Spirit on the Water: A Return to Paradise

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Bob Dylan’s song “Spirit on the Water” from his album Modern Times has been mentioned a few times on this website. It’s difficult for this listener to hear the tune any other way but as a kind of playful love song to God, or perhaps more interestingly as a playful dialogue between the creature and the Creator. I don’t think there’s any need (and at any rate this writer doesn’t have the appetite) to go down line by line and impose a rigorous interpretation. Each time I hear the song I hear something a little different, and that’s one of the great joys of Dylan’s work, after all.

One verse that has gotten close attention here previously, however, is the penultimate verse, the lyric of which goes like this:

I wanna be with you in paradise
And it seems so unfair
I can’t go to paradise no more
I killed a man back there

This gets one thinking just because it seems wrong, or seems like a puzzle demanding to be solved. On the face of it, if the singer is talking about joining God in heaven, then why is he saying that it’s impossible for him to do it, due to the killing of a man? It is biblically pretty much beyond question that even murder does not put one beyond God’s capacity for mercy and for love (though far be it from my intention here to unduly promote the behavior). And how could the singer have killed a man in paradise, anyway?

Well, some time back, a reader named Kim wrote and suggested a really neat way of hearing this verse. She suggested that Bob might be referring to an actual Earthly place named Paradise, e.g., Paradise, Texas (pop. 459). This opens up a new and amusing interpretation; basically, this involves hearing it as a pun which the singer is making to his Creator. He’s saying, “I want to be with you in paradise,” as if making a straightforward prayer, and then comically mourning the fact that he can’t go back to Paradise (the town) because he shot a man there — something that maybe only God knows; i.e., it’s like a private joke between them. Of-course, I’m destroying all possible humor in it by spelling it out, but it fits both because we know how much Dylan loves even the silliest-seeming puns and because we also know how he enjoys Western motifs.

So that’s one way of understanding the verse.

However, another reader, recently coming across the post where that idea was discussed, suggests an alternative understanding. Thanks to Kent for his e-mail:

I saw elsewhere on your site where one reader proposed the idea that the line: “I can’t go to paradise no more; I killed a man back there…” Was referring to Paradise as a town, perhaps in Paradise, TX, etc…

May I also make another proposal: Is it possible that in said line, “Paradise” could be referring to the fleshly desires of the old man, aka sinful nature, and Mr. Dylan is saying that it seems unfair, but he can’t go to “paradise” no more (returning to the sinful nature) because he “killed a man back there,” meaning he put to death the misdeeds of his own body when he became “crucified with the Messiah,” upon his salvation through Him?

That’s a fascinating idea. I honestly think that something like it has flitted through my own mind on listening to the song, but I never stopped to put it into words for myself. The reference would be to the New Testament, and St. Paul in Romans, chapter 6. Here’s part of where he writes on the concept of “dying with Christ” beginning at verse 6 (ESV):

We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

So, with this in mind, when the singer refers to the fact that he “killed a man back there,” he’s actually referring to the death of that self which was enslaved to sin. This is very interesting and resonant indeed. The idea of paradise as a metaphor for that life enslaved to sin is not as obvious, but, on the other hand, total indulgence of one’s sinful desires can appear like a temptation of paradise. And who on this Earth isn’t sometimes guilty of mistaking paradise for that home across the road?

At a minimum, it’s another fruitful area of reflection to throw into the mix. It’s an illustration of how even the problematic or difficult-to-interpret lines in some of Dylan’s songs of faith can make their contribution simply by compelling one to ponder what they might mean.

Some might say that’s giving way too much leeway to a songwriter who is not getting across his point with sufficient clarity — but around these parts, we just call it a normal day.