By Larry Fyffe
In the liner notes of his ‘Saved’ record, Bob Dylan quotes the biblical prophet Jeremiah:
Behold, the days come, saith the Lord
That I will make a new convenant
With the House of Israel and the House of Judah
As is the case of other Dylan albums, ‘Saved’ is not as straightforward as the song lyrics may first appear – language being inherently figurative and elastic.
Eden it turns out is not a physical place, but is where you find it – in your heart. The Book of Jeremiah, written in a Gnostic-like style – an alchemy pot full of analogical and allegorical stories, is revived and revised by Dylan. It’s remade, figuratively speaking, into a movie with the assistance of a Christian production company.
The singer/ songwriter adamantly disagrees with art critic William Shakespeare who declares:
To gild refined gold
To paint the lily …
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess
(King John, Act IV, sc. 2)
In the Old Testament, the prophet Jeremiah tells the Hebrews that the Persians (Iranians) will defeat the idol-worshipping Babylonians (Iraqis) after the latter take over (north) Israel and Judea, a punishment bestowed by Yahweh for their having fallen away from the Almighty Lord’s instructions.
The Hebrews find themselves under the less stressful rule of the more compatible Persian Zarathustrians who believe in one Wise God with individuals having the responsibility to choose, hopefully wisely, how to cope with his or her short-lived earthly existence lest they suffer in hell (See: Lily, Rosemary, And The Jack Of Hearts, Parts I, II, and III – links are provided at the end of this article).
Jeremiah sticks to the message that Yahweh is one jealous God who spreads punishment all around if a multi-god, idol-worshipping, culture comes about. However, as His method of instilling fear does not appear to be working out that well, Jeremiah says God’s a bit sorry about all of that mean stuff, and He is now going to emphasize the other means whereby His chosen people can mend their wicked ways:
After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts
And write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people
And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother,
Saying, Know the Lord; for they shall all know me
From the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord
For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more
(Jeremiah 31: 33, 34)
In short, Jeremiah says, from now on, no-one gets punished for the misbehavior of others as all the Hebrews were. Not an outwardly fear-instilled conformity that pays ‘lip service’ to Yahweh, but a heart-felt individualistic commitment to follow His Word is what’s important. From the God within, not from the external God, is where flame of fear is to burn.
In the Chrisrian sequel, Jesus becomes a leader of that commitment for those who spread the Word beyond the Hebrew community – emphasis is not solely placed on the punishment of sin but also on the removal of the stone of ignorance that blocks an individual’s awareness of the Amighty God who cares.
In his day, Jeremiah becomes distraught at the failure of this New Covenant when the dark-side of human nature once again triumphs over the Word of God. The prophet is mocked by the small and punished by the big. Against his will, Jeremiah is convinced to leave the Promised Land with other ‘troublemakers’ who flee for their own safety – never to return. Nevertheless, he takes the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ with him in his heart.
Bob Dylan, his Jewish family having fled to the United States for safety, pictures himself like a Jeremiah, like an Ovid, in exile:
I was born here and I’ll die here against my will
I know it looks I’m moving, but I’m standing still
Every nerve in my body is so naked and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there
(Bob Dylan: Not Dark Yet)
Dylan remembers their sin no more, but, because the darkness of human nature is trapped within the physical body of mankind – a cosmological view expressed by Gnostics – America is no more an Eden than the original Promised Land across the pond:
Many try to stop me, shake me up in my mind
Say, ‘Prove me that He is Lord, show me a sign’
What kind of sign they need when it all come from within
When what’s lost has been found
What’s to come has already been?
(Bob Dylan: Pressing On)
The ‘New Jerusalem’ one finds not in a particular place, but in the heart. Thus spake Jeremiah, and he’s standing still. So too is poet William Blake still standing:
Nobody to rescue me
Nobody would dare
I was going down for the last time
But by His mercy I’ve been spared
Not by works
But by faith in Him who called
For so long I’ve been hindered
For so long I’ve been stalled
(Bob Dylan: Saved)
Without mentioning Jesus by name, Dylan connects the New Convenant of the Hebrews with that of Christians. Not the ostentatious show of the old order, but the heart-felt actions of the new order, guided “by faith in Him who called”, is what really counts.
The contribution of the religious ideas of Zarathustra (his followers worship in the temple of fire, in the light of the Wise God, who seeks a balance among the elements of earth, wind, fire, and water) are not forgotten – i.e., Humans are made mostly of water, and who disrespects his or her physical body finds that the fires of hell take over:
In his love I am secure
He bought me with a price
Freed me from the pit
Full of emptiness and wrath
And the fire that burns in it
(Bob Dylan: Saved)
The Persian drunkard, he follows me.
- Lily, Rosemary, And The Jack Of Hearts: revealing the source of this and other Dylan songs. Part 1. by Larry Fyffe
- Bob Dylan And Damon Runyon: Lily, Rosemary, And The Jack Of Hearts And Other Songs (Part II) by Larry Fyffe
- Source Of Lily, Rosemary, And The Jack Of Hearts (Part III) by Larry Fyffe
What else is on the site
1: Over 460 reviews of Dylan songs. There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.
2: The Chronology. We’ve taken the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums. The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site. We have also produced overviews of Dylan’s work year by year. The index to the chronologies is here.
3: Bob Dylan’s themes. We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions. There is an index here.
4: The Discussion Group We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link
5: Bob Dylan’s creativity. We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further. The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.
And please do note The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews