Some churches hold seventy-hour Bible Reading Marathons during which volunteers read through the entire Bible aloud. All goes well until the reader comes to the “begats”, those long lists of forefathers. Densely packed with hard-to-pronounce names, readers stumble and make mistakes.
In our private reading, when we come upon those genealogies in the historical books of the Old Testament and the Gospels, we tend to just scan over them or even skip them entirely.
We consider genealogies of possible interest to Bible historians, but not for anyone else in today’s society. Bible translators who are working with other cultures, however, take a different attitude. They have to be aware of the potential value of these boring lists of names.
I remember chatting with some Bible translators in Brazil who were working among language groups related to the Canela. One lady told a story that stuck in my memory and made me treat the genealogies with greater respect in our own Canela translation project.
It seems she had translated a number of stories about Jesus, the disciples, and the Jewish people, etc. When she read them, the indigenous people had listened closely and then told some of their own, similar, tribal stories of culture-heroes, and miraculous events. After some years, she translated the “less interesting” parts of the gospel, like the genealogies. When she read those sections to a group of villagers, they were fascinated.
Finally one blurted out, “You mean Jesus and these other people you have been telling us about really lived? They actually had parents and grandparents?”
It seems their own stories taught cultural and moral values, but the characters in them were made up.
From then on, the villagers accepted the Gospel stories about Jesus as completely different from their own stories, and better, since they were about real people.
This story reminded another friend to tell a story about a people group in the PacificIsland region. Ken, one of Wycliffe’s top linguists was about to demonstrate to an audience of Australian university students how a properly trained linguist can quickly learn to communicate in a language when neither the linguist nor the native speaker speak a language common to both.
The stage was set for this monolingual language learning demonstration with plenty of whiteboards, markers, and a table full of props. A linguist/translator walked onto the stage with the native speaker of the language Ken was going to learn. He turned to the audience and said,
“This is Maku, a member of the people group whose language I have been learning. He knows only his own language.” He then spoke briefly to Maku, walked off the stage and sat down in the audience.
Maku picked up a stool, took it over to the far corner of the stage and sat down. Then Ken, the linguist, walked onto the stage, faced the audience and briefly explained that he would be speaking a language spoken by an indigenous group he worked with in South America which he was sure the Pacific Islander would not understand.
He then ambled over to Maku sitting on his stool and greeted him. Maku ignored him. The linguist stuck out his hand for a handshake and repeated the greeting. He was again ignored. Nothing he tried got Maku talking to him.
At that point the translator who had brought Maku got up from the audience, walked onto the stage and spoke with him. He pointed at Ken and talked some more. Suddenly Maku made eye contact with Ken, smiled and started talking. From there on the demonstration went on successfully.
What had happened was that the translator had told Maku who Ken was, where he came from, and who his parents were. Once Maku had this background knowledge, he felt free to speak and interact with Ken.
Apparently the indigenous society he came from was extremely isolated and had good reason to be fearful of strangers. No one would interact with a stranger until they had been properly introduced by a third party.
When translation began in Maku’s language, the translator started with the genealogies, thus introducing Jesus and other characters of the Gospel—real people, real events, true stories.
As Christmas approaches, it’s good to remember we are celebrating a real event, one that really happened to real people.