The Namblong people: ‘We need to know where we come from!’
The people of Papua rebuked this SIL translator for wanting to postpone translation of Genesis 5
Published: 9 August 2012 (GMT+10)
Kevin May, an Australian member of Wycliffe Bible Translators, served with the Summer Institute of Linguistics as translator for the Namblong people of Papua from 1978 to 1985. There was much that he and his wife Wendy learnt from them during that time. In this article, Kevin tells of a key factor that was crucial to the Scriptures’ relevance to the people.
Tomas, translation helper, with the author, Kevin May.
In 1985 I was working with my language helper, Tomas, on translating the Scriptures for the Namblong people of the Indonesian province of Papua. We had completed some selected passages outlining the life of Christ, and then began on the beginning chapters of Genesis.
In chapter 5 we were working on verses that follow a regular pattern—each descendant of Adam was x years old when he had a son, and lived for y years after that and died at the age of (x + y). As this was repetitive and relatively uninteresting to me, I thought I would postpone it. I said to Tomas, ‘Let’s leave these for now, and I’ll be able to fill in the details later on.’
But Tomas was unhappy. He looked at me earnestly, and said, ‘You can’t do that! We must do it all now. We need to know where we come from!’ So we took the time to translate every verse, and Tomas was happy.
Among Namblong people, as in many similar people groups, relationships are at the heart of society. Each must know how he relates to everyone else so that he can behave appropriately. Younger people must respect those who are older, and special duties apply to particular relationships, especially how you relate to your mother’s clan—and conversely to your sisters’ children. Several times even I was asked whose ancestor was the elder one, mine or theirs. It was vital information that would tell the people how they should relate to me, a Westerner.
Tomas’ statement has a wider application than just among Namblong society. We all need to know where we come from, because meaning depends on origin. The difference it makes is extreme.
If we are mere products of chance, random processes, then life has no intrinsic meaning. Our thoughts are just the inescapable result of our brain chemistry, and we are no better than the victims of a cruel joke—or, as Prof. Dawkins has said, of “blind, pitiless indifference”.1
But if we are beings made in the image of God, able to be creative and to communicate with others, then life is full of meaning. God made us for the purpose of fellowship with himself, and he is delighted when we communicate with him, love him, and love one another.
How blessed we are to know that the latter is true! Knowing God as our great creator, and living daily in his presence, makes life meaningful and worthwhile. We have the greatest thing in all the world—Life with a capital L! We have purpose in living, and even beyond that, we know where we are going.
- Dawkins, R., River out of Eden, Weidenfeld and Nicolswi, Chapter 4, 1995. Return to text.
The title of the book about the Binumarien people of Papua New Guinea where Des and Jenny Oatridge translated the New Testament for them is "Hidden People" by Lynette Oates. Des found the people discovered the New Testament stories were fact and not fiction when the genealogy of Jesus recorded in Matthew 1 was translated into their language. The book is published in Australia and New Zealand and in USA by Albatross Books Pty Ltd, and in UK by Lion Publishing. A reprint was published by the author with permission
My wife's family are Wycliffe people (now retired) and they know of Des Oatridge who wrote a great missions book including the significance of the Matthew 1 genealogies - from memory it made the difference between Jesus life being just a story/fable to actually him being a real person. Someone will know the title of the book I'm sure.
My recollection is hazy and other readers may be able to cite the origins of the story, but I recall being told of a missionary who had been translating parts of Matthew's gospel. The community he had been working with received the "gospel story" with polite interest until the missionary translated Matthew chapter one. This resulted in great excitment which the missionary was unable to understand. The explanation was: "Jesus had ancestors! Now we know he is real!"
Hi Peter, your comment is very like a story we also have heard from other translators. (And not just of Matthew 1, but Luke 3, too.) When people know that we are all descended from the same ancestors, their response is an excited one.
We were only beginning in translation when we had to return home. Nevertheless we were privileged to see an excited response among Namblong people when they realised that the scriptures are written about real people, not myths. When I read out the story of Herod and the wise men, they were touched by the fact that Herod deceived people, and killed some. 'He must be a real person, because he did the same things that we do!' This opened up a new understanding of the scriptures for the people, and awakened interest not seen before.
See also my article published in Creation magazine Vol. 17 no. 3 (June-Aug 1995) p.22, entitled 'Is Genesis myth or reality?'