Material Wealth in The Book of Genesis and Beowulf

A comparison of the thematic treatment of 'material wealth' within the Book of Genesis and the poem Beowulf.

The concept of economic or material wealth is entirely a construct of societal and culturally agreed conventions.  The intrinsic worth imbued to commodities, such as precious metals, jewels, gemstones, treasured arts or land, livestock and agricultural assets are a reflection of an acknowledged value accorded to the items as defined by an individual culture (Levinson, pg 250).  Should differing societies bestow disparate value on a commodity, this agreed concept of the object's inherent value is immediately lost

The accumulation of material wealth is often linked with greater social, economic, and political power as wealth tends to bring with it an implication of superiority.  Again this is an agreed affectation which apportions higher social ranking to those who have the economic wherewithal to amass greater wealth than their neighbours.

 

“Wealth and children are the adornment of life.”

Quran (c. 651 AD)

Naturally the ideological construct of wealth goes far beyond merely that of material wealth and has been a recurrent motif for philosophers and scholars throughout the ages.  Both culturally and temporally dynamic attitudes towards wealth are evident through observing the religious beliefs, legal systems and traditions of a particular society as well as by investigating that a society's cultural expressions through art, music and literature.

 

THE BOOK OF GENESIS

In the Book of Genesis the treatment of the theme of material wealth appears synonymous with the concept of rewards euphemised as 'blessings' and 'glory'.  This is evident by frequent references to the character of God, who bestows his blessings and glorification as rewards for faithful obedience.  These rewards appear to take the form of personal wealth such as the 'yields of the lands and fatness of the earth' and 'plentiful corn and wine'; (27:26-29) while glorification appears to also encompass aggrandisement for the blessed and their descendants in addition to material prosperity.

Throughout the Genesis narrative we see individuals who have an intimate conversational relationship with the God being rewarded for absolute faith and obedience.  The rewards of personal economic 'wealth' are depicted as ranging from Abram's cattle, silver and gold and later (13:1-2) Jacob's 'cattle, and maidservants and menservants and camels and asses' (30: 43).

Examples of the God bestowing his blessings are plentiful - Noah and his sons are blessed for building the ark during The Great Flood as God commanded. (9: 1-7).  God bids Abram leave his home to roam a strange land and is blessed and make his name great (12: 1-3).  The ultimate expression of reward for blind unhesitating obedience is that of Abraham's preparedness to sacrifice his son Isaac whereupon God rewards his unquestioning faith by bestowing his blessings upon Abraham and his seed promising him blessings 'above all the nations of the earth' (22: 1-18).  The reader clearly sees that God will reward the abandonment of human free will in favour of obedience and faithfulness with wealth and prosperity.

Another recurring treatment of the theme of material wealth in the Book of Genesis is the acquisition of economic gain through deception or dishonesty. Jacob, motivated by greed and perhaps jealousy, exploits his brother, Esau's hunger and manipulates him to forfeiting his birthright for a bowl of soup (25:27-34).  Rebekah too utilizes disingenuous methods to further deprive Esau of wealth by encouraging and assisting Jacob to deceive his father Isaac's and stealing Easu's blessing (27:1-37).  The God does not condemn these actions but instead Jacob gains his blessing displaying God's willingness to achieve his ends by spurious means.

 

"Sell not virtue to purchase wealth, nor liberty to purchase power.”

Benjamin Franklin (1706 - 1790)

Humankind of the Genesis is depicted as overvaluing worldly wealth which is eventually defined as the root of covetousness and envy and evil.  Each stands in the other's way and all appear to be taking what they can which makes a poignant counterpoint with the New Testament ethos of piety, humility and charity.

BEOWULF

The concept of material wealth in Beowulf depicts gold, treasure, and other prized commodities systemically treated as rewards also.  While this common treatment of the concept of wealth as a form of 'reward' exists across both texts, the behaviour rewarded is vastly different and the uses of the wealth once acquired are equally disparate between the two narratives.

Throughout the poem, wealth is gained or portioned not as reward for obedience and faith to a omnipotent God as is evident in the Genesis, but rather there are recurrent references of rewards bestowed for heroic achievements and courageous behaviour.  Beowulf liberates Denmark from the tyranny of the monster Grendel (671-859), and then further distinguishes himself by seeking out and defeating Grendel's mother (1490-1620).  Upon the defeat of these monsters, Beowulf's heroic accomplishments are praised by the grateful Danes and treasures are lavished on the hero.  These praises and glory take the form of jewels, horses, armour, and valuable weapons which many societies would regard as loftier objects than cattle, corn or wine perhaps giving the impression that material wealth is more important in Beowulf than the Genesis.

The primary function for accruing wealth in Beowulf's world is to accrue status and honour and allow for the generous gift giving that is the traditional Germanic societal bond of comitatus to assure loyalty, allegiance and protection in a the feudal vassal relationship.  The practice described in Beowulf of purchasing vassal loyalty is depicted as a positive manner of dealing with one's peoples and is encouraged in the young Beowulf.

This distribution of largesse is diametrically opposed to the depiction of the use of wealth in the Genesis which is primarily presented as means for attaining personal status and security for merely oneself and one's descendants.

Many years after the defeat of Grendel and Grendeles modor, Beowulf is called upon to defend his people against a dragon that is enraged after being robbed (2398-2748).  Again Beowulf's heroic actions see this dragon likewise dispatched though he takes a mortal would during the battle.  The poem concludes with Beowulf's funeral where he is buried with the dragon's treasure which ironically defies his dying wishes to see the treasure distributed to his people (2795-2799).

Wealth and rank are what people desire, but unless they are obtained in the right way they may not be possessed.”

Confucius (551BC-479BC)

Conclusion

The critical investigator of the treatments of the theme of material wealth in the Book of Genesis and the epic poem Beowulf might perhaps be excused for being left with a sense of ideological confusion or a sour taste on the palette.

The Genesis depicts individuals who profess complete faith in the God but many times it seems it is their God's promises of material gain that prompt their unwavering obedience. The wealth acquired by many characters in the Genesis, whether by fair means or foul, are utilized for the glorification of themselves and their descents alone. Modern sensibilities associate piety, humility, charity, and selflessness with the Christian faith these qualities are not borne out in our Old Testament Characters.

While on the other side of the balance sheet we have Beowulf who is very concerned with the accrual of material wealth. He desires acclaim and with it gold, treasure, armour, horses and important or magical artefacts for these will aid him to consolidate his feudal relationship with his people. He begins boastful of his martial prowess, proud of his strength and his heroic accomplishments and very desirous of riches, yet as the poem progresses he appears to finally feel the weight of the feudal lord's aulic responsibilities towards his people and he becomes ultimately generous, altruistic and benevolent towards his people in complete contradiction to the reader's expectations.

Select Bibliography

Alexander, M.           Beowulf - A Verse Translation

2003.  Penguin Classics, Suffolk

Anonymous.             King James Bible - Old Testament: Book of Genesis

from Dossier provided 1112HUM

Knowles, E.               The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations

1999.  Oxford University Press, USA

Levinson, D.             Education and Sociology.

2001. Routledge, New York