Every Grain Of Sand
A Perfect Finished Plan
by Paul Robert Thomas
“Alternatives To College“
I don’t usually respond to other contributors’ articles but John Stokes’ well researched and scholarly essay Dylan And The Sick Rose (Dignity #3) on Dylan’s Every Grain Of Sand prompted me to write on this song. From the beginning I could accept the research that John Stokes had put in and appreciate the connections he was making but I could not accept his assertion that Every Grain Of Sand is not a religious song (in the sense of being biblically inspired or rooted in an orthodox religious tradition). Rather based on, or inspired by, the work of William Blake, an antinomian ‘Christian’ poet who believed that the Gospels emancipated him from the obligations of the moral law and who effectively created his own mythology and religious belief out of an idiosyncratic reading of The Bible. Where I hope that John Stokes and I would agree is in placing Dylan’s song among his finest artistic achievements. It is a song so beautifully poignant that it can move one to tears, especially in concert performance, and is so perfectly crafted that every line is essential to convey the meaning 1 believe Dylan meant us to share. He has said of this song,
“That was an inspired song that came to me, it wasn’t really too difficult. I felt like I was just putting words down from somewhere else and I just stuck it out”.
Explaining something of what the song meant to him, and at the same time making it clear where he stood in relation to religious beliefs, Dylan said,
“I like to keep my values scripturally straight……… Everything is crooked now and the signs all point you the wrong way – it’s like we’re living at the time of the Tower Of Babel, all our tongues are confused. We’re building a tower to Venus. Where the hell is that? What are we going to find there? God? The Bible says ‘Even a fool when he keeps his mouth shut is counted wise’, but it comes from the Bible, so it can be cast off as being too, quote, “religious”…. To the aspiring songwriter and singer I say disregard all the current stuff forget it, you’re better off; read John Keats, Melville, listen to Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie.”
Dylan affirms his religious belief and his dependence on The Bible and Blake is not alluded to amongst the ten names of stars, writers and singers he mentions.
Every Grain Of Sand recorded on May I2th, 1981 has been seen by some to mark the end of Dylan’s so called ‘Born Again Christian’ period which is said to have commenced, publicly, with the studio recording of Gotta Serve Somebody on May 1st 1979. But Dylan apparently tried out the song as early as September 23rd, 1980 in his mobile studio (the famous ‘dog accompaniment’ demo tape from this session is in circulation). This places the song seven months after the Saved studio sessions and seven months before the Shot Of Love sessions and, although the song appears in Dylan’s ‘Christian’ period and may be seen as closing the final ‘Christian’ album, ( Shot Of Love ) released August 12th 1981, was the song written as late as it appears?
The Greek-born singer Nana Maskouri told my associate Liz Thompson, in London in 1984: “Bob Dylan wrote Every Grain Of Sand for me, and I recorded it before he did. I met him in Los Angeles in 1975 or 1976 through mutual friends. He didn’t know that I did a lot of his songs in French and German
From this footnote in Robert Shelton’s biography of Dylan it is not clear whether Nana Maskouri is suggesting that Dylan wrote the song at the time of their first meeting, placing it in 75 or 76, or wrote it for her later but it may place the song’s composition even earlier than the dates we have above. It would depend on whether Dylan made his demo before giving the song to Maskouri or after: – MMMM – Has anyone got Nana Maskouri’s recording of Every Grain Of Sand to confirm her recording date?
Every Grain Of Sand closes the album which Dylan has consistently stated is his favourite album – although he always mentions his 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited in the same breath. Is there any connecting thread between Highway 61 and the trilogy of ‘Christian’ albums? I think so; the connection is trains. I’m no train spotter but the liner notes to Highway 61 Revisited begin, “On the slow train time does not interfere…”; trains and Rabbis feature in the films Eat The Document and Renaldo & Clara (although the Rabbi’s isn’t riding the train in the latter, check it out) and right on down the tracks to Slow Train Coming. (Getting sidetracked for a moment, the opening lines to Changing Of The Guards “Sixteen years”, on the album directly preceding Slow Train, remind me that the time between the release of Highway 61 Revisited, ‘with its reference to ‘the slow train’ and the last stop of the train from Slow Train Coming on Shot Of Love is coincidentally, sixteen years!) But to return to my major point, Every Grain Of Sand is neither a dirge nor “the derailment of Dylan’s single track express train of religion” (sic) but a simple song with a simple melody and, as such, akin to the hymn from New Morning – Father Of Night (recorded in August 1970). However, by the time of Every Grain Of Sand Dylan is more willing to ‘stand naked’ before us and unequivocally express his faith in God. Not Blake’s God, nor the God of The Vineyard Fellowship but The One God prayed to twice daily, once during daylight and once at night, (hence “Father of night, Father of day” from the hymn which closes New Morning)’with a declaration of faith in the unity of God which echoes the great central prayer of Judaism called The Shema, found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9. 1 can see the hymn, Every Grain Of Sand, as having very little to do ‘with the thought, faith or poetry of William Blake although, by virtue of John Stokes’ article I understand that the song might provoke associations to Blake’s work such as Auguries Of Innocence and parts of Jerusalem through Dylan’s choice of words. This seems to have misled Shelton and others in to calling Dylan’s song ‘Blakean’ but many of Blake’s most powerful symbols rely on The Bible for their language, however eccentrically Blake used it. To summarize: Every Grain Of Sand is imbued ‘with reverence before God and Faith in God. I believe it is a hymn (not ‘without Christian influences from Dylan’s study of The New Testament) which, primarily, affirms Dylan’s faith in the one God of his ancestors, the God and Father whom Jesus did not claim parity ‘with but rather said “pray to your father in heaven”. In this hymn Dylan refers to the Master’s hand, and takes care to use a capital letter in spelling Master as in ‘Ruler and Master of the Universe’. In the third verse,
“0h the flowers of indulgence and the weeds of yesteryear,
Like criminals they have choked the breath of conscience and good cheer
I believe Dylan could be referring his audience back to the period before July 1966, the time of his ‘crash’, (watch Eat The Document for a preview of what was to come when Dylan says to the camera – to us and to God – “I’m sorry for all I’ve done and I hope to remedy it soon!”) the period when he was undoubtedly out of control and on a collision course ‘with death. The third and fourth lines of this verse,
“The sun beat down upon the steps of time to light the way
To ease the pain of idleness and the memory of decay”
are, I believe, a reference to his post 1966 new found faith in God born from the period of reflection and Bible reading during and after his convalescence at Woodstock (his Born Again Judaism period?). An Anglican priest and Abott Fr. Gregory has pointed to a similarity in sentiment and structure in the poem His Litany To The Holy Spirit by the metaphysical poet Robert Herrick. I quote from it for those who like to collect possible literary connections and because I appreciate the similarity. The first verse puts us in mind of Dylan’s opening lines.
In the hour of my distress
When temptations me oppress
And’ when I my sins confess
Sweet spirit comfort me!
Herrick’s 10th verse has similar sentiments to parts of Dylan’s third and fourth verses. It is reproduced below.
When the tempter me pursu’eth
With the sins of my youth
And half damns me with untruth
Sweet spirit comfort me!
But Dylan’s sources, I believe can more easily be traced to the Wisdom Literature of the TANAKH, the books of Torah and The Prophets, notably Isaiah, whose influence was so strongly present in John Wesley Hardin’ (The initials J W H form an abbreviation of the Tetragammaton, Y a H W e H, the four sacred letters which symbolize the unutterable name of God and which Jews are prohibited from ‘writing or pronouncing in full. I hold that the “ancient footsteps” refer explicitly to Dylan’s Jewish ancestors from Abraham, the father of the Jewish Nation, Moses, the human author of Torah and liberator of his people and so on to Dylan himself who walks in the faith of his forefathers. The penultimate line of Every Grain 0f Sand originally read “I am hanging in the balance of a perfect finished plan” by which I believe Dylan meant to be understood as hanging in the balance of God’s plan at a time when Dylan was either suffering the pain of separation and divorce from Sara or remembering that time. It depends, of course, on the date of composition. Out of this “deepest need”
Dylan breaks through to a re-affirmation of his belief in God and in the faith of his forefathers in much the same way that the author of The Book Of Job does. Dylan’s work, from the beginning to the present is infused with a love and belief in God. Every Grain Of Sand is far from being an exception in any way. What I will explore in the following pages is the depth of Dylan’s biblical knowledge and how he has used it in his compositions in general, the apparent deepening of his awareness and faith in God at specific moments in his life and his exploration of Christianity at a time of crisis before presenting a reading of Every Grain Of Sand. I hope to uncover or suggest that The Book Of Psalms and Dylan’s Judaism have consciously or unconsciously inspired Dylan in this composition. At the same time I will be acknowledging other sources which the song suggests from the Christian New Testament, which have been suggested in correspondence and phone conversations with Fr Gregory, wherever they seem particularly apposite. Of one thing there is no doubt in my mind:-that Bob Dylan remains a sign of contradiction – an apparent non-conformist who demonstrates an unwavering faith in God. A good companion to The Prophets and, Fr Gregory has said, to a certain Jew born in Bethlehem, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
“In The Beginning”
“I follow God, so if my followers are following me, indirectly they’re gonna be following God too because I don’t sing any song which hasn’t been given to me by the Lord to sing”. Bob Dylan. New York l979. 3
John Herdman, in his book A Voice Without Restraint (Pub: Paul Harris 1982) sees Dylan as being “in the most general sense a religious artist” and notes how from “(his) childhood onwards Dylan immersed himself in American popular culture and music”. He adds “The music of rural and urban America, both poor white and black, is, in its turn steeped in Christian mythology of a fundamentalist cast and this could scarcely have failed to impress itself deeply on his consciousness” (p84). Earlier, on the same page he notes how Jews were very much in a minority in his home town, (a fact that Dylan has attested in saying that the town didn’t even have a Rabbi) so much so that when Dylan’s father died in 1968, he was buried in Duluth, the nearest Jewish cemetery to Hibbing. Nevertheless Dylan received formal instruction from a Rabbi (who just appeared) prior to his Bar Mitzvah. At other times he has been linked with the Lubavitchers, a Jewish group dedicated to bringing errant Jews back to their religion and who run a drug re-hab program, considered staying on a Kibbutz, prayed at the wailing wall and had at least one of his sons make Bar Mitzvah. Yet he has also declared that he has had a personal experience with Jesus Christ, made three explicitly Christian albums and declared that Jesus is Lord.
I believe that Every Grain Of Sand is the result of a fusion, by Dylan, of his knowledge and belief in both the Jewish T A NA K H and the Christian Bible – The New Testament and its reading of Jewish scripture, designated The Old Testament. In particular this song demonstrates his familiarity with the books Genesis and Psalms, and, from The New Testament, the four gospels and the doctrines the apostles Paul, John, and the author of The Book Of Revelation. If Nana Mouskouri’s comments place Every Grain Of Sand in as early a period as 1975 or 76 then it dates the song around the time of Blood On The Tracks and Desire. Furthermore, a bridge between the albums Desire and Street Legal might be the song Seven Days*, copyrighted in 1976, which is full of apocalyptic images probably inspired by The Book Of Revelation. What I am suggesting is that Dylan went through a much longer period of reflection and self-examination before the public revelation of his newly held beliefs. Four years is a reasonable time to consider conversion to another religion, I myself took three years of questioning before ‘taking the plunge’ into new waters of belief- but no, I didn’t become a Baptist. If an earlier date than 1980 can be proved for the composition of Every Grain Of Sand it suggests a much earlier date for Dylan’s religious maturity; (for if the song marks anything it marks that). To me it feels more like a song which might have been composed around the time of Street Legal circa 1978. But I’m only guessing.
Dylan’s first intimations of a definite turn towards Christianity (he had always used its imagery and shown a fascination with the person Jesus) might be discerned in the lyrics of Abandoned Love recorded in July 1975 but left off Desire. A more emphatic reference occurs in Idiot Wind (1974) – the “lone soldier on the cross” who “won the war after losing every battle” is a neat summary of the ministry, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. On Street Legal the intensity of a spiritual battle is captured in Journey Through Dark Heat (Where Are You Tonight?) which can be heard as a song addressed to Sara and God and which indicates that Dylan felt that he had arrived at some point of revelation reached by that ‘long-distance train pulling through the rain” (all the way from ‘Highway 61’). But even as Dylan sings “There’s a new day at dawn and I’ve finally arrived” and conjurs up images of 1966 with his amazement at being alive, he mourns the cost, “But without you it doesn’t seem right”. (Is there some indication here of a spiritual difference between Dylan and Sara which resurfaces in the bitter recriminations on Precious Angel? – “You were telling him about Buddha, you were telling him about Mohammed in one breath/You never once mentioned the man who came and died a criminal’s death.” Returning to Journey Through Dark Heat the image evoked by the verse “I fought with my twin the enemy within” might be likened to Jacob wrestling with the angel (some translators render the word angel ‘man’) and Jesus ‘wrestling’ with temptation (or Satan as Christian doctrine personifies it) in the wilderness. Both Jacob and Jesus emerge from their trial with God’s blessing and a conviction of their vocation. Is this the ‘message’ of Journey Through Dark Heat? If so then I would suggest that Dylan’s ‘vocation’ is fully realized in Every Grain Of Sand and affirmed to his audience – “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your might”. (from The Shema).
Bob Dylan has never renounced his belief in Christ but he has questioned and deepened his understanding of it and, in the process, has become disillusioned with Establishment Religion – “God isn’t in a synagogue with six pointed Egyptian stars shining down from every window” (Minneapolis 1983) and “Religion is another form of bondage which man invents to get himself to God. But that’s why Christ came. Christ didn’t preach religion. He preached the Truth, the Way and the Life”. (Santa Monica 1979). He has, as always, shrugged off any attempt to define or label him or his faith “Whatever label is put on you, the purpose is to limit your accessibility to people. There had been so many labels laid on me in the past it didn’t matter any more at that point. (‘his Christian period’) What more could they say?” (New York I 985). “I’ve never been Fundamentalist. I’ve never been born-again. Those are labels that people hang on you ….. they don’t mean anything at all. 5 (Budapest 1991). As Jesus asked, “Who do people say I am?” so Dylan constantly provokes us to define him only for us to discover that we are defining some part of ourselves. Yet it remains clear from his work that he is deeply concerned with the spiritual health of a ‘World Gone Wrong’ languishing in a “New Dark Age”, where power and greed and corruptible seed seem to be all that there is”. Greil Marcus writing of Blind Willie McTell suggests that Dylan echoes more than a phrase or two from the book Ecclesiastes with its constant refrain “Vanity of Vanities all is Vanity”. To ask of Dylan’s ‘faith’ “Is this where it is” without paying attention to his work is to be met with silence or denial. As a Jew he re-presents the story of his people which is the story of God’s relationship with his creation. As a believer in Christ he points to an end to formal religion and goes as far as to suggest that Christ came to put truth into the hands of ordinary people rather than an elite of priests and pastors. Never forgiven by some for embracing what was seen as a conservative and reactionary belief system, Dylan nevertheless remains an outsider who, as Allen Ginsberg has said, has only sold out to God. It doesn’t surprise or bother me that Dylan should have found fresh inspiration in the Christian New Testament; a friend of mine who has studied both Judaism and Protestant and Catholic Christianity has said that he could see the New Testament as a ‘ midrash’ (an exposition or commentary breathing new life into the books of the Old Testament) and suggests that Dylan could not have lived as a Christian for long without experiencing the Faith he was born into more deeply. As for the Gospels, the writings of Paul and the Revelation of St. John could not exist without constant reference and affirmation of the books of Torah and The Prophets and The Book Of Psalms. I can accept this. It is to the Psalms that I will turn shortly to attempt my own midrash of Dylan’s Every Grain Of Sand and I hope that I may first of all give a brief history of these great ‘Hymns Of Praise’.
King David, whom tradition holds as author of all or most of the Psalms, (some are attributed to Adam, Shem, Abraham and Moses although it is generally accepted that King David collected them together adding many of his own to make up the book we now have in The Bible) continued the tradition of Torah which had been held by his predecessor, the prophet Samuel. He surrounded himself with a group of scholars and was attentive to the teachings of the prophets, and together they would discuss the practical and mystical aspects of Torah. Unlike other Kings he would rise with the sun to pray and chant hymns of praise to the One God, King of the Universe, King of Kings. Many of these inspired hymns became written down and are preserved in The Psalms. They are a remarkable collection of ‘songs’ which cover every aspect of human experience from profound melancholy (“I am a worm and no man” [Ps.22]) to spiritual desolation, “You have laid me in the depths of the tomb/in places that are dark, in the depths”, and unbridled praise and adoration (Ps 94, 99, 66, and 150). But the thread that runs through them is one of unwavering faith in a merciful and loving God. “Let the sons of Israel say His Love endures for ever” (Ps 117). The Book of Psalms is divided into 5 parts parallel to the 5 books of Moses. They are further sub-divided into 7 parts, one for each day of the week, and further divisions provide a portion for reading for the thirty days of the month (Jewish Calendar). The Psalms have provided comfort, wisdom and inspiration to Jews throughout their long and troubled history and inspire confidence and courage in the face of adversity, as the Jew fervently trusts God to hear and respond to his prayers. Paul Williams writes:
“The love in Every Grain Of Sand, though firmly rooted in Dylan’s conversion experience and his Woodstock and his Bible Studies, immediately and obviously reaches beyond its context to communicate a deeply felt devotional spirit based on universal experiences; pain of self-awareness, and sense of wonder or awe at the beauty of the natural world. The key to the performance is its motion; it moves like the sea, forth and back, forth and back, filled with a quality of restfulness but never resting. The song is about the moment(s) in which we accept our pain and vulnerability and bow down before (and are lifted up by) the will of God. Bert Cartwright says, “In Every Grain Of Sand Dylan expresses the solace of God’s caring presence in the face of life’s treacheries and sorrows….”. The song is intensely personal, for listener and singer both; the intimacy of confession, the honest sharing of a sense of sinfulness and despair, creates a possibility of genuine reassurance. Every Grain Of Sand cuts through doctrine and proselytizing and speaks directly to the listeners need”. 6
I believe that all that Paul Williams finds in the song could also be attributed to Dylan’s reaching back, through his upbringing and heritage and forward, through his spiritual maturity, dependent not on his conversion alone but through his Bible reading during his convalescence at Woodstock in ’66 and through his familiarity with the Psalms which is God’s gift to every believer. I hope to show this gift bearing fruit as I now turn to a line by line interpretation of Dylan’s song through the biblical sources it suggests to me.
“Then onward in my journey I come to understand”
EVERY GRAIN OF SAND
Verse one, line one.
“In the time of my’ confession in the hour of my deepest need”
The words which open Dylan’s song echo the words of Psalm 77, a psalm which has been described as ‘the prayer of a perplexed man’. The psalm begins
“I will cry unto God with my voice / I cry to God that he might give voice. In the day of trouble I sought the Lord
In some translations ‘day of trouble’ is rendered ‘In my time of my distress’. The psalm begins with a resolution to turn to God and continues with signs of repentance as the psalmist confesses the turmoil he has suffered. In Judaism to ‘confess’ is to declare ones sins orally to a priest. Was Dylan’s confession a condition of his being born again, out of the ‘old Adam’ into the apron of Christ before baptism? Almost certainly, but the sign of ritual cleansing is not confined to Christianity. In Isaiah 1:16 God addresses Israel “Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from mine; cease to do evil; learn to do well; seek judgement, relieve the oppressed,… V.18 “Come let us reason together, saith the LORD, / Though your sins be as scarlet they shall be as white as snow”. The convert to Christianity undergoes baptism. There are echoes here of the Jewish precept of casting your sins upon the waters (the waters must be in motion), a religious observance carried out by Jews on Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement, when each Jew is to confess his sins and failings to those he has hurt in any way and ask forgiveness, making reparation.
“When the pool of tears beneath my feet flood every new born seed”
“They who sow in tears shall reap with songs of joy (Ps 126)
“My eyes shed streams of water because men do not obey your teaching” (“because they keep not thy Law”)
To Christians, Jesus has been referred to as ‘the seed’ planted by God and watered by his people’s tears so that they might reap salvation on the day of his nativity as on the day of his return. Fr Gregory. has referred me to The Parable of the Sower (Luke 8:5) which I explore later and which has associations here but more specifically in the later verse concerning the ‘Flowers of indulgence’. In this parable Christ explains to his disciples that the seed is God’s word. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is referred to as The Word’ “and The Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of truth and light but his people knew him not”. As a biographical note it is worth mentioning that between the recording of Desire and Street Legal, whilst the acrimonious divorce proceedings were under way and Dylan and his wife fought for custody of their children, Dylan produced no creative output and must have cried many tears of remorse and loss. At this point in his life the ground beneath his feet lay fallow. The above psalm might be compared with Ps 130
From the depths do I invoke thee, 0 Eternal, our Lord Hearken to my cry.
A psalm of deep distress which ends on a note of hope:- “0 Israel wait for the Lord / for with the Lord is steadfast love and great power to redeem”. Psalm 87 is also relevant here in respect of the desolation suggested by ‘The Pool of tears’.
The dyin’ voice’ suggests several possibilities and images.
There’s a dyin’ voice within me reaching out somewhere.
It might be the dyin’ voice of one rendered silent with grief or again it might suggest a loss of hope and a great weariness; yet again could this ‘dyin’ voice be the dying voice of the ego, the self which, in Christian theology must surrender (die) to be reborn in Christ. The voice seems to be carried on the wind, ‘reaching out somewhere’ as though Dylan has lost all direction. As a Jew he would direct his words to God, likewise to Christians but through Christ, the mediator who Christian doctrine holds must plead on the sinners behalf as God, being Holy, cannot be approached by sin (nor may the sinner survive a direct confrontation with God). This line possibly records the exact moment when Dylan surrendered his Self into the unknown, shed his ego and threw himself upon the mercy of God, albeit indirectly. Both Jews and Christians believe that God answers the desperate and despairing. Dylan makes explicit reference to despair in line 4
“Toiling in the danger and the morals of despair”
A suggestion from Fr. Gregory, which makes sense of this passage is that, to Christians, despair is a state of extreme danger as it suggests a loss of hope in God. The Catechism of The Catholic Church defines it as a sin against the first
commandment and states “By despair, man ceases to hope for his personal salvation from God, for help in attaining it or for the forgiveness of his sins. Despair is contrary to God’s goodness, to his justice – for the Lord is faithful to his promises
– and to his mercy.” 8
The ‘morals of despair’ suggests a complete lack of hope or of any ability to find a way to escape from evil or the misery it causes. The figure most associated with despair in The New Testament is Judas, who through his despair at betraying Jesus, lost all hope in God’s forgiveness and committed suicide, negating God’s unconditional promise of salvation. There are no other examples. In Luke Ch 5.v5 the disciples are close to despairing (if this passage is read as a parable) but entrust themselves to Jesus’ words, and so to God their Father. In John 21.15 Peter, who had denied Christ three times is forgiven when he affirms his love for Jesus three times. Dylan’s despair might well be a memory of his feeling prior to his conversion but the dyin’ voice was heard by God who responded.
Verse two has Judaic and Christian overtones with its opening line “Don’t have the inclination to look back on any mistake”, containing echoes of Genesis and the teaching of Christ and his disciples. The injunction ‘not to look back’ recalls the story of Sodom and Gommorah to mind where the angels of God urge Lot, ‘Flee for your life! Do not look back, do not stop anywhere on the plain; flee to the hills lest you be swept away” (Gen 19:15-26). Lot’s wife looked back and was turned into a pillar of salt – petrified). Lot’s escape to the hills puts us in mind of Psalm 120 “1 lift up my eyes to the mountains/From where shall come my help/My help shall come from the Lord who made heaven and earth”. In Isaiah 52.7 the messenger of the Lord comes from hills (mountains) to bring good news. The injunction not to look back is also implicit in The New Testament. Paul tells those who have placed their faith in Christ, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ”, and Jesus, in sending out his disciples to preach the gospel tells them that where they are rejected they are to ‘shake the dust from their feet and move on; “Truly I tell you it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gommorah on the day of Judgement than for that town” (Math 10:12-15). The Christian is ‘a new creation’ after reception into the church. Cf Luke 9.5. But the line of Dylan’s song also has echoes of Ecclesiastes 5.5 – “Suffer not thy mouth to cause thy flesh to sin, neither say thou before the angel that it was a mistake”. Incidentally the root meaning of ‘Sin’ is ‘mistake’ a falling short through error or spiritual laziness. In the second line Dylan likens himself specifically to Cain whose failure to confess his crime of parricide to God resulted in his exile – but not his death. Cain’s exile might be likened to Dylan’s exile from his followers and from the religion of his forefathers upon his conversion to Christianity. Also it might be argued that Dylan is identifying himself with Cain ‘see the Masters hand’ in the fury of Cain’s slaying of his brother. Cain was to found the first City as a result of his exile and named it after his son Enoch (Gen 4:17-22) and from generations of Enoch was born Jubal the ancestor of all who play the harp and the lyre – of poets and musicians. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary remarks that Cain’s crime ~ used by God to further civilization – to break the nomadic chain of Cain’s ancestors and have them ‘put down roots’. But Dylan’s sentiment is one shared by many who find God, whether Jew or Christian. In reassessing their life they see Cod at work even when they felt most distant from Him. The last line of this verse, “In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand” should be compared with Lev 26:36 and Ps 114:7. Ezek 26:16. Dylan sees God’s hand in all of Nature, from a trembling leaf to a grain of sand just as the psalmist does in Ps 24, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof”. At the same time the pastoral imagery puts us in mind of Dylan’s retreat, in 1977, to his ranch in Laredo, Minnesota, whilst the divorce was going on, and where he was to begin writing the songs of Street Legal. (See the reference 9 to Farida McFree above).
“Oh the flowers of indulgence and the weeds of yesteryear
Like criminals they have choked the breath of conscience and good cheer”
These words are some of the most evocative of the New Testament in this song. They bring to mind Christ’s ‘The Parable Of The Sower’ Mark Ch.4 vs.3 – 10
“Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold. And (Jesus) said “Let anyone who has ears to hear listen”
Jesus explains the hidden meaning of this parable to his disciples.
Vs 14-26 ‘~The sower sows the word. These are the ones on the path where the word is sown; when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground; when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away (or ‘stumble’ as a variant text has it). And others are those that are sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word: but the care of this world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word and it yields nothing. And these are the ones sown on good soil they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and an hundredfold. For to those who have more shall be given; and for those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The Kingdom of Cod is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground
Dylan, raised a Jew, Bar- Mitzvah’d, had strayed a long way from his religious upbringing by 1966 and again at the time of his divorce. His profligate ways with women are legendary and perhaps the flowers of indulgence refer to his affairs, as well as his abuse of drugs and alcohol ‘Weeds’ are a vernacular term for a woman’s mourning clothes. Is there a reference here to Sara’s mourning the loss of her husband or to mourning in general’? On a personal level this verse might refer to the way life on the road has ‘choked the breath of conscience’; rendered Dylan unfit to discriminate between right and wrong. Breath is a biblical term for the spirit of God, some translators of Genesis render the sentence in the creation myth, “God breathed upon the waters”. As ever there is a psalm which seems to parallel this verse, “When the wicked spring as the grass/And all the workers of iniquity do flourish’ Ps 92:7.
The sun beat down upon the steps of time to light the way
To ease the pain of idleness and the memory of decay
The reference to the ‘sun’ (Son?) uses one of the oldest religious symbols which man worshipped before God revealed Himself through the Prophets and through Torah. It has also been used among many other titles to refer to Christ, the Word of God according to John’s Gospel. Psalm 119:105 uses the images of word and light together and has become a hymn in Christian churches and is chanted in synagogues.
“Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.”
In Dylan’s stricken and artistically idle state is it possible that Dylan recalled these words or the following from Isaiah 60:19
“The sun shall be no more thy light by day, neither for brightness shall the moon give light unto thee: but the Lord shall be unto thee an everlasting light, and the days of thy mourning shall be ended.”
Christianity reinterprets key prophetical texts and scriptural allusions to show how Jesus fulfills prophecy concerning the coming of The Christ, the Anointed One, The Messiah (the Greek meaning of Christ is ‘anointed one’). He is referred to as The Way, God’s Word, The Logos (mind or reason of God), The Light of The World, The Morning Star and The Dayspring from On High. He is also seen as ‘The Sun of righteousness (risen) with healing in his wings’ (Malachi 4:2-3), “The suffering servant” of Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12 and “The Way of Holiness” Isaiah 35:S, and is reported by John as telling his disciples “I am the way, the Truth and the Life, no man cometh to the father but by me…if you know me then you know the father who sent me”(John 14.6) Images from The New Testament run through the music of poor white and black Americans. The blues developed from a fusion of Holiness music, Gospel and African American spirituals. Dylan could no more escape the stories of Christ as savior, liberator and messiah as well as a friend to the poor, as well as an outcast ‘despised and rejected’. I believe that Dylan moved from knowing about Jesus to a point where he identified strongly with him. From there it was a small step to move into a personal relationship with the risen Jesus who alone could, “ease the pain of idleness and the memory of decay”.
“Decay turns me off. Ill die before I decay” (Bob Dylan 1966) 10
“For the living know that they shall die but the dead know not anything, neither have they any more a reward, for the memory of them is forgotten” (Ecclesiastes 9:5)
The memory of the just is blessed but the name of the wicked shall rot (decay) Proverbs 10:7)
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.
Paul Robert Thomas
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. His address is
Paul Robert Thomas
2, Sheshet Hayamim Street.
* 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).
(My article was featured in www.expectingrain.com on 29/11/07).