God and Beowulf

           Beowulf, having been written over 1,000 years ago by an anonymous author, just so happens to be the first book ever written in “English”[1]. Consequently, it was also written at about the time the author’s people were being evangelized by members of the Roman Catholic Church by order of the pope. Evidently, the author was one of the early converts as the work is full of biblical connotations such as God’s judgment in the last days, His creating of the world, and the sovereignty of God. While still including pagan histories and myths the mysterious author still managed to give credit to the one true God.

To begin, one sees that in lines 180-188 of Beowulf, the author speaks of God as the “Almighty Judge,” who condemns bad deeds and condones good deeds. He is powerful over all people and is the true king. The man who goes on the highway to hell is cursed, says the author, but the one who can approach the Lord with humility and in friendship is blessed among men. This lines up with what one finds in 1 Peter 1: “. . .‘Be holy, for I am holy.’ And if you call on the Father, who without partiality judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves throughout the time of your stay here in fear.”[2] God is indeed just (or holy), as outlined by the author of Beowulf as well as the Apostle Peter. God is the judge of all men, “who without partiality judges according to each one’s work,” very similar to “The Almighty Judge of good deeds and bad . . .”[3] Thus, the author of the epic shows knowledge of God’s justice, an integral part of understanding the Gospel, especially in the aspect of sin and its consequences.

Furthermore, the author gives God the credit for creating the world. “. . . how the Almighty had made the earth a gleaming plain girdled with waters; in His splendour He set the sun and the moon to be earth’s lamplight, lanterns for men, and filled the broad lap of the world with branches and leaves; and quickened life in every other thing that moved.”[4] This excerpt, especially the line speaking of the sun and moon lighting the earth, coincide with the creation account in Genesis 1: “‘and let them be for lights in the firmament of the heavens to give light on the earth’; and it was so.”[5] The author of Beowulf displays a fair amount of knowledge of the Scriptures and was therefore an early convert of the missionaries to his area.

God’s sovereignty is another topic lightly addressed in Beowulf. Lines 2874-2875 speak of how God preordains those who win and lose. Like the unborn baby in the womb is known by God, so was Beowulf’s final encounter with the fiery serpent. “Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book they were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them.”[6] God not only knows everything, but He has a plan for everyone and knows when they will come into the world, like David in Psalm 139, but also when they will leave the world, like Beowulf.[7]

In conclusion, despite the pagan background of the author and his people, he chose to honor God through his discourse of the “history” of the Germanic people. The fascinating account tells of a hero, Beowulf who conquers monsters and evil ones all his life, but is finally felled by a powerful dragon towards the end of his life. Throughout his journey, Beowulf and his companions talk of God and some of his acts and attributes including Judgment Day, Creation, and the preordination of events and people’s fates. It is a vivid account of early events in history while also displaying the Christianization of the culture simultaneously.

[1] It was written in a very early form of English around 800-1000 A.D., being very similar to German.

[2] 1 Peter 1:16-17

[3] Beowulf p. 15 (lines 180-81)

[4] Beowulf p. 9 (lines 92-98)

[5] Genesis 1:15

[6] Psalm 139:16

[7] Beowulf p. 193 (lines 2874-75)

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