8

The second verse of "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen goes like:

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

The last 5 lines are all talking about the subject's relation with a woman. But I fail to see how the first line is connected.

What does the line about faith have to do with the rest of the verse?

  • Joshua's theory about the song's general meaning here may be relevant. – Shokhet Jun 4 '17 at 14:42
10

The second verse is primarily an allusion to the story of David and Bathsheba (with the odd clause about Samson and Delilah thrown in). The "you" addressed by the speaker is David himself. "Your faith was strong but you needed proof" also refers to David.

According to this website, Cohen explained the line in a 1985 magazine interview:

According to the Judaic tradition, David asked for ordeal. But the Rabbies [sic] said we should be reluctant to do so because ordeal there will sure be!

In other words, a rabbinic tradition holds that David wanted to prove how strong his faith in God was, so he asked for a test of faith. But when the test came (seeing Bathsheba bathing), he failed it spectacularly. His best intentions were "overthrown."

In the biblical account, David's yielding to temptation led to an escalating series of cover-ups, culminating in his command to have Bathsheba's husband Uriah killed. The next nine chapters of 2 Samuel (12-20) comprise a series of tragedies and conflicts within David's family, which the narrative identifies, at least in part, as God's judgment on David's sin. But there is also grace: David and Bathsheba's second son Solomon lives to succeed his father as king.

This theme of brokenness and grace in the story of David and Bathsheba fits the overall mood of the song, the contrast between the singer's "cold and broken" experience of love and his continuing refrain of "hallelujah." The words of the final verse sound like something David might have said:

And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah

4

To expand a bit on DLosc's answer, the first line appears to be a reference to a rabbinic tradition recorded in the Talmud.

Tractate Sanhedrin, folio 107a

Rab Judah said in Rab's name: One should never [intentionally] bring himself to the test, since David king of Israel did so, and fell. He said unto Him, ‘Sovereign of the Universe! Why do we say [in prayer] "The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob," but not the God of David?’ He replied, ‘They were tried by me, but thou wast not.’ Then, replied he, ‘Sovereign of the Universe, examine and try me’ — as it is written, Examine me, O Lord, and try me. He answered ‘I will test thee, and yet grant thee a special privilege; for I did not inform them [of the nature of their trial beforehand], yet, I inform thee that I will try thee in a matter of adultery.’ Straightway, And it came to pass in an eveningtide, that David arose from off his bed etc. R. Johanan said: He changed his night couch to a day couch, but he forgot the halachah: there is a small organ in man which satisfies him in his hunger but makes him hunger when satisfied. And he walked upon the roof of the king's house: and from the roof he saw a woman washing herself; and the woman was very beautiful to look upon. Now Bath Sheba was cleansing her hair behind a screen, when Satan came to him, appearing in the shape of a bird. He shot an arrow at him, which broke the screen, thus she stood revealed, and he saw her. Immediately, And David sent and enquired after the woman. And one said, Is not this Bath Sheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite? And David sent messengers, and took her, and she came unto him, and he lay with her; for she was purified from her uncleanliness: and she returned unto her house. Thus it is written, Thou host proved mine heart; thou hast visited me in the night; thou host tried me, and shalt find nothing; I am purposed that my mouth shall not transgress. He said thus: ‘Would that a bridle had fallen into the mouth of mine enemy [i.e., himself], that I had not spoken thus.’ (Soncino translation; my emphasis)

As you can see from the parts that I bolded, according to this tradition David's attempt to prove his faith was the direct and immediate cause of the incident with Bathseba on the roof. Thus the first three lines of the song flow perfectly:

Your faith was strong but you needed proof

You saw her bathing on the roof

Her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you

It is precisely that his faith was strong but he needed proof that led to seeing her bathing on the roof where her beauty overthrew him.

1

This is an initial attempt at answering, and the answer may evolve.

- The verse itself is a synthesis of romantic and transcendental love

Joe Campbell would likely have talked about the Amor/Roma connection, which might also be expressed as Eros/Agape.

  • She broke your throne

Could have many referents. I thought about Arthur/Guinevere, and in that context is could be a reference to betrayal. (Arthurian legends have many Christian elements, although Tristan&Isolde is a more direct expression of Amor/Agape.) But it seems more likely this is again a reference to the Old Testament, probably a metaphor.

  • "She cut your hair" is definitely a reference to Samson & Delilah

which is an allusion to the bible, consistent with the song title. In this context, it probably reflects the willingness of the pursuer to surrender their power to the object of desire, regardless of consequence.

  • "You saw her bathing on the roof" is obviously a reference to David and Bathsheba, which is about lust, sin and redemption

[Thanks to Mithrandir for reminding me of this!]

  • And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

as the final line would seem to support this hypothesis that the agony and ecstasy of love, in this case, are welcomed and redemptive.

  • Your faith was strong but you needed proof

Is a restatement of a very old philosophical question in Christianity. Here I think it could refer to his faith in love, on a transcendental level, but the need for confirmation on a physical level.


Note: "You saw her bathing on the roof/Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew" made me think of Diana/Artemis, but this may be per my background in Classical mythology.

Bathed may have a literal meaning, but for me it is clearly an allusion to the moon goddess, for whom being spied bathing is a central myth. Acteaon is torn apart by his own hounds, which can be a metaphor for the agony of desire, or the inability to contextualize such transcendental beauty. The story also has an element of human sacrifice to appease the goddess. Clearly, Cohen's object of desire is a goddess to him, worth any sacrifice or torment.

I have no doubt the highly literate Cohen was aware of this story, and I think it's also extremely probably he was familiar with The White Goddess, which among other ideas, casts poetry as sort of a sacred language. The matriarchal elements are consistent with Cohen's surrender, romantically and spiritually, to the object of desire.

  • You don't think that the bathing part is a reference to David and Batsheva, which is... Basically exactly that scenario? – Mithical Jun 7 '17 at 19:41
  • @Mithrandir Still not completely happy with this attempt at an answer. Don't be shy if you have any insights on how to improve it! (It's a very nice choice of a passage for analysis. – DukeZhou Jun 8 '17 at 16:08

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