Dylan, the Devil and Judas

Bob DylanWhile many have searched for religious themes in Dylan’s lyrics, what has often been overlooked is the astonishing amount of times Dylan has scripturally referred to Satan. Furthermore, the unsavoury characters of Judas and Cain have also made regular appearances. Satan is usually portrayed as the great deceiver, the man of peace masquerading as an angel of light, while Judas and Cain are invariably metaphors for betrayal and guilt.

i) The Devil
Dylan was thinking of the devil as far back as 1963 when he wrote the light-hearted talking blues song ‘Talking Devil’ (under the pseudonym of Blind Boy Grunt) for Broadside Magazine:

Well sometimes you can’t see him so good
When he hides his head neath a snow white hood (Talking Devil, 1963)

this sounds like a loose rephrasing of 2 Corinthians 11:14, where Paul warns of Satan’s ability to masquerade as an angel of light. Interestingly, this is a recurring theme in Dylan’s conversion songs, circa 1979–80:

But the enemy I see / Wears a cloak of decency (Slow Train, 1979)
Well, the devil’s shining light, it can be most blinding (Saving Grace, 1980)

The theme comes to fruition in ‘Man of Peace’ from the album Infidels:

You know sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace (Man of Peace, 1983)

this entire song is based on 2 Corinthians 11:14 and Satan’s ability to deceive with his ‘sweet gift of the gab’ and ‘harmonious tongue’, etc. But before we dwell on Dylan’s post-1978 songs, let us first deal with pre-conversion references to the devil. Aside from ‘Talking Devil’, there are only two. Firstly, from the album Blonde on Blonde:

The kings of Tyrus with their convict list (Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, 1966)

this evokes Ezekiel 28:12-19 (KJV) which is a lamentation against the king of Tyrus. Traditionally this passage was thought by Christian scholars to be a prophecy about the fall of Satan. See verse 13 ‘you were in Eden’ and verse 14 ‘you were anointed as a guardian cherub’.

The next allusion to the devil isn’t until Street Legal in 1978:

I had a pony, her name was Lucifer (New Pony, 1978)

Lucifer, which means morning star, is a name attributed to Satan. See Isaiah 14:12 KJV; ‘How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!’ However, it is clear that Dylan is not speaking religiously here; it is more likely to be an unflattering description of a past lover.

On the album Slow Train Coming, Dylan’s use of all things Biblical reached new heights. Not surprisingly, the mentions of the devil, increased tenfold:

Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody (Gotta Serve Somebody, 1979)

so sang Dylan to announce his new faith, reminding us of the words of Christ as documented in Matthew 6:24, ‘No one can serve two masters.’

During this period Dylan often refers to the cunning snake that deceived Eve in Genesis. The snake is thought by many Christians to represent Satan:

The enemy is subtle, how be it we are so deceived (Precious Angel, 1979)

this line brings to mind Genesis 3:1 KJV when the serpent deceived Eve into eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge. ‘Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field.’

The theme of the serpent continues in ‘Man Gave Names to All the Animals’:

He saw an animal as smooth as glass
Slithering his way through the grass
Saw him disappear by a tree near a lake (Man Gave Names to All the Animals, 1979)

Dylan deliberately leaves out the last line here but the implication is obvious: we can’t help but think of the cunning snake from Genesis 3. But wait, there is more:

Satan got you by the heel (Dead Man, Dead Man, 1981)

this image recalls God’s words to the serpent in Genesis 3:15: ‘I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.’

The references to Satan continue in the song ‘Trouble in Mind’, released as the B-side to the single ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’:

Here comes Satan, prince of the power of the air (Trouble in Mind, 1979)

Satan is described this way by Paul in Ephesians 2:2 KJV. ‘Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air.’ In the New Testament, Satan is commonly referred to as the god or prince of this world.

The following year Dylan released the album Saved. It isn’t long before the devil is mentioned:

I was blinded by the devil (Saved, 1980)
Well, the devil’s shining light, it can be most blinding (Saving Grace, 1980)

these two lines may also be inspired by Paul: ‘The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers’ (2 Corinthians 4:4). Blindness here means that one is shielded by the devil from the truth.

Satan is presented as the tempter in the Gospels, particularly in Luke 4 which describes the temptation of Christ. Dylan alludes to Satan the tempter quite often:

Satan whispers to ya, ‘Well, I don’t want to bore ya
But when ya get tired of the Miss So-and-so I got another woman for ya’ (Trouble in Mind, 1979)

When Christ was tempted by Satan he was taken to a mountaintop and shown the kingdoms of the world i.e. Luke 4:5, ‘The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.’ Dylan incorporates this image in the song ‘Shot of Love’ from the album of the same name:

I seen the kingdoms of the world and it’s makin’ me feel afraid (Shot of Love 1981)

The themes of temptation and the devil also emerge in ‘Pressing On’:

Temptation’s not an easy thing, Adam given the devil reign
Because he sinned I got no choice, it run in my vein (Pressing On, 1980)

Romans 5:14 explains that the original sin committed by Adam means that mankind is born into sin. ‘Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam’ i.e. man has opened the door to the devil. 1 John 3:8 states that the purpose of Christ was to ‘destroy the works of the devil’. This phrase is borrowed by Dylan in an outtake from Shot of Love, later released on The Bootleg Series:

You do the work of the devil (You Changed My Life, 1981)

Dylan refers to the defeat of the devil in the song ‘Ain’t No Man Righteous, No Not One’ (a song which he did not record):

Just say that I trusted in God and that Christ was in me
Say He defeated the devil, He was God’s chosen Son (Ain’t No Man Righteous, No Not One)

After 1981, Dylan’s use of scripture becomes more cryptic. The song ‘Jokerman’ is impossible to interpret with absolute certainty. Some have speculated that the song celebrates Jesus, Israel, David, Satan, the antichrist, or even Dylan himself. It may in fact refer to all of the above. The final verse is sprinkled with images from Revelation:

A woman just gave birth to a prince today and dressed him in scarlet (Jokerman, 1983)

this could be an allusion to Revelation 12:6 which tells of a woman who, despite the presence of an enormous dragon, gives birth to a male child (Christ) who we are told will rule the nations with an iron rod. However, in his song Dylan has the child wearing scarlet which is confusing, as this child now appears to have more in common with the scarlet beast of Revelation 17 – a beast that carries the whore of Babylon i.e. a harlot, which is the very word Dylan chooses to rhyme with scarlet in this verse. Is Dylan referring to this Satanic creature from Revelation 17 rather than the Christ-like figure from Revelation 12? Or he is deliberately intertwining the two images to illustrate how the antichrist will deceive many? (It should be noted that the character being described here is not the same character as the Jokerman who is being described in the first 4 verses).

The Book of Revelation appears frequently in Dylan songs. Revelation 20 tells how Satan will be bound for 1000 years while Christ reigns. Dylan may allude to this prophecy in Modern Times:

A few more years of hard work, then there’ll be a 1,000 years of happiness (The Levee’s Gonna Break, 2006)

Even in Dylan’s most recent album Together Through Life there is a line that reminds us of Satan, the Book of Revelation, or perhaps both:

I saw a star from heaven fall (This Dream of You, 2009)

This again conjures up Isaiah 14:12 KJV as cited earlier, and also Luke 10:18, ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.’ It may even stem from Revelation 8:10, ‘And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven.’

ii) Judas and Cain: Betrayal and Guilt
When Dylan went electric in 1966 he was famously called ‘Judas!’ by a disgruntled fan in the audience. Judas, of course, was the disciple who betrayed Christ. Curiously, there are numerous references to Judas in the songs of Dylan, starting as far back as 1962 in ‘Masters of War’. In this song Dylan compares the masterminds of war to Judas:

Like Judas of old / You lie and deceive (Masters of War, 1962)

The next mention is in 1963 with Dylan asking the question, rather cheekily, if Judas had God on his side when he betrayed Christ.

In a many dark hour / I’ve been thinkin’ about this
That Jesus Christ / Was betrayed by a kiss
But I can’t think for you / You’ll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot / Had God on his side (With God on Our Side, 1963)

The theme of betrayal by kiss originates from Luke 22:47-48. ‘He approached Jesus to kiss him, but Jesus asked him, Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?’ This is a recurring image in Dylan’s songs:

Betrayed by a kiss on a cool night of bliss (No Time to Think, 1978)
What was it you wanted / When you were kissing my cheek? (What Was It You Wanted?, 1989)

Of course when discussing Judas in the songs of Dylan, mention must be made of ‘The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest’ from John Wesley Harding (1968). In this long paradoxical tale Judas Priest is presented as corruptible influence on Frankie Lee.

But it doesn’t end there, in the mid-eighties, Judas resurfaced:

Whatever you gonna do / Please do it fast (Seeing the Real You at Last, 1985)

these words echo what Christ said to Judas moments before Judas organised to betray him, see John 13:27. ‘What you are about to do, do quickly.’ Dylan also makes mention of ‘thirty pieces of silver’ in the song ‘Maybe Someday’ from 1986; this being the price Judas received for handing Christ over to the authorities, see Matthew 26:14-16.

Betrayal is a common theme elsewhere in Dylan’s songs. Cain, who murdered his brother Abel in a jealous fit (see Genesis 4:1-16), is also mentioned frequently. The first time being in ‘Desolation Row’, though the meaning on this occasion is not easy to interpret. In ‘I Am a Lonesome Hobo’ from John Wesley Harding, there are striking similarities to the story of Cain:

But I did not trust my brother / I carried him to blame
Which led me to my fatal doom / To wander off in shame (I Am a Lonesome Hobo, 1968)

The story of Cain is often used by Dylan to identify with a sense of guilt:

Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break (Every Grain of Sand, 1981)
My brother’s blood is crying from the grave (Yonder Comes Sin, 1981)

the latter reference comes from Genesis 4:10 and reflect God’s words to Cain after he had slain Abel. ‘What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.’

Even Dylan’s most recent work has continued the Cain theme:

Sometimes my burden seems more than I can bear (Not Dark Yet, 1997)

this recalls Cain’s response when punished by God for his crime, see Genesis 4:13. ‘Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is more than I can bear”.’

In Love and Theft there is another obvious reference:

Living in the Land of Nod (Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum, 2001)

the Land of Nod was the land that Cain was banished to after he killed Abel.

In ‘Spirit on the Water’ from Modern Times, Dylan perhaps revisits this theme of banishment once more:

I can’t go to paradise no more
I killed a man back there (Spirit on the Water, 2006)

So why does Dylan frequently refer to such unsavoury characters as the devil, Judas and Cain in his songs? It is a difficult question to answer. Perhaps each reference has to be addressed separately within the context of the song it appears in. Satan certainly seems to be a real character to Dylan in the conversion years of 1979–81. The references after this period are less frequent and more cryptic. Judas and Cain have always appeared in Dylan songs, usually as metaphors for some kind of betrayal, but perhaps also because they are colourful characters who represent the spirit of the outlaw.

1. I have quoted mainly from the New International Version (NIV). However, in some cases the King James Version (KJV) is used.
2. The lyrics of most of these Dylan songs are found in Lyrics 1962-2001 and/or www.bobdylan.com. There are a handful of songs that do not appear in either Lyrics or on the official website. In such cases, the lyrics are derived from the excellent website www.dylanchords.info.
3. As Dylan is primarily a songwriter, this project is devoted exclusively to his songs. Therefore poems, interviews, memoirs, liner notes, etc, are not included.
4. This study is not a statement or judgement about Dylan’s religiosity, nor an attempt to convert the reader to any particular faith.

Damian Balassone

More by Damian Balassone ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. Dylan’s pleasure with using Judas/Devil and his cunning, Machiavellian ways has always intrigued me, and I am sure Bob loves the playful and serious side the imagery offers a songwriter.

    I have always been taken by the references in Frankie Lee and Judas Priest, especially in these lines:

    “I’m gonna start my pickin’ right now
    Just tell me where you’ll be”
    Judas pointed down the road
    And said, “Eternity!”

    “Eternity?” said Frankie Lee
    With a voice as cold as ice
    “That’s right,” said Judas Priest, “Eternity
    Though you might call it ‘Paradise’”
    “I don’t call it anything”
    Said Frankie Lee with a smile
    “All right,” said Judas Priest
    “I’ll see you after a while”

    I wrote a song, John Black, influenced by Frankie Lee and also House of the Rising Sun.

    It can be heard on my web page.

    The refrain lines change a bit each time but carry this message of the Devil as a sly trickster not to be trusted:

    John Black, John Black
    Make you believe that he’s a king,
    John Black, John Black
    Leave you with nothing.
    John Black.

    Thanks for the great article, and hope you enjoy my song(s) on my webpage if you choose to have a listen.

  2. It’s amazing how often Bob draws upon these characters. I would so love for someone to interpret The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest.

  3. Pingback: Scott
  4. Excellent article. An interesting sidenote is that Dylan often plays the The Grateful Dead song ‘Friend of the Devil’ in concert. It was part of the setlist for a long chunk of the Never Ending Tour.

  5. I’m wondering if Bob Dylan literally is the biblical Judas Iscariot reincarnated.

    Like literally.

    In any case, he is quite clearly a bonafide prophet of God.

    Judas or not.

  6. Pingback: Jokerman | Poems

Leave a Reply