Job in folklore and in our own time

We were able to get out to the churches in the South (some of our so-called “bush churches”). Thankfully, we have some good, godly leaders who, even though like everyone else have been slowed down by COVID-19, continued to care for their communities.

Meeting can be very hard for these leaders who are separated by a day’s walk in a place where almost everyone has to walk. So we kept picking up folks in our truck and carried them to the final village. They killed a goat for us and cooked us some of their meager rations of rice. These people will literally starve themselves before being inhospitable. Then we met. And we met. We met well into the night and then the morning. Then we got up early the next morning and continued meeting. We talked about good things and bad things, encouraged one another and grieved together. But everyone was so happy to see each other!

That next morning, as we all sat wrapped in blankets in that sparse, concrete schoolhouse, we presented the story of Job. We brought a recording we had just completed the day before, where a team of Malagasy created a radio drama of the story of Job. The leaders sat in rapt attention and then, when the story was done, we began asking questions and drawing out what everyone had understood and learned from Job.

Those men and women sat there, after they had told us how hard things had been and how hungry they were, and vowed to be like Job and never turn their backs on God. Satan would not get the best of them, no matter how hard he tried!

One leader, Emanda, who serves in a local government capacity and serves as the statesman and wise elder of the group, said it reminded him of a Malagasy folk story, a story I now share with you . . .

In the kingdom before there were two great friends. These guys were inseparable. It didn't matter what they were doing or where they were going; they were always together. They had been friends since anyone could remember and nothing could drive them apart.

But one day, a troublemaker came to the king of that land. The king was watching these two guys walking down the road together, laughing and enjoying one another's company. "Do you see those two?" the king asked. "There's no one else like those friends. Nothing could ever break their bond!" But the troublemaker overheard the king. "What's that, O King?"

The king again point out at the two friends. "Nothing could ever drive those two apart, they're inseparable!"

"I can do it," said the troublemaker. "I can drive a wedge between them."

"You're lying!" cried the king. "And even if you could if would take so long it wouldn't even be worth it."

"Oh no, O king," said the troublemaker, "I'll be quick. I'll have them hating each other even for this day is dark."

So as the king and others watched, the troublemaker set out ahead of the two friends. As they passed him on the road, talking and carrying on with each other, the troublemaker flagged the one down. "Hey," he said waving. "I need to talk to you for a minute. It's important."

So the one friend broke off from the other and came to the side of the road where troublemaker stood. "What's up?" Troublemaker didn't say anything, he just looked at him for a minute. "Make it quick, man," said the friend, "I've gotta get back to my friend."

Then Troublemaker pulled him in and began whispering to him, making sounds with his mouth that never formed into words.

The friend pulled back in horror. "What in the world? What are you trying to say, man?!"

Troublemaker pulled him in again and whispered still, still moving his lips but not saying any distinct words. The friend was angry. "Listen, I'm not sure what you're trying to do but you're not saying anything! I'm going back to my friend." And he left, racing to catch back up with his friend further ahead.

"What was that all about?" asked the other friend once they were walking together again. "Oh nothing. I can't even tell you anything he was saying!" His friend stopped suddenly in the middle of the road. "You can't tell me he didn't tell you anything. I saw him pull you in and whisper to you. Now, please, tell me what he said."

"He didn't say anything!" exclaimed the one.

"You're planning to kill me aren't you? You're going to kill me and take my stuff!"

And the two friends argued and went their separate way to their own houses, each now the others' enemy. And Troublemaker laughed as he watched, having separated the best of friends without ever having said one word.

The whole point of Job is that Job refuses to jump to rash conclusions while still grappling with what he has seen and what has happened to him. Job struggles mightily not to read into what’s happening to him and instead just take his complaints directly to his friend, God. In the Malagasy story, it would be as if Job stands their quarreling with his friend without storming off.

I couldn’t help but ponder our sound and fury right now during this season. It’s not that I think there’s nothing behind all the accusations we’re hurling and the existential panic we feel. But as Job and folklore remind us in our time, we never really know what’s going on behind the scenes. But trust is key, and we need to spend more time building trust than tearing down one another.

Mahafaly Bible Stories

My name is Traveller. I’m going to tell you a story. And the story I’m going to tell you is called Abraham’s Sacrifice, and it’s taken from the Holy Writings . . .

Abraham Sacrifices Isaac

It came true! What the Prince of Creation had spoken when he promised Abraham came true! Even though Sarah, Abraham’s wife, was old they had a son. His name was Isaac. There and with that, the Prince of Creation touched Abraham’s thoughts. The Prince said to Abraham, “Abraham! Take your son, of which you have not two and not three, and worship me. Go on, and I’ll show you the land and the mountain.”

“Ok,” said Abraham. So Abraham woke up the next morning and took his son, Isaac. He also took with them two younger boys. And they left.

So they went, and went. After three days, Abraham saw the mountain. And, you know, he thought, “That’s the mountain the Prince of Creation was talking about.” He said to the two young boys with them, “You boys stay here. We’re going, me and the child, on top of that mountain over there.”

“Ok,” said the one.

So they left, climbing and going up the mountain. When they had gone a little ways, Isaac said, “Um . . . Baba . . . Where’s the sheep we’re going to worship with? Only the knife, the wood, and the fire are here.”

“Uh-huh,” responded Abraham, “The Prince of Creation will see the sheep we’ll worship him with.”

So they went, and they climbed higher. And they arrived at the top of the mountain there. When they arrived there on top of the mountain, they constructed the place, the place they would make the sacrifice. After everything was done to do the sacrifice, the father seized his son and was about to slit his throat. Just when he was about to slit his throat, the Prince of Creation’s messenger spoke, “Abraham! Don’t kill the child. God sees that you believe and trust in his voice.”

Abraham turned with that, hearing a male sheep stuck in a small, thorny tree. And Abraham saw it. He untied Isaac and grabbed the sheep, placed him on top of that wood they had brought, slit its throat and worshipped The Prince of Creation.

And when all that was finished, the name that was given to that place was, “The Price of Creation will see.”

Afterward, the messenger spoke again, saying, “Abraham! The Prince of Creation has said to you, ‘He will make many, many, like the stars or the sand of the seashore, your offspring. The Prince will bless you, and you will be protected by the Prince.”

Then, with that, they went and got off the mountain, Abraham and Isaac. They met up with those two boys they had left below there. So they went back home together and arrived back in their village.

And that’s the story taken from the Holy Writings, the sacrifice Abraham made.

Things to Ponder: Hope

We recently did a food distribution here in our town through three of our local churches. In filling out our evaluation form afterward, the final question was something to the effect of: What other measurable spiritual benefits came from this project?  Nathan filled out most of the form, and I came behind him to fill in a few additional details. I was struck by his answer to this question. He wrote one word: hope.

This year has done a number on our hope. I think if you looked the whole world over, you would be hard-pressed to find one community not touched by COVID-19 . . . by sickness, death, loneliness, job loss, uncertainty, fear, upheaval, grief, anxiety. Where do we find hope in a time like this?

I’ve witnessed hope in the faithful lives of Malagasy believers. I want to share that hope with you. From 2017-2019, we worked through a series of stories from church history that emphasized different doctrines with the Mahafaly leaders. We started with the first church in Acts and followed along with stories up through today.

One week we were concerned as we prepared, because our topic was God’s sovereignty and suffering. From our own cultural perspective, we expected this topic to be tough. We wrestle with how a good, powerful God can allow suffering. We’re always asking, “Why?” In fact, we struggle with that question often personally here. We see significant suffering around us every day. Why? Why is life so hard here? Why is our life so much easier? How can I fix this suffering around me—make it stop! 

But when we taught through this lesson, the Mahafaly leaders didn’t bat an eye. The principle is basically that a loving God calls His people to suffer in a fallen world. When I’m confronted with this reality, I buck against it, either from one side or the other. Maybe God isn’t really loving. Or maybe He can’t really control my circumstances. Or there will be some “silver lining”—visible very soon, I’m sure—something that shows me WHY!!!

But our people here just aren’t asking those questions. They are following Christ faithfully. And they are suffering deeply. And these two things simply aren’t incongruent for them. One doesn’t threaten the other. I don’t have either the theoretical or the experiential framework for that, yet I see it over and over in the convicting testimonies of the believers here. 

I’m beginning to hear this conviction too from the testimonies of people of color in the United States. I have always assumed that our propensity to insulate ourselves from suffering is an “American” problem. But I am realizing that I can only speak as a white, American evangelical. I’m learning that right alongside the America I’ve experienced are communities of believers of color worshipping God through deep suffering on a daily basis. 

Please understand. I’m not denying that everyone in the world suffers—it’s a part of being human. Please, don’t hear me diminishing your personal experience of suffering. I know many of you reading this have experienced suffering unlike anything I’ve never known, and my heart aches for you. But God has been bringing specific stories of suffering and faith—from people of color in the United States—before Nathan and me over and over the last few months. I confess I was unaware of so, so much of what these brothers and sisters are facing. I’m committed to continue listening and learning, and to try, as much as I can, to weep with those who weep, whether here in Madagascar or there in the United States.

One of our local pastors here shared with us about the challenges they had faced as a family during the “confinement,” as it’s called here—the time when people were supposed to stay at home, churches were restricted from meeting, and travel was extremely limited due to COVID. He admitted that yes, things had been very hard. Then he continued, “But sometimes you forget how good God is, until you truly need him every day, like we do now.”  

“Sometimes we forget how good God is, until you truly need him every day, like we do now.”

Pastor Manentesoa

How have the challenges of this year helped us realize our true need for God? Every day? That’s the gift of suffering.

This year has been tough. I know it’s been hard on us. I know many of you have faced significant struggles. If you find your hope flagging, please take courage from communities practiced in suffering. Some of the circumstances we find ourselves in now, we probably never thought we would face. But even if . . . 

You’ve lost someone, there is hope.

You don’t feel confident in the future, there is hope.

You’re worried about you or someone you love getting sick, there is hope.

You’re separated from an elderly person you love, there is hope.

You don’t see anything getting better with the coming election, there is hope.

You’ve lost your job, there is hope.

You feel threatened, there is hope.

Because, as Ekemini Uwan says, 

“Hope is not an abstract concept. Hope is a person.”[1]

Ekemini Uwan, Truth’s Table Podcast

[1] “Truth’s Table Classroom: Why We Can’t Wait : Eschatology and BLM,” Truth’s Table podcast, 4 July 2020, recording from lecture at Westminster Theological Seminary, 2014.

Things to Ponder: Chyella’s Concept of “English”

Our daughter Chyella is four. She is a huge talker. She goes to French preschool—or at least she did, before COVID-19. She also talks with Malagasy people as we visit them and go to church with them. She knows words in French and in Malagasy, and likes to practice. She has a category for the French language, and one for the Malagasy language. One day, we started talking about English. She learned a new word, and asked if it was a French word. No, I told her, it was just an English word that was new to her. She gave me a very puzzled look. 

C: Mommy, what’s English?

Me: You know, English. The language we speak here at home. What we speak all the time.

C: (still super puzzled) You mean French? 

Me: No—you practice French at school, and Malagasy at church. But English is most of what you know, everything we’re saying right now.

She shook her head. We repeated this conversation in some form or another for at least a week. She never got it. I’m not an early childhood development expert (if you are, please chime in! :), but I think I can imagine why she struggled with this concept. English is equivalent to just talking for her. It was a “does a fish know it’s wet?” moment for me. For Chyella, English is not a language to be learned or studied or practiced (as she does with French and Malagasy, because her exposure is more limited). It’s just talking. Removing herself from her daily speech to examine it is nearly impossible. 

I believe this same struggle is true for many of us who are white when we think about race in the United States. We’ve never examined our experience, stepped back from it and considered the role our race plays in it, because to us, our experience is the “American experience.” Race has nothing to do with it. We don’t even realize uniquely white elements of our experience. We don’t understand African-American struggles, but the depth and breadth of what we may be missing never occurs to us. We don’t often step back from our own and other Americans’ experience because we expect it to be our own. 

With the murders that have taken place in recent weeks and months—at least, those that have come to the attention of the news—and the protests that have followed, I have found myself in the midst of a powerful lesson. I’m humbled to admit that I haven’t learned this lesson before now, that I’m new to this conversation on racial injustice. When the protests and rioting started, I felt the impulse to reach out to African-American friends, to check on them and ask how they were doing. And then I realized—again, with shame—I hardly know any African Americans. Suddenly I realized—I don’t know anything about African Americans. How could I possibly, when I know so few?

Nathan and I are missionaries in Madagascar. We have the privilege of working among people who are culturally different than we are, and having many deep relationships with Malagasy people. We have worked for years on language learning and cultural observation. We have learned to enter every conversation with open ears and open minds, assuming throughout that we’re missing something, determined to reserve judgment and keep learning. That doesn’t mean we do this perfectly, but we have seen that regular and prolonged exposure to another culture has given us an incredible gift—we now know just how wrong it is possible for us to be. 

When we first came to Madagascar, we were enamored with the differences—it’s called the honeymoon phase on the culture shock continuums. Then, we developed some real relationships and found ourselves reveling in the similarities . . . this culture wasn’t so different after all! Humans are the same, the world over! Then, as time went on and language and culture comprehension grew, a deeper reality set in. We are different . . . very different in many ways. This is not a statement of value—different isn’t bad. But it is real. There are significant differences between American culture and Malagasy culture. If we ignore those, we will not be good missionaries. We will not share our message or our lives in ways that are meaningful here. We will miss huge swaths of what is happening around us. And the more we learn, the more we discover is missing or inadequate in our earlier understandings. The more we know, the more we know we don’t know.

This experience has changed the way we view life. We now have a growing instinct to listen first, learn first, expect to be wrong, expect to adapt. We are eternally grateful for the development of this learning muscle in our hearts and minds.  

And yet, here I am, failing to practice this discipline in my home culture. I’ve discovered a huge gap in my experience, a whole group of people I’ve lived alongside, yet ignored. And yet I’ve drawn conclusions, as if I could know. 

I’m determined to change this, to listen and learn intentionally to African American voices, to minority voices, especially those who are brothers and sisters in Christ. Even in beginning to listen, I’ve heard stories of suffering I can’t imagine—would not have thought possible. Romans 12:15 calls me to “weep with those who weep” . . . and yet I have brothers and sisters weeping and I’ve been oblivious to their needs. To friends of color who are reading this, I know you don’t need me . . . but I will be doing my best to learn to listen. To those of you who are white reading this, will you join me in learning? 

Mahafaly Bible Stories: Abraham

Hello, it’s me, the Traveler, and I have a story to tell you. It’s a story from a book of holy writings called the Bible. This book is a collection of many stories, and they have all been brought together to tell the whole story. It is the story of our ancestors, and our story. Let me tell it to you.

First, madam and sirs, let me tell you that after the curse came in, Adam and Eve, well their relationship with God was severed. But God, you see, he still wanted the relationship with humanity. Yeah, so Adam and Eve sprouted and their tribes began to settle. Then, after this, you see, God chose one person to be in relationship with so that he could have humanity worship him again. The name of this person was Abraham. The story I’m about to tell you is about this guy, Abraham. 

“So,” says God, “Abraham, leave your lands, leave the lands of your father, your ancestral lands. You go and travel to a land I will give you. You will be blessed by me. Your offshoots will be made so many by me. Your fame will be made my me to be heard from the ground to the sky. Also rooted in you will be all the people on this earth that I go on to bless. 

Abraham says “Ok,” and he takes his wife and everything else he’s in charge of, his shepherds and all of his belongings. Abraham was seventy-five years old at this time.

So that was that. He left. Now let’s keep the story moving . . .

They made it to that land there. They explored all over that land. Then, once finished going all around the land, Abraham set up camp.

“So,” says God, “This right here is the land I’m gonna give to your offshoots.”

And with that, you see, Abraham thanked God.

So there Abraham was for a long while. But let’s keep the story moving . . .

“So,” says God, “Abraham! I’m gonna bless you. Don’t be scared. There still a lot of other big things I’m gonna give you.”

“Huh,” says Abraham, “And what exactly will I do with these good and great things you will give to me, me not even having any offspring? Are all these workers here going to inherit everything?”

“Oh no, says God, “You will beget a son who will be your heir. Those workers of yours won’t be your heirs. You go on outside.” Abraham went outside. “Now you look up above you and watch.” So, Abraham looked above him and watched. “Just like these myriad stars above you, I’ll make your offshoots many.”

Abraham trusted this pronouncement. And God also saw that Abraham trusted his pronouncement. And there was relationship between God and Abraham.

Sacrifice

Our friend Manoely called us one morning last month with some news. Our church has several outreach groups around our city (called “cell groups”). Twins had been born to a family in one of these cell groups. This was good news, but sadly, their mother died during the birth. This time of COVID-19 has been very hard on many in our city. This family knew they could not care for two newborns without help. They took them to a local Catholic center that receives orphaned children. However, the center couldn’t help them—they have already devoted all their space and resources to caring for COVID-19 patients. Bravely, the family took on the daunting task of caring for the children. We were in the middle of a food distribution at that time, and so our church decided to include this family in the distribution and send their portion ahead in order to help them as they began caring for the babies, as well as burying their daughter. The father, mother, and younger sister of the twins’ mother are the ones caring for them.

Praise the Lord, this family are already believers, and have been for some time. The twins’ grandfather, in fact, is a hazomanga. This means that he is the one in his family who has inherited the role of go-between for the living and their ancestors. His position in the family is to take the family’s needs—rain, harvest, healing, marriages, pregnancies—to the ancestors to seek help. But, this man is a Christian. For a long time now, he has not performed his role. Instead, he leads his family in worshipping the One True God through Jesus Christ as go-between, or Mediator (1 Tim 2:5). He no longer performs sacrifices of sheep, cows, and goats to the ancestors.

Rather, this grandfather, his wife, and his young daughter are making incredible daily sacrifices of themselves to care for these precious children. Please pray for them! Pray for the health of these two sweet babies—Lucius and Lucia—and for them to grow. Pray for comfort for this family as they’ve lost their daughter. Pray that they would get the daily rest and food they need. Pray for the perseverance of their faith, that they may continue to trust in Christ for provision and not in their ancestors. Pray for wisdom for Manoely, us, and our church as we continue to help them. 

But You Yourself have seen trouble and grief,

observing it in order to take the matter into Your hands.

The helpless entrusts himself to You;

You are a helper of the fatherless.

Psalm 10:14

A Sunday with the Church

Sitting with everyone there in that small hut I felt like I got a glimpse of the “real” Church. Throughout the history of the Church, people have always tried to narrow the thing down to its essence. What makes a church a church? Is it the bread and wine? Is it the Bible? I’m no closer than anyone else to figuring it out. But as I sat with a man who had just walked away from a dark life of what we would call witchcraft, I marveled at the simplicity and power of God’s people.

Michel, the man on the left in the picture above, is known here as a tromba, a medium for spirits. He’s been in contact with one of our local pastors before. They grew up together and Michel has watched as God’s Spirit has slowly changed his friend. See, Michel is no stranger to spirits changing people. After his father died when he was a child, he also came down with a bad fever. Then the spirits came. He would wake up far from people in the sand near the sea. But the water made no noise and it wasn’t wet. His feet left no tracks in the sand. Then the spirits appeared before him in kinds of forms. His sister, in the middle of the above picture, testified that during these spells he would get extremely cold. Only when they warmed him with fire would the spirits leave, even after they tried to drive the spirits away with a Bible.

As he got older, the spirits would summon him at different times. They would guide people with different illnesses to him. As soon as they told him what was wrong, the spirits would possess him and lead him to different plants which he was able to combine into healing potions and solutions. You might think that’s wonderful these spirits were so helpful. But the tromba is tormented by the spirits. Often they are possessed by different spirits, one after another. There is no time to earn money for their own family or even feed themselves. When the spirits come, they need to satiate themselves first. Often they need blood, and a lot of it. The tromba, possessed by the spirits, will drink bowl-fulls of fresh, animal blood. Sometimes it’s booze the spirits desires as the mediums will drink themselves within inches of their life.

Michel wanted out. But how in the world could he escape this fate? How are you supposed to get out from under the thumb of these oppressive spirits?

Recently, Michel ran into his old friend again, a fisherman who pastors of one of our local churches. He saw how his friend’s life has slowly improved under the influence of Jesus and those following him. Also at that time, this pastor was helping us to lead a feeding project in his community. Michel watched as the church fed the local community, regardless of whether they were Christians or not, even giving away their own portions to those in need. His own family was fed. And Michel saw a way out.

As the church, we all sat in Michel’s hut and listened to this story as he told us how he met Jesus through them. I say, “the church.” There was the local pastor and his mentor, Edia, a man who has helped us craft multiple Bible stories here (you might know him as “The Traveller” from the Bible stories we’re posting here). There were also handful of young guys and girls, along with about six women and our Grandma Melina.

As we huddled together in the dim hut, I couldn’t help but marvel how we all worked together to follow Jesus. Edia led us in prayer and opened our visit by reminding us God loves everyone, even those who deal in darkness. His love is for all people, even when his wrath is against the evil forces of this world. I then told the story we call here the “Two Fences”–a big summary of the whole story of Scripture that our friends here have crafted. It puts special emphasis on the role of evil spirits against God and all humanity, who specifically usurped us humans as the God-appointed rulers of earth. The human kings and queens were enslaved as evil reigned as king. But then Jesus came . . . a man who steps on the scene as the GodMan: not less than God, but more than your average guy, the King of heaven and earth. And he fills those who follow him as king with his own sovereign Spirit to become kings and queens again.

For someone like Michel, that is the only way out. Only by trusting in the King of the Cosmos who can fill him with the indomitable Spirit, can Michel break with his abusive spiritual masters. Only with the backing of a spiritual family who will take care of him and his family can he finally tell them, “NO.”

We then all turned to Grandma Melina. No one knows how old Melina is; not even Melina knows! Years ago, she began to work with Tessa crafting Bible stories. Growing up in a poor, patriarchal society, Melina never learned to read or write. Every time she speaks she apologizes for the way she talks. She speaks in the pure and riveting Tandroy dialect, which is looked down upon by some here. But Melina knows God and his Word. We all sat in rapt attention as she began.

She explained she knew nothing but prayer. We had to talk to our Father. And like a mother teaching her children, she spoke to God. It was not formality but familiarity that we heard. She then began to tell the story of David appointed by God as king of God’s people. It sounded as if she was talking about something that had happened the day before. It was so clear and real. Then she finished by pronouncing, sake-like, “Today, God has made you, Michel, king, just as he did with David. He has not looked at your appearance but at your heart. You are king of your family and of this community, and it is your responsibility to take care of them and tell them about Jesus.”

And as we sat and listened to Melina, I looked around at all of us, different ages, different cultures, different pasts, looking to our illiterate matriarch as she spoke God’s Word over us. Here was the church. Indeed, the Church, like David, is not judged by God by outward signs and marks but by the heart. We are a family, each with our different parts to play, riffing off of one another as we remind ourselves of our heritage, how we all trace back to the man called Jesus. We are all kings and queens, filled with the Spirit of the King of Kings, no matter if we can read, no matter our personal history, no matter what gender, color, or creed.

The Curse Enters

The Curse Enters

Of all the intelligent creatures, the snake was the most clever of them all. He could have taken the liver out of an ant. He came to Eva and said to her, “Now Eva, is it true you can’t eat of all the fruits from the trees in this garden?”

“Oh no,” said Eva, “Eat the fruit of all the trees in this field, is what God told to us. But the fruit of that tree of knowledge of the good and the bad, this one, this one we cannot eat or touch it, God said, or then the day that you eat from it you will die.”

“No,” said the snake, “You won’t die. God knows that if and when you eat it, you all will be the same as the Prince of Creation. You will know the good and the bad.”

Then Eva saw the fruit of this tree. It was good. It made her want it, and she wanted to be intelligent too. She took the fruit and ate it. Her husband too, was given fruit by her, and he ate it also. 

Then, when they were done eating it, they felt exposed, in their souls. They looked at each other and saw their bodies were naked. And they knew shame. They took tree leaves and made to cover their bodies.

Later that day, the Prince of Creation was walking through the field. He was calling, “Adam, Adam! Where are you?” “Here we are!” said Adam. “We’re hiding because we’re scared, and ashamed, and naked.” 

“What?” said the Prince of Creation. “What made you know that your bodies are naked? Did you both eat the fruit of the forbidden tree?”

“No!” said Adam. “The woman, given to me by you, ate the fruit, and she gave it to me to eat, so I ate.”

“How about it, Eva? What is this thing you have done?” said the Prince of Creation.

“It was the snake! He tricked me,” she said. 

With that, the Prince spoke to the snake, cursing it, saying, “You will crawl on your chest, snake. Dust will be your food. Your children and the children of the woman will be enemies. The child of the woman will stomp your head, and your children will bite the heel of the woman’s child.”

Then, the Prince turned to Eva. “You will give birth to suffering and difficulty in order to have children. You will desire your husband and want to control him. But he will rule over you.” 

Then, God cursed Adam, saying, “This whole earth is cursed now because of you, Adam. It will grow thorns. You will sweat to find something to eat, and you will work hard until you die and return to the ground. You were made from the ground and you will become ground again.”

But the Prince did not leave there, he saw them, still naked. He killed an animal, took its skin and the Prince of Creation clothed them.

Now with this, the Prince also said, “Here are these humans, but like one of us now in that they now know the good and the bad. I must throw them out. If not, they will continue to eat from the tree that enlivens them and they will live like this forever.”

Adam and Eva (Earth and Life) were then thrown out by the Prince of Creation and made to leave the beautiful rice field there. The Prince also put something to guard the way back into the beautiful field, so that no human could return.

That is the story, taken from the holy writings, of how the curse came in, and why we all die. 

Mahafaly Bible Stories: Creation

Much of our work since coming to Madagascar in 2009 (Tessa) and 2011 (Nathan), has been in crafting and telling the stories of the Bible in the Malagasy dialects local to our area. The one tribe with whom we’ve worked most closely and the longest is the Mahafaly.

It has been an education just grappling with Scripture verse by verse with our Mahafaly friends, and watching them take in and then re-verbalize the stories in their own vernacular. Suddenly, the stories come alive for them. And while we think all of us should be doing the work to ingest, digest, and then retell the story of the Bible in our own local culture and parlance, we also wanted to give you all the chance to hear how your brothers and sisters here in Madagascar retell those stories. These are familiar stories. But we hope you see how the Mahafaly have made them their own. These are translated from Mahafaly into English, I’ve adjusted them only slightly for our ear.

These are not the stories of the white man or Americans or Westerners. This is the story crafted by God himself, about the origins of humanity, and the end of evil. And as such, all of our stories are wrapped up in this one.

Creation

Hello, it’s me, the Traveler, and I have a story to tell you. It’s a story from a book of holy writings called the Bible. This book is a collection of many stories, and they have all been brought together to tell the whole story. It is the story of our ancestors, and our story. Let me tell it to you.

The first story I must tell you is . . . Creation!

Back when all was very still and quiet, there was nothing there yet—nothing at all moving around, no people like us. But the Prince of Creation was there. He spoke. He made the world we see around us today, just by speaking it. 

He said, “There is light!” and there was light, and also dark. He called the light, Day, and to the dark he gave the name, Night.

He said, “There is water!” and there was water. And the Prince of Creation saw that what he was doing was good. 

Then, the Prince of Creation said, “The water is gathered together and the dry land appears! There are trees and growing grass!” And the trees and grass began to grow as the new, dry land appeared, as the waters pulled away. This land was called, Earth, and the gathered waters were called the Sea. And the Prince of Creation saw that what he was doing was good.

The Prince of Creation said, “There are stars, a moon, and the sun!” And they all appeared. Prince of Creation saw that this too was good.

He said, “There are animals in the water, jellyfish and whales, all different kinds! There are flying birds like hawks and bats and animals on the ground like chameleons and sheep, all different kinds! And these appeared. And the Prince of Creation saw all that he was doing was good. 

Then, the Prince of Creation said, “I am going to make a human.” So he did. The Prince of Creation made a human, but he created him in a different kind of way. He did not use just his word. He took some dirt, and then molded it. When he was done, he blew into it. It came alive, and started moving! This was the first man.

The Prince of Creation called the man, Adam. That’s the name he gave him, which means, Earth. Then the Prince of Creation took the man and put him in this one, green rice field that was there beside many rivers. Now, in this beautiful field, there were many trees there. Also, in the middle of this field there were two special trees. One tree was a tree that gave life. The other tree was a tree of knowledge—both of the good and the bad. 

“Ah, yes,” said the Prince of Creation, “Eat the fruit from all of these trees here. But the one tree there in the middle of the field, the one that gives knowledge of the good and the bad, don’t eat the fruit from that one. If you do eat it, you will die.”

But now, the Prince of Creation saw that Adam was alone. “Ah,” Prince of Creation said, “This is not good, for the human to be alone. I will find him a fitting partner who can add to him. So the Prince of Creation brought by all the animals to Adam. He brought the dolphin and the lemur, the zebu and the parrot. But none of them seemed to fit as his partner. So, with that, the Prince of Creation put Adam to sleep. Then, he took a bone from Adam’s side. And with that, the Prince of Creation made another human. It was the first woman. He brought her to Adam. When Adam saw her, and that she was a human like him, he said, “Ah, yes! Her bones are from my bones. She is flesh from my flesh.” So he called her, Eva. That is the name he gave her, which means Life.

Now at this time, Adam and Eva (Earth and Life) were still naked together, but knew nothing of shame. The Prince of Creation saw that this was good. Everything the Prince of Creation had made there was so good! 

The Prince of Creation blessed the humans, saying, “Multiply and cover this earth! Everything that moves here on earth belongs to you all. They are under your care as Masters and you must take care of them.” 

Then, the Prince of Creation saw that everything he had done was good. He had finished his work there. Six days it took for Prince of Creation to finish all of that. Then, he rested. And he also blessed this day when he stopped and rested with his creation.

And that is the story of how the world we see around us was created. It’s from the holy writings—the Bible. 

Living Stories

I was coming back from dropping off some groceries to a local pastor of ours. I stopped at a roadside market stand to get some veggies to take home. I was shooting the breeze with the owner of the stand when a fight broke out beside me. I had heard the voices raising beside me before the blows and the threats started. A local pousse-poussedriver (rickshaw) had walked away with a mandarin without paying for it. He was still nonchalantly eating the last few slices as the woman who owned the adjacent stand rained down blows and abuse. You could tell he knew had been caught, but he defiantly yelled back that no one had seen him pay for it and if she didn’t like it she could call the cops. They were starving after all!

Sidebar: No one wants you to call the cops here. There’s no telling who they’ll take away and they’re probably going to walk away with more bribe money from you than you lost in the first place.

The other vendor, the woman’s brother, turned from me and began shouting at the guy too. But the offender just stood his ground, bristling as he shouted louder and gestured harder. Things were escalating and, as so often happens, a large crowd was forming. This is in the middle of the Corona Crisis! No one was wearing a mask—except me—and social distancing doesn’t really exist here. [Although, since then, masks have become mandatory here for all.] Plus, I’m a foreigner, with more money than most, in a volatile situation, where anything could happen. It was the moment when my instincts scream to pay quickly, get back in the truck, and drive away.

But something else happened. As at other times, it wasn’t so much that I directly chose as that something made me aware of another choice I then knew was the right one. I pulled out a dirty, old bill (what amounts to $1), and handed it to my vendor. “Does this cover it?” I asked. 

He never answered. He just stared at me for a minute, then quickly nodded as he grabbed the bill and waved it in the air. “Hey! It’s paid for! It’s paid for!”

I was moving before really thinking about it. The two were now wrestling each other in a ring of bystanders. They hadn’t heard what had happened yet. I pressed forward with the vendor, and with several others we separated them. The vendor explained to his sister that I had paid for the mandarin. The pousse-pousseoffender looked a little confused. I looked around at the crowd and then at the thief, and said as loud and as clear as I could. “Look! All of us have done wrong. This guy’s theft has been taken care of. But only God can take care of the wrong we have all done. Repent and turn to God. Only he can take care of our curse (the comprehensive word for sin and evil here).”

The crowd was slowly breaking up. The vendor asked me who I was and where I went to church, thanking me. What had been a brawl diffused instantly. As I walked back to my truck, I knew something amazing had just happened. I had almost missed out. I had looked at COVID-19, a gathering crowd, money in my pocket, and my status here as liabilities. I was almost willing to miss out on life for the cost of one measly buck. Instead, God taught us all something. I’m so grateful. And haunted. What else have I missed for less than that? How much more could I see God do if I was willing make less of all my privileges?

Here in Mada, there’s a distinction drawn between stories (tantara) and living stories (tantara velo), the first being any old story and the second being something that actually happened. We use this distinction pretty often with the Bible. We tell Bible stories here not just because we admire their quality as great stories (which they are!) but as tantara velo, living stories that actually happened in the lives of everyday people. 

I’d like to think of this as my tantara velo: that amazing, unplanned moment when the story of Jesus bursts through the pages, through a heart, and lands on two feet, walking and talking in front of a local market stand.