Rich Milne is a former research associate with Probe Ministries. He has a B.A. from the University of California, Berkeley, and a Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary. Rich works in the area of the philosophy and history of science, focusing in particular on the origin of the universe and the origin of life, and the history and philosophy of art. He and his wife, Becky, are currently on staff with East-West Ministries in Dallas, Texas.
There is no way to ignore the clear fact that a computerized code in the Bible . . . accurately predicted the Gulf War, the collision of a comet with Jupiter, and the assassination of [Israeli Prime Minister] Rabin, also seems to state that the Apocalypse starts now, that within a decade, we may face the real Armageddon, a nuclear World War.(1)So ends Michael Drosnin's best-seller The Bible Code. On the New York Times bestseller list for months, the book has created a small industry of people selling books about secret codes, and a huge audience of people reading about and discussing codes. And what are these "codes" that are so fascinating and how does the Bible fit into all of this? Those are just a few of the questions we will address in this essay as we try to reach some balanced conclusions about a very controversial topic.
People have written codes since at least 400 B.C., and Jewish scholars have looked for codes in the text of the Old Testament for approximately a thousand years. Gematria, the discipline of changing portions of text into numbers to look for a deeper meaning, has been part of Jewish Cabalistic tradition since at least the 13th century. But it is only in the last twenty years that computers have extended the range of text searches to almost unimaginable lengths.
At the heart of the current controversy is a scientific paper by three Israeli mathematicians with the helpful title of: "Equidistant Letter Sequences in the Book of Genesis." A quite technical paper, it was published in Statistical Science in 1994.(2) As is typical in scientific publications, it was peer reviewed. In fact, three other qualified statisticians read the paper, and while confounded by the results, each agreed that the mathematics and data used seemed legitimate. So what did Doron Witztum, Eliyahu Rips, and Yoav Rosenberg write that has caused so much excitement?
In the 1980s Eliyahu Rips, an Orthodox Jew and well-known Israeli mathematician, came across the writings of Rabbi Michael Weismandel. The book is so rare that Rips found only one copy, at the National Library in Israel. Rabbi Weismandel discovered that by starting with the first Hebrew letter "T" in the book of Genesis and counting forward 49 letters to find an "O" as the 50th letter, and then another 49 letters to an "R," another 49 letters to an "A," and finally another 49 letters to an "H," the word TORAH was spelled out. "Torah" is the Hebrew name for the books Moses wrote. This same pattern happens in the book of Exodus. But in Numbers and Deuteronomy one must count backwards beginning at either the first or fifth verse. But why 50?(3)
In Jewish rabbinic tradition, most numbers are symbolic. For example, 50 is the year of Jubilee, the year that all land goes back to its original owner, when all debts are canceled, when the land rests for the whole year. It is also said that there are fifty gates of wisdom in the Torah.
Rabbi Weismandel is reputed to have found many patterns like this in the Torah as he laboriously counted by hand again and again in the most holy of all Jewish books. Rips was fascinated by these patterns and wondered what a computer could do to find more patterns.
Now, let's see what Eli Rips discovered as he looked at the text with a computer.
What Rips uncovered was that if he used Rabbi Weismandel's idea of counting off equal intervals between letters, he could find many words in the Hebrew text. The technical name for this method is quite a mouthful: Equidistant Letter Sequences, or ELS. A computer program finds the first letter of a word, and then begins counting until it finds the next letter of the word. This becomes the "skip code." Then, using that skip code, it counts to see if the third letter of the word is found at that same interval. So it would start by skipping every other letter, then every two letters, then every three letters until it finds a "skip" that spells out the word. Thus, as mentioned earlier, the Hebrew word for the first five books of the Bible, "Torah," is spelled out with an ELS of 50 in the book of Genesis.
This might be the answer to an interesting trivia question, but why is The Bible Code selling thousands of copies? That's because Michael Drosnin has made some astounding claims about the ELS codes: that one code anticipated, weeks in advance, the exact day the Gulf War would start; that an another code predicted Yitzhak Rabin's assassination by a man named Amir: that a code anticipated, withing two years of the actual events, earthquakes in Japan; and that in the year 2000 or 2006 an atomic holocaust, beginning in Israel, is likely. This is great millennial material!
Drosnin's book is based on a paper published in Statistical Science in 1994 by Witztum, Rips, and Rosenberg. With great statistical rigor, the authors show that the 78,064 Hebrew letters of the Book of Genesis, when set out with no spaces or punctuation, can be searched by a computer for specific words spelled out by ELS codes. Specifically, they set out to see if they could find the names of 32 famous rabbis in Genesis. Not only did they find ELS codes that spelled out all 32 rabbis, but near their names were coded their birth dates or death dates, or sometimes both. How could any author have known these details 2000 years before these men lived?
This is amazing enough. The odds are said to be one in ten million! But in his book, Drosnin claims the same kind of codes revealed that Prime Minister Rabin would be assassinated a year before it happened. Drosnin even got a letter delivered through a friend to Rabin, but it was ignored. He also shows dozens of other historic events and how details about them are encoded all around where an ELS code finds the main name or event.
As you might guess, the response to the book has been mixed--to say the least. Most people say, "How could a three-thousand-year-old book possibly say anything about the future?" Others see this as proof that the Bible is the divinely inspired word of God. And some are just interested but very skeptical.
Next, we'll look at the reaction to The Bible Code and why some are so critical.
Witztum, Rips, and Rosenberg, while maintaining the accuracy of their original paper, say that Drosnin's attempts to state what may happen in the future are "futile," and that Drosnin's book "employs no scientific methodology."(4) Witztum categorically states "predicting the future is impossible." Seems like a strange statement from a man who claims in his own paper that the ELS codes found the names, birth dates, death dates, and cities of residence of 32 rabbis thousands of years before any of them had been born. What the original authors of the Statistical Science paper claim is that the ELS codes they have discovered can only give information about what one has a place or name for already. In this view, codes can tell us about death camps in Germany because we know what to look for. Witxtum uses this to demonstrate ELS codes at work.
What can we find out about Auschwitz? First, we must have mathematical tools to measure whether a specific ELS and the words found near it are statistically significant. This is provided by the calculations laid out in the 1994 paper, Statistical Science. Then one must have a prepared list of words one is looking for.
So, Witztum begins with the words "of Auschwitz" and a list of all of the subcamps of this World War II death camp. Once an ELS for Auschwitz is found, Witztum claims, "We find something very unexpected that [the names of all the subcamps] consistently appear in the area of the words 'of Auschwitz.'" This, he says, is all that Bible codes can do. Codes cannot predict the future.(5)
But when Genesis was written, all 32 rabbis found in Genesis were still far in the future. The earliest rabbi found lived in the eighth century A.D. This is nearly 2,000 years after Moses. Isn't that predicting the future, at least from the author's point of view?
Michael Drosnin himself has been ambivalent about what the codes tell us. His book says, "I found the Bible code's prediction of [Rabin's] assassination myself. . . . When he was killed, as predicted, where predicted, my first thought was, 'Oh my God, it's real'"(6) (emphasis mine). But in a CNN interview he said, "I don't think the code makes predictions. I think it might tell us about possible futures."(7) Either Drosnin has changed his mind, or he is disingenuous in his book.
Harold Gans, a retired senior mathematician for the U.S. Department of Defense, and an expert at making and breaking codes, was one of the first mathematicians to look at the Bible codes. Highly skeptical at first, he duplicated their experiment, finding the same information. Still suspicious, Gans made up his own test: find the rabbis' cities of birth and death. Again the information appeared in close connection with their ELS codes. His conclusion: "The information was deliberately placed in the Bible by its author. . . . Logic would dictate that the author could not be human, could not be bound by the limits of time. It would be natural to conclude that the author is a divine being."(8)
Is there finally "proof" that the Bible was written by a divine being? That is our next subject.
On the other hand, a Jewish group called Aish HeTorah has developed a Discovery Seminar that has been given to nearly 70,000 people in the last ten years. To help attendees develop an "appreciation of the relevance and value of Torah and Judaism in their lives," roughly 20% of the Discovery Seminar features the work of Witztum, Rips, and Rosenberg. Harold Gans, the Defense Department code specialist mentioned earlier, is an advisor for this group, so compelling has this evidence become for him.(10)
Christians, too, have started looking for ELS codes, claiming to find the Hebrew for Jesus in all sorts of interesting passages about the coming Messiah. Two books by Christians are already out, and surely more will follow. So is this finally "the most important evidence that proves to this generation that the Bible is truly inspired by God"(11) as one Christian writer says?
Brendan McKay is a man with a sense of humor. He also has a mission: to show that even the mathematical uses of ELS codes prove nothing. McKay is an Australian mathematician who has published the first statistical critique of the WRR paper. But at his Web site he has accumulated a most interesting series of what he calls "pictures," much like the diagrams Drosnin published in The Bible Code. In these "pictures" he does exactly what Drosnin does: he looks for a word by ELS codes, and then sees what other words occur nearby. He has also taken up Drosnin's challenge in Newsweek magazine: "When my critics find a message about the assassination of a prime minister encrypted in Moby Dick, I'll believe them."(12)
Undoubtably Drosnin felt he had nothing to fear: hadn't Rips and his colleagues tried to find information in the Hebrew version of War and Peace and found nothing? But published on McKay's web page are the diagrams from Moby Dick of predictions of the death of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India, Lebanese President Moawad, Marxist Leon Trotsky, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, John Kennedy, and even Princess Diana. For Lady Diana, not only is her boyfriend Dodi spelled out across her name, but even the name of their chauffeur, Henri Paul is there! And more are added regularly. But by far the most ironic "discovery" concerns the death of Drosnin himself. The place, method, and motive for his death are all spelled out.(13)
McKay's technical paper claims to duplicate the WRR paper but finds the 32 rabbis encoded in the Hebrew of Tolstoy's War and Peace.(14) McKay and his co-author use the same statistical methods, and have Jewish authorities to back their spellings for the rabbis names, just as WRR had. So what does this tell us? At this point, no one knows for certain.
Finally, let's consider how Christians might want to think about this whole controversy.
We know very little about how sequences of letters behave when not written by an author, but rather put together by a program within a computer. Witztum, Rips, and Rosenberg make certain assumptions about what would and would not be a significantly close connection between two sets of words to rule out random placement. But these are, in the end, arbitrary. What McKay and Dror Bar-Natan have done in their own paper, "Equidistant Letter Sequences in Tolstoy's War and Peace," is demonstrate to their satisfaction that whatever phenomena occurs in the Hebrew text of Genesis can also be found in the Hebrew text of War and Peace.(15)
The scholarly arguing about method and mathematics is still going on, but what seems to be emerging is the fact that almost any "message" can be found if a sufficiently long text is used. If this is true, then we have learned something new about how humans who can program computers can find non-random messages in random texts, but we have not shown that a divine intelligence wrote the Bible.
An important question to ask ourselves is, "Why are we so fascinated by codes and mysterious messages in a book as clear as the Bible?" Do we not trust that God has given us all we need to know, both for ourselves and to evangelize the world, in the text that all of us can read? Perhaps for His own pleasure, God has indeed hidden certain things in the text of the Bible, but surely they are not the main message. God has given us the Bible so that we might know Him and make Him known. ELS codes in the Bible do not seem to do much more than pique curiosity.
Our responsibility is to read the text for what it says, not for what may be hidden under the surface. We know from the Book of Revelation that some great cataclysm is coming, and as it draws nearer, we are warned not to be misled. Jesus vividly portrayed how obvious His return would be: "Just as the lightning comes from the east and flashes even to the west, so shall the coming of the Son of Man be."(16) So as you watch the news and the millennium approaches, keep your "baloney detectors" alert!
Will Bible codes become an important tool in the apologetic toolkit of evangelical Christians? We should be very cautious when we do not use God's Word as He wrote it. Merely studying the Bible codes will not necessarily result in Christian faith. For example, Michael Drosnin, after years of research for his book, The Bible Code, was still an athiest: "I had proof there was a code, but not proof there was a God. . . . I don't believe in God. . . . The message of the Bible code is that we can save ourselves."(17) If that is all that Drosnin came to believe after working with these codes for five years, we are probably better off having people read the Bible and encountering the real God through His own words. One needs no codes to read and understand John 3:16.
1. Michael Drosnin, The Bible Code (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997), 179.
2. Doron Witztum, Eliyahu Rips, and Yoav Rosenberg, "Equidistant Letter Sequences in the Book of Genesis," Statistical Science, 1994, vol. 9, no. 3, 429-438.
3. Drosnin, 20-21.
7.Interview on CNN www page, "Meet Michael Drosnin the Author, The Bible Code.'"
8.Harold Gans, "Bible Codes," http://www.discoveryseminar.org/bc.html
9. Drosnin, 79.
10. Aish HaToreh, "Discovery" web page.
11. Yocov Rembsel, Yeshua (Toronto, Ontario: Frontier Research Publications, 1996), vi.
12. Newsweek, 9 June 1997.
14. "Equidistant Letter Sequences in Tolstoy's War and Peace," firstname.lastname@example.org
16. Matthew 24:27.
17. Drosnin, 103, 179.
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