Beowulf and Jacob (Genesis 29-31)
For the past few weeks, I’ve been teaching through Beowulf. While I’ve always liked the story, Seamus Heaney’s translation and audio reading have won my heart. I see now why Tolkien was enthralled by this old story.
When I was twenty and reading Beowulf, I was caught up in the epic heroism of this tale--the superhuman strength and the glory of slain monsters. But as an older reader, I am moved by flashes of vulnerability and honesty in the protagonist. It feels so human to me, and I’ve been brought to tears in strange plot moments that I don’t even remember from twenty-five years ago.
The scene in which Beowulf and Hrothgar bid one another farewell. The gravity of Beowulf’s attempt to fight a dragon, even in his old age. A life spent in defense of others. The sorrow of having no heir.
As a Christian, one of the most interesting aspects of this tale is the mix of pagan and orthodox beliefs. We see superstition and allegiance to darkness intermingled with trust in the Almighty. Neither the narrator nor the people (Danes nor Geats) are seem quite able to process how faith in Jesus is supposed to impact the struggles and battles of daily life.
In the intersection of Christianity and 1000 AD Anglo-Saxon paganism, people weren’t sure what God did and what he didn’t. So, they relied on a strange mix of the values of the old way and whatever it is a living God might do for them.
I see a similar struggle in Genesis 30, where Jacob attempts to separated his goods from Laban’s. These two tricksters are going head-to-head, Jacob, the wiley blessing-birthright stealer and Laban, the wife-swapper. They deserve each other, I suppose, and somehow it’s satisfying to watch them take a dose of their own medicines.
Jacob doesn’t seem to realize that God doesn’t need his tricks, so in this pre-Mendelian world, he attempts to use stripped sticks to influence the birth of speckled sheep. We look at that and sort of laugh because if he is the chosen of God, what could a little superstition do to top off the blessings ordained by heaven?
Yet if we look closely to Jacob’s life (and Beowulf’s life), we might find a mirror of sorts. How often do we hold our breath and try to finagle the blessings of God, begging and maneuvering for abundance that he has already ordained? Instead of resting in his resources and love, we see God as a hard-dealing businessman, for whom we must perform.
Like Beowulf, we stand still at the intersection of a works-driven culture, unable to realize the comprehensive impact of the sacrifice of a Christ who IS our righteousness in full. The work is over. He has done it all. Our identity is secure. The power is ours. The rising action is complete, the climax has been reached, we live in the denouement. The great change has been accomplished.