What happens when those who are chosen reject God’s call?
After using “DNA.” to dissect the good and evil traits inherent in all humans, DAMN. moves on to the second track entitled “YAH.” The title of this track refers to the personal name that the Israelites first used to refer to their God. When God revealed himself to Moses and told Moses to lead the Israelites out of slavery, Moses asked God how to explain his commission to the Israelites. God instructed Moses to tell the Israelites that “He will be” had sent Moses to them. The Hebrew word for “He will be” is Yahweh. Yahweh thus identifies the God of Israel as the being who exists throughout all time and whose existence does not depend on another. The name was meant to elicit great reverence from humans, who have finite existences and are dependent on things outside of themselves.
Due to the reverence that was ascribed to this name, the Israelites eventually stopped saying it. Instead, when reading the Tanakh or praying, Jews would replace the personal name of God with the word Adonai which means “Lord”. In normal speech, many Jews simply refer to God as HaShem, which literally means “The Name”. Still, there are a small minority of instances where scripture refers to God by shortening the name Yahweh into Yah. The most common case is found in the Hebrew term “Allelu Yah” which literally means “Praise Yah”. Due to the differences in pronouncing the letter “Y” and “J” in Germanic languages, this term was transliterated as “Hallelujah”. Similarly, the shortened name, “Yah”, became “Jah”. Ironically, most Americans now associate the term Jah with its usage by Rastafarians and reggae music. Thus, Kendrick’s use of “Yah” is another layer of reference behind the “Gimmie some ganja” sample on the previous track.
Based on the verses of “DNA.”, Kendrick clearly understands that following God will lead to life and following after the basic desires of his animal nature will lead to death. One might think such a conviction would lead Kendrick down a path of peace and righteous living. However, Kendrick decides to take a different path.
I got so many theories and suspicions
I’m diagnosed with real nigga conditions
Today is the day I follow my intuition
Keep the family close — get money, fuck bitches
Kendrick has many doubts about God. To make matters worse, his DNA has conditioned him to respond to the problems of the world in an unrefined manner. Thus, rather than being led in the counterintuitive way that Jesus lived, Kendrick decides to be led by his own intuitions. He will base his actions on how he feels and what he desires. His most pressing desires are to eliminate any threats to his family, increase his wealth, and gratify himself with the numerous women available to him. In other words, he is driven by his lust for sex, money, and murder. This should not be surprising since those are the traits in his DNA. Nonetheless, as Kendrick goes about making his own way, his mind is filled with the static noise and warnings from those close to him.
My world been ecstatic, I checked the signal that read —
Buzzin’, radars is buzzin’
Yah, yah, yah, yah
The Refusal of the Call
While these lyrics are obscure, it seems they are referencing some form of telecommunication. In the first line, Kendrick is trying to figure out why he is getting disconnected from his incoming call. He thus checks to see whether he has a strong signal. Instead of seeing AT&T, Verizon or another mobile service provider next to the signal bars, he sees the name “YAH”. It would seem that God is calling Kendrick.
One would think that receiving a personal phone call from God would be an exciting, life-changing occurrence. In fact, on a track released in between TPAB and DAMN., the perilous state of the world pushed Kendrick to make a request for such a phone call.
World is going [crazy]
Where did we go wrong?
It’s a tidal wave, it’s a thunderdome
Get God on the phone
- Kendrick Lamar from “untitled 02 | 06.23.2014.” from untitled unmastered.
Kendrick is playing with two meanings of the word “call”. The most obvious is that of a phone call. However, within the literature of Ancient Israel, God frequently gives a “call” to prophets, meaning God speaks to the prophet and instruct him to convey a particular message. This is what happened when Yahweh called Moses and told him to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. As we saw in “Mortal Man” and “DNA.”, Kendrick is aware that he is called to be a prophet and lead the black community out of mental slavery. In fact, “DNA.” is the essence of the message that Kendrick is supposed to preach to the world through his daily life. However, even with this awareness of his role and his message, Kendrick has become disconnected from God and remains that way throughout the entire song. Since Kendrick is in a place with poor signal, all he needs to do is move to a place with less interference. However, Kendrick refuses to return to a place of signal clarity.
Kendrick refuses to return because — like Jonah — he has already turned to run in the opposite direction as guided by his intuition. As he runs further from the way in which God has instructed, Kendrick’s signal strength decreases. His lusts for sex, money and murder are interfering with his ability to answer God’s call. Thus, all of Kendrick’s knowledge about God has become futile.
The Curse of Misplaced Worth
My cousin called, my cousin Carl Duckworth
Said know my worth
And Deuteronomy say that we all been cursed
In addition to receiving a call from God, Kendrick also receives a call from his cousin Carl. While we don’t hear the audio from Carl’s call in this track, Kendrick’s summary of Carl’s message seems to indicate that Kendrick’s knowledge of God is incomplete. In particular, Carl points out that Kendrick is confused about his self-worth. At the moment, Kendrick assesses his on worth based on whether he protects his family members, increases his financial security, and attracts more than enough women to make him feel desired. All of these sources of personal value are problematic because they motivate Kendrick to seek his own good even at the expense of others. More importantly, though, each of these avenues of potential success can easily turn into failure by forces outside of his control — whether by natural disaster or stock market crash or disease. None of these pursuits provide a reliable foundation for Kendrick’s life worth. Worse still, these pursuits have led Kendrick away from building his worth upon the God , who — according to the Sermon on the Mount — is the only secure foundation. Jesus made this claim in the very last section of his speech after giving his followers his complete set of commandments.
Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house; and yet it did not fall, for its foundation had been built on the rock.
Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house; and it fell — and great was its fall.
- Matthew 7:24–27
Here Jesus contrasts the life of a person who builds her worth on following God’s commandments with the life of a person who builds her life on following her own intuition. The former person enjoys a life built on a foundation which will endure any number of adverse circumstances. Because her foundation is secure, she has no reason to fear and thus no reason to stop following God’s commandment to love others. In contrast, the latter person will only enjoy her life as long as the environmental conditions remain favorable. She will fear potential changes in circumstances, leading her to feel she must to take matters into her own hands — even if such actions violate God’s commandment to love others.
This distinction between those that follow God’s commandments and those who turn away from God leads us back to our proposed interpretation of the album’s title. If one has previously listened to “FEAR.” one will know that Cousin Carl believes Kendrick experiences the curse of mental slavery because he refuses to follow God’s commandments. Ultimately, not knowing one’s true worth leads to being cursed.
I know he walks the earth
While he might lack the knowledge that his true worth is in God, one thing Kendrick does know is that God walks the earth. For some, the idea of God walking the earth might be taken to be a reference to Jesus, as influenced by Kanye West’s song “Jesus Walks”. While that may be one implication, the origin of Kendrick’s reference is likely from a much earlier passage that would have been known to the early Israelites. The earliest reference to God walking the earth takes place in the third chapter of the first book — the conclusion of the Garden of Eden narrative.
The Garden of Delight (a.k.a. The Biblical DNA.)
In the opening narrative of the Tanakh, God plants a garden named Eden, creates humans and places these humans in the garden so that they can take care of the earth. God designated all of humanity as royalty — meaning that males and females are kings and queens made in his royal image. He gives humanity power to rule over the entire earth on his behalf and splits humanity into male and female so that they can rule together. Additionally, the man and woman have access to the Tree of Life at the center of the Garden. The fruit from the Tree of Life perpetually sustains the lives of the humans. Strangely, though, the Garden of Eden also has a Tree the Knowledge of Good and Evil which — like the Tree of Life — is conveniently located at the center of the garden. Nonetheless, God instructs the humans not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. He says that if they eat the fruit of that tree they will be choosing death instead of life.
Initially, the humans obey God’s one commandment. However, one day a talking snake appears in the Garden and strikes up a conversation with one of the humans. This strange creature convinces the humans that eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil won’t really lead to death. Instead, the snake claims, if they eat the fruit, the will become like God — able to decide for themselves what is good and what is evil. Such power and wisdom is too appealing to turn down, so the humans eat the fruit. After eating the fruit, they immediately become ashamed of their nudity and try to cover themselves. It is after this decision that we read about their reaction to God’s presence coming through the garden.
They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.
- Genesis 3:8
The first time that the biblical narrative speaks of God walking the earth, humanity flees from his presence and tries to hide — just like Jonah had done. Implicitly, God must have walked through the garden before the humans ate the fruit and the humans would have been overjoyed at God’s coming. However, now that the humans have disobeyed God, the relationship that had previously been a cause for joy has now become a cause for fear. They worry that God will punish them and kill them. As it turns out, God has no intention of killing them and they don’t immediately die from natural causes. However, God does inform them that the land is now cursed as a result of them breaking God’s one commandment. As a natural consequence, they will suffer from pain, fruitless toil, and gender inequality. To prevent the humans from living forever in such a tortured state, God banishes them from the garden. Without access to the Tree of Life, the humans eventually will die.
The Garden of Eden narrative is essentially the problem statement of the entire Judeo-Christian scriptures in much the same way that “DNA.” is the problem statement for DAMN.. Almost every significant story throughout the rest of the scriptures can ultimately be traced back to the Garden of Eden, much like each of the tracks on DAMN. can be traced back to “DNA.” Unfortunately, in modern society, the narrative significance of these stories have been held captive during the course of a culture war between fundamentalists who view science as a challenge to their faith and much of the rest of society who believe that science invalidates scripture. Such a conflict is a quintessentially Western invention that exploded as late as the 19th century amongst American Protestants, for whom the scriptures were a source of widely varying interpretations.
One might think that people from antiquity were naive and uninformed compared to the rational modern man. Ironically, though, early Christians in the first few centuries of the common era were not fundamentalists. As people who were much more connected to ancient ways of thought and the development of narrative, they held a very nuanced view of interpreting scripture. While the early church leaders believed that the pre-historic section of the Genesis narrative did rightly claim that the God of Israel created the cosmos, they did not believed that this particular narrative was a literal description of how God created the cosmos. They considered the way that the story anthropomorphized God to be a poetic simplification that enabled humans to grasp something far beyond their mental reach. They thought that the mechanisms through which God created the cosmos were far too complex for humans to fully understand. To whatever degree humans could learn more about origins of the cosmos, such theorizing was best left to scientists. This more Orthodox attitude is the core reason why the Eastern Church never ran into the kind of conflict that the Western Church has had with scientists from Copernicus onward. More importantly, the early church leaders warned that if Christians focused on using scripture to prove a literal interpretation of how the cosmos were created, they would miss the spiritual meaning of one of the most critical parts of the biblical narrative.
A Choice Between Life and Death: Humanity and the Two Trees
To begin exploring the spiritual meaning of the story, we should first consider some of the literary techniques that the author uses in the story. Much like Kendrick did with the track names in DAMN., the biblical authors frequently used names to highlight the purpose of each person, place or thing in the story. For instance, in the first chapters of Genesis, the man is referred to as Adam, which means “Humanity”. Humanity is formed out of the mortality (metaphorically “dust”) of the hummus (i.e. the ground that 2Pac referred to). The woman, who does not have a name separate from Humanity until after the curse, is named Eve, which means “Life”. Furthermore, Eden means “Delight”. Unfortunately, all of these layered meanings — with the exception of the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil — are obscured in the English text. Just from those names alone one can come to the conclusion that the main purpose of the narrative is not a scientific or metaphysical description of the universe, but a typological description of human nature as it is experienced by each human being.
The Ancient Israelites were not the only ancient society which told stories like this. The narrative fits in with a genre that the Ancient Greeks would have called “mythos” meaning “a story or set of stories relevant to or having a significant truth or meaning for a particular culture, religion, society, or other group”. Meanwhile, in the post-Enlightenment Western world, the derivative word, myth, now means “a commonly-held but false belief”. It is no small irony that a word which for the ancients meant transcendent truth now means unscientific falsehood in the modern world.
So, what was the truth that the ancients thought was so compelling about the Garden of Delight? It would seem to be the same truth the Kendrick just detailed during “DNA.”. Humans are all loyal to something or someone. They are royalty with the power and responsibility to rule the world around them. Humans have the potential of doing good and evil as inseparable parts of their inherited traits. There exist problematic spiritual forces which inspire humans to desire moral autonomy. Humans then make their own choices about which good and evil traits they will cultivate. However, they invariably choose some amount of evil. Humans use their rule to redefine the evil things they do as good. These evil choices cause fractured relationships among humans and also between humanity and God in ways that do not allow us to return to a state of unity. Because humans no longer trust God, they can no longer trust each other and they can no longer live in state of Delight.
This is what the story means by saying that Humanity died when it chose to redefine good and evil. The choice to develop moral autonomy destroyed their relationship with God. Since Humanity was no longer able to know God, it no longer had eternal life. As a symptom of this illness, Humanity’s evil actions naturally led to pain, toil, and gender inequalities. To avoid being on the negative end of these consequences, humans turned to pursue sex, money and murder to replace the lost delight of being with God and to shield themselves from their eventual physical deaths.
The seeds of injustice that were sown in the Garden of Delight did not take long to bear their destructive fruit. In the very next story, Possession (or Cain when transliterated from Hebrew), the first son of Life and Humanity, becomes angry at his brother Vapor (or Abel when transliterated from Hebrew). Possession was not angry because of anything Vapor had done to him but because it seemed that God had blessed Vapor more than Possession. God warned Possession that sin was “crouching at his door” and that Possession would be devoured if he did not rule over sin. Yet Possession was not able to exert his rule over sin. Instead, he became the first human in the scriptures to kill another human, bringing physical death into the world for the first time. Thus, Possession began the pattern of treating human life as Vapor, a short-lived, transient, and easily dispersed substance. Possession was then forced to wander the earth after his injustice resulted in perpetual crop failures. Not to be outdone, Posession’s descendent Powerful (or Lamech when transliterated Hebrew) became the first human in the scriptures to exploit gender inequality by marrying two wives, Ornament and Shade. After treating his wives like decorations for his house, Powerful then killed two men who had wounded him and proudly boasted that he had outdone his ancestor, Possession.
While Kendrick has the benefit of knowing the tragic stories of Possession and Powerful, he nonetheless turns away from the path that God has walked and instead chooses to seek power and possessions.
But it’s money to get, bitches to hit, yah
Zeroes to flip, temptation is, yah
First on my list, I can’t resist, yah
Like Humanity in the Garden of Delight, Kendrick knows who God is and even knows that relational ruin would come from choosing to define good and evil for himself. Nonetheless, he has already decided to follow his intuition and reject God’s calling. God is on the earth, but so are money and pleasure. Kendrick chooses the latter to be first on his list of life priorities.
A Choice Between Life and Death: The Israelites and Two Laws
Kendrick is not the first person to make this choice. After all, Kendrick is an Israelite. The Ancient Israelites also followed their intuition away from God. When God brought them out of slavery in Egypt, God intended to have the kind of relationship with them as he had with Humanity in the Garden of Delight. This can be seen in the book of Leviticus, which contains a long list of commandments, similar to the middle section of Deuteronomy. At the end of Leviticus, Moses declares that obeying the commandments will lead to the blessings of fruitfulness and disobeying the commandments will lead to the curse of destruction. The blessings eventually build to the ultimate blessing, one which shows that all the fruitfulness blessings point back to the Garden of Delight.
I will put my tabernacle in your midst and my soul will not abhor you. I will walk among you, and I will be your God and you will be my people.
- Leviticus 26:11–12
God’s dwelling place was made manifest to the Ancient Israelites within their mobile temple called a tabernacle. The tabernacle was essentially a large tent which housed a gold-plated, wooden chest called the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark was inscribed with all kinds of imagery from the Garden of Delight narrative. God told the Israelites that his Spirit would dwell in the tabernacle as long as they continued to follow his commandments.
All the people were seeing the thundering and the lightning, and heard the sound of the horn, and saw the mountain smoking — and when the people saw it they trembled with fear and kept their distance. They said to Moses, “You speak to us and we will listen, but do not let God speak with us, lest we die.
Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that His awe may be before your faces, so that you do not sin.” The people kept their distance, but Moses drew near the thick darkness where God was.
- Exodus 20:18–21
Unfortunately, when God first revealed his power and his commandments to the people of Israel, they too became afraid and tried to hide from his presence. The people told Moses that they did not want to be near God. They instead wanted someone else to communicate with God on their behalf and leave them to their own devices. This pattern of fear and rejection replayed itself over and over for centuries as the Ancient Israelites failed to keep God’s commandments.
Thus, just like Humanity in the Garden of Delight, the Israelites were banished from the land that God had prepared for them. Worse still, their temple was destroyed and the Ark was carried away. The very place where heaven met earth and where God’s Spirit dwelled was lost just like the garden. Even when the Israelites finally were allowed to return to their land and rebuild the temple, God’s presence never came back to the new temple as it had come into the original temple. Worse still, even though the exile was over, the Israelites still found themselves failing to keep God’s commandments just like Humanity had failed before being exiled from the Garden of Delight. Paul the Apostle was one such Israelite who reflected on how his mental slavery to the law of sin prevented him from following the law of God.
For we know that the law is spiritual — but I am unspiritual, sold into slavery to sin. For I don’t understand what I am doing. For I do not do what I want — instead, I do what I hate. But if I do what I don’t want, I agree that the law is good. But now it is no longer me doing it, but sin that lives in me. For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my lustful nature. For I want to do the good, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the very evil I do not want! Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer me doing it but sin that lives in me.
So, I find the law that when I want to do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God in my inner being. But I see a different law in my members waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
- Romans 7:14–24
Paul believed that the evil desires inside of him were too great for him to conquer by his own strength. He thus reasoned that salvation must come through a person who could defeat death once and for all.
A Choice Between Life and Death: The World and The Way
Because the tabernacle and temples were not powerful enough to break the chains of death and slavery, God came to walk on the earth again — this time in the human body of Jesus. Jesus said that God wanted to again bring heaven down to meet earth. However, the reunion would no longer take place in a temple building but in the bodies of those who live under God’s rule. God’s Spirit would now live inside of them and infuse them with thoughts that allowed them to follow God’s commandments. Jesus formed deep relationships with his disciples and told them that by knowing him they could know God the Father. Thus, they could have the eternal life which Humanity lost in the Garden of Delight. Most notably, Jesus said the he was the embodiment of The Way, the very path that led to knowing God the Father.
Jesus’s disciple Thomas said, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus replied, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you have known me, you will know my Father too. And from now on you do know him and have seen him.”
- John 14:5–7
It is because of verses such as these that the earliest Jesus communities referred to themselves as “Followers of The Way” even before they became known as Christians (literally “little Christs”, or “little anointed ones”). Jesus’s followers believed that the way in which Jesus lived was the pattern by which all humans were meant to live. It is the same way of life that Jesus commanded during the Sermon on the Mount — a way of life that requires humility, forgiveness and sacrificial love.
Kendrick’s decision to follow his intuition toward sex, money and murder is thus directly opposed to following The Way — i.e. following Jesus towards knowing God the Father. By following his own path, Kendrick is walking away from relationship with God and thus walking away from eternal life. Nonetheless, Kendrick still retains a residual belief that God is calling everyone toward the way everlasting.
Everyone together now, know that we forever —
Buzzin’, radars is buzzin’
Yah, yah, yah, yah
If everyone is forever and yet some will choose to reject eternal life, the only option left is eternal death — an eternity separated from God and outside of the Garden of Delight. This is the same conclusion that the prophet Daniel came to in the Tanakh’s one clear reference to a future resurrection.
Many of those who sleep in the dusty ground will awake — some to everlasting life, and others to shame and everlasting abhorrence.
- Daniel 12:2
For now, Kendrick has made his choice. While he is still alive, there is always the possibility that he could turn back to God. However, it is unclear what would motivate him to change his mind — which has now returned to a state of mental slavery. Kendrick’s experience of being stuck in a destructive mindset leads directly into the next track.
(In addition to this main post, I have also included an addendum for “YAH.” which goes into greater detail about Kendrick’s relationship with his family members, particularly his niece. This supplemental information is not crucial to understanding the narrative arc of DAMN. but it does add emotional weight to Kendrick’s desire to keep his family close. The narrative background also invites the listener to consider how our polarized political climate prevents us from valuing life while humbly acknowledging that we are complicit in pushing the vulnerable to the brink of death.)