Michael Drosnin. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997. 264 pages. $25.00, cloth.
Maybe it’s the computer age we live in. Maybe it’s our unquenchable appetite for entertainment. Or maybe it’s a quest for millennial spirituality. For whatever reason, Bible codes” are a hot topic as we approach the final years of this decade. The current assortment of books, articles, and web sites is like a multiplex cinema. In theater one, evangelical Christians write books claiming to prove the existence of God on the basis of codes “discovered” in the Bible. Some try to use so-called “Yeshua codes” to demonstrate that Jesus is the Messiah—finding the name of Jesus “encoded” in the Old Testament, especially in the messianic prophecies. In theater two, Orthodox Jews of the Aish Ha-torah organization conduct popular Discovery Seminars in which a prominent component is the codes—used in this case to demonstrate the inspiration of the Torah. The third theater contains the naysayers—Jewish and Christian writers who point to flaws in the “Yeshua codes” or flaws in all Bible codes. These include Australian mathematician and computer researcher Brendan McKay, who finds problems with the whole affair from the ground up.
But nothing has been hot property like Michael Drosnin’s best-selling book The Bible Code. Published with a blitz of media fanfare, this highly promoted volume may even become a major motion picture, now that Warner Brothers has bought the rights. Yet few people, whether they be proponents of the Bible codes or hard-nosed secular reporters, have embraced Drosnin’s volume with much enthusiasm.
First, the book itself. Drosnin, himself Jewish and a self-acknowledged atheist, begins with the 1994 work of three Israeli researchers who claim to have discovered patterns in the text of the Torah which, they say, could not have occurred by chance. The validity of their findings has been called into question, and despite a wave of popular and even scholarly acceptance, their research has yet to be properly verified. Some who accept the validity of the codes have taken them as evidence of biblical inspiration or the existence of God. But Drosnin goes much further than anyone to date, including the original researchers. He claims that the codes are predictions of world events. He assures us that he was a non-believer in the codes until he discovered encoded in the Bible—a year before it happened—a prediction of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin. He points to Deuteronomy 4:42, which refers to the cities of refuge. He tells us of his attempt in vain to warn the Prime Minister.
For Drosnin, the Bible codes are a warning of things to come. Or maybe not. The book is replete with problems, not least of which is the fact that the author can’t decide what the codes really are. Sometimes he says they are a warning of what will be. Elsewhere, he wants us to know that the codes portray things that might come to pass. For instance, he calls the codes warnings that “tell the future” (p. 63). A few paragraphs later we find Drosnin informing Shimon Peres that the codes are warnings but not predictions—only probabilities that we can change. Then he goes on to say that they are both predictions and warnings (p. 72). In another place he tells us that the codes reveal two possible futures (pp. 102-103), yet elsewhere he claims that they show us all possible futures that could ever be (pp. 42-45, 164-165). At the very end of his book, all bets are off as to what Drosnin means. “Is the Bible Code merely giving a scientific gloss to millennium fever, or is it warning us, perhaps just in time, of a very real danger? There is no way to know. The Code may be neither ‘right’ nor ‘wrong.’ It probably tells us what might happen, not what will happen” (p. 181). There we have it. The codes probably speak of probabilities…maybe.
Yet the biggest problem with Drosnin’s book isn’t in his see-sawing. Nor is it a matter of whether the codes demonstrate the existence of God or even whether the codes really exist. These are all important questions that could render Drosnin’s whole enterprise suspect in a second. (For a response to those questions, see the Spring 1997 edition of this publication.) A more significant problem is Drosnin’s underlying approach to the Bible. He makes the disturbing statement, “Now it [the Bible] can be read as it was always intended to be read” (p. 25). According to Drosnin, the real message of the Bible is not found in the plain meaning of the text. The Bible is not here to tell us about ethics or morals or love or God. No matter that the “unencoded” text has important things to say about justice, righteousness, sin and other weighty matters. No, the true message according to Drosnin is found in the codes, which serve two purposes: they “announce the existence of the encoder” and they “sound a warning” (p. 51).
Drosnin has demonstrated that he is confused when it comes to the second purpose, whether the codes sound a warning, a prediction or one of several possible futures. What then of the first purpose, to tell us of the existence of the “encoder”? As Drosnin, a non-believer, tells it (pp. 94-99), the encoder is a non-human intelligence that emanates from an extraterrestrial mind. The miracles of the Bible are the result of advanced technology; the tablets containing the ten commandments (Exodus 32:16) were made by computer.
And how does Drosnin know this? He alleges that in the biblical passages describing the ark of the covenant, a “hidden message” is found which says “computer.” The Bible is “an interactive data base,” a “computer program” that reveals “the hidden truth” about the past and future. No matter that the text says something different. The text exists in Drosnin’s mind only as a device to help us understand what the codes are saying.
Such a procedure really relies on the subjectivity of the interpreter, on what he or she wants or hopes or is clever enough to see. It’s the exegetical equivalent of the Rorschach test. In the movie Batman Forever, Bruce Wayne notices a framed picture of a bat in the home of psychiatrist Chase Meridian.…
“You have a thing for bats?” he asks. Dr. Meridian follows his gaze. “That’s a Rorschach, Mr. Wayne,” she replies. “People see what they want to.” It turns out that the bat picture is merely an ink blot. She continues, “I think the question would be, do you have a thing for bats?”
It’s a question we could ask of Drosnin, by merely substituting computers for bats. After all, why should the word “computer”—dubiously assuming that it really is encoded and not just the result of Drosnin’s creativity—indicate that the tablets were computer-generated or that computers lie behind the miracles of the Exodus? Maybe it just indicates that someday the Bible would be available on computer. Or—ahem—that computers would one day be used to mishandle the Bible. Anyone’s guess could be as good or as bad as Drosnin’s.
Responses to The Bible Code have been, no pun intended, predictably underwhelming. On the Jewish side, The Bible Review of August 1997 carried an article by Southern Methodist University professor Ronald Hendel. Among the problems he finds with Drosnin’s work is that the author mistranslates the Hebrew of the Bible on many occasions. In addition, Drosnin assumes that the Hebrew text he is using is the very same as the original Hebrew version. Problem: we do not possess the original Hebrew. The manuscripts that we do have show differences in the number of letters, in spelling variations, and in other ways. Code calculations that rely on precise distances between letters are meaningless when we don’t know that our current Bible texts are identical to the original.1 The same publication ran a second article by Orthodox rabbi and Harvard mathematics professor Shlomo Sternberg. Sternberg complains that the kinds of “codes” to which Drosnin refers can be found in any long text. Then, echoing the remarks of Hendel, he notes that Drosnin depends on a specific edition of the Hebrew text and points out one howler of Drosnin’s: “All Bibles in the original Hebrew language that now exist are the same letter for letter” (p. 194). Perhaps most telling of all, Sternberg points out that the use of codes to foretell future events violates the prohibition of augury in Deuteronomy chapters 9 through 13. But Drosnin doesn’t show much concern for the obvious meaning of the Bible, so that criticism undoubtedly will not bother him.
Hard words come from the Christian side as well. New Man magazine entitled their review, “Dick Tracy Theology.” “If that was God’s intention, why then did He encode his messages in such a way that only modern computers could decipher them? What about all the tragic—and supposedly encoded—events of the past: the Holocaust, Kennedy’s assassination, the Kobe earthquake? Or the encoded events that seem trivial by comparison: the writing of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Hamlet, the Wright brothers’ first flight, Watergate?” The review reminds us that Jesus said, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” The proof of the pudding is in the eating. After all, Drosnin himself firmly believes in the codes but remains an atheist. His notion of a great encoder is not the personal God of the Bible but a cosmic intelligence who is good but otherwise unknown. This entity is a kind of living “Don’t Walk” sign that both warns us of possible futures and assures us that—knowing one, two, or all possible futures—we are, after all, the masters of our own fate and the captains of our souls. The encoder’s great purpose, it seems, is to save us from ourselves by allowing us to save ourselves—as Drosnin explicitly affirms on page 179.
TIME magazine asked the question of Drosnin’s conclusions, “Should we fear?” Evidently not the possible futures that Drosnin finds throughout the Bible. What we would do better to fear is that the Bible will be viewed as something other than what it was meant to be, that people will ignore what it does say while looking feverishly for what it doesn’t say. About that possible future, Drosnin and his encoder appear strangely silent.
A Drosnin Bibliography
“Back to the Future? Does ‘Bible Code’ Offer New Clues to Coming Events?” Christian Research Report. Sept./Oct. 1997, pp. 1,3.
“The Bible Code: Cracked and Cracking.” Bible Review. August 1997, pp. 22-25. Includes “The Secret Code Hoax” by Ronald S. Hendel and “Snake Oil for Sale” by Shlomo Sternberg.
Cohen, Debra Nussbaum. “‘Bible Code’ Book Creates Stir—And Elicits Criticism.” Jewish Weekly News Digest. June 6, 1997, p. 4.
Holt, Patricia. “Cracking the Code in the Bible.” San Francisco Chronicle. June 4, 1997.
Horovitz, David. “Busting the Bible Code Breakers.” The Jerusalem Report. September 4, 1997, pp. 14-16,18,20-21. Includes critique of the original codes research.
Jones, Simon. “The Bible Code” [review]. Christianity [U.K. publication]. August 1997.
Liparulo, Robert. “Dick Tracy Theology” [review]. New Man. September 1997, pp. 91-92.
Siegel, Judy. “‘Torah Codes’ Authors Pan Book.” The Jerusalem Post. June 14, 1997.
Van Biema, David. “Deciphering God’s Plan.” TIME. June 9, 1997.
Walker, Ken. “Christians Reject Bible Code Theory.” Charisma. December 1997, pp. 18-19.
“Warner Bros. Acquires Film Rights to The Bible Code, A New Non-Fiction Work by Michael Drosnin” [press release]. May 29, 1997.
“Mathematic ian Critical of ‘Bible Code’ Bestseller.” CNN Interactive.
McKay, Brendan. “Assassinations Foretold in Moby Dick!” [satire].
“McKay, Brendan. The Internet Diary of the Man Who Cracked the ‘Bible Code'”. Yahoo Internet Life.
The debate continues. As we went to press, we received word of yet another forthcoming book by Jewish author Jeffrey Satinover entitled, Cracking the Bible Code: The Real Story of the Stunning Discovery of Hidden Knowledge in the First Five Books of Moses. Stay tuned for our response.
1. Because of errors made by scribes and different spellings practices at different times, we possess a variety of texts of the Hebrew Bible. These differences are largely immaterial to the content and teaching of the Scripture.