The full page ad in The New York Times called it the runaway international bestseller.” Michael Drosnin’s new volume, The Bible Code, is hot. “Everyone is talking about The Bible Code,” says the promotional literature. “For three thousand years, a code in the Bible has remained hidden. Now it has been unlocked by computer—and it may reveal our future.”
This 1997 release has been the subject of talk shows, covered in the major news magazines and on the Internet. Why?
For many, it blends computers, entertainment, mystery, and spirituality—a heady mixture. For Jewish readers in particular, there is the added dimension of Drosnin’s Jewish identity, as well as references to discoveries by Jewish computer scientists, and revelations on Israeli prime ministers, including assassination predictions.
If Drosnin’s theories are correct, then the true author of the Bible and his message have been misunderstood from Mount Sinai on. According to Drosnin, it is possible today (thanks to the aid of computer analysis) to recognize that the author of the Bible was not the personal and holy God of Israel that we thought he was, and that the Bible message had little to do with ethics, morality, sin, law or love.
Rather, Drosnin proposes, the Bible was an elaborately coded construction put together by an extraterrestrial super-intelligence.
He goes on to explain that the miracles of the Bible were not divine intervention but the outworking of advanced extraterrestrial technology. Moreover, the purpose of the encoded message was to “announce the existence of an Encoder” who was warning us about future disasters that could overtake the world so we could save ourselves from possible destruction.
This theory continues with the notion that previous generations of Bible readers had gotten it wrong. (Even some of the writers of the Bible must have gotten it wrong, for biblical writers frequently allude to and quote from earlier portions of the Bible.) Today, sophisticated computer number crunching has revealed the “true message” of the Bible for the first time in history. “Now the Bible can be read as it was intended to be read,” Drosnin announces.
But who really discovered the system of Torah Codes and how does it work?
Chessboard Torah Reading In 1994 the esteemed scientific journal Statistical Science published the results of an elaborate computer experiment on the Hebrew text of the Book of Genesis, which was conducted by three Israeli researchers1, two of whom were Orthodox Jews. A few Jewish writers from previous generations, working without the aid of modern computers, had hinted at the existence of certain unusual patterns in the text of the Scriptures. Now by utilizing modern technology, the Israeli team claimed to have unearthed a remarkable series of patterns that could not have been the result of mere chance.
They worked like this. Pick a letter in the Hebrew Bible—for example, the letter tav. Now jump over a certain number of letters, let’s say seven, and land on the eighth letter—or skip ten letters and land on the eleventh. The effect is similar to that of moving pieces across a chessboard, skipping a certain number of squares until you place your piece. In this case the procedure was a little more involved. For instance, if you skip seven letters and land on the eighth one, then continue to skip seven letters and land on the eighth again and again throughout the text, according to a series of ground rules that have been established at the outset, you might discover that all the eighth letters spell out the word “Torah” or all the forty-ninth letters divulge a sentence like “The dictator will arrive.”
The phenomenon is called “equidistant letter sequences” or ELS. The three Israeli researchers claimed that this “chessboard” approach to skipping through the text of Genesis produced some meaningful patterns. They claimed this method revealed the names of thirty-one well-known Jewish sages encoded in the text of Genesis in close proximity to their dates of birth or death, which were also said to be encoded. The results of their findings were seized upon by some as proof of the existence of both the codes and God.
After all, they reasoned, if Statistical Science was “peer-reviewed,” then anything it published must be beyond argument. And if mere chance could not account for the codes, then they must have been put in the Bible as the result of deliberate intent. And if the probability showed that no human being could possibly have engineered these codes, then the Creator of the Universe must have been the author—or at least the author of the Torah, for they reasoned that the same results did not appear to occur outside of the five books of Moses.
The Orthodox Jewish anti-missionary group Aish Ha-Torah began incorporating the “codes research” into their seminars, even winning over some skeptics with the apparently irrefutable proof of the existence of codes in the Bible. The original researchers also announced their conclusion that the codes demonstrated divine authorship of the Scriptures. At the same time, non-Jewish writers began to publish books that also drew on the results of the Israeli research, and they too concluded that the codes verified the existence of a supreme being. One author went so far as to call the codes the “signature of God,” proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that God was real.
Are the Codes Reliable? How Can We Know?
Some who believed in God all along wondered why it would have taken the advent of the modern computer age to prove God’s existence. Others were not so sure that they had not been subjected to some kind of sleight-of-hand. Still others noted that contrary to correct scientific procedure, the original experiment had not been properly analyzed, reduplicated or verified, and that “peer-reviewed” was not the same as “proven.” Even the former editor of Statistical Science was quoted as saying, “We hope that the material in them is correct, but we also try to publish pieces that are amusing to a wide variety of statisticians.”2
The debate in print and on the internet focused on three things: One, were the codes real or not? Two, if they were real, what did that mean? And three, was the original Israeli experiment valid or not?
It wasn’t until the publication of Michael Drosnin’s book that the whole codes question came to the attention of the greater public, for Drosnin claimed for the codes something that no one had ever claimed before—namely, that they were a prediction or a warning of future calamity. Suddenly the study of the codes was no mere academic or statistical exercise, nor even one argument for God’s existence to be placed alongside of others—it became a matter of life and death for all humanity, or at the very least a matter of great curiosity.
Bible Code Backlash With the broader exposure came a closer look at the original 1994 research. The Jerusalem Report published a highly critical article3 as did The Jerusalem Post.4 The non-sectarian magazine, Bible Review, published two pieces5 by Jewish scholars refuting both Drosnin’s work in particular and the codes research in general.
Drosnin was criticized for outrageous blunders in translating Hebrew, such as when he rendered accidental manslaughter as an assassination. He was also called to task for failing to consider that the original Hebrew manuscripts do not exist. What we do have are various manuscripts that, while substantially the same in content, vary in the way words are spelled, including the number of letters—all highly important to research that relies on the exact distances between letters.
And then there were those things for which he wasn’t criticized but should have been. Drosnin alleged that in the biblical passages describing the ark of the covenant, a “hidden message” is found which says “computer.” From this “discovery” Drosnin concluded that the Ten Commandments were prepared on computer and that the Bible is “an interactive data base,” a “computer program” that reveals “the hidden truth” about the past and future.
Such a procedure depends on one thing only—what the reader wants or hopes or is creative enough to see. It’s as though the Bible were one big Rorschach test and Drosnin is obsessed with an ink blot that he’s interpreted as “computer.” Even if the word “computer” really is encoded and not just the result of Drosnin’s imagination, why should that indicate that the Ten Commandments 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? It’s anyone’s conjecture.
And then there is Drosnin’s see-sawing over what the codes are in the first place. 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. How could Drosnin come to his conclusions? More insight can be found through the ancient sages of Jewish mysticism.
Kabbalah Doesn’t Compute Jewish mysticism, or Kabbalah, while having its origins in medieval times, is now considered cool and there are centers around the world to study it. It has both serious students and dabblers. There are rabbis who teach it and celebrities who endorse it. There are kabbalistic teachings on the nature of God, on reincarnation, on Torah and on the way God communicates to his creation. It’s these last teachings of the Kabbalah that undergird many of the conclusions coming from the codes movement and explain some of Drosnin’s more incredible statements about the Bible codes.
For example, Drosnin includes a quote from the 18th century sage, Vilna Gaon:
The rule is that all that was, is, and will be unto the end of time is included in the Torah, from the first word to the last word. And not merely in a general sense, but as to details of every species and each one individually, and details of details of everything that happened to him from the day of his birth until his end.6
It appears that the Kabbalah has fueled the search for Torah codes as well as the notion that Torah contains all that ever was and ever will be. One must conclude that understanding the Torah codes will provide the individual with the tools to understand the past as well as the future. Here we have something intriguing as a new millennium approaches, geared for the Unsolved Mysteries generation, a puzzle to be solved.
Some Plain Sense About Torah Those who have taken the Bible seriously since long before “The Codes Movement” offer a different perspective. Instead of looking for puzzles to solve, students of the Bible have relied on the “unencoded” version as a guide for life. They read it for its apparent meaning and have found it truthful and practical. They would say that it actually makes sense as plainly read.
Here’s the bottom line. Mystical Jewish teaching tells us that the Torah contains all that ever was, is, will be or could be. Some significant patterns in the Bible may have been discovered but they have yet to be properly verified. Putting these two suppositions together is somewhat akin to adding one chemical to another and producing an explosion. If the Torah contains everything, and that “everything” is hidden in a code only decipherable by computer, where does that leave all the generations before us? Was the Bible intended only for people of this technical age? Why were computer codes given thousands of years before computers existed? Further, if the codes include what “could be,” then does not the Bible also reveal many things that never will happen? In short, if you find everything, do you find nothing?
The unencoded Bible also differs from the “coded” Bible in what it tells us about God. The codes purport to give us the tools to “save ourselves.” The great Encoder is not someone that we can relate to or love or fear or worship or hate or pity. He or she or it resides completely in the background, able and willing only to communicate to us in elaborate code. It is nothing more than intelligent wallpaper, so to speak.
In contrast, the unencoded Bible gives us a glimpse of a personal God who created us, who loves us and is intensely interested in saving us. From Genesis all the way through the New Testament writings, we are confronted with a God who cares, who gives, and who expects much because he is holy.
The Bible Code doesn’t challenge us. It doesn’t tell us about the problems in the world and how, so often, they are the result of sin for which we need to take responsibility and repent. The Bible Code just promises us that if we crack a rather entertaining puzzle, we will be able to sort out some future possibilities.
The truth is that thousands of years ago the Bible presented two possible futures for people. “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, that you may live.”7 The plain, human-readable Bible contains predictions of its own. The Torah contained predictions of blessing for Israel or disaster for the nation depending on whether they obeyed or disobeyed God. The prophets predicted the rise and fall of pagan nations and the coming of the Messiah. They didn’t speak of an endless number of scenarios of the future. They didn’t seek to conceal the truth of their words from those who would read or hear their message.
If people do not read the Bible for what it plainly says, they’ll never discover these truths. They’ll never find out that over the past several millennia the Bible has taught people about ethics, morals, the love of God, the love of neighbor and many other weighty topics. The unencoded text of the Bible has been read as a document that promotes justice, righteousness and peace. And not incidentally, as one Orthodox Jewish critic pointed out, the unencoded text of the Bible specifically prohibits augury, which is the attempt to read the future.
The New York Times ad copy boasted that, “The world is reading The Bible Code.” However, the world has been reading and still is reading the Bible and will be reading the Bible long after The Bible Code becomes recycling material. The Bible, in all its unencoded glory, has stood the test of time. And it points us to a loving God who is both Creator and Redeemer.
Endnotes 1Doron Witztum, Eliyahu Rips and Yoav Rosenberg
2Horovitz, David, “Busting the Bible Code Breakers,” The Jerusalem Report. September 4, 1997, p.18, citing former Statistical Science editor Robert Kass
4“Torah Codes Authors Pan Book,” Jerusalem Post. Judy Siegel, June 14, 1997
5“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
6Vilna Gaon quoted by Eliyahu Rips in The Bible Code, p. 19, quoting from The Jewish Mind, translated by Abraham Rabinowitz (Hillel Press 1978) pp 33-34