Moses On A Motorbike: Biblical Figures In Songs

by Amanda Flinner

When biblical figures like St. Peter and Delilah show up in song lyrics, how do they compare with what's actually written in the Bible?

For any devout religious folks who shun secular music, it won't come as a surprise that the Devil is a popular figure in the so-called "Devil's Music" – he got sympathy from The Stones and went down to Georgia with the Charlie Daniels Band. He's even gone runnin' with Van Halen. But they might not expect so many other biblical personalities to pop up in popular songs, from Elvis recalling Adam & Eve's fruit fiasco in "Hard Headed Woman," to Metallica warning Moses' foe of the "Creeping Death," to Lady Gaga embodying Mary Magdalene in "Bloody Mary." The fact is, the holy book is full of imperfect people dealing with the consequences of their actions, which is pretty relatable regardless of spiritual beliefs. Let's take a look at biblical figures in songs, starting at the beginning...
Adam and Eve, Albrecht Dürer, 1504Adam and Eve, Albrecht Dürer, 1504
Adam & Eve

Garden of Eden was very nice
Adam never work in Paradise
Eve meet snake, Paradise gone
She make Adam work from that day on

- "Man Smart (Woman Smarter)" by Harry Belafonte

The Book of Genesis introduces us to the world's first humans, Adam and Eve, created to grow and tend God's creation together. They live in the Garden of Eden, a peaceful paradise where they work and communicate freely with God. They are allowed to eat almost anything that grows in the garden, as long as they don't partake from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They don't question the rule until Satan, disguised as a serpent, convinces Eve that God is holding out on them. Just one taste of the forbidden fruit (often depicted as an apple, but not specified in the story), he promises, will allow her to know God's mind. Eve also convinces Adam to take a bite, and – just like that – sin is brought into the once-perfect world. God banishes the couple from Eden and promises them a life of strife thanks to their disobedience.

Adam and Eve's musical legacy mostly revolves around the themes of temptation and deceit that are inherent in their tale.

Elvis Presley thinks Eve's mistake is a prime example of how a "Hard Headed Woman" will always take advantage of "soft-hearted" man. In this case, Elvis sings, she ignored Adam's warning, "Don't you let me catch you messing round that apple tree."

Cole Porter's "Let's Misbehave" celebrates all the fun of giving in to temptation without any of the consequences. The guy in the song manages to get his companion alone without a chaperone and tries to make his case for some action by evoking the biblical couple:

When Adam won Eve's hand,
He wouldn't stand for teasin'
He didn't care about those apples out of season!

Porter wrote the provocative tune back in 1928, but the lust surrounding the Eden exiles crept into songs decades later, such as in Aerosmith's "Adam's Apple."

Almost titled "Love At First Bite," the 1975 Toys in the Attic track is an ode to sex couched in the narrative of Satan seducing Eve into sampling the forbidden fruit and Eve turning Adam on to her newfound knowledge.

Well, she ate it
Lordy, it was love at first bite
Well, she ate it
Never knowin' wrong for right, right, right, right

J. Cole, joined by Kendrick Lamar, puts a hip-hop spin on the story in "Forbidden Fruit," from his 2013 album, Original Sinner, connecting his modern-day temptation to the original sin in the Garden of Eden with the suggestive lyrics about a hook-up:

Took a little trip down to the garden
Took a little dip
Apple juice falling from her lips
Took a little sip

Adam and Eve's sin had nothing to do with sex, though: They were created to be together. Their status as the world's first couple is celebrated in Frank Sinatra's "Our Love Affair." In the 1940 tune, he insists "our love affair will be such fun" and will rival even the most legendary couples, from the biblical duo to Gone with the Wind's Scarlett and Rhett.

But those couples weren't really known for their "fun" times. Rhett walked out on Scarlett, famously responding to her cries with, "Frankly, my dear I don't give a damn." Adam and Eve were kicked out of paradise and produced the world's first murderer (more on that later). Many artists have even questioned Eve's feelings for Adam and use her as an example of a deceitful lover.

In "You Were Only Fooling (While I Was Falling In Love)," a broken-hearted Patsy Cline realizes she is being played:

It's a story as old as Adam and Eve
I was making love
But you were making believe

Detroit rocker Marshall Crenshaw also learns a hard lesson in "Tell Me All About It." His girlfriend, who claimed she loved him, leaves him behind to wonder if their romance was real:

Now I do believe
That it's just like Adam learned with Eve
People can hide things up their sleeve

Bryan Ferry was feeling the sting of betrayal when he wrote his 1987 dance number "Kiss and Tell," inspired by ex-fiancee Jerry Hall, who left him for Mick Jagger and wrote a tell-all book that detailed their split – a move apparently as old as time:

Adam and Eve
It's the oldest game in town
Just a one-way street
To a faded magazine

On his 1992 album Us, Peter Gabriel struggles to repair a broken relationship in the "Blood Of Eden" and "Secret World," trying to recapture the state of oneness that Adam and Eve once shared (according to the Genesis account, God created Eve from Adam's rib). On the latter track, he sings:

In this house of make believe
Divided in two, like Adam and Eve
You put out and I receive

Gabriel isn't the only one who wants to find what was lost, as several artists reminisce over the glory days in the garden. Paul Anka wistfully recollects in "Adam and Eve" (1960):

Life was filled with happiness
Until one day arose
A very great temptation
Well you know how it goes...

In the 1980 spacey-disco groove "Children Of Paradise," the Euro-Caribbean group Boney M also recalls when Adam and Eve, "full of innocence in our eyes and without a care," were banking on the promise of an eternity without trouble and grief until "one of the meanest lies" ruined it for everybody:

We are the children of paradise
Who didn't obey
When we followed the wrong advise
We wandered astray

In their last charting single, Gary Puckett & The Union Gap make the case for forgiveness in 1969's "Let's Give Adam and Eve Another Chance" because "too many tears have fallen from the eyes of the people" who descended from their union:

Let's give Adam & Eve another chance
To bring their children back together
Let's give Adam & Eve another chance
To show us how to love one another

Mistakes are inevitable anyway, say Pharrell Williams and Alicia Keys on their 2016 collaboration "Apple." Keys takes us back to the garden in her verse:

It was Adam and Eve
And the God in the trees
And the snake, oh yeah
Cause everybody is destined
To learn all these lessons alone
Don't be afraid

Cain murdering Abel, Johann Sadeler, 1576Cain murdering Abel, Johann Sadeler, 1576
Cain & Abel

I'm what Cain was to Abel
Mister catch me if you can

- "Blaze Of Glory" by Jon Bon Jovi (1990)

The story of Cain and Abel, found in the Book of Genesis, is a tale of sibling rivalry that ends in murder. The first sons of Adam and Eve, Cain and his younger brother Abel are raised as farmers, with Cain tilling the land and Abel tending the flocks. When the brothers bring offerings to God, Cain is enraged when God prefers Abel's superior gift of firstborn lambs to Cain's meager selection of fruit from his crops. He lures Abel out into the fields and murders him, foolishly thinking he can hide his crime from God, who banishes him from his home and his livelihood. He is sentenced to wander the earth with a mark of damnation on his forehead that prevents anyone from killing him.

Not surprisingly, the rock realm is fascinated with the rebellious son, who became the world's first murderer when he took the life of his saintly brother.

The Killers transport us to the scene of the crime in their 2007 track "Tranquilize":

Acid rain, when Abel looked up at Cain
We began the weeping and wailing

The Grateful Dead provide an alternate motive for Cain's crime in their 1973 tune "Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleloo":

On the day when I was born Daddy sat down and cried
I had the mark just as plain as day could not be denied
They say that Cain caught Abel rollin' loaded dice
Ace of Spades behind his ear and him not thinkin' twice

In "Adam Raised a Cain" (1978), Bruce Springsteen takes a hard look at Cain's father, Adam, who famously got evicted from the Garden of Eden (Cain was also banished to a land east of Eden) and passed down a legacy of sin to his wayward boy:

In the Bible Cain slew Abel
And east of Eden he was cast
You're born into this life paying
For the sins of somebody else's past

Springsteen revisits the tale in 2009's "What Love Can Do," believing Cain's curse can be overcome by love:

Here we bear the mark of Cain
But let the light shine through
Let me show you what love can do

It's a nice thought, but according to Motorhead's 1995 track "Sacrifice," there's no escaping the mark of Cain:

In you the poison breeds
Crawling with the mark of Cain
And no one shall set you free again

Joni Mitchell thinks the whole thing is unfair as she explores the complexities of right and wrong in a world that judges in black and white in "Shadows And Light" (1975), using Cain's punishment as an example:

Threatened by all things
Man of cruelty - mark of Cain
Drawn to all things

Many artists connect with Cain's plight because they, too, have struggled with the weight of a mistake or unfair judgment.

Bob Dylan gives a mysterious shout out to the biblical brothers in 1965's "Desolation Row," as they're left outside by a fortune teller with the hunchback of Notre Dame. Dylan's reference to Cain is clearer in 1981's "Every Grain Of Sand." Released a few years after his conversion to Christianity, the song finds Dylan struggling with the burden of sin that Adam's eldest knew so well:

Don't have the inclination to look back on any mistake
Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break
In the fury of the moment I can see the master's hand
In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand

In U2's 1987 single "In God's Country," Bono proclaims, "I stand with the sons of Cain," perhaps showing his support for exiles, such as immigrants attempting to seek refuge in the US, or aligning himself with Cain's descendants like Jubal, who is considered the forefather of musicians.

On their first single, "Protect Ya Neck" (1992), Wu Tang Clan use the biblical tale to call out rap labels that undermine their own artists:

The Wu is too slamming for these Cold Killin' labels
Some ain't had hits since I seen Aunt Mabel
Be doing artists in like Cain did Abel

In his 1994 Dance Naked track "Brothers," John Mellencamp compares his sibling rivalry to Cain and Abel's, setting the record straight for his brother:

Just because we've got the same mom and dad
That don't mean I'm your keeper
That don't mean I owe anything to you

Mellencamp, who goes on to tell his brother he disapproves of everything he does, seems to identify with the morally superior Abel, who flat out told Cain the reason God favored him was because of his good deeds. But in the above verse, he evokes Cain with the line, "That don't mean I'm your keeper." When God asked Cain about his dead brother's whereabouts, Cain replied, "I know not: Am I my brother's keeper?"

We've looked at plenty of artists who identify with Cain's plight, but others refuse to see the mark of Cain at all, or if they do, they don't acknowledge it.

In OneRepublic's 2016 song "Heaven," the Ryan Tedder is intent on pursing the girl everyone says is wrong for him, even when there's biblical-level drama going down:

And when the world ain't righteous
It's raining Cain and Abels
I'll be trying to dance with you

Ariana Grande is also blinded by love in the 2019 Thank U, Next cut "In My Head," preferring to view her guy as an innocent Abel:

My imagination's too creative
They see Cain and I see Abel (Abel), Abel (Abel), Abel
I know you're able, willin' and able

Moses, Lorenzo Monaco, c. 1408Moses, Lorenzo Monaco, c. 1408

Let me retell
A story of old
About a man named Moses
Who lived long ago
He prophesied good
He prophesied bad
And now that prophecy's
Coming to pass

- "Lay It All Down" by Fleetwood Mac

In the Book of Exodus we meet Moses, a reluctant prophet chosen by God to free the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and lead them to the Promised Land in Canaan (The Weeknd can relate on "Sidewalks": "I feel like Moses, I feel like I'm chosen").

Although he grew up in the Pharaoh's household, Moses had escaped death at the hands of the Egyptian ruler more than once. At the time of prophet's birth, the Pharaoh had ordered the slaughter of all newborn Hebrew males, but baby Moses was spared thanks to his quick-thinking mother. Slick Rick sets the scene in 1991's "Moses":

Fear of orders, every first born, some murdered
One got away, a girl wit profit for a river
Gently put him in a basket, went floatin' down a river

When the Pharaoh's daughter discovers the lost baby, she takes him in as a member of the royal family. But Moses remains loyal to his own people, and when he sees a Hebrew slave being beaten to death by an Egyptian, he kills the perpetrator and goes on the run. God shows up to Moses in the form of a burning bush and gives him his orders to free the slaves.

The "burning bush" metaphor shows up in lots of songs where truth is being sought. Sixpence None the Richer claim, "Yes we should like to see a burning bush-type sign," in "Anything" (1997), while Wilco is desperate for some "Common Sense" on the 2016 Schmilco track, with Jeff Tweedy singing, "All I want, all that I want, A burning bush."

When Pharaoh refuses to budge, God sends a multitude of plagues upon the land – including blood-filled rivers, lice epidemics and pestilence of livestock – to try to sway him. None work until he takes a play out of the Pharaoh's own book, as Metallica tell us in "Creeping Death" (1984):

So let it be written
So let it be done
To kill the first-born Pharaoh son
I'm creeping death

At the thought of losing his son, Pharaoh finally relents – but then changes his mind and sends his army to reclaim the slaves. On the banks of the Red Sea with the soldiers closing in, Moses asks God for help and is able to use his walking stick to part the waters for a quick escape route. The Clash referenced the feat in 1978's "Cheapskates," a satirical take on their mythic rock star status:

'N You think the cocaine's flowing
Like a river up our noses
'N every sea will part for us
Like the red one did for Moses

REM also mentioned Moses' staff – which also drew water from a stone and transformed into a snake - among other famous moments in "Man On the Moon" (1992): "Moses went walking with the staff of wood (Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah)."

After a few months, the Israelites reach Mount Sinai, where Moses meets with God and is given the Ten Commandments. Conor Oberst conjures a laidback image in "To All the Lights in the Windows":

Moses up on the mountainside
What a place to meet
He brought his pad and his pencil
Poured himself some gypsy tea

In the country tune "Deck of Cards," Tex Ritter uses playing cards to remind himself of the moral laws, explaining: "When I see the ten I think of the Ten Commandments God handed down to Moses on a tablet of stone."

When Moses finally comes down from the mountain, he realizes the restless people have made a new god to worship: a golden calf. In a fit of rage, he demolishes the stones he was just given – the ones actually inscribed by the finger of God. Oops. The Hooters tell the story in their 1985 track "All You Zombies":

Holy Moses on the mountain
High above the golden calf
Went to get the Ten Commandments
Yeah, he's just gonna break 'em in half!

After setting the wayward folks straight, Moses makes two new tablets and introduces the commandments, or, as Moby Grape's Skip Spence says in "Book of Moses" (1969), starts "bringing the stone news."

But Kid Cudi and Kayne West are more concerned with carnal rather than moral rules. In Cudi's "Make Her Say" (2009), Kanye needs some extra special attention from his lady, saying: "And that's my commandment, you ain't gotta ask Moses."

When Moses and his weary travelers reach their destination, the Israelites are too afraid to battle the Canaanites for their land, despite the fact that God has already given it to them. Because of their unwillingness to take action, God sentences the Israelites to wander the desert for 40 years. The Avett Brothers use the Israelites' plight to overcome romantic obstacles in "Live And Die" (2012):

Even if there is no land or love in sight
We bloom like roses, lead like Moses, out and away
Through the bitter crowd to the daylight

Fast forward four decades, and Moses finally completes his mission and dies overlooking the Promised Land from atop Mount Nebo. He was given an ordinary burial, but Tears for Fears imagines a flashier exit in "Break It Down Again" (1993): "Last off to heaven just like Moses on a motorbike."

Other Moses-inspired tunes include "Holy Moses" by Echo & the Bunnymen, "Get Down Moses" by Joe Strummer, and the spiritual-turned-jazz standard "Go Down Moses, (Oh! Let My People Go)."

King David the Poet, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, 1863King David the Poet, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, 1863
King David

I'd heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord

- "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen

David was just a shepherd boy when God chose him to be the second king of ancient Israel, and in the years before he took the throne, he became renowned for his skills as a musician and giant slayer. As James Taylor recalls in "Little David," he soothed King Saul's fears by playing the harp: "Little David, play on your harp, hallelujah." And when the Israelite army was too afraid to take on the Philistine giant Goliath, young David took down the 6'9" behemoth with just a sling and a stone. Suzanne Vega conjures the scene in "Rock in This Pocket (Song of David)":

And I'd like to remind you
Of something small
That the rock in this pocket
Could cause your fall

Similarly, in Little Feat's "Gimme A Stone," David turns down conventional weapons in favor of his slingshot: "They say take this sword I say thanks a lot, but I do all right with this sling I got."

Several other artists see themselves as David in the classic underdog story, ready to take on their own personal Goliath. In "Every Goliath Has Its David," The Boy Least Likely To tries to muster the courage to take on a giant:

I've got a little bag of marbles and a catapult
Wound around my fingers and I feel very small
But I could make myself big if I wanted to
There is nothing courageous about anything I do

Others are already basking in the glow of their victories. In Justin Bieber's 2010 Karate Kid track "Never Say Never," the wee pop star boasts of overcoming adversity: "Like David and Goliath, I conquered the giant."

That same year, the Roots and John Legend also defeat mammoth obstacles in the triumphant anthem "The Fire":

'Cause I'm the definition of tragedy turned triumph
It's David and Goliath; I made it to the eye of the storm

Some, however, don't buy the story behind young David's claim to fame. In the 1935 musical Porgy & Bess, the dope dealer Sportin' Life challenges famous biblical tales with George Gershwin's "It Ain't Necessarily So," singing, "Things that you're liable to read in that Bible, It ain't necessarily so."

Despite uniting the turbulent nation and leading Israel into a season of prosperity during his 40-year reign, King David royally screwed up when he took a break from battle to have an affair with a married woman. Leonard Cohen recalls in "Hallelujah" how David "saw her bathing on the roof, her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you." We don't know whether Bathsheba intended to seduce David, but that seems to be the specialty of the woman in Richard Thompson's "Bathsheba Smiles":

Bathsheba smiles
She smiles and veins turn to ice
She smiles and heads bow down

Regardless, David was smitten. Sting sings from the king's perspective in "Mad About You": "It would make a prison of my life, If you became another's wife."

But Bathsheba was already another man's wife. Her husband, Uriah, was away serving in Israel's army when she became pregnant with David's baby. The king tried to cover up the dirty deed by convincing Uriah to come home early and reunite with his Bathsheba, but it didn't work. Instead, he had Uriah murdered and took the bathing beauty for his own wife. David eventually fessed up to his crimes, but although he was forgiven, a lot of turmoil was brought into his life, including losing his first child.

Throughout his life, David also became a prominent writer of psalms to express his faith and, at times, his doubts. Prefab Sprout's "One of the Broken," sung from God's perspective, recalls:

I remember King David
With his harp and his beautiful, beautiful songs
I answered his prayers
And showed him a place where his music belongs

The Mountain Goats' grief-fueled "Psalms 40:2" takes inspiration from the title psalm, which has David praising God for "lifting me out of the slimy pit":

He has fixed his sign in the sky
He has raised me from the pit and set me high

In an interview with The Georgia Straight, the indie-folk band's frontman, John Darnielle, praised David's songwriting skills, saying: "That King David, you know: he made a couple of good albums. And you hear them and you think, 'Oh, man, I wish I'd written that!' But people have been using those lines for their own songs for years and years."

Jezebel Promising Naboth's Vineyards to King Ahab, Lucas van Leyden, c. 1517Jezebel Promising Naboth's Vineyards to King Ahab, Lucas van Leyden, c. 1517

If ever the devil was born without a pair of horns
It was you, Jezebel, it was you

- "Jezebel" (1951) by Frankie Laine

Jezebel is a cunning queen who shows up in the Old Testament's Book of Kings as the wife of King Ahab, Israel's seventh ruler. She convinces the king to enforce worship of the nature god Baal, putting her at odds with the Jewish prophet Elijah. After Jezebel condemns a landowner to death under false charges just so the king can take his vineyard, an irate Elijah rightfully predicts the queen will be trampled by horses and devoured by dogs.

Jezebel's reputation for treachery is so notorious that her name has become synonymous with a wicked, tempestuous woman. In music, she tends to be a two-faced heartbreaker and a harlot who will steal your man.

On his 1990 hit "Close To You," Jamaican singer Maxi Priest is caught up in a fatal attraction with a duplicitous Brixton queen who's spinning him around "like a wheel on fire" with her lies. Elvis Costello is also duped by Jezebel's beauty in "My Lovely Jezebel," where he learns, too late, that "she neglects you and then ransacks you so very well." Rod Stewart takes note of the cruel streak behind the vamp's charm in "Stay With Me" by his '70s group Faces, comparing a red-headed groupie named Rita to the wicked queen, singing, "I hear you're a mean old Jezebel." But he doesn't mind, since he's only looking for a one-night-stand.

Likewise, Martin Gore knows who he's dealing with in Depeche Mode's "Jezebel," as he strolls in public with the "morally unwell" lady on his arm:

You're going straight to hell
For wanton acts of sin, they say
And that I'll have to pay
But I need you just this way

Folk singer Iron & Wine takes a different approach in 2009's "Jezebel," casting himself as an admirer exalting the maligned queen after her tragic death. "She was gone before I ever got to say, 'Lay here, my love, you're the only shape I pray to, Jezebel," he sings before glimpsing her fate: "The window was wide, she could see the dogs come running."

Sade also feels sympathy for Jezebel's lot in life. In the English soul band's 1985 tune "Jezebel," the title woman was born to a lower-class family and earned her expensive clothes as a sex worker.

Jezebel wasn't born with a silver spoon in her mouth
She probably had less than every one of us

In reality, the biblical queen was born into a life of luxury as a princess, her father being King Ethbaal of Tyre. But it's not a stretch to cast Jezebel as a prostitute; rumors of her promiscuity ran rampant after her death, and her use of makeup, jewels and fancy clothes allegedly set the standard for the look of prostitutes at the time. (The brothel in the novel and TV series The Handmaid's Tale is named Jezebel's after the queen.)

We don't know what befell Sade's Jezebel, but plenty of female artists have warned against walking in Jezebel's footsteps.

In her debut solo hit "Doo Wop (That Thing)," Lauryn Hill cautions her fellow females about changing who they are to snag a man. "Now that was the sin that did Jezebel in," she says. "Who you gon' tell when the repercussions spin?"

Kelly Clarkson shares the sentiment in "I Had a Dream," telling women (and men) to pursue their passions without compromising their values:

Careful now, girl, with them Jezebel ways
Crown on your head, but you're queen of clichés

But if the girl does decide to become a Jezebel, compassion for her plight is thrown out the window, particularly if she sets her sights on a man who's already taken.

In "Ring For Sale," Kellie Pickler ends her engagement when she finds out her fiancé has been "running around with a low-class Jezebel." In "Hey Jezebel," Allison Moorer hasn't lost her guy yet, and doesn't plan to:

Hey Jezebel leave mine alone
Ain't no bombshell wrecking my home

Carly Simon doesn't need anyone else's man, but if some "Love Out In The Street" earns her a bad rep with the neighbors, so be it:

I'm no saint myself
And if the neighbors call you a hellcat
Then let them call me a Jezebel

At the end of the biblical tale, Jezebel is nothing but a pile of bones in the royal courtyard, but her story doesn't end there. In 1995's "Angry Johnny," alt rocker Poe takes on the role of the late queen, issuing a message to her moody lover from the depths of hell:

Johnny, Angry Johnny, this is Jezebel in Hell
I want to kill you, I want to blow you... away

Samson and Delilah, Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1528Samson and Delilah, Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1528
Samson & Delilah

The Philistines paid
For Samson's blind rage
The secrets that two lovers share
Should never have been betrayed

- "Blinded By Love" (1989) – by The Rolling Stones

In the Book of Judges, we meet Samson, an Israeli warrior with superhuman strength. He's meant to devote his life to God and deliver Israel from Philistine rule, but gets sidetracked by his one weakness: women. Samson meets his match in the beautiful Delilah, who is bribed by the Philistines to find out the source of his remarkable strength. When she discovers his power is in his uncut hair, Delilah summons a servant to shear Samson's locks in his sleep and hands him over to the Philistines, who gouge out his eyes and shackle him to the pillars of their temple. After a plea to God, Samson is imbued with one final burst of strength and knocks the pillars down, collapsing the temple and killing everyone in it, including himself. We don't know what became of Delilah, but she got her money for a job well done.

Delilah's reputation carries over to song, with singers evoking her betrayal of Samson when they encounter a similar fate with a deceitful lover.

In "History of Love," (1962) Rick Nelson compares himself to Samson, having found his own Delilah:

Delilah cut poor Samson's hair, what an evil thing to do
Well you can call me Samson from now on, 'cause you're my weakness too
And we're goin' down in the history, history of love

The Statler Brothers take Samson to task for being duped by Delilah in "Samson":

Oh Samson it's been said you were a mighty man
And women were your weakness this I understand
But after all the mighty armies you went through
How could you let a woman get the best of you?

Louis Jordan also has no sympathy for anyone who falls for the wiles of a wicked woman; in fact, he lumps all ladies into the same category of schemers in "Ain't That Just Like A Woman" (1942):

Samson thought Delilah was on the square,
Till one night she clipped him all his hair
Ain't that just like a woman?

Neil Sedaka concurs with Jordan in "Run Samson Run" (1961) and warns men to give up women altogether:

There's a moral so listen to me pal
There's a little of Delilah in each and every gal

As it turns out, Samson is a pretty slow runner. When he manages to escape his scissor-happy lover in the Gershwin tune "Sam and Delilah," she gets drunk on hootch, tracks him down, and starts hacking. Ella Fitzgerald breaks the girl code and warns Sam:

Run cowboy, run a mile-ah
If you love that kind of woman
She'll do you no good

Still, these modern-day men refuse to learn from history. Jack White falls for her charms in "I'm Shakin'" (2012), singing,

Well Samson was a mighty good man
Strongest in his day (Then along came Delilah and clipped his wig)
And it looks like you took me the same old way

Frank Ocean finds his queen "laying down with Samson and his full head of hair" in "Pyramids."
Not all "Delilah" songs are about the woman from biblical times. The Tom Jones hit "Delilah" was originally a modern-day Samson and Delilah story, but ended up a tale of jealousy with a storyline lifted from the musical Carmen Jones. "Hey There Delilah" by Plain White T's is about an earthly Delilah lead singer Tom Higgenson crushed on hard.
Samson may have been blinded, literally and figuratively, by love, but Delilah wasn't. She overpowered the strongest man in history with a different kind of might – which Tina Turner encourages every woman to exploit. She sings in "Delilah's Power":

You know god made man
All muscles and strength
But what he gave to woman
No man can resist
Use your power like Delilah
Even Samson couldn't deny Delilah's power

PJ Harvey gives us a dark glimpse of Delilah in "Hair," crooning how wonderful it will be to be Samson's "stunning bride" and envying his glorious mane, "glistening like the sun." Samson is dismayed when she takes the locks for herself, perhaps hoping to steal their strength:

Delilah my babe, you lied in my face
You cut off my hair, you lied in my bed

Regina Spektor takes a different approach in "Samson." Rather than send for a servant to do the deed for her, she lovingly chops her lover's hair. It's not an act of betrayal, but a moment of intimacy:

Oh, I cut his hair myself one night
A pair of dull scissors in the yellow light
And he told me that I'd done alright
And kissed me till the mornin' light, the mornin' light

Samson and Delilah may not have had the healthiest relationship, but they did have passion, which means Delilah must have felt something for Samson, right? The Pointer Sisters think so, and even rank them alongside another legendary couple in "Fire":

Well, Romeo and Juliet, Samson and Delilah
Baby you can bet, a love they couldn't deny

Florence Welch takes on the role of "Delilah" in the Florence + the Machine song, and she's certainly in love. In this story, however, Samson betrays her:

It's a different kind of danger
And the bells are ringing out
And I'm calling for my mother
As I pull the pillars down

Maybe Welch hooked up with one of the guys from Kiss, who promised to turn the tables on the biblical seductress in "Modern Day Delilah":

I know the way you made the others break
But loving me would be your last mistake

But the Pixies are more concerned with Samson's revenge against his real enemies, the Philistines. In "Gouge Away," the Boston alt rockers take us back to the temple for his final feat of strength:

Chained to the pillars
A three day party
I break the walls
And kill us all
With holy fingers

Saint Peter, Follower of Lippo Memmi, c. 1350Saint Peter, Follower of Lippo Memmi, c. 1350
St. Peter

Oh, Saint Peter, at the gates of heaven
Won't you let me in
I never did no harm
I never did no wrong

- "In My Time Of Dying by Led Zeppelin

When Jesus gave Peter the keys to the kingdom in Matthew 16:19, he was giving the apostle authority to build the Christian church, to metaphorically unlock the doors of heaven by preaching the gospel. But the passage has conjured an image of Peter as a literal heavenly gatekeeper who will determine our final destination in the afterlife.

Although Peter believed Jesus was the Son of God, his fear at times outweighed his faith, leading him to deny knowing Jesus three times after Jesus' arrest. ("You've got the wrong man, lady, I don't know him," he insists in Jesus Christ Superstar's "Peter's Denial.")

But Peter was repentant and not only did Jesus forgive him, but he fulfilled his promise in making him a leader of the early church movement. As Ralph McTell explains in his 1995 folk tune "Jesus Wept":

Though Peter would betray him, he made him the rock
On which he would build his church to sort of keep him in his debt

But it's Peter's afterlife, not his earthly life, that captures the imagination of musicians. In many songs, we find him at his post at the pearly gates. In Leadbelly's version of the blues number "Hesitation Blues," the saint is getting pretty bored with his eternal lot and teaches the heavenly hosts how to get down and dirty:

Ain't been to heaven but,
I've been told
Saint Peter taught the angels how to
Jelly roll

Kenny Rogers' vision of heaven is a little more wholesome. He's confident the gates will swing open for him and takes comfort in the fact he'll see all his old pals again. Joined by Dolly Parton, he sings on "You Can't Make Old Friends" (2013):

When Saint Peter opens the gate,
And you come walking in
I'll be there just waiting for you
'Cause you can't make old friends

Robbie Williams also had a friend in mind when he wrote "Cursed," sending a message to the heavens that his ornery buddy is on his way:

Saint Peter's gonna be unfaithful
Tell God he's got a dirty angel

Maybe he'll meet up with the girl who's "Dancing With St. Peter." According to the English rock band UFO, she's gone away to heaven to groove with the saint in the 2009 track.

Frank Turner isn't there yet, but the folk-punk singer recalls his grandmother's encouragement to live a purposeful life he won't regret in the end. He quotes her in "Peggy Sang The Blues":

And yeah I always did right by my friends
And when it comes to Saint Peter's gate
I told the people remember one who needs to make amends

But what if, despite all our best efforts, Peter refuses to let us in? The question is on Elton John's mind in "Where To Now St. Peter?" where he sings from the perspective of a dying soldier contemplating his fate:

So where to now St. Peter
If it's true I'm in your hands
I may not be a Christian
But I've done all one man can

Coldplay's lead singer, Chris Martin, doesn't even bother with the pretense because, as he sings in "Viva La Vida," "For some reason I can't explain, I know Saint Peter won't call my name." Martin told Q magazine of the lyric: "It's about... You're not on the list. I was a naughty boy. It's always fascinated me that idea of finishing your life and then being analyzed on it." Bad Religion shared the same sentiment on their 1994 track "Incomplete," where frontman Greg Graffin claims to be a lost cause, adding, "Tell Saint Peter not to bet on me."

They Might Be Giants can't skate by on their charm in "Road Movie To Berlin," but at least they leave paradise with parting gifts:

We were once so close to heaven
Peter came out and gave us medals
Declaring us the nicest of the damned

For Tennessee Ernie Ford, it's not his deeds, but his debts that delay his meeting with the saint. In "Sixteen Tons he explains he simply can't afford to get to heaven:

Saint Peter, don't you call me 'cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company store

As for Clay Walker, his debts aren't holding him back, but his love for his girl is. When Peter asks, "Mister, would you rather be with her?" the country singer answers, "I'd Say That's Right" (1997).

The country band The Flatlanders learned their ticket to paradise was through manual labor in the honky-tonk novelty "Pay The Alligator":

The afterlife come and it scared me half to death
I heard Saint Peter mutter underneath his breath
Take this bucket we'll talk about it later
You can paint the pearly gate or Pay the Alligator

That's too much work for Steve Earle, who has no interest in seeing what's behind the pearly gates, let alone painting them. He also has no good reason to turn down an eternity in paradise; he just knows his restless spirit all too well. He explains in "I Ain't Ever Satisfied" (1991):

Last night I dreamed I made it to the promise land
I was standin' at the gate and I had the key in my hand
Saint Peter said, "Come on in boy, you're finally home"
I said, "No thanks Pete, I'll just be moving along"

If all else fails and you do find yourself in the fiery depths, you may as well make the best of it. In 2012's "Party In Hell," alt-metal-turned-country singer Aaron Lewis sings:

And I've talked to Saint Peter
He won't let me pass
So it looks like I'm going today
So let's have a party and tell 'em I'm home

St. Mary Magdalene on the Clouds, Lucas van Leyden, 1518St. Mary Magdalene on the Clouds, Lucas van Leyden, 1518
Mary Magdalene

I don't see why he moves me
He's a man. He's just a man
And I've had so many men before

- "I Don't Know How To Love Him" by Yvonne Elliman

In Jesus Christ Superstar, a lovestruck Mary Magdalene wrestles with her feelings for the Son of God: "I don't know how to love him... He's just a man, and I've had so many men before... I want him so. I love him so."

But the Mary Magdalene of song bears little resemblance to the Mary Magdalene of the Bible. For centuries, artists and even theologians have cast her as a hooker with a heart of gold who trailed Jesus and his Apostles on their missionary tour, but could never quite escape her past. Some researchers suggest Mary and Jesus even tied the knot and Mary fled with their kids after his death. The thing is, none of this is actually mentioned in the Bible. All we know is, Jesus released her from her demons and she became a devout follower. She was even the first to see him after his resurrection. As for her tawdry past, that myth was perpetuated by early church leaders uncomfortable with a woman playing such a big part in Jesus' story. Let's take a look at her musical legacy:

In "If Jesus Ever Loved A Woman," Johnny Cash acknowledges the special relationship Jesus had with Mary Magdalene and thinks she's just the type of woman the Son of God would go for – she wasn't someone who'd "pretend that they were holy and were not." Cash is also one of the few to note Mary's actual backstory, that she was freed from demons (whether literal or figurative demons is up for interpretation) by Jesus:

From seven dirty devils
Did He free the soul of Mary Magdalene

Singer-songwriter Tom Flannery thinks Jesus and Mary Magdalene probably did hook up in "If Jesus Had A Wife," but he's not sure what to make of Mary's iffy reputation:

Mary Magdalene was either a whore
or a nice little homemaker
who happened to marry the Son of God
and had him taken from her

Flannery wasn't the first musician to imply Jesus and Mary had more than a platonic relationship. In "The Son of Jesus" (1972) by Jefferson Airplane, the couple had a secret son with a score to settle:

Young Jesus raised him loud, mother Mary raised him proud
And he tracked the men who laid his father down

The false narrative surrounding Mary's pre-Jesus lifestyle is so ingrained in culture that she's left behind a kind of legacy for sex workers, even inspiring a charity (The Magdalene Group) that assists victims of sexual exploitation. Not surprisingly, she shows up in most songs as a working girl.

After Jesus' crucifixion, the Rainmakers waste no time trying to make a pass at her in "The Wages of Sin" (1986), attempting to lure her back into her former profession so they can have some fun:

Mary, Mary Magdalene, how 'bout a date?
You've been wasting your time staying up so late
Your boyfriend's dead, the word is you're a whore

In "Working Girls" (1984) by the Australian folk band Redgum, we're introduced to a prostitute whose "mother called her Mary, after Mary Magdalene," and the hardships she has to endure in her line of work.

We meet another "woman of ill repute" in "Mary Magdalene" (1996) by Meshell Ndegeocello. Meshell hopes her promiscuous lover – who wears a harlot's dress and the "smile of a child with the faith of Mary Magdalene" - will take a cue from the alleged biblical prostitute and leave the profession for a better life with her.

For Kanye West and Jay-Z, the modern-day Magdalene can be found at the nearest strip joint – according to "That's My Bitch," from their 2011 collab Watch The Throne:

Twisted love story True Romance
Mary Magdalene from a pole dance

In the 2006 Franz Ferdinand song "The Fallen," lead singer Alex Kapranos also wants to get to know Jesus' gal pal in the biblical sense, imagining what he would do if he were reincarnated as Christ. In this case, he exposes hypocrites while "turning water into wine and getting it on with Mary Magdalene."

Be they Magdalene or virgin you've already been
You've already been and we've already seen
That the fallen are the virtuous among us

But Tori Amos, who frequently regards Mary Magdalene as a muse, doesn't think the issue is whether Mary was a prostitute or not, but that the Christian church has made sex a shameful thing to begin with. "The mother Mary was a sexual being who had children through sex. Mary Magdalene had great wisdom - she wasn't just the whore of Babylon," she said. In "Unrepentant Geraldines" (2014), she takes aim at the church for diminishing Mary's role in Jesus' story and the Apostles who were jealous of their leader's affection for a woman:

Peter and Paul they did condemn (this is the day of reckoning)
Women like the Magdalene (she you said the savior loved best)

Other men aren't interested in condemning her at all. Neil Diamond ("Lady Magdalene") and the guys from Boston ("Magdalene") think she's pretty great, while Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers see her as the ideal woman.

In "Beautiful Disaster" (2000), Clyne finds freedom and power on the open road and pine for a woman as devoted as Magdalene, with Clyne proposing:

Will you be my Mary Magdalene? Would you be my American dream?
Will you mix your perfume up from diesel fumes and gasoline?

The lyrics, however, reveal another common misconception about Magdalene, thanks to a proliferation of Marys in the Bible. In John's gospel account, it's not Mary Magdalene but Mary of Bethany who pours perfume on Jesus' feet and wipes them dry with her long hair. So if Clyne really wants that truck stop cologne, he should sing, "Will you be my Mary of Bethany?"

Or if he's willing to wait around for a decade or so, he can look up Lady Gaga. In the music video for the Born This Way track "Judas" - inspired by the disciple who betrayed Jesus - Gaga portrays Mary Magdalene, caught between her lust for the apostle and her devotion to her savior. She revisits the role in "Bloody Mary," imagining herself as the faithful follower, devastated by Jesus' death but determined to carry on as he'd want her to and "dance, dance, dance." She sings: "I won't cry for you, see, When you're gone I'll still be bloody Mary."

From Adam & Eve's fateful sampling of the forbidden fruit to Jesus' miraculous return from the dead, we've seen some of the most celebrated and reviled biblical figures come to life in modern songs. Maybe rock and roll is "The Devil's Music," but he doesn't get to keep it all to himself.

July 28, 2019

Further reading:
List of songs with biblical references
List of songs inspired by The Bible
Jesus In Pop Hits: The Gospel Songs That Went Mainstream
Does Jimmy Page Worship The Devil? A Look at Satanism in Rock
Jesus Christ Superstar: Ted Neeley Tells the Inside Story

More Song Writing

Comments: 1

  • Shawna from PowayAmanda, Well done!! I was giving you props all through this article. Well-written, researched, intriguing.

    But then you went and pulled out the coupe du gras: Roger Clyne. And in another turn of phrase, it doesn’t get any more biblical for me than a Clyne concoction. Are you a fan now? Or did someone perhaps suggest you look up that song for your article? Either way, you’re probably hooked and the world now has a new peacemaker to count among the ranks. Brilliant. ❤️❤️
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