Bob Dylan's "Ain't Talking" -The Old Testament revisited - an analysis- PART 2
Bob Dylan’s “Ain’t Talking”- The Old Testament revisited- an analysis by Kees de Graaf - Part 2.
In Part one of our analysis of “Ain’t Talking” we saw that man fell into sin, he sold his soul to the devil and dragged all mankind and the whole of creation into a terrible downfall. All of this caused man to be driven away from the mystic Garden of Eden, to wander about in a weary world of woe. For the first time evil gained access to the human heart: “In the human heart an evil spirit can dwell”, and although God did not entirely pull back his Spirit from man: “I'm trying to love my neighbor and do good unto others”, man is still “trying”, the intention to love and to do good is still there, but at the same time man has to confess that he has lost the capacity to fulfill this commandment: “things ain't going well” , is an understatement. The reality is that through his infidelity man was thrown back on himself. He opened up his mind to the Evil one. It became true what Dylan wrote of man in “Jokerman”: “The law of the jungle and the sea were your teachers”. It also became true what Paul wrote in Romans 3:9-18 that outside the gates of Eden all men became under the power of sin: “None is righteous, no, not one, no one does good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave, they use their tongues to deceive, their feet are swift to shed blood, in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they do not know”. Outside the gates of Eden, out in the wilderness and left to himself on his lonely pilgrimage, the poet finds out that he too is subject to these destructive powers when he says: “Ain't talkin', just walkin', I'll burn that bridge before you can cross”. He expresses the depravity of the human condition as he once grieved about in “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight” where he accused himself of ‘burning every bridge I crossed’ instead of doing some good in the world. There is something tragic in the expression “I'll burn that bridge before you can cross”. If you burn every bridge you cross, eventually you'll be running from the fires you set, and you are stuck on the other side!. It just shows how deeply man has fallen. Man begrudges his neighbor everything. Man is so proud that he is rather stuck on the other side than allowing his neighbor free passage. Just like Dylan wrote in “Cold Irons Bound”: “The walls of pride are high and wide, can’t see over to the other side”.
However, in the context of the song – the Old Testamentary road, on which the poet had been walking for so long, is relived – there is another way to look at these verses. At first glance, seen through our modern eyes, these lines: ‘burn a bridge before you can cross’, ‘no mercy for you once you’ve lost’, I’ll slaughter them where they lie’, I’ll avenge my father’s death’, seem harsh and inhumane, ancient and modern battle-cries from the mouth of a cruel warrior where the only law is the law of the jungle, the expression of the same moral attitude and atmosphere you may find in Dylan’s anti-war songs ‘Masters of War’ and 'With God on Our Side'. Here, in this song, in the landscape of the Old Testament there is a huge difference. Ever since man fell into sin and was expelled from the Garden of Eden, God set out a plan for salvation. We read of this in Genesis 3:15: “I (God) will put enmity between you (the serpent, the devil) and the woman and between your seed and her seed, he (the serpent, the devil) shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel”. God built a new road of salvation and redemption, created a history through which the chosen people of Israel would in the end bring forward the Messiah, Jesus Christ. The devil did everything he could to prevent the realization of this plan. He applied brutal force in his attempts to stir up all nations to wage war against Israel, with only one purpose: to eliminate and wipe out the nation of Israel so that the Messiah would not be born and the road to salvation blocked. God had no other alternative left but to wage a war against these nations of his own, so that He could stick to his plans for peace and salvation, not only for Israel but also for the whole wide world. This was the only war in history of which one can truly say that God is on the side of Israel, on the side that’s winning. As I outlined in my analysis of 'With God on Our Side' , one could also say that after the victory of Jesus the Messiah, after His Resurrection and Ascension and the subsequent descent of the Holy Spirit no violence, let alone an aggressive war, is justified to spread the gospel. Zechariah 4: 6 says that the realization of the Kingdom will come: ‘not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of Hosts’.
But here in the early days of the Old Testament the setting is different. It is either kill or get killed. That’s why the poet says: “Heart burnin', still yearnin,' there’ll be no mercy for you once you've lost”. As if he says: “I cannot show you any mercy, otherwise I will get killed myself” Deuteronomy 7:16 confirms this when it says: “And you shall destroy all the peoples that the LORD, your God will give over to you, your eye shall not pity them; neither shall you serve their Gods, for that would be a snare to you”. Deuteronomy 7:2: “When the Lord your God hands these nations over to you and you conquer them, you must completely destroy them. Make no treaties with them and show them no mercy”.
“Now I'm all worn down by weeping, my eyes are filled with tears, my lips are dry,
If I catch my opponents ever sleeping, I’ll just slaughter them where they lie”. This verse is very reminiscent of King David who was on the run for his opponent King Saul. We read of this in I Samuel 26. Saul’s continuous persecution of David brought David to bitter tears, despair and lamentation. We read of this in the Psalms, e.g. Psalm 18:6: “In my distress I called upon the LORD, and cried to my God for help; He heard my voice out of His temple, and my cry for help before Him came into His ears”. In I Samuel 26 we read that David went to Saul’s army by night, and he found Saul fast asleep in his encampment, with his spear stuck in the ground at his head, and his army all around him. Abishai, David’s assistant, suggested to slaughter Saul where he lay, saying to David, “Today God has delivered your enemy into your hand; now therefore, please let me strike him with the spear to the ground with one stroke, and I will not strike him the second time.” (I Samuel 26:8). Now there is a difference here. The poet says “I’ll slaughter them where they lie” (Plural). He actually meant: “slaughter him where he (Saul) lies”, but for rhyming purposes with “dry” Dylan wrote in the plural: “slaughter them where they lie”. The poet now puts himself in the place of David’s assistant Abishai and says:”I’ll just slaughter them where they lie”. What strikes us now, as we read on in I Samuel 26 is the fact that David strongly rejects Abishai’s suggestion to slaughter King Saul: But David said to Abishai, “Do not destroy him, for who can stretch out his hand against the LORD’S anointed and be without guilt?” David also said, “As the LORD lives, surely the LORD will strike him, or his day will come that he dies, or he will go down into battle and perish. “The LORD forbid that I should stretch out my hand against the LORD’S anointed; but now please take the spear that is at his head and the jug of water, and let us go.” So David took the spear and the jug of water from beside Saul’s head, and they went away, but no one saw or knew it, nor did any awake, for they were all asleep, because a sound sleep from the LORD had fallen on them”. The fact that the poet now speaks through the mouth of Abishai and says: :”I’ll just slaughter them where they lie” and not through the mouth of David who rejects this slaughtering, may be an illustration to his earlier saying: “I'm trying to love my neighbor and do good unto others, but oh, mother, things ain't going well”. As a private person you should love and protect your neighbor, as a private person you do not have the right to kill your neighbor and take the law into your own hands. But the poet has to confess that at this point “things ain’t going well”, he is full of wrath, a thing which he has to deplore when he compares his feelings with the law of God. At the same time he seems to hint that any act of personal revenge is can never be morally justified, unless such an act is not personal and explicitly sanctioned from heaven.
“Ain't talkin', just walkin,' through the world mysterious and vague, heart burnin', still yearnin', walking through the cities of the plague”. The narrator continues his journey through the Old-Testamentary landscape and now passes through the kingdom of King David, in a world mysterious and vague. Elsewhere in the Bible this period is called “the shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Colossians 2:17). King David is the foreshadow and in some sort of a way the image of the great King Jesus Christ, but at the time this was by no means clear. In an ongoing journey, through the light of the New Testament we learned to understand what it all meant but here at the time of the great kings of Israel it all appears to be so mysterious and vague and sometimes even spooky. The narrator walks ‘through the cities of the plague”. This may refer to what it says in II Samuel 24. King David had sinned greatly against the LORD by giving orders to number the people of Israel. The LORD punished him for that by sending a three days’ pestilence in the land. (II Samuel 24: 15). From the city of Dan in the North to Beer-sheba in the South, seventy thousand people died because of the plague. The poet now walks through these cities while this plague is still going on; this aggravates the mysterious, uncanny and spooky atmosphere.
Will be continued in Part 3 of our analysis Please feel free to respond.
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I love your insight into Dylan's poetry and your knowledge of scripture Hopefully you will put this in book form. When I read your interpretation, my ees are opened to things I had never seen. Thanks!
— Johnwslayton18-09-2011 00:15
I think it is important to see this song in the light of Dylans personal walk with the Lord., a walk not unlike Jacob's. We all have a bit of Jacob in us. I am the God of Jacob, I find that very conforting. There was no Altars on Jacobs road. Jacob was handed a walking stick. Heb. 11:21 By faith Jacob, when he was a dying, blessed both the sons of Joseph; and worshiped, leaning upon the top of his Staff.
One might say God wrestled with Dylan, as He has had perhaps to do with each one of us. After he was crippled Jacob had to lean on God, he had to walk different. The Lord wants his children to walk different then as the world walks. A walk of faith and trust in Him.
Jacob became a worshipper, the Lord seeks such.
To me Dylan in this song is saying to us, i will walk my faith , i am not here so much to tell you about it but to live it out in my walk.
— Kim Hill17-09-2011 14:19
Interesting article. Have read your work before. I think you are on to something here. Your biblical comparisons seem accurate. Looking forward to part III.
— ed ackerman17-09-2011 13:46