While preaching through the book of Genesis, an older member of the congregation pointed out that the Chinese character for “boat” was comprised of three smaller ‘pictographs’, namely; eight, mouths and a vessel — hence, “Eight mouths (or “people”) in a vessel or ark.” I was both fascinated and intrigued.
“Is this the influence of Western missionaries?” I asked.
“No,” I was told.
“This term is thousands of years old, and is as least as old as the Bible itself!”
After some further research — in particular, The Discovery of Genesis (Concordia Publishing) by C.H. Kang and Ethel R. Nelson — I discovered that this was not an isolated occurrence, and that there are many other examples in the Chinese language that independently pointed back to the origins of man up to and including the tower of Babel. Below is a summary of what I found:
1. To Create
The first pictograph is the word for “create.” As can be seen, it is comprised of the words “speak, dust / mud, life and walk.” The pertinent passage that immediately comes to mind is Genesis 2:7.
“The LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”
Note too that the person immediately is able to “walk”, rather than just gain consciousness!
2. Happiness / Blessing
The word for “Blessing / Happiness” also bears a striking correspondence to the Genesis creation account. Here we see that the term is made up of the words “God, one, person / mouth and Garden.” That is, the perfect state of being is when God and man dwell together in a garden! If that doesn’t already sound eerily familiar, then see Genesis 2:8.
Already one can hopefully see a pattern developing, and you don’t have to be able to speak Cantonese or Mandarin to appreciate it. The word “garden” is: “Dust, breath, two persons and enclosure.” That is, a garden is: “Two people made from the dust in a contained space.” Genesis 2:15 fills out the implications of what this means, but the basic idea is almost identical.
4. Forbid / to warn
The next term is “to forbid or warn” and it is comprised of two pictures. One is simply two trees and the other is the primitive form of the word for “God.” Apparently, the Chinese were traditionally monotheistic — before Taoism and Buddhism became popular — and they worshipped a figure known as “Shàng Dì” or “The Heavenly Emperor.” But the meaning here is as striking as it is simple. That is, in keeping with the warning of Genesis 2:16-17 — and central to Adam’s covenant of works (Hosea 6:7) — was the choice between the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
5. Tempter / Devil
The word for “devil” and “tempter” is just as provocative. For instance, “devil” means “secret, man, living, [in a] garden” and following on from this “tempter” means a “devil, under, [the] cover, [of] trees.” The mental image these words conjure up is almost identical to the situation we find described for us in Genesis 3, is it not?
6. Covet / Desire
Similarly, the word for “covet / desire” involves a woman standing before two trees. Significantly it is a woman, and not a man (see 1 Tim 2:14), who is presented here, and it has an uncanny correspondence to what we find recorded in Genesis 3:6 —
“When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye and desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband and he ate it.”
Clothing ~ Tree ~ Garden
The word for “naked” is another intriguing example of correlation to the Genesis account. Note how when it is broken down into its constituent parts it means “to be clothed from a tree in a garden.”
Personally, I find this quite significant, because I would have thought that the term naked means the complete “absence” of clothing. However, this is almost identical to what we find recorded for us in Genesis 3:7, where Adam and Eve sew fig leaves on themselves to cover over their nakedness when they have sinned.
As I mentioned at the start of this article, it was the Chinese word for “boat” which led me to investigate this topic further to begin with. Note though how 1 Peter 3:20 explicitly says:
“God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.
In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water.”
As such, does that not add all the more weight to what Peter goes on to say in his second letter, when he describes scoffers as people who:
“deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed.”
~ 2 Peter 3:5-6
Following on from the previous example is the term “flood”, which means that “everything is covered by water.” This might sound quite obvious in some ways, for the Bible’s own clear testimony is that the flood was global in its scope (see in particular Genesis 7:18-23).
Indeed, even the Chinese have an account of a deluge so large that the waters were said to have reached up to the sun! This being so, it makes the recent crisis and devastation in Queensland — where the majority of that massive State was affected — look decidedly “localised” in comparison.
Grass ~ Clay ~ Man ~ One ~ Mouth
As can be seen from above, the word for “tower” literally means “grass + clay + man [speaking with] one + mouth.” It’s strikingly similar to the central issue in Genesis 11, where all of mankind united in their defiant rebellion against the LORD by building “a tower that reaches to the heavens.” (Genesis 11:4).
Interestingly, I tested each of these terms out on an older person who was not a Christian, but was originally from China. He agreed that each of these terms had the meaning that I have related. However, when it came to this particular phrase, he corrected me. He said,
“This is not just any tower, but a very, very large one. The tallest one you could imagine!”
The final word that I would like to mention in this brief survey (and there are many, many more that could be mentioned, but because of time and space I will refrain) is the only one that does not directly relate to any particular incident from Genesis 1-11, but is in many ways the most significant of them of all.
The word for “righteousness” is quite simply a lamb or sheep above oneself. For anyone with an ounce of Bible knowledge, the meaning is at once obvious and profound. There are many Scripture parallels and proof texts that could be used (see for example Exodus 12, Isaiah 53 and John 1:29), but in keeping with our study on the opening book of the Bible, perhaps the most pertinent is Genesis 22:13.
“Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns.
He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.
So, Abraham called that place The LORD will Provide.”
Again, I thought that this might have been just another “coincidence.” However, as one couple in our congregation reminded me (who were previously Buddhists), a lamb or sheep is not a symbol of “innocence” or “purity” for someone from the East, for that is instead a very Western perception.
How then did the Asian language come to incorporate this concept into their way of thinking? Perhaps their isolation from the people of Israel was not as absolute as we might naturally assume? Or maybe the LORD in His mysterious providence orchestrated this particular understanding into their language as a way of preparing them to hear about the means of His salvation?
When it comes to understanding what all of this means from the vantage point of the New Testament though, one of the most pertinent passages is that found in Acts 17:26-27,
“From one man He made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and He determined the times sets for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us.”
Significantly, the apostle Paul makes this assertion as an integral plank in his presentation of the Gospel to the leading pagan intellectuals of his days (see Acts 17:18). What’s more, he is quite definite that not only was Adam a real man — something that even some Evangelicals today would sadly question — but that it was also through this one individual that all the people of the earth were made. What I have outlined above then is really not that novel, but is instead a striking illustration of what the whole of Scripture clearly teaches.
In compiling the results of what I had found though, I also learnt that the people whom the LORD had used to lead me to faith in Christ were also using this same material to great effect in South East Asia where they were serving as missionaries. They also assured me of its linguistic authenticity as well as its obvious apologetic and evangelistic validity.
You see, tragically some people from an Asian background reject the good news about Jesus because they perceive Christianity as being a “Western” religion. However, if what I have presented above is true, then their own language bears witness to the universal truth of the One Creator God and of their need to repent. Indeed, in my own church context, many people in the congregation in which I serve have used this material to talk to their non-Christian parents and relatives to great effect, using the meaning of these characters as a springboard in which to talk to them about the truth of the Bible in general and of the Gospel in particular.
Ultimately though, I believe that this further substantiates the historical reliability of the early chapters of Genesis 1-11. It is what we should expect to find, as it relates to the founding of the world as well as human civilization, with an external witness to the Bible also bearing witness to its veracity.
[Photo by Marco Zuppone