The song starts with one of the greatest riddles in the Hebrew Bible. I and I is one of the possible translations of “ehyeh asher ehyeh” (Ex. 3:14). Other translations are: “I am who I am”, “I am I”, “I am who I shall be”.
God speaks to Moses from the burning bush and Moses asks him how he should call him. His people will want to know. And God's answer is: ehyeh asher ehyeh. The trouble lies in the word 'asher' which can mean any number of things depending on the context, but God does not provide a context. A great number of books and essays have been written on this mysterious introduction.
I and I
In creation where one's nature neither honors nor forgives
I and I
One says to the other, no man sees my face and lives
Well, what can I say, this is God talking. He created heaven and earth, man and beast, honoring no one, for there is no one above him, and forgiving no one, for that's the kind of God he is. It's a jealous God. An invisible God. “For there shall no man see me, and live” (Ex. 33:20).
Been so long since a strange woman slept in my bed
Look how sweet she sleeps, how free must be her dreams
In another lifetime she must have owned the world or been faithfully wed
To some righteous king who wrote psalms beside moonlit streams
So we can fairly assume that Dylan was in a Biblical mood when he wrote the song. He sets the stage with a strange woman in his bed, who might have been faithfully wed once to a righteous king who wrote psalms beside moonlit streams. The image this evokes is of King David, who traditionally, but not historically, is credited with writing most of the psalms, but there is a problem: David was hardly a righteous king. He was a warrior who sent Uriah the Hittite into death on the battlefield so he could marry Bathsheba, Uriah's beautiful wife. The righteous king must be King Solomon who, like his father David, slept with any number of women and wrote songs.
I think I'll go out and go for a walk
Not much happening here, nothin' ever does.
The imagery is still Biblical in these first two lines. God going for a stroll in the garden in the cool of the day (Gen. 3:8), looking for Adam and Eve who are hiding because they have become aware of their nakedness after eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. We all know what happened next, they were sent East of Eden, “by the sweat of your brow, you will eat your food; I will greatly multiply your pain in child birth.” How's that for an unforgiving God?
Besides, if she wakes up now, she'll just want me to talk
I got nothin' to say, 'specially about whatever was.
Slowly Dylan lands on earth, but not quite. He recalls the woman in his bed and doesn't feel like talking. He's got nothing to say, especially about the past. That's God again who hasn't said a word since his thundering speech from the whirlwind (Job 38-41). From then on it's prophets only, true or false.
Took an untrodden path once, where the swift don't win the race
It goes to the worthy, who can divide the word of truth.
Took a stranger to teach me, to look into justice's beautiful face
And to see an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
Dylan is on solid ground now and recalls the days when he studied the Bible (an untrodden path) and brought out his last three, very Christian, albums (Slow train coming, Saved, Shot of love). He went looking for some deeper meaning and found a stranger to show him the beautiful face of justice. One of the earliest formulations of justice is the next line, the well known 'eye for eye'. Again it is from the book of Exodus and it is truly a beautiful concept: one should be punished with measure and in relation to the crime committed.
Outside of two men on a train platform there's nobody in sight
They're waiting for spring to come, smoking down the track.
The world could come to end to night, but that's all right.
She should still be there sleeping when I get back.
As Dylan continues his walk, a haunting image of two men waiting for a train, or spring, tells him life goes on no matter what, we're all waiting for something to happen and he realizes that the world could end right now, right here, and there is nothing you can do about it. It's not in his hands. And if somehow, sometime he does return, she will still be there sleeping. It's okay.
Noontime, and I am still pushing myself along the road, the darkest part
Into the narrow lanes, I can't stumble or stay put.
Someone else is speaking with my mouth, but I am only listening to my heart.
I've made shoes for everyone, even you, while I still go barefoot.
He's been walking all day and now reaches the darkest part, the narrow lanes. Perhaps he is thinking of the evangelist who warns us: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction” (Matthew 7:13), and maybe he remembers Proverbs 4:12 “When you go, your steps shall not be impeded; and when you run, you shall not stumble.”
He realizes that no matter what he sings or says, people will put words in his mouth (exactly what I am doing now), but that's alright, he'll only listen to his heart. He doesn't mind making shoes for everyone, but he chooses to go barefoot, because it is written: … put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground. (Ex. 3:5).