Genesis liberates women in the Binumarien tribe of New Guinea
Published: 23 October 2012 (GMT+10)
For many years, Des and Jenny Oatridge lived in a small village in New Guinea among the Binumarien people to learn their language and translate the Bible for them. The village was nestled in an isolated valley in the New Guinea Highlands. The people had almost no knowledge of the outside world, were prone to sickness and early death, lived a subsistence existence, and there was frequent violence.
Lutheran missionaries had come into the area decades before and set up a village church. It used a language called Kate, which was the language of early Lutheran pastors from far away on the coast. Consequently the Binumariens understood almost nothing of the gospel. They believed that the Bible was mostly stories of spirits and magic rituals, and they had developed other distorted ideas about what it said.1
Once the Scripture was translated into their mother tongue, it was truly remarkable how its truth impacted the community—after they understood it and believed it. It transformed first their worldview and then their behaviour.
The first book that Des translated was the Gospel of Matthew from the New Testament. A watershed moment in village life was precipitated when Des finally translated the genealogy of Jesus Christ, a portion that he had left until last because he considered it would be boring for his translator.
Another remarkable paradigm shift occurred when Des began to translate Genesis. Des had long thought to give Genesis a high priority, and he began work as soon as he could after completing Matthew. Since his earliest days in the village Des had been keen for the people to understand the beginning of things and their place in the world.
It was the 12th of September 1970 when Des sat down with his language helper Sisia to begin. Biographer Lynette Oates describes the dramatic events in her book Hidden people: How a remote New Guinea culture was brought back from the brink of extinction.2
‘You’ll love this book, Tuluwo’, Des began. It will be much easier than Matthew. Mostly stories.’
Sisia grunted, ‘Well, let’s get started.’
So they began on chapter one with its story of creation. Things went well … until verse 27.
‘So God created man in his own image, male and female he created them.’ Des gave the Binumarien equivalent of the verse, using terms he had heard in the village.
‘It says here, Tuluwo, a man and a woman he made.’3
He didn’t see Sisia’s reaction. He felt it—silence and a sudden air of tension. He glanced at Sisia’s tightly compressed lips. Then, with a rapid movement registering deep offense, Sisia turned his back on the white man.
‘Hey, Tuluwo, what’s the matter?’ Des said, bewildered. Sisia had never responded like this before.
Sisia’s rigid back remained inflexible. Des waited.
Finally Sisia said, ‘No! I won’t accept that. It’s wrong!’
‘What’s wrong?’ asked Des.
‘God did not create them a man and a woman in the beginning! Everyone knows God created two beings, a man and a sexless one in the beginning! It was only after Eve sinned that God turned him into a woman as punishment for eating the fruit. That’s what we’ve always understood.’
‘But Tuluwo, all these Bibles say God created both man and woman in the beginning. I will look up “Helicopter”4 for you. … Look, he says there was a man and a woman “in the beginning”.’
Sisia’s respect for ‘Helicopter’ seemed to take a sudden plunge.
‘No! It’s wrong. Not female in the beginning!’
Obviously the creation story had been reshaped to make it conform to the Binumarien view of women’s inferiority. Sisia was not prepared to surrender the fundamental hitherto undisputed belief that a man was superior to a woman.
Knowing the deep, inbuilt sexual prejudices of the Binumariens, Des suggested, ‘Tuluwo, let’s leave this bit and go on from there.’
Grumpily, Sisia conceded. ‘All right.’
But his mood was heavy and they achieved little more. Des heard that no-one could get a word out of him that evening.
‘Not “well” today,’ Des said when he reported to Jenny that night. ‘I had the first strike on my hands. I wonder if Sisia will return tomorrow.’
But he did.
Des made no reference to the previous day, but started chapter 2. He could see they were likely to be in for another stormy session since the beginning of the chapter gives some precise details of the creation of Adam and then, towards the end, of Eve.
Sisia stolidly translated all the information Des fed him.
Finally, they reached the last verse: ‘The man and his wife were both naked and knew no shame.’ Des looked Sisia full in the face. ‘Tuluwo, why do you think there is this talk of “shame” if they were both men? It could only be so if they were man and woman.’
There was a long silence. Sisia sat motionless. Des watched his face and saw the struggle there. If nakedness was not condemned at the beginning, he seemed to be thinking, then neither were sexual differences. That means that men and women participate equally in intercourse. It must then have God’s approval. And if so, then childbirth must meet with his blessing also.
Sisia shook his head in disbelief. Generations of repugnance for the sexual act, the birth of children and women’s part in both struggled with the stiff fresh wind of the new concepts he had been translating.
The moments lengthened.
Finally, as if wrenched from the core of his being, he shouted, ‘All right! I accept it. God made male and female. Right from the beginning.’ His voice was harsh, his face grim. The tutul rarely accepted defeat.
‘Let’s go back and translate that verse we missed yesterday,’ Des said quietly.
That afternoon, Des noticed that Sisia left with a spring in his step. He watched him head straight for a work party cutting stakes from a felled tree for a community garden.
‘Iria’a, listen, you people!’ he yelled. ‘Know what I learned today? God created both a man and a woman in the beginning.’ There was a long silence while the people adjusted to the shock of the news. Men and women both immediately understood the implication about the equality of the sexes.
‘Akasas! Akasaa! Surely not,’ they exclaimed in astonishment.
Someone said, ‘The Finchies said two men were created first.’
‘No, that’s not it at all!’ Sisia assured them. ‘If both sexes were made from the beginning, then women as well as men can go to heaven.’
‘But women can only go to heaven in their husband’s rib cage,’ one of the younger men said, ‘and then only if he’s had just one wife. That’s what we’ve been taught.’
‘No, that’s not right,’ Sisia said firmly. ‘We didn’t follow the Kate properly. Mata’a Des has shown me in four versions of the Book and in “Helicopter”. It doesn’t say that at all. Only that God made woman out of Adam’s rib cage.’
‘Well! If God made them both at the beginning and put them together, his plan must be for them to be together,’ Yaa’a commented.
‘And without shame!’ remarked Fofondai.
‘And if men and women are to live without shame, it must mean that the marriage relationship is good, not dirty like we think,’ someone else concluded strongly.
Gentle Fafasi said, ‘It cannot then be a shameful thing for our women to bear children. It must have been meant from the beginning that children should be born.’
And so, once again, Sisia’s news from the translation desk flew around the village like wild fire. During the translation of Matthew, they had had to absorb many sharply new pieces of information, but never anything as mind-blowing as this.
There are so many insights that we can draw from the Binumarien’s response to Genesis. They demonstrate what happens when the Word of God confronts a culture, in this case in an isolated culture in the remote Highlands of New Guinea. Genesis cut sharply across their warped cultural beliefs, beliefs held in ignorance that led to the repression of their women. Today, Genesis cuts across the cultural beliefs of much of the west, with its widely believed idea that everything made itself and there is no plan or purpose behind it.
The Binumariens initially found the account of Genesis unbelievable and offensive. So too do academics and opinion makers in the west today. Their reaction to the thought that God created as Genesis says, supernaturally, in six days some 6,000 years ago, is often hostile and mocking. The same attitude is even found among academics in Christian seminaries, with some reshaping the Genesis account in an attempt to make it conform to the prevailing cultural view. It seems beyond belief for them even to consider the possibility that Genesis could be describing reality.
Sisia had to come to a point where he accepted Genesis as the true history of the world, albeit grudgingly. He conceded defeat to the Word of God. So too the west once again needs to submit to the Word of God, beginning in Genesis.
However, once the Binumariens believed it, the Word of God began its life-changing work. In this case it confronted their sexual prejudices and began the liberation of their women. Womanhood was good! Home life was consequently transformed. In the 20 years following, the number of Binumarien tripled.5
The impact of the Bible on the west and its remarkable heritage is well documented, for example by Rodney Stark (see The biblical origins of science and Christianity as progress). However, decades of growing unbelief in our public institutions is eroding that capital. But, as more and more people in the west will again accept the truth of the Word of God it will again catalyse an amazing transformation.
After the conflict had passed, after Sisia gave in and believed, he walked off with spring in his step. That is the way the Word of God transforms people when they believe.
“Your statutes are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart.” Psalm 119:111
- David Ringer, A helicopter and two pioneers, http://djringer.com/translationbeat/2006/04/24/a-helicopter-and-two-pioneers/ 24 April 2006. Return to text.
- Lynette Oates, Hidden People: How a remote New Guinea culture was brought back from the brink of extinction, Albatross Books, Sutherland, NSW, pp. 230–234, 1992. Hidden People is a gripping story and available from the book store of Wycliffe Australia: http://www.wycliffe.org.au/shop/. Return to text.
- This has been slightly modified to make it suitable for family reading. Return to text.
- ‘Helicopter’ was Sisia’s name for Ellicott’s Bible commentary which Des used as a reference (ref.1, p. 198). Return to text.
- The Binumarien of Papua New Guinea: An Endangered Species http://www.jaars.org/museum/alphabet/modern/binumarien.htm, accessed 6 September 2012. Return to text.