Harum-Scarum: Decoding the Bible Code
A review of Michael Drosnin’s The Bible Code.
In 1859 John Taylor published a book entitled The Great Pyramid, in which he discovered that if you divide the height of the pyramid into twice the side of its base, you get a number close to Π. This, and other relationships he found to be deeply meaningful. Soon after, others began to turn up similar “discoveries”, such as that the base of the Great Pyramid divided by the width of a casing stone equals the number of days in the year, and that the height of the Great Pyramid multiplied by 109 approximately equals the distance from the Earth to the Sun.
Humans are pattern-seeking animals. At Skeptic magazine we routinely receive calls from people who see the Virgin Mary in the shadows of a tree, the face of Jesus in a partially burnt tortilla, Mother Teresa in a sweet roll, or a face on Mars. JFK lives in stone profile in Hawaii. Eagle Rock sports a giant winged boulder overlooking the city. Patterns are everywhere. But which patterns are meaningful and which are not?
Science, since it is conducted by humans, is a pattern-seeking system of thought. Naturalists find patterns in the fossil record — they used to see a pattern of creation, now they see a pattern of evolution. Nature has not changed, but the perceived pattern has. The principle purpose of science is to help us correctly identify true patterns, while weeding out false ones. This assumes — relativists and deconstructionists notwithstanding — that there really is a pattern to be found. But whether we have found the pattern is another story. So science is an exquisite blend of observation and theory, of finding patterns in nature and creating them in our minds. We will never know for certain if we have identified the pattern, but we can establish degrees of confidence.
The problem of correct pattern detection is complicated when the patterns are loaded with religious significance. Louis Farrakhan’s Million Man March speech was chock full of mystical numerology, for example, adding a “1” to the height of the Washington Monument (555 feet) yields “1555,” the alleged date of the first slave ship to America. Even scientists are not immune from finding religious patterns in nature. Physicist Frank Tipler believes physics proves the existence of God and our own immortality, and supports this belief with what he considers to be such meaningful relationships as the fact that the electrical force between a proton and an electron divided by the gravitational force between a proton and an electron approximately equals the age of the universe divided by the time for light to cross an atom. Is God a physicist?
No, says Michael Drosnin, author of The Bible Code — God is a cryptanalyst and computer programmer! It turns out the Bible, written 3,000 years ago, is actually an encrypted code book filled with meaningful portents of newsworthy events: Rabin’s assassination, and JFK’s and RFK’s too; Netanyahu’s election; comet Shoemaker-Levy’s collision with Jupiter; Watergate; the Oklahoma city bombing and Timothy McVeigh; the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs; an earthquake in California; and, of course, just in time for the soon-to-come millennium marketing madness, the end of the world in the year 2000.
Don’t bother dusting off your old King James’ Bible. You won’t find any of these revelations there. You need a Hebrew Bible, specifically, the Torah — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The Bible Code is based on the work of Eliyahu Rips, an Israeli mathematician and computer expert who, along with two other authors (Doron Witztum and Yoav Rosenberg), published an article in 1994 in the prestigious academic journal Statistical Science. It is a peer-reviewed journal, but the editors made it clear they were publishing it because it was an interesting statistical phenomenon and “a challenging puzzle,” not because they endorsed it.
Rips’ original paper was just based on Genesis. But since then he has eliminated the spaces between all the words in the entire Torah, converting it into one continuous strand of 304,805 letters (which Drosnin explains is how the Torah was originally dictated to Moses by God). With this strand Rips utilized an Equidistant Letter Sequencing (ELS) program, where you start with the first letter of Genesis and then enter a “skip code” program by taking every nth letter, where n equals whatever number you wish — every 7th letter, 17th letter, 3,007th letter, or whatever it takes to find meaningful patterns. If there are none, you begin with the second letter, or the third, altering the skip n until a pattern emerges. It doesn’t take long before the computer finds it: “Hitler,” “Nazi,” “Kennedy,” “Dallas,” “Pearl Harbor.” How can this be?
As if with a knowing wink to say “don’t take this too seriously,” the press release accompanying the book gives us a clue: “Rips ExplAineD thaT eacH codE is a Case Of adDing Every fourth or twelfth or fiftieth letter to form a word.” The hidden message is revealed: “READ THE CODE.” But even this is deceptive since this is not what Drosnin and Rips have done. Since Hebrew is, for the most part, written without vowels, the vowels are added after the skip search program is run on the 304,805 letters. If it were English, for example, RBN could be Rabin, or Ruben, or Robin, or Rubin, or Rabon. And even though Hebrew is read from right to left, the Bible decoders do not restrict themselves to such a limited search, adding left to right, up to down, down to up, and diagonally in any direction. Herein lies another serious problem. The diagonally-found words depend on the margins of the page of type. Change the margins, and the diagonal word disappears. Finally, if you have a name or word in mind ahead of time you just search to find it. Or you can look at the sequence of letters to find a meaningful name or word. Seek and ye shall find.
Using just the alphabet with no vowels, and an ELS n = 3 skip search, for example, I came up with the following: BCDFGHJKLMNPQRSTVWXZ — FKPTZ — “FAKE PUT OZ”
Perhaps we should do an ELS search of Frank Baum’s Oz books for their hidden messages. In just such a process an Australian math professor, Brendan McKay, found “Hear the law of the sea” in the U.N.’s Convention on the Law of the Sea. He also found 59 words related to Hanukkah in the Hebrew translation of War and Peace, including “miracle of lights” and “Maccabees.” The odds against all 59, he calculated, are more than a quadrillion to 1. Are we to believe that Tolstoy’s hand was directed by God?
In the book, The Signature of God, which predates The Bible Code by two years, authors Grant Jeffrey and Yacov Rambsel report that they found the phrase “Yeshua is my Name” (“Jesus is my Name”) with an ELS n = 20 in Isaiah 53:10, which some interpret as the prophecy of Jesus’ coming. But skeptics have found that the phrase “Muhammad is my name” also occurs 21 times, and “Koresh is my name” appears no less than 43 times! Should we have listened to David Koresh’s ramblings more closely?
There are additional problems. Some biblical scholars believe that the Torah was authored by more than one individual, thus accounting for the different styles, the two different creation stories in Genesis, and other inconsistencies, such as the fact that Moses (the alleged author) describes his own death! There may have even been an “editor” who coalesced multiple writings into one set of books. This contradicts the belief that the Torah was authored by Moses inspired by God. Without this foundation, the Bible as an encrypted code of prophecies falls apart. And what are we losing in the translation from Hebrew into English? The phrase “assassin that will assassinate” near Rabin’s name, one scholar commented, could also be translated as “murderer who murders” and be interpreted as an accusation against Rabin for his political actions against the Palestinians.
Despite the fact that The Bible Code is being touted as a near miracle, the belief that the Torah contains encrypted codes goes back to the medieval practice of the Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism. Kabbalists believed that there were 84 different coding schemes, one of which was an ELS n = 50 to find “Torah” in both Genesis and Exodus. The Bible Code is just the latest in a long line of mystical traditions. Nevertheless, it is of great sociological interest that this book would strike such a chord now (full page reviews in Time and Newsweek, author appearances on Oprah and Charlie Rose, Warner Bros. acquired the film rights to the book), as we rapidly approach the millennium. Doom and gloom books about assassinations, earthquakes, and war sell well in times such as these. Indeed, the back cover of The Bible Code retells Drosnin’s incredible claim that he tried to warn Rabin a year before his assassination. Let’s consider the implications: say Rabin took the warning seriously and changed his schedule and was not assassinated. Would this mean that humans are more powerful than God, or that some statistician can rerun the universe to produce a different outcome? Does this mean that biblical prophecies are self-fulfilling prophecies, or that they are not prophecies at all, but warnings?
This cuts to the core of one of the fundamental problems in all theology, called the problem of free will. If God is all powerful and all knowing, how can humans make free choices, and thus be rewarded or punished? If humans have free will, does this mean God is limited? No one has ever solved this paradox. Drosnin tries through a curious mix of pop-science, pseudoscience, and hand-waving. In his final chapter — “The Final Days” — Drosnin says The Bible code predicts that the end of the world will occur in 2000, or 2006, or it will be delayed until a later date, or it might not happen at all. Some prediction. He gets around this problem by applying chaos theory, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and Feynman’s quantum physics: “there isn’t just one real future, there are many possible futures.” In fact, he concludes, “the Bible code revealed each of them.” Apparently he is unaware of the “Many-Worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics. It’s just as well. None of this works. Remarkably, after 178 pages of breathtaking revelations abut biblical prophecies, Drosnin confesses that the Bible doesn’t actually predict anything: “It is not a promise of divine salvation. It is not a threat of inevitable doom. It is just information.” Einstein said “God does not play dice.” Does God play computer games? This is all good fun if you don’t take it seriously.
Unfortunately many are taking it seriously. The Aish HaTorah’s Discovery Seminar uses the ELS code to reinvigorate the belief of Jews who have strayed from the faith, as if to say, “see, modern science supports what we have been saying all along — there really is something unique and special about the Bible.” Is there?
There is. The Bible is one of the greatest works of literature in the history of Western thought. It is a book of myth and meaning, poetry and prose, moral homilies and ethical dilemmas. Few works have been so influential to so many people over so many millennia. In an epilogue Drosnin admits “I’m not religious. I don’t even believe in God.” It shows. Drosnin has taken a beautiful book of literature and ruined it by trying to turn it into a book of science. Even Rips has cut the tether in a public statement: “I do not support Mr. Drosnin’s work on the codes, or the conclusions he derives. I did witness in 1994 Mr. Drosnin ‘predict’ the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin. For me, it was a catalyst to ask whether we can, from a scientific point of view, attempt to use the codes to predict future events. After much thought, my categorical answer is no.” QED, from the man who started all the fuss.
Science and religion are separate spheres of knowledge. Science is a process of inquiry aimed at building a testable body of knowledge constantly open to rejection or confirmation; its “truths” are provisional, fluid, and changing. Religion is the affirmation of a set of beliefs aimed at providing morals and meaning; its Truths are final, confirmed by God. As the prophet Micah (6:8) told his people, the way to God is not through material sacrifice or secular knowledge, “but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”
Because we live in the Age of Science and no longer the Age of Faith, temptations abound to use the former to bolster the latter. Such attempts always fail for the fundamental reason that religion ultimately depends on faith. The whole point of faith, in fact, is to believe regardless of the evidence, which is the very antithesis of science. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). “We walk by faith, not by sight” (II Corinthians 5:7). “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed” (John 20:29). O, ye of little faith. Why do you need a computer code? You don’t. The Bible Code is not only an insult to science; to those who are deeply religious, it is also an insult to God.
(Touchstone, 1998, ISBN 0684849739)
This review was originally published in the Los Angeles Times.