Prophets, Octaves and Blood

Recently I came into possession of a work called The Prophets, by Abraham Joshua Heschel. It’s a dynamite book (originally written in German in the 1940s, and published in the English language in 1962), and I have the good fortune of still being in the midst of reading it.

As Heschel says in his introduction:

This book is about some of the most disturbing people who have ever lived: the men whose inspiration brought the Bible into being—the men whose image is our refuge in distress, and whose voice and vision sustain our faith.

Here is a passage from the the first chapter, and award yourself a warm pat on the back if you spot the line in here that brought a particular song to my mind:

Those who have a sense of beauty know that a stone sculptured by an artist’s poetic hands has an air of loveliness; that a beam charmingly placed utters a song. The prophet’s ear, however, is attuned to a cry imperceptible to others. A clean house or a city architecturally distinguished may yet fill the prophet with distress.

Woe to him who heaps up what is not his own, …
Woe to him who gets evil gain for his house, …
For the stone cries out from the wall,
And the beam from the woodwork responds.
Woe to him who builds a town with blood,
And founds a city on iniquity!
(Habakkuk 2:6,9,11-12)

These words contradict most men’s conceptions: the builders of great cities have always been envied and acclaimed; neither violence nor exploitation could dim the splendor of the metropolis. “Woe to him …”? Human justice will not exact its due, nor will pangs of conscience disturb intoxication with success, for deep in our hearts is the temptation to worship the imposing, the illustrious, the ostentatious. Had a poet come to Samaria, the capital of the Northern Kingdom, he would have written songs exalting its magnificent edifices, its beautiful temples and worldly monuments. But when Amos of Tekoa came to Samaria, he spoke not of the magnificence of palaces, but of moral confusion and oppression. Dismay filled the prophet:

I abhor the pride of Jacob,
And hate his palaces,

he cried out in the name of the Lord (Amos 6:8). Was Amos, then, not sensitive to beauty?

Well, the astute will have noticed that the line in question is not among Heschel’s own words but rather in the passage of Scripture that he quotes, from the prophet Habakkuk, 2:12: “Woe to him who builds a town with blood”. The Bob Dylan song that it brings to mind is I Pity the Poor Immigrant, from his 1967 album John Wesley Harding, and specifically the third and final verse:

I pity the poor immigrant
Who tramples through the mud,
Who fills his mouth with laughing
And who builds his town with blood,
Whose visions in the final end
Must shatter like the glass.
I pity the poor immigrant
When his gladness comes to pass.

So, this provides an opportunity to reflect briefly on this unusual and remarkable song. I think many people, just seeing the song title, assume that this is a tune lamenting the lot of some poor immigrant, because he is, well, poor (materially speaking). But that’s not what the song is about at all, is it? As the first verse makes clear pretty quickly, this immigrant is to be pitied not for any lack of lucre, but rather for his poverty of spirit:

I pity the poor immigrant
Who wishes he would’ve stayed home,
Who uses all his power to do evil
But in the end is always left so alone.
That man whom with his fingers cheats
And who lies with ev’ry breath,
Who passionately hates his life
And likewise, fears his death.

As has been pointed out by Michael Gray in his “Song & Dance Man” door-stopper, there are echoes of Leviticus, chapter 26, in the second verse of the song. In Leviticus 26, (after the earlier giving of many commandments) God warns, “But if you will not listen to me and will not do all these commandments, if you spurn my statutes … “ and goes on to say how “I will make your heavens like iron” and how “your strength shall be spent in vain”. Dylan’s second verse goes:

I pity the poor immigrant
Whose strength is spent in vain,
Whose heaven is like Ironsides,

Whose tears are like rain,
Who eats but is not satisfied,
Who hears but does not see,
Who falls in love with wealth itself
And turns his back on me.

However, the last word of that verse is, arguably, the most interesting word in the song, or, if you like, the key to the song. Me. Is the pitiable immigrant, by falling in love with “wealth itself,” therefore turning his back on Bob Dylan, the alleged folk/rock/protest/poet/conscience-of-a-generation? That somehow seems dubious. No, it is that pronoun me which tells us that, in effect, the first words of this song are the ones which are not voiced, i.e.: “Thus says the Lord:”.

Now, I should make clear that I am not in any of this asserting that I believe that Bob Dylan is a prophet in the biblical sense, like Habakkuk, or Jeremiah, or Isaiah. Aside from other weighty reservations, that’s just not for the likes of me to judge. Rather, I’m just looking at where this song is coming from and in what way it resonates most strongly. And I think it is in this way that it does resonate most strongly, and I think that this line about how the immigrant builds his town with blood illustrates how Dylan does not just quote Scripture in his songs in order to make them more rich in some purely literary sense, but rather how his songs appreciate Scripture in a highly hands-on manner, and how the eye with which his songs view the world is often comparable to that of the biblical prophets. To look at a town or a city and to see it as having been built with blood is to have a particular point-of-view — one which escapes most of us, most of the time. Maybe, that is, until a verse of Scripture or a haunting song brings us back for a moment to a truer reality.

Another short extract from The Prophets by Abraham Joshua Heschel (and again, this is not by way of trying to maintain that Bob Dylan is a prophet in the biblical sense but rather to reflect on a sensibility and spirit that arguably inhabits many of his songs):


We and the prophets have no language in common. To us the moral state of society, for all its stains and spots, seems fair and trim; to the prophet it is dreadful. So many deeds of charity are done, so much decency radiates day and night; yet to the prophet satiety of the conscience is prudery and flight from responsibility. Our standards are modest; our sense of injustice tolerable, timid; our moral indignation impermanent; yet human violence is interminable, unbearable, permanent. To us life is often serene, in the prophet’s eye the world reels in confusion.


The prophet is human, yet he employs notes one octave too high for our ears. He experiences moments that defy our understanding. He is neither “a singing saint” nor “a moralizing poet,” but an assaulter of the mind. Often his words begin to burn where conscience ends.

Interesting stuff.

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