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Mary, don't you weep, don't you mourn
Most spiritual singers knew their Bible, so they knew that this line was based on the story about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.
There's more than one Mary in the New Testament (that's an understatement if we ever heard one); this Mary is Mary of Bethany, not Mary of Nazareth, the mother of Jesus, or Mary Magdalene, one of his followers. Mary of Bethany appears in two of the gospels—the Book of Luke and the Book of John—and it's her role in the latter gospel that inspired this song.
According to the Book of John, Jesus passed through Bethany on his way to Jerusalem. While there, he encountered two of his followers, Mary and Martha. The sisters were grieving the recent death of their brother, Lazarus. Jesus attempted to console them with the reminder that their brother would rise with all the dead on the final day, but Mary was inconsolable. Her weeping moved Jesus to tears. He led them to Lazarus's tomb, had the rock sealing the entrance removed, and ordered Lazarus to come out. Lazarus rose and walked out of the tomb, strengthening the faith of many witnesses.
For Christians, the account provides evidence of Jesus's divinity and teaches that all things are possible through faith. For Southern slaves, the message of the story no doubt carried an even more powerful reminder of the rewards promised believers. Although the Biblical account does not include the phrase, "Mary, don't you weep," the line summarizes the implicit message that lay at the foundation of their belief: our worldly losses are only temporary; in time God will reward believers and compensate them for their suffering.
Pharaoh's army got drown-ed
The message within this line is clear: even the most powerful are going to get theirs in the end.
The Old Testament account of the enslavement of the Jews in Egypt was a favorite among African-American slaves, most of whom were Christians. It suggested that the powerful were not necessarily God's chosen people; a lowly slave was quite possibly more favored by God.
The Old Testament account offered more, however, than just reassurance of God's favor. It also promised ultimate revenge and freedom. According to Book of Exodus, Moses led the Jews out of bondage after years of captivity, but after they had departed, the Pharaoh who had released them changed his mind and sent his army out to recapture them.
Pinned against the Red Sea, Moses and his followers appeared doomed until God parted the sea, allowing the Jews to cross. When the Pharaoh's army followed, the opening in the sea was closed, and they were drowned.
When I was a little boy, long ago
I read a story that moved me so
About the people in bondage you see
Who from Egypt wanted to flee
The story is one from history's bestseller: the Bible.
The story referenced by the song's narrator is one of the most famous in the Old Testament. Found in the Book of Exodus, it describes the flight of the children of Israel to Canaan, the "promised land."
According to the Old Testament book, the Pharaoh in Egypt forced the Jews into slavery because he was afraid that their numbers threatened his power. To further ensure that they did not rebel, he ordered all male Jewish infants killed. One survived, however, and when he reached adulthood, God ordered him to lead the Jews to freedom. The man's name was Moses, and he began by asking the Pharaoh to let his people go. When the Pharaoh refused, God sent ten plagues to—er—plague the Egyptians. These forced the Pharaoh to release the children of Israel.
American slaves found the account in Exodus compelling. It suggested to them that God would one day lead them to freedom as well. More subtly, it undermined the legitimacy of the existing order. It suggested that those in power were not necessarily God's favorites; the chosen people could be those who were lowly and powerless.
Well one of these nights 'bout 12 o'clock
This old world is gonna rock
This line is about the end of time, not some Saturday night dance.
Bruce Springsteen's rendition of "Mary Don't You Weep" puts an apocalyptic spin on the message. While most versions of the song simply suggest that God will eventually right injustice and punish the enemies of His people, this version reminds Christians that the real reckoning will come at the end of temporal history.
Many Christians believe that the Book of Revelation describes the final battle between God and Satan—good and evil—that will occur at the end of time. Several signs and catastrophes will announce the end: war, famine, earthquakes, locusts, scorching heat, and total darkness.
Once the wrath of God has been dumped on the earth, things will lighten up a bit. Some Christians believe that Jesus will return at this point and inaugurate the millennium, a 1000-year period of perfect peace and happiness. But this bliss won't last forever. Satan, previously cast down into a pit, will be released, triggering yet another war. Only after this horrific final battle will Satan be destroyed and an eternally peaceful future be assured.
In other words, "This old world is gonna rock."
Well Moses stood on the Red Sea shore
And smote the water with a two by four
"Two by four" is a cute way to refer to Moses' staff that happens to rhyme, but obviously, it's not completely accurate. We're sorry to have to break it to you, but we don't know the exact dimensions of the piece of wood Moses carried with him, and Bruce Springsteen probably doesn't either.
This line is drawn from—surprise—the Old Testament book of Exodus (chapter 14, verse 16, if you really wanna get specific), which describes the way that God allowed Moses to part the Red Sea.
With the Egyptian army bearing down upon the Jews and their backs to the Red Sea, God ordered Moses to "raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground." Some translations substitute the word rod for staff, but none mention anything about a two by four.
God gave Noah the rainbow sign
No more water, but fire next time
This line underscores the threat running through some versions of the song: God is ready to destroy the earth with fire in order to punish the wicked.
This line re-enforces the apocalyptic threat lying in some renditions of "Mary Don't You Weep," which is based on two Biblical passages. The first line is drawn from the account of Noah. As recorded in the Book of Genesis, Noah built an arc in order to save a tiny piece of the human race and a male and female of every bird and animal from a devastating flood unleashed by an angry God. Once the earth had been cleansed, the waters receded, allowing Noah and his cargo to go ashore.
With God's wrath satisfied, He gave humankind the rainbow as a sign of His covenant, or agreement, never to destroy the world again…by flood. He didn't say anything about fire, though. In the New Testament book of Second Peter, Christians are reminded of the apocalyptic loophole:
But do not forget this one thing, dear friends…he's patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.
This rendition of "Mary Don't You Weep" warns listeners that God isn't exactly done destroying wickedness. His enemies shouldn't assume that they're safe just because He promised never to send another world-destroying flood.
African-American author James Baldwin used the line "the fire next time" as the title for his 1963 book about race relations in America. Baldwin argued that Blacks and whites could find common ground and end the "racial nightmare," but he laced this optimism with a threat. If white attitudes did not change, he prophesied an apocalyptic race crisis: "If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water, the fire next time!"