Bob Dylan's 'Jokerman' - an analysis - Part 4
In this article we take a closer look at the third stanza of this song and we try to solve the ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ issue.
“You're a man of the mountain, you can walk on the clouds, manipulator of crowds, you're a dream twister. You're going to Sodom and Gomorrah, but what do you care? Ain't nobody there would want marry your sister, friend to the martyr, a friend to the woman of shame, you look into the fiery furnace, see the rich man without any name”.
When Dylan says: “You’re a man of the mountain, you can walk on the clouds” he seems to portray the Biblical person of Moses, the man of God, who may in fact be called the man of the mountains. To the Biblical writers ‘mountains’ are symbols of eternity, they are strong and steadfast, but they too are the creation of God, and they manifest His power. The scene Dylan describes here comes close to what can be found in the Book of Exodus, Chapter 24 verse 15-18 where it says:
“Then Moses climbed up the mountain, and the cloud covered it. And the glory of the Lord settled down on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days. On the seventh day the Lord called to Moses from inside the cloud to the Israelites at the foot of the mountain, the glory of the Lord appeared at the summit like a consuming fire. Then Moses disappeared into the cloud as he climbed higher up the mountain. He remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights”. Moses walked on the clouds and received the Ten Commandments from God when he was up on the mountain.
In the lyrics of Dylan’s masterpiece ‘Dignity’ Dylan speaks of ‘the sons of darkness and the sons of light’ whom he met in the border towns of despair. Also, that he ‘Heard the tongues of angels and the tongues of men’ and it wasn’t any difference to him. In ‘Jokerman’ Dylan basically dwells on the same subject. From a ‘son of light’ like Moses, who ‘walks on the clouds’ Dylan in one breath shifts to a ‘son of darkness’ who is portrayed as ‘a manipulator of crowds’ and a ‘dream twister’. ‘Who is who’ is not easy to detect by the naked eye. It all adds up to the ambiguity of the song. ‘A manipulator of crowds’ takes us to the world of usurpers, oppressors, dictators and demagogues like Pilate, Nero or Hitler. You’d better watch out when these manipulators enter the scene, like Dylan warns us in the song ‘Political World’ because – as Dylan writes in this song - these manipulators of crowds ‘Climb into the frame and shout God’s name but you’re never sure what it is’.
‘A dream twister’ again takes us to the world of deception. A ‘Twister’ is a localized and violently destructive windstorm occurring over land and characterized by a funnel-shaped cloud extending toward the ground. Somebody wrote that ‘Twister dreams can be a type of intuitive warning that conditions exist in either the inner or outer world that must be addressed and quelled before devastation results’. Here, however, when it says here that the Jokerman is ‘a dream twister’ the Jokerman again wears the cloak of the devil, who is the ultimate dream twister. In his manipulative work the devil had access to the throne of God where he continually falsely accused the children of God, twisting words and questioning their integrity and their commitment to God, - like e.g. the devil did to poor Job. Ever since the devil was defeated at the cross, he lost access to the heavens and the throne of God and was flung on the earth where he has continued his manipulative work as a dream twister. The work the Holy Spirit does is quite the opposite to that of the devil. Whereas the devil as a dream twister works had on the downfall of God’s children, the Holy Spirit pleads for them at the throne of God, (Romans 8:26,27), making sure that all prayers and dreams are heard in heaven and become effective.
The line ‘You're going to Sodom and Gomorrah, but what do you care? Ain't nobody there would want marry your sister’ focusses on the two Biblical towns of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Book of Genesis, chapter 18 and 19, says that the inhabitants of these towns were so defiled and their sins so grave that these towns were destroyed by brimstone and fire from the LORD out of heaven (Gen. 19:24). From these chapters we also learn that it was Abraham’s nephew Lot who lived in Sodom. Therefore, it seems obvious that Lot is addressed here. Lot was the one who went to Sodom. The problem however is that the lyrics say: ‘Ain’t nobody there would want marry your SISTER’, this is odd because Lot is not known to have a sister in Sodom. Lot does have two daughters and to protect his guests he decides to hand them over to the men of Sodom to have them abused, rather than have his guests abused. (Gen 19:8).So it would have made perfect sense if the lyrics had read: Ain't nobody there would want marry your DAUGHTER’. There must be an explanation why Dylan deliberately says ‘sister’’ where one would have expected ‘daughter’. We feel there is a good explanation available. It shows that Dylan has a very detailed knowledge of the Bible and he uses this in the song.
The fact is that not Lot is addressed here but Abraham himself. The Jokerman disguises himself as Abraham. This needs some clarification. To plead to God for these two towns, in an attempt to prevent their total destruction, also Abraham went to Sodom and Gomorrah – that is to say he went to the vicinity of Sodom and Gomorrah, to a place where he could overlook the two towns (Genesis 18: 16 and 19: 28) - . ‘What do you care?’, seems to suggest that it was not that difficult for Abraham to go to Sodom and Gomorrah, personally Abraham had nothing to fear there. When Abraham went to Egypt (Gen 12:10) and to Gerar (20:2) he had to fear for his life, but not in Sodom. Why not? Well, it all has to do with Abraham’s beautiful wife Sara, who was at the same time his half-sister. The Bible states this on two occasions (Genesis 12:3 and 20:2). On these two occasions Abraham feared that his wife –because she was so attractive and beautiful - would be dishonored by the Egyptians and the Canaanites and Abraham subsequently killed. To save his own neck, Abraham attempted to prevent the Egyptians and the Canaanites from dishonoring Sara by stating that Sara was his sister, he passed Sara off as a sibling, which was half the truth and a half truth is a lie..
To save his life in Egypt and Gerar Abraham said: ‘She (Sara) is my sister’ but when Abraham went to Sodom and Gomorrah there was no need to take refuge to such an excuse and he needed not to worry about his wife being proposed or being sexually assaulted. That is the reason why the lyrics say: ‘What do you care?’. Why should Abraham no longer care? Well, because Genesis 19:4-6 seems to suggest that the entire male population of Sodom was gay. So in going to Sodom and Gomorrah and in its vicinity Abraham had nothing to fear, because the gay population (contrary to Egypt and Gerar) was not at all interested in his wife and half-sister Sara; in Sodom – because all men were gay – there was nobody there who wanted to marry his (half) sister Sara, who was at the same time his wife.
In later years (2003) Dylan may have felt a little uncomfortable about these lyrics because these words may be interpreted as a bit homophobic. It may have been a reason why Dylan changed the lyrics in concert to read now: ‘You've been to Sodom and Gomorrah, way out west, looking for somebody who will love you the best and call you Mister’. This is quite striking because this line is taken from a lyric of a song called ‘Go away from my window’; by John Jacob Niles (this song at least partly inspired Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe”). The lyric in Niles' song reads "Go on your way be happy, go on your way out west, remember dear that you’re the one I really did love best, I really did love best". The question is, if and how Dylan made these alternative lyrics match with the Sodom and Gomorrah words. If he did, the following explanation may make some sense.
Abraham and his nephew Lot originated from a place called Ur in Chaldea. Seen from the position of Ur, Sodom and Gomorrah was ‘way out west’. The towns of Sodom and Gomorrah were situated in a valley just south of the Dead Sea. Because there was strife between the herdsmen of Lot and Abraham, Abraham and Lot decided to separate. We can read this in Genesis 13. Abraham modestly let Lot the first choice which way to go. Lot selfishly chose and took the best and most fertile part of the land, the valley south of the Dead Sea and eventually settled down in Sodom. ‘Looking for somebody who will love you the best’ is just another way of expressing that Lot took the best part, the part which would yield him the highest profit. It was supposed to make Lot even wealthier than Abraham, and a good reason to call him Mister. Later on it appeared that Lot made a huge mistake. Settling down in Sodom may have brought him a lot of wealth and luxury but at the same time his settling down was nearly at the cost of his own life.
The line ‘friend to the martyr, a friend to the woman of shame’, marks another change in position and personage of the Jokerman. It is Jesus who may be called a friend both to the martyr and the woman of shame. This martyr and friend of Jesus’ is John the Baptist, who was imprisoned by the evil king Herod (Luke 3:20) and subsequently beheaded at Herod’s birthday party (Mat. 14:11). It was John the Baptist himself who called himself ‘the friend of the bridegroom Jesus Christ (John 3:29). Jesus is also called ‘a friend to the woman of shame’. By his opponents Jesus was accused of being a ‘glutton and a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and other sinners!’(Mat. 11:19). In John 8 we see Jesus stand up for a woman of shame who had been caught in adultery. Jesus refuses to condemn her and let her go but at the same time warns her not to sin again (John 8:11). Jesus is a sinner’s friend and at the same time he hates sin.
The Jokerman is now challenged and rebuked when Dylan goes on to say: ‘you look into the fiery furnace, see the rich man without any name’. It looks as if Dylan says: ‘You Jokerman, who doesn’t care or worry about anything, mockingly and arrogantly dancing to the nightingale tune, aloof like a bird that flies high to the light of the moon, look up Jokerman and see how it will all end up, look into that fiery furnace and see how the rich man without any name ends up in the flames of fire’. Undoubtedly this passage is inspired by the parable of the poor Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31). The heart of the matter of this parable is the need to do justice here on earth, before it’s too late, and to feed the hungry who lay at your doorstep. The rich man refused to help poor Lazarus who lay at his gate. Both poor Lazarus and the rich man died. Lazarus ended up in heaven in Abraham’s bosom but the rich man ended up in hell, in the fiery furnace. Lazarus was a poor man on earth, but he had a name: ‘Lazarus’ which means ‘The Lord helps’. Lazarus’s name will stay on forever, because God knows him. The rich man made a name for himself on this earth, but he ended up without a name in the hereafter, he became a ‘masked and anonymous’, his name deleted from the Book of Life because he refused to do justice here on earth. ‘Jokerman, life is not a joke, please come to your senses while you still can!’
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There's biblical references for sure, but above there's too much detail imposed to make Dylan's figurative diction fit exactly into a biblical framework .... Jokerman???
Often he mixes in other images like the snakes that might refer to Hercules or Artemis....if he wanted things completely clear, he'd make them so....lots of leeway for interpretation without having to know the Bible inside and out...biblical theologians even disagree as to what's being said in the Holy Book or what the correct translation should be.
— Larry Fyffe10-03-2020 20:18
your response to my weblog. It is a very good question you raise. My
reply is that the Bible seems to suggest that the entire population was gay.
Genesis 19:4,5 says:
before they retired for the night, all the men of Sodom, young and old,
came from all over the city and surrounded the house. They shouted to Lot,
“Where are the men who came to spend the night with you? Bring them out to us
so we can have sex with them!”(NLT)
So all men in Sodom were involved. That does not mean that each one of
them, each individual was gay, but that the overall population was gay. That
may be the reason why Lot offered his daughters, hoping that it would distract
the attention of the mob away from the two men, but in vain…..
— Kees de Graaf31-08-2012 21:07
Perhaps another take on the lines could have been:
You're a man of the mountain, you can walk on the clouds, manipulator of crowds, you lead them to the slaughter.You're going to Sodom and Gomorrah, but what do you care? Ain't nobody there would want marry your daughter.
— PhilTListener30-08-2012 14:10
Slight contradiction here: if you're saying that the entire population of Sodom and Gomorrah was gay (and hence explains the "not marry your sister" line), then why on earth did Lot give his 2 daughters away to these men of Sodom and Gommorah?
— Barry Stergo30-08-2012 07:47
As always: great work!
— Peter Hyatt29-08-2012 23:14