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The Lessons of the Bible Code
Let’s start at the very beginning. It is, as Oscar Hammerstein once wrote, a very good place to start. Let’s go to the biblical book of Genesis, or, more specifically, to the Hebrew text of it, known as B’reishit, and look at the first four verses. Let’s start with the first word in the first verse, b’reishit. The last letter of b’reishit is the Hebrew letter tav. Now let’s look for the letter which is fifty letters away from that tav. Let’s repeat that process two more times, each time skipping forty-nine letters and seeking the next letter that is fifty letters away from the one we just found. If you count carefully, when you reach the third letter in the second word of the fifth verse in B’reishit, the four Hebrew letters you find in this sequence are tav, vav, resh and hey. Together, in that order, they spell Torah, the first five books of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible.
Congratulations! You have just uncovered a hidden Bible code, one formed by an equidistant letter sequence, or ELS. Skeptics can repeat the exercise, and get the same result, as the beginning of the next book in the Hebrew Bible, the book of Exodus, known in Hebrew as Sh’mot. Find the first tav in the first verse of Sh’mot (it’s at the end of the second word) and the next three letters each 50 letters apart. Again, if you are careful, you should find the sequence tav, vav, resh and hey, or Torah.
Too simple? A mere coincidence, you say? Wait, there’s more.
This time, start at Exodus 11:9. Find the first letter in the name Moshe (Moses), a mem. Now apply the 50 letter ELS process and you should find the letters shin, nun and hey. If so, you have uncovered the word Mishneh. Next, go back to the mem in Moshe. Skip 613 letters to reach the tav in the third word in Exodus 12:11 and begin the 50 letter ELS process once more. Ending at the second hey in the first word of Ex. 12:13, you should, once again, find the tav-vav-resh-hey sequence, which spells Torah. And there you have it: the great work of the incomparable sage Moses Maimonides, his legal code, the Mishneh Torah, is not only referenced in the Torah itself, the two title words are linked by the exact number of commandments in the Torah, 613.
For any remaining doubters, the first letters in the last four words in Exodus 11:9 are resh-mem-bet-mem, which spell Rambam, the acronym for Maimonides’ full Hebrew name, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon. So, in addition to ELS’s, we also have related words in proximity to each other. This is known as a word cluster. And there is even more in Ex. 11:9-12:13 (see here (at 1/27)), but you get the point.
Some argue that these sorts of sequences and clusters and even more complex word associations in the Torah contain hidden messages, messages placed there when God gave the Torah to Moses over three millennia ago. In this view, the placement of Mishneh and Torah, described above, proves not only that the Mishneh Torah encompasses all of Jewish law, but also that the Author of the Torah anticipated and approved of Rambam’s commentary.
The general contention is not new. We find the notion expressed in the Babylonian Talmud, a collection of oral commentary on the Torah, reduced to writing beginning around the third century of the Common Era. Consider the very first word of the Ten Commandments, found in Ex. 20:2. In Hebrew, the word anochi (“I am”) is formed by the letters aleph, nun, khaf and yud. The Talmud reports that Rabbi Johanan suggested that these letters were an acronym for the phrase “I Myself have written the Script.” (See Talmud Shabbat 105a.)
The modern discovery of codes and messages
Until recently, however, there was little effort to discover meanings hidden in the Torah text, to decode encrypted information. At the end of the thirteenth century, Spanish Rabbi Bahya ben Asher is said to have mentioned an ELS when commenting on a verse in B’reishit/Genesis. About two hundred and fifty years later, in Tzfat, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero wrote of secrets revealed through the “skipping of letters.” (See here.) The first reported reference in modern times dates to the middle of the nineteenth century, when Prague Rabbi Haim Michael Dov Weissmandl is said to have first noticed the 50 letter ELS’s, discussed above, that disclose Torah in B’reishit (Genesis) and Sh’mot (Exodus).
Two major assertions regarding Bible Codes were made in the 1990s. First, Hebrew University Associate Professor of Mathematics Eliyahu Rips and two researchers, Doron Witztum and Yoav Rosenberg, (“WRR”) published an article, “Equidistant Letter Sequences in the Book of Genesis,” in Statistical Science (1994, Vol. 9, No. 3. 429-38). The article described what has become known as the Famous Rabbis Experiment.
Focusing on the 78,064 Hebrew letters in B’reishit in the Koren edition of the Hebrew Bible, a currently accepted text, WRR looked for the presence of the names of over thirty rabbis and the dates of their birth or death in Genesis. After comparing their results to a control test consisting of a similarly sized Hebrew version of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, WRR claimed to have found in Genesis a large number of names formed by ELS’s in proximity to related words. The WRR article was significant because the journal in which the findings were published was considered respectable and the authors concluded (at 434) that “this proximity . . . is not due to chance.” [Emphasis supplied.]
A few years later, Michael Drosnin authored The Bible Code (Simon and Schuster 1997). Drosnin’s pedigree did not include the formal mathematics expertise of Rips. Rather, he was a reporter and bestselling author. But his claims were much more sensational than those of the WRR group. Drosnin purported to disclose previously hidden references not just about past events like World War II, the landing on the Moon, and Watergate, among other events, but also a prediction and reported warning to then Israeli Premier Yitzhak Rabin about an assassination attempt one year before Rabin was gunned down. The Bible, Drosnin argued, was more than an ancient story. It was a computer program! (See, e.g., Id. at 25, 45, 98, 179.) And it needed to be studied and decoded.
Needless to say, The Bible Code became an international best seller. And it begat Bible Code II: The Countdown (Viking 2002), which claimed (at 5-9) that the air assault on the Twin Towers in New York in 2001 was anticipated in the Torah, and predicted (at 4-5, 106-08) an atomic holocaust in 2006, a nuclear world war, precipitated by terrorism in the Middle East. A third book, The Bible Code III (Worldmedia 2010) followed as well, and promoted the notion that Osama bin Laden possessed a nuclear bomb.
The primary lure of the Bible Code books was, of course, the implication that God encrypted messages in the text of the ancient Torah, messages that Drosnin, building on the work of WRR, was able to tease out of the text. Conversely, the messages might be taken as scientific proof that God exists.
Drosnin asserts, repeatedly, that he is a non-believer. (See, e.g., The Bible Code, at 61, 79, 181.) But he also argues that “no human” could have anticipated the events which he claims are referenced in the text. (Id. at 50-51) Rather, “(s)ome intelligence,” some “non-human intelligence” designed the code, proving that “we are not alone.” (Id. at 90, 97, 179.)
As to the source of the non-human intelligence, Drosnin quotes Rips as confirming that his (Drosnin’s) findings are “non-random,” and that they were placed in the text by a “higher intelligence,” by which Rips, an Orthodox Jew, means God, a deity who acted intentionally in coding the Torah text with hidden messages. (See Id., at 20, 40, 103, 174.) If the reader has missed the point, Drosnin quotes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s father, the late secular historian Benzion Netanhayu, as saying of the code: “If it’s real, then I will believe in God, not only God, but the God of Israel, and I will have to become religious.” (Id. at 79.) Is it real? Drosnin also quotes Hebrew University game theorist and Nobel Prize winner Robert J. Aumann as concluding that the code has passed the highest, most stringent standard of propriety and acceptability. Said Aumann, the code is “not just Kosher, it’s Glatt Kosher.” (Id. at 43.)
In Bible Code II, Drosnin dances a similar two step. He continues to make references to the “Lord of the Code” and the “Code of God” and to Rips’s belief that the Bible code did not arise on Earth but came from God. (See, e.g, Bible Code II, at 33-34, 148-49, 209-10.) And Drosnin continues to assert his lack of belief in the Deity. (See, e.g., Id. at 5, 28, 93, 181.) Here, though, Drosnin also and more explicitly suggests that the code was the product of alien, that is, extraterrestrial, life. Referencing the claim of Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick, co-discover of the spiral structure of DNA, to the effect that the DNA molecule did not spontaneously develop on Earth, but was, essentially, seeded here by an advanced civilization, Drosnin contends that the Bible code, too, was brought to Earth in a vehicle by an alien, indeed, the same one who brought the DNA molecule. (See Id., at 144-45, 155, 181.)
Today, the interest in and search for Bible codes extends far beyond academics and best-selling authors. Not surprisingly, Bible codes are an active topic on the Internet. A quick Google search for “Bible Codes” recently returned almost 3,800,000 results for potential further exploration.
In fact, the search for and commentary on Bible codes has become something of a cottage industry. In addition to discussing various aspects of the codes, many websites offer for sale computer software advertised as a tool to assist in locating encoded messages. These programs purportedly can rapidly (1) comb through the entire biblical text to search for letter sequences at various static and progressive spacings, as well as in different directions and angles, (2) identify related word clusters, and (3) create grids of letters to display the results.
The assumptions behind the code claims
The idea that there is a code hidden in the Torah, and the further idea that this code revealsl divine messages placed there by God when God dictated the text to Moses, depends, of course, on two independent sets of assumptions. One is secular and primarily based on mathematics, while the other is mostly, but not entirely, grounded on religious beliefs and history.
The first is that hidden messages are exceedingly improbable, not of human origin, and difficult to encode and ascertainable in a plausible manner. The second is that the text of the Torah we have today was originally dictated by God to Moses about 3300 years ago and that the words we see today, and specifically the way they are spelled, are identical to what was written back then. If true, it would mean that the original tablets or scrolls containing these verses, words and letters have been transcribed time and again over 33 centuries and survived intact despite constant movement, vagaries of weather and security measures, wars, exile, possible purposeful editing and plain human negligence. This essay will deal only with the first set of assumptions.
The common occurrence of improbable events
Naturally, the publication of the Famous Rabbi’s Experiment drew responses from academicians and skeptics alike. At first, the responses generally challenged the methodology used by WRR, suggesting that the data was manipulated. Some tried to replicate the experiment, and failed to achieve the reported results. But while the secular criticism of Bible codes was initially directed at the Famous Rabbi’s Experiment, it extends well beyond that episode.
The WRR paper and Drosnin’s Bible Code books repeatedly assert that their findings are highly improbable, that the results cannot be attributed to mere chance. Yet, virtually all respected mathematicians and statisticians who have reviewed their claims have disputed them. Many of the reasons for this professional rejection are technical, based on the idea that code proponents misconceive or misrepresent the nature of mathematical probabilities generally or erred in their calculations specifically. For instance, I.B.M. Professor of Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at Cal Tech Barry Simon contends that the WRR calculations assume an independence of events when no such assumption is warranted. (See Simon, “The Case Against the Codes,” 4-5/19.)
Similarly, Jordan Ellenberg, a professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin, likens the results to the classic stockbroker’s con, in which a broker send out unsolicited stock tips to a wide swath of potential clients and then narrows the number of recipients over time to those who happen to be that tiny minority of originally solicited investors who receive a string of successful calls. Not knowing of his transmissions of unsuccessful tips sent to others, the members of this smaller group reasonably think that his record proves the broker to be a genius and worthy of hiring. There is an underlying flaw in the con and the codes, however, according to Ellenberg. It is that “(i)mprobable things happen a lot.” (See Ellenberg, How Not to be Wrong (Penguin Press 2014), at 98.)
The late Cal State – Fullerton professor of mathematics and statistical mechanics, Mark Perakh, provides another illustration. He notes that while the chance for any one lottery ticket to win may be extremely small, the likelihood that some ticket will win is much larger. And, in fact, winners of lotteries are announced frequently. Likewise, finding a specific ELS in the Torah may be small, but finding some ELS in association with other words is, again, much larger. (See Perakh, “The Rise and Fall of the Bible Code,” at 13-14/24.)
Putting the technical difficulties of the Famous Rabbis Experiment aside, one of the core attractive features of the code claims, the finding of an impressive number of seemingly significant letter and word associations in an ancient text (and, for some, a holy one, at that), was negated early on. Mathematics professor Dror Bar-Natan and computer science professor Brendan McKay showed, contrary to WRR, that results similar to those reported by WRR could be achieved by a search of the Hebrew version of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. (See final edition here.) Then, responding to a specific challenge from Drosnin to find an encrypted assassination message of a political leader in Moby Dick, McKay found several.
McKay, Bar-Natan and others subsequently drafted a comprehensive rebuttal to the Famous Rabbis Experiment called “Solving the Bible Code Puzzle” and published it, fittingly enough, in Statistical Science. Subsequently, Perakh, not knowing of the work of Bar-Natan and McKay, reviewed several of his own writings, both in Russian and in English, and found numerous ELS’s. (See Perakh, above, at 5-6/24.) (For more, see here.)
Presented with the criticism of some of the opponents of the codes, and based on his own new research, Nobel laureate Aumann changed his mind. Not being able to confirm the existence of the Bible codes, in 2004 he concluded that “the codes phenomenon is improbable.”
The ease of human creation
The respective assumptions of Rips and Drosnin that God or extraterrestrial aliens must have created all of the ELS’s in the Bible have also been deflated by Perakh and others who have shown that ELS’s are not so complex as to require a supernatural deity or an extraterrestrial alien to create them. Perakh proved his point in two ways. First, he wrote a short poem, consisting of just 558 letters, in which he quickly found 37 ELS’s. Then he purposely encoded ELS’s into another writing. So, whether an ELS is created inadvertently or intentionally, the fact remains, as Perakh has written, that a “human mind is quite capable of creating arrays of ELS’s not unlike those found in the Bible.” (See Perakh, above, at 6-7/24.) Note, he is not arguing that the author(s) of the biblical text in fact encoded messages, only that one need not be other-worldly to do so. Moreover, he has shown that humans can create texts embedded with ELS’s with modest efforts.
Theological gooses and ganders
If sometimes there is too little proof for Bible codes, at other times there may be too much, at least for certain tastes. Once the idea of previously hidden messages gained currency, the search was open to all. As could be expected, Christians also combed through the Hebrew Bible. They were looking for hidden messages that Jesus, known in Hebrew as Yehoshua (yud-hay-vav-shin-ayin) or, in shortened form, Yeshua (yud-shin-vav-ayin), is the Messiah. Lo and behold, they found what they sought. The shortened name Yeshua appears frequently as an ELS in the Torah.
Did Professor Rips, an Orthodox Jew, inadvertently uncover a hidden encryption system dictated by God in Hebrew to the Jewish prophet Moses that turns out to confirm that Yeshua/Jesus is the long awaited Moshaich/Messiah? Not quite. First, some of the Hebrew letters involved are among the most frequently found in the Torah. In particular, yud, the first letter in the name, is the letter most frequently found in the Torah.
Moreover, finding Yeshua in the Torah is no more probative than finding the names in the Famous Rabbis Experiment. Perakh searched for Yeshua in a contemporary, thoroughly secular Israeli work and found ELS’s and word clusters similar to those found in the Torah for “Jesus is my name”, “Jesus is my teacher,” “Jesus is able” and “Blood of Jesus.” He also found Yeshua in the Hebrew translation of Ernest Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. (See Perakh, above, at 7-10/24.)
The failure of the case for Bible codes
The validity of Bible codes should not rise or fall depending on whose theological ox is being gored, and it does not. It fails for more fundamental, more objective reasons. And it fails decisively.
Whatever the objections may be, the rejection of the WRR paper and Drosnin’s code books has been clear and broad. Over fifty mathematicians and statisticians have endorsed the Mathematicians’ Statement on the Bible Codes. The signatories to the Statement, having examined the evidence regarding Bible codes, found it “entirely unconvincing.” Specifically referencing the WRR paper and Drosnin’s books, the scholars stated that word clusters identified by code promoters are an “uncontrolled phenomenon” and expected in texts of “similar length.” Moreover, “(a)ll claims of incredible probabilities for such clusters are bogus, since they are computed contrary to standard rules of probability and statistics.” (Emphasis supplied.)
“Bogus” is a strong word, but the Statement is noteworthy for more than its strength and clarity. The signatories are highly credentialed scholars from around the world, including ten from Israel who could be expected to have an understanding of the Hebrew text at issue in addition to the mathematics.
Further, a number of the signatories are reportedly frum, that is, religious observant. But instead of seeing Bible codes as proof of God, and a scientific one to boot, at least one appears to be offended by the whole process. Professor Barry Simon describes himself as a “halachic layperson,” meaning one who observes Jewish law. He plainly and forcefully objects to the use by some individuals of Bible codes, or Torah codes as he calls them, to enhance the religiosity of others, specifically “to get some non-religious Jews to start thinking seriously about yiddishkeit.” To him, it is simply impermissible to “lie to non-religious Jews to get them to keep Shabbos.” (See Simon, above, at 1/19.) True that.
The real lessons of the Bible codes story
In the end, the real value of the debate over Bible codes might be not the scholarly shedding of light on yet more pseudoscience, though that effort is exceedingly significant. Rather, two other important principles emerge. The first is that faith and commitment need not and should not depend on pseudoscience, even and maybe especially a pious fraud like the purported Bible codes. The second is that one can be dedicated both to religion and to reason. Not bad results at all for an exercise that began on such shaky ground.