bible codes, part I: atbash

Now the title to this post ought to be enough to signal that things could very easily get very strange (or perhaps "silly" is a better word)—am I about to predict the date of Jesus' return? or perhaps disclose the results of some future sporting event? Are next week's lotto numbers hidden in the pages of the Bible just waiting to be discovered? I wouldn't be the first, and perhaps I could make my fortune by offering prophetic insights based on information hidden for millenia and only now disclosed through my ingenious discovery of never before seen messages hidden in the text of the Bible.

Yes, books have been written about Bible codes, and other books have been written about how daft those Bible codes are. There is nothing new about people using the Bible to divine secret messages about the future or as some cryptic source for personal guidance. All manner of ingenious schema has been employed in order to derive such information. And most of it is complete and utter nonsense.

Most, but (perhaps) not all. There are two "codes" which many scholars (although not all scholars) agree are actually found in the Bible. The first is the subject of this post and is known as Atbash. Atbash refers to a simple code where letters in a word are exchanged with letters an equal distance from the other end of the alphabet (so A would be replaced by Z, B by Y, and so forth). The name derives from the first two letters in the Hebrew alphabet and their encoded equivalents: Aleph becomes Taw, Beth becomes Shin, hence ATBaSh. The code is used in the Book of Jeremiah, לב קמי lēb qāmāy (51:1) is atbash for כשדים kaśdîm (Chaldeans), and ששך šēšak (25:26; 51:41) is atbash for בבל bābel (Babylon). Some also argue that the code can be found in 1Kings 9:13 where the proper noun כבול is atbash for לשפך, 'worthless land'.

The big puzzle is why Jeremiah uses these codes in the first place. Some recent discussion of that topic can be found in Mark Leuchter, “Jeremiah’s 70-Year Prophecy and the ששך/לב קמי Atbash Codes,” Biblica 85 (2004) 503–522. That article is available here. See also Scott B. Noegel's three part article in Jewish Bible Quarterly entitled "Atbash (אתב״ש) in Jeremiah and its Literary Significance" (JBQ 24.2, 24.3, and 24.4 from 1996) wherein Noegel proposes nine other instances of Atbash in Jeremiah: 18:2–4; 20:8; 22:10; 25:20–26, 30, 38; 34:14; 36:27; 48:2.1

Although superficially the claim that the use of Atbash in Jeremiah may have functioned to protect against the repercussions of directly criticising Babylonia, most scholars reject this because elsewhere Jeremiah exhibits no inhibitions about directly referring to Babylon (see, in particular, Jer 51:41 where both ששך and בבל appear together). Perhaps more likely is the notion that the reversal or inversion of letters was representative of a reversal of fortunes for the referent of the term, rather like the linguistic equivalent of Ezekiel's symbolic model making (cf. Ezek 4).

The other problem with reading such codes in the Bible is that, to really make any sense, the encoded terms need to have already been familiar to the original audience, or else they need to have been aware that such codes may have been present in the text and so have been ready to investigate unfamiliar terms by decoding them. There is no real evidence for either of these prerequisites. Consequently, the agreement over these encoded terms rests largely on the fact that they make good sense when decoded and that the encoded version makes little sense.

Assuming, for a moment, the existence of such codes in Jeremiah, then perhaps Scott Noegel is right and there are more codes to be found. So what I did is take a list of all proper nouns and gentilics and apply Atbash transformation to them and see if the result was itself a proper noun or gentilic. Well, unsurprisingly, I found quite a few hits. What, if anything, is the significance of these? I haven't looked in any great detail, so I have not at this stage any profound insights to offer. But I've included the list below in case anyone else spotted anything of interest among the results! And if you do see something interesting, please add a comment.

Proper noun Atbash   Proper noun Atbash
אסאתחת מבשםישבי
אסףתחו מיכלימלך
אפסתוח מצהיהץ
בבלששך משךיבל
בוישפם עשקזבד
ביתשמא צרתהגא
בכיםשלמי רמתגיא
בצישהם רעיגזם
בשןשבט רקםגדי
בשתשבא שבאבשת
גדירקם שבטבשן
גזםרעי שהםבצי
גיארמת שלמיבכים
הגאצרת שמאבית
זבדעשק שפםבוי
יבלמשך ששךבבל
יהץמצה תוחאפס
ימלךמיכל תחואסף
ישבימבשם תחתאסא

Finally, here is a table of hapax terms from the OT which, when converted via Atbash, produce a word which is a proper noun in the OT. I wanted to look at this because I suspect that if you're going to find "code" words then they're likely to be unusual. The word on the left is the hapax term, that on the right is the Atbash version. Let me know if you spy something interesting!

    
איתםאלתךאלםתכיאפלתוך
אשךתבלבדקשקדבוזשפעבוישפם
בולשפךבכרשלגבלשךבןשט
בץשהברךשגלגדרקגהרץ
גוברפשגלברכשגמדריקגףרו
גרזרגעגרערגזגרשרגבדבקש
דבאקשתדגהקרץדמהקיץדמיקים
הםציהמהציץהשםצביזבדעשק
זגערזקעדחוגספרחזוסעף
חללסכךחמרסיגחפאסותחשךסבל
חשלסבךטובנפשטפשנוביבלמשך
יבםמשייחשמסבימלךמיכליעףמזו
ירטמגןישןמבטכהלץכסלח
כרלגלוטכפןלחכסמזגיער
מזויעףמחקיסדנגוטרףסאסאחתחת
סבלחשךסטחןסךחלסכךחלל
ססחחסעדחזקסעףחזוספןחוט
ספרחוגעואזפתעלגזכרערזג
עשקזבדעשקזבדציץהמהקאדת
קיטדמןקיםדמיקיץדמהקרדג
קרץדגהקשתדבארגשגרברךגל
רמתגיארעיגזםרפשגוברקםגדי
רשםגבישהדבצקשטבןשךבל
שקדבדקשרקבגדשביבשםשלגבכר
שלםבכישנסבטחשפעבוזשצףבהו
שקבדתוחאפסתחואסףתלגאכר


1. Noegel argues that the reversal of letters is based on the idea that “once spoken, words were capable of affecting the observable reality” tied together with the notion that “if words possess power and essence, atbash represents a reversal of that power and essence” (JBQ 24.2 [1996] p. 84). I’m not convinced that there is sufficient evidence that the first proposition applied in ancient Israel, nor that it is a necessary prerequisite to understanding atbash as representing a symbolic reversal. If the notion that a reversal of fortunes was present in the terms, the source of that reversal in Jeremiah was not inherent in the uttering of the term but rather in the power of God who determined the flow of history.

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