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Bible Codes

We have been discussing the tendency among believers to want to discover some deep spiritual insight in the Bible. In 1997 Simon and Schuster published a startling book by the reporter Michael Drosnin entitled The Bible Code. In this book Drosnin claimed that there was a special letter sequence code hidden in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament that could now be unlocked with the use of computers. Furthermore, he argued that this code contained predictions of dozens of significant modern people and events, including Watergate, the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, President Clinton, the 1929 stock market crash, the Apollo moon landings, Adolph Hitler, Thomas Edison, the Wright brothers, and numerous others.

Drosnin’s book became an immediate bestseller. Biblical Hebrew scholars reflecting a wide range of theological positions, along with numerous mathematicians, studied Drosnin’s Bible Code and concluded that his arguments were not valid and that there is no special letter sequence code in the Hebrew Bible. In spite of this scholarly consensus, the idea of a “Bible code” continues to flourish in some quarters of the popular imagination. Indeed, books on this subject have continued to be popular. Likewise, several websites on this topic have appeared. What exactly is that code and what should we make of it?

First, it is important to note that there are several types of Bible codes being championed. Drosnin’s is only one of the more popular modern ones. Within the mystical branch of Judaism referred to as Kabbalah, various other mathematical-based codes have been explored and expounded since the Middle Ages. Bible codes as a whole, however, can be classified into two basic groups. The older code of Jewish mysticism is called gematria, while the modern one suggested by Drosnin and others is called Equidistant Letter Sequencing (ELS). We will discuss each briefly.

Gematria

Biblical Hebrew uses the normal letters of the alphabet not only to represent the sounds of words (as in English), but also to represent numbers. Thus the first letter, aleph, can be used as a letter for spelling words, or it can stand for the number 1. Likewise, beth, the second letter of the alphabet, can also stand for number 2, and so forth through the alphabet up to the number 9. Then the consecutive letters represent 10, 20, 30, and so on, up to 90, followed by letters representing 100 to 900, and so forth. In gematria, the letters in certain words are analyzed for their mathematical value and then equated with other words that have the same value.

For example, the Hebrew word for father (⊃ab) is comprised of the two letters aleph and bethAleph stands for 1 and beth stands for 2, so the sum of the word is 3. Mother (⊃am) is comprised by the letters aleph (1) and mem (40), so the sum of this word equals 41. The word for child (yeled) has three letters—yod (10), lamed (30), and daleth (4), which equals 44. So father (3) plus mother (41) equals child (44). This example illustrates a simple type of analysis with gematria. The mechanics of gematria, however, can be extremely complicated, employing various types of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.

Equidistant Letter Sequencing (ELS)

This is the system propagated by Drosnin in The Bible Code. First, the entire Hebrew Bible (or occasionally just the Pentateuch, depending on the researcher) is loaded into a computer. All spaces between the words are ignored and the computer thus generates a long, continuous stream of consecutive letters. The operators tell the computer to look for words or patterns of words by selecting equidistant letters. First, the computer looks at every other letter. Then it looks at every third letter, every fourth letter, every fifth letter, and so forth until it is looking at letters spaced thousands of letters apart. The computer then looks at the sequences that it has produced and tries to find matches with the words the operators are searching for.

For a small, simple example of what this might be in English, let’s look at Numbers 4:3. Does this text say anything about a cat?

Count all the men from thirty to fifty years of age who come to serve in the work at the tent of meeting.

The first step is to remove all of the spaces between the words. Thus we have:

countallthemenfromthirtytofiftyyearsofagewhocometoserveintheworkatthetentofmeeting

Next we want to look at every other letter, then every third letter, fourth letter, and so on until we find cat. Lo and behold, we do find cat, encoded with a 32-letter spacing! Starting with the c in count, skip over 32 letters and arrive at a in years, followed by a 32-letter skip to t in the. The results are shown below in bold:

CountallthemenfromthirtytofiftyyeArsofagewhocometoserveintheworkatThetentofmeeting

This is ELS, or equidistant letter sequencing. Each letter is separated by the exact same number of letters—in this case, 32. Of course three-letter words are easy to find. We found this one without a computer in about ten minutes. Longer words are more difficult to find, but if one searches a large enough text with the aid of a computer, then even large words can be discovered fairly easily.

In one of Drosnin’s famous examples, the computer was told to search for the Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin.[13] This is a twelve-letter sequence, not an easy one to find. Fortunately computers can handle such challenges. Indeed, the computer did find a sequence containing the name Yitzhak Rabin. The first letter in his name occurs in Deuteronomy 2:33. The computer then skips 4,722 letters to find the next letter in his name in 4:42, followed by another skip of 4,722 to 7:20, and so forth, skipping 4,722 letters each time until reaching the last letter in 24:16.

However, it is not the mere occurrence of the encoded name that convinces the ELS code proponents. It is the presence of other additional connecting or predicting aspects in the near vicinity of the texts that are intercepted by the letters of the name. Thus in Drosnin’s example, the second letter of Yitzhak Rabin’s name shows up in Deuteronomy 4:42. This verse, Drosnin points out dramatically, contains the phrase “the assassin will assassinate”; this verse thus predicted the assassination of the prime minister thousands of years before it happened. Impressed? (Note: Drosnin has translated Deuteronomy 4:41–42 rather poorly. The NIV text reads, “Then Moses set aside three cities east of the Jordan, to which anyone who had killed a person could flee if he had unintentionally killed his neighbor without malice aforethought.” The text deals with cities of refuge for those who kill someone unintentionally; it has nothing to do with assassination.)

So how should we assess these two methods of Bible codes? First, even though the proponents of gematria sometimes develop far-fetched and fanciful connections, the notion that the authors of the Old Testament used the Hebrew number values of letters to make intentional word connections is at least plausible. Numbers are often symbolic in biblical Hebrew. Furthermore, literature of other ancient Near Eastern cultures occasionally used number cryptograms to refer to their gods or kings.[14] Also, the authors of the Old Testament frequently used other sophisticated literary devices such as chiasm and acrostics.

Thus, it is not out of the realm of possibility that the authors played some number games as well. We, however, are not convinced that this is the case, and we doubt if these number connections were placed in the text intentionally by either the divine or the human authors. We suspect that gematria is a result of coincidence, made possible by the shear volume of number possibilities in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. In other words, we tend to reject this approach, but we reject it cautiously, remaining open to the possibility that the Old Testament writers may have used some aspect of gematria as another sophisticated literary device.

Drosnin’s equidistant letter sequence (ELS) theory, however, is quite different. It smacks of the current cultural infatuation with computers and technology and the postmodern desire for mysticism. We agree wholeheartedly with the consensus view of biblical scholarship that there is nothing other than coincidence behind Drosnin’s (and others’) secret messages that they find hidden in the Bible with ELS. The scholarly rebuttals to Bible codes have been devastating. These rebuttals have provided strong evidence that there is nothing mystical or divine about ELS. The arguments leveled against this method of finding secret messages fall into two basic categories—that relating to probability and that relating to textual variations.

Probability. The most critical claim of Drosnin (and others) is that the patterns they have found are incredibly beyond normal probability and are therefore divine in nature. They cite incredible odds against finding names and connections by random. This is the critical defense for the Bible code. However, this argument has been pretty well shattered by those who have critiqued the code. Large texts with several hundred thousand letters present billions of ELS options. Weitzman, for example, points out that, assuming equal letter distribution, the chance of randomly selecting a six-letter word (with a twenty-two letter alphabet) is 1 in 110,000,000. This seems incredible, and the ELS proponents cite these fantastic odds as the certification of their method.

However, as Weitzman notes, the Pentateuch by itself contains over 300,000 letters. Based on ELS methodology, names can be read forward or backward, and the skip sequence can range from 2 to around 30,000. Under these criteria the 300,000-letter Pentateuch yields 18 billion six-letter combinations. Thus using an ELS computer search, any random six-letter name or other letter combination will show up in the Pentateuch around 160 times (18 billion divided by 110,000,000). With 160 options it should not be hard to find one that intersects a verse that can be loosely connected to the name, especially if the imagination is used (or poor translation techniques, as Drosnin is prone to do).

Underscoring this reality has been the results of ELS searches run on nonbiblical literature. Any literary work of significant length will yield hundreds of modern names with hundreds of different associations in adjacent phrases. Brendan McKay, for example, loaded the English text of Moby Dick into his computer and ran ELS searches through this classic work to look for “predictions” about assassinations of other twentieth-century leaders. He found numerous names with significant connections to the topic of death in the nearby texts.[15] This example is similar to Drosnin’s Yitzhak Rabin example. Unless we view Moby Dick as divinely inspired, this evidence pretty well demolishes the heart of The Bible Code.

Textual variations. Another flaw in the ELS approach is that its proponents seem unaware of variations in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. Remember our discussion back in unit 1 about how the Bible was transmitted for many years through handwritten manuscripts? Because of the mammoth size of the Old Testament and the difficulties involved in hand-copying, there are no two handwritten ancient Hebrew manuscripts that are exactly alike—that is, identical down to the very letters. For one thing, spelling was not standardized during the production and during the early transmission of the Old Testament. Numerous words had two different spelling options, and the ancient manuscripts varied frequently in their spelling. This is a critical problem for a method that searches for names with letters spaced apart by thousands of letters.

As you can gather, we do not recommend using Bible codes. Although we have doubts about the validity of gematria, we respect it as a long-standing method of inquiry used within Jewish mysticism. It has been around for hundreds of years and it will probably continue to stay around within Judaism. The equidistant letter sequence theory of Drosnin and others, however, falls into a different category. This approach is largely a sham. The popular books advocating the ELS theory smack of sensationalism. These books do not belong on the shelves of serious Bible students; they belong on the magazine rack next to the TV tabloids.

Don’t be naïve or gullible. Don’t fall for the shabby arguments that the ELS proponents cite so authoritatively. We do not need a fabricated theory such as ELS to prove to us that God inspired the Bible. ELS theory does not lead us to the meaning that God is communicating to us; rather, it leads us away from it. Furthermore, if you read the Bible carefully, you will note that God reacts negatively when people put words into his mouth and claim, “This is what the Lord says,” of things he never said.


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