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Abraham and the Northmen In Genesis A: Alfredian Translations and Ninth-Century Politics

Heide Estes

Medievalia et humanistica Jan 1, 2007

In the book of Genesis in the Bible, Abraham and his nephew Lot departfrom Egypt and settle in adjoining regions, Abraham in Canaan and Lotnear Sodom. In Chapter 14 it is narrated that Sodom and Gomorrah andthe lands nearby are subject to King Chedorlaomer, but after twelve years,they rebel; in the ensuing battle, Chedorlaomer and three allied kingsdefeat the rebels, plundering flocks, herds, and provisions and imprisoning Lot and his people. One escapee brings the news to Abraham, who musters an army, attacks under cover of night, and frees the captives. The narrative is adapted, with significant changes, in the Old English poem Genesis A. Whereas the biblical text of the chapter emphasizes names,places, and geography, the corresponding passage in the Old English poem focuses on burden some taxation, rebellion, and the details of battle in ways that evoke English payments of tribute to attacking Danes. The passage has been read allegorically, with Abraham representing Christ and his victory over the five kings ‘‘relat[ed], in its symbolic meaning, to the theme of salvation.’’ It has also been read as a narrative that captured the interest of Anglo-Saxon audiences because of its affinity with Old English heroic values. As Joyce Hill has observed, such ways of reading should not be considered mutually exclusive, and in the case of the Old English Genesis, each reading enriches a text that also has strong historical resonances for a late ninth-century audience.

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