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Independent witness to early Genesis

The orally-transmitted creation legend of the Miao people in China is an extraordinarily accurate parallel to the events recorded in Genesis 1-11.

Today an acquaintance linked me to a 1991 article from the Institute for Creation Research titled ‘Genesis According the Miao People’. It was written by a missionary to these Chinese tribes—variously called the Miautso by encyclopedias—whose name was either Edgar or Ernest A Truax (information is vexingly patchy). I can’t vouch for its authenticity except inasmuch to say as the ICR seems to trust the source; I’ve tried finding corroborative sources but information is scarce (or my Google-fu is lacking).

That said, the article provides a fascinating translation of the Miao creation legend. There is no evidence that the Miao ever had contact with any peoples remotely associated with the near-East, yet their legend is astonishingly similar to Genesis in not only its overall narrative, but its structure and details also. I won’t quote the entire translation here, but there are a couple of points which are worth highlighting…

The creation of man

After an abbreviated account of creation itself which rehearses Genesis 1 with striking precision, the legend goes on to describe the creation of man:

On the earth He created a man from the dirt.
Of the man thus created, a woman He formed
[…]
The Patriarch Dirt begat Patriarch Se-teh.
The Patriarch Se-Teh begat a son Lusu.
And Lusu had Gehlo and he begat Lama.
The Patriarch Lama begat the man Nuah.
His wife was the Matriarch Gaw Bo-lu-en.
Their sons were Lo Han, Lo Shen and Jah-hu.

Convincingly minced names

One of the things that makes this account seem so authentic to me, as someone who loves language, is the way the names have been minced—but not beyond recognition. Patriarch Dirt (this tickles me) begets Se-teh—an obvious transliteration of “Setesh” into a language without an “sh” sound. Setesh, of course, is a common Egyptian variant on the name Set, which itself is a variant on the original Hebrew name which is transliterated into English (through Latin and German, which have a lot to answer for) as Seth, but is better pronounced sheyth or sheht. I don’t think this necessarily suggests the Miao got the name Se-teh through Egypt; merely that the existence of this variant, Setesh, lends weight to the authenticity of their own verbal tradition.

Now you might say, Se-teh does not beget anyone whose name is similar to Enosh (ey-NOSH); nor is there anyone in the next generation who sounds like Kenan (kay-NAHN). But this seems less like an objection, and more like a nuance implying the authenticity of the Miao legend. If it were simply invented by some missionary seeking fame and/or a way of lending credibility to Genesis, we would expect him to most likely follow the Genesis account, with further mangled but recognizable names. Yet this legend does not do that—which opens up three possibilities:

  1. It simply gets the names between Seth and Lamech wrong. This is the least desirable option in my view, given that it gets other things right; we should give the record the benefit of the doubt.
  2. It focuses on the same characters, but uses different names for them. This is possible, given that having multiple names is certainly not uncommon among ancient peoples. For instance, just this morning I was reading Genesis 25 to my daughter and we learned that Esau was also called Edom.
  3. It focuses on different characters. This seems exceedingly probable given the difference in number and the fact that ancient genealogies were not typically meant to be comprehensive. As with the Hebrew genealogies in Genesis, the legend seems only to name the figures the author considered important for his purposes. Many other children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren are left out. Genesis 5 lists Enosh, Kenan, Mahalalel, Jared, Enoch and Methuselah; but this doesn’t mean that each was the father of the next—and by the same token, there is potentially plenty of room between these characters for other men not listed, who had names something like Lusu and Gehlo. This is what we’d expect to see if the Miao legend is a genuine, independent record. Genesis focuses only on figures who either lead to the Messiah, or explain the origins of people-groups whom Israel must repeatedly confront; so too we would expect the Miao tradition to focus only on characters who were relevant to their initial interests in recording the line of descent.

We also discover that Se-teh had descendents named Lama and Nuah—again, authentic-seeming phonetic “drift” from the original names Lamech and Noah. This is particularly convincing when you consider that in Hebrew the “ch” sound in Lamech is actually pronounced similarly to in the word “loch” or the “J” in “Juan”, and that the “h” in Noah is too. It is not LA-meck and NO-wah, as most English-speakers would say, but leyh-MEYCH and noh-WACH, with that soft “ch” sound. Also, the two vowels of Lamech are pronounced basically the same—a short “ey”—so the fact that the Miao legend says Lama, and not something like Lema, again attests to the authenticity of the tradition. The changes are very realistic, given what we see happening in other languages. Without a very similar sound in one’s native language, voiceless frictive letters like the Hebrew letter kaph at the end of Lamech, and heth at the end of Noah, either get hardened or softened. Just think about how you pronounce those names, and then consider that the sound at the end of each is actually very similar in the original language. Indeed, in modern Hebrew they are identical, because languages tend toward laziness: similar sounds become identical over time, and hard sounds soften (think of how often you pronounce “t” and “d” when speaking quickly). But in Arabic kaph and heth are slightly different, and probably they were so in ancient Hebrew also, given that there are different letters for each.

Nuah himself has sons named Lo Han, Lo Shen and Jahphu. Again, it is easy to see how these could represent authentic phonetic drift from Ham, Shem and Japheth (“lo” perhaps was originally a title).

The flood

The legend then goes on to describe God’s wrath at man’s wickedness, and the destruction of all people in a great flood—with the exception of Nuah and his household, who were righteous, and built a “boat very wide”, a “ship very vast”, on which they rode in safety with paired animals. It even includes details like sending out a dove from the ship to find dry land, and offering a sacrifice to God after disembarking when the flood receded. The parallels to the flood account of Genesis 6–8 are remarkable, down to the number of days it rained (40), and the number of days the flood was on the earth (55—which a plausible corruption of 155).

Babel

Most interestingly, the legend continues on to describe how the earth was repopulated with tribes that came from the sons of Nuah:

Lo-han then begat Cusah and Mesay.
Lo-shan begat Elan and Nga-shur.

Again, only a couple of descendents are mentioned, which fits with the couplet structure of the legend itself. Yet the similarities between Cush and Mizraim, Elam and Asshur; and Cusah and Mesay, Elan and Nga-shur are beyond coincidental. In the legend, these patriarchs begat tribes, until eventually all the people gathered together to build a “very big city” and a “very high tower”. “Not right”, the legend says, “but they rashly persisted.” The result:

God struck at them then, changed their language and accent.
Descending in wrath, He confused tones and voices.
One’s speech to the others who hear him has no meaning;
He’s speaking in words, but they can’t understand him.
So the city they builded was never completed;
The tower they wrought has to stand thus unfinished.
In despair then they separate under all heaven,
They part from each other the globe to encircle.

A particularly intriguing detail here, which again lends credence to this being an authentic legend, is that the Miao people apparently had no conception of the earth being spherical. Although they transmitted the legend across thousands of years, they did not seemingly take its comment about encircling the globe to indicate a literal truth about the shape of the world.

Of course, it is also absurdly unlikely that anyone would make up a story that so closely parallels the Babel account in order to explain the origin of language. There must be a relationship between the two stories.

Implications for the authenticity of Genesis

The legend goes on to trace the Miao people back to Jahphu and his son Gomen (Japheth and Gomer). After that it diverges, as the people themselves diverge from those in the Bible.

Critics are quick to assume that parallel accounts like these show how the Bible was copied from other religions. Of course, this is often flagrantly bogus, as in “classic” cases of Osiris or Mithra, where most of the commonalities are simply fabricated, and where parallels are actually borrowed from Christianity rather than vice versa.

But in the case of the Miao, the parallels are extraordinary—and (if I understand correctly), the Miao legend predates Genesis. However, it would be even more extraordinary if Genesis were copied from a tribe nearly 8,000 km (5,000 miles) away.

There’s obviously a far more reasonable explanation: both Genesis and the Miao legend derive from a common source. What could this source be? One logical candidate would be an oral tradition dating back to Adam himself, and updated by later descendents, including Noah. However, we needn’t postulate that Genesis is actually derived from the same oral tradition. It could simply be that the Miao legend accurately records events which really happened, and the same is true of Genesis. Either way, the Miao legend—if the translation is trustworthy—seems to provide exceptional independent corroboration of the early events related in Genesis.

4 comments

  1. Isaac Bilge

    While there is some clear overlap between these myths, (as indeed there is with the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Egyptian foundation myth), isn’t this somewhat undermined by the fact that the Miao Chinese story clearly includes a pantheon of figures, including some kind of demiurge responsible for the world?

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    I’m not aware of any of the specificity of overlap in Gilgamesh as there is in the Miao legend. Gilgamesh and Genesis have some similar themes, and draw on similar motifs, being that they come from similar regions. But Gilgamesh (to my knowledge) doesn’t give accounts which closely parallel Genesis, and it especially doesn’t have genealogies which use virtually the same names as Genesis. The Miao legend is also quite unique in describing Babel. (Mind you, even if Gilgamesh had these features, the parallels would not be as striking because there isn’t the geographic separation.)

    In terms of the similarities being undermined by the differences, that seems like a difficult argument to make given the extraordinary nature of similarities. Indeed, it seems to me we’d expect there to be differences between Genesis and another legend, given that the former takes God’s perspective while the latter takes man’s. Moreover, Genesis itself features a pantheon. El and the Word both represent Yahweh, but it is the Word that acts as El’s viceroy in creation—which is not all that dissimilar to the Miao’s demiurge, and we can see how the original facts could have been corrupted into their legend. This is especially so given that Genesis also describes heavenly beings who represent a second and third tier of rulers and messengers; the former of whom eventually become the gods of the nations. So you can see how confusion would arise in the Miao legend.

    Overall, I’d say the similarities between Miao and Genesis are extremely noteworthy, while the differences are merely to be expected.

  3. Jason

    I’ve always been fascinated by the relative similarities between the “origins of faith” stories of different cultures, particularly Native American culture, and those of Judaism (and by extension Christianity, and to a certain historical point, Islam). This is another cool example of that, just in a different part of the world. Thanks for sharing and breaking it down!

  4. Raymond

    Very interesting. Thankyou Bnonn. I am quite interested in this topic and you have given me more to think about.

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