I am like a great owl in the wilderness an owl among the ruins (14 words)
The New English Bible has
I am like a desert owl in the wilderness an owl among the ruins (14 words)
The King James Version has
I am like a pelican of the wilderness an owl among the ruins (13 words)
The appearance of the pelican is an anomaly but perhaps it may be explained as a Christian redaction for the pelican was an early symbol for Christ on account of the legend that it plucked the flesh from its breast to feed its young.
Finally the Grail Psalms numbers this psalm as Ps 101 and renders the line thus:
I have become as a pelican in the wilderness, like an owl in desolate places (15 words)
Other versions have translations which contain 12 and 16 words and at least one which renders the line in three parts. It should be noted that a school of thought within Judaism and Christianity dates the source of some of the earliest Psalms back to the Ugaritic texts some three or four hundred years before they were used by Hebrew poets, who did not hesitate to borrow from Syro-Palestinian pagan sources just as the Christian Church borrowed from Judaism. See Essay by Jonas C. Greenfield. The Biblical collection is composed of poems most certainly collected over a period of at least five centuries. This accounts for translators disagreeing over their numerical sequence. Ref. Robert Alter & Frank Kermode, The Literary Guide To The Bible, pub. Collins 1987.
For Bible, New Testament and TANAKH references I have used the following:
- The Jewish Bible TANAKH The Holy Scriptures, pub. 1985, New Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia,
Jerusalem. Modern English Translation from the Original Hebrew. Also earlier translations where the meaning has seemed clearer or more familiar and The New Jerusalem Bible, pub: Darton, Longman and Todd. The King James Bible and The New Revised Standard Bible.
- The Jewish Daily Prayer Book, Soncino Press.
- Jacob-Neusner, Torah Through The Ages, pub: SCM press 1990.
- Talks & Tales Monthly, No 464, Merkos L’Myonel Church Inc. N.Y. USA
- Robert Shelton, No Direction Home, W. Morrow. 1986.
- Clinton Heylin, Behind The Shades, Penguin 1991.
- Matin Esselin, Bob Dylan The Psalms and The Bible, Malachi Books 1991.
- Bert Cartwright, The Bible In The Lyrics Of Bob Dylan, Wanted Man 1985.
- John Herdman, A Voice Without Restraint: Bob Dylan’s Lyrics and Their Background, Pub 1981. A little known but extremely well written and lucid exploration of the sources influencing Dylan’s writing through his career from 1961 to 1980.
- Morning and Evening Prayer with Night Prayer, from the Divine Office of The Roman Catholic Church, Geofrey Chapman.
- Forms of Prayer, Daily Prayer Book of The Reformed Synagogue.
- John Dinnage, The Fox Warfield Experience: Dylan Busy Being Born 1979-1981, pub Black Mountain Press Calif., U.S.A 1983 (limited edn. H/B).
Untold Dylan: who we are what we do
Untold Dylan is written by people who want to write for Untold Dylan. It is simply a forum for those interested in the work of the most famous, influential and recognised popular musician and poet of our era, to read about, listen to and express their thoughts on, his lyrics and music.
We welcome articles, contributions and ideas from all our readers. Sadly no one gets paid, but if you are published here, your work will be read by a fairly large number of people across the world, ranging from fans to academics who teach English literature. If you have an idea, or a finished piece send it as a Word file to Tony@schools.co.uk with a subject line saying that it is for publication on Untold Dylan.
We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with approaching 6000 active members. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link
You’ll find some notes about our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page of this site. You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture. Not every index is complete but I do my best.
But what is complete is our index to all the 604 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found, on the A to Z page. I’m proud of that; no one else has found that many songs with that much information. Elsewhere the songs are indexed by theme and by the date of composition. See for example Bob Dylan year by year.