by Tas Walker

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!’….

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