The Bible: A Soothsayer's Stock-in-Trade?

The Bible Code by Michael Drosnin

(New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997, 264 pp., $25)

THE BIBLE CODE, an ambiguouslyenough worded title, appears at first glance to have close affinities with the mystery novel literary genre.

What is it? Who did it? Why did someone do it? These were questions that jumped immediately to mind just looking at the book's front dust jacket with its diagram of Hebrew letters highlighting the appearance of the name of Yitzhak Rabin (former Israeli prime minister) and the phrase “assassin that will assassinate.”

Michael Drosnin, a reporter who has worked for The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, brings to mind the exciting adventure story of a previous best-seller, The Sign and Seal: The Quest for the Lost Ark of the Covenant, another reporter's search for the Ark, which contained the original tablets of the Ten Commandments. Drosnin's book begins with one of the more spectacular revelations (Rabin's assassination) that he believes are encoded in the Hebrew Bible. The title's ambiguity is intentional. It concerns both the biblical text in which information may be encoded, and the name of a computer program ("The Bible Code") that decodes information found in the biblical text.

A mathematical sequencing formula in the Hebrew Bible was discovered by Dr. Eliyahu Rips, an expert in group theory and professor of mathematics at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Technically, Rips'experiment only applied his equidistant letter sequencing formula to the Book of Genesis. Using the standard Hebrew text of Codex Leningradis (circa 1008 A.D.) Rips entered the Torah (the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) as one continuous string of 304,805 consecutive letters without breaks between words. The computer program then searches the Hebrew text for certain specific identified names, words, or phrases according to a selected skip sequence, starting from a skip of one letter all the way to several thousand skips between letters.

The original experiment identified 32 names and 64 dates jumbled into a million different combinations, out of which the correct combinations were identified 99.9% of the time. The first 304,805 letters of Crime and Punishment were used as a control group in this experiment and had no statistically meaningful messages encoded in it.

Harold Gans, a U.S. code-breaker working for the National Security Agency, confirmed Rips's original results in an independently-written computer program using city names instead of prominent Jewish individuals. Robert Kass, editor of Statistical Science submitted the paper to three different scholars to triple check the mathematical methodology prior to accepting the paper for publication.

Chapter one, entitled “The Bible Code,” presents some interesting discoveries dealing with current events. For example, former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's name appears in Deuteronomy 2, 33–24, 16; “assassin who will assassinate” appears in Deuteronomy 4, 42; “Amir,” the name of Rabin's assassin, is found in Numbers 35, 11. The year in which Rabin was assassinated, 1995, is found encoded in Exodus 39, 34 crossing the phrase “Rabin assassination” seen in Exodus 36, 37-Leviticus 22, 5, and “Tel Aviv,” the city in which Rabin was murdered, which is seen in Exodus 33, 5-Leviticus 4, 9.

The date that the first Iraqi Scud missile was fired at Israel during the Gulf War (Jan. 18, 1991) is found encoded as “Fire on third Shevat” in Genesis 14, 2–12 with Saddam Hussein's last name seen in Genesis 14, 9–14. The phrase “Hussein picks a day” is seen in Genesis 14, 6–17.

The name of the comet to strike Jupiter, “Shoemaker-Levy, is found in Genesis 19, 38–38, 19.

“Hitler,” identified as Nazi and enemy, and evil man, and “slaughter” are found in Genesis 8, 17–21.

The second chapter, “Atomic Holocaust,” predicts the beginning of an atomic war in the Middle East sometime in 1995–96 in Genesis 49, 17 and Deuteronomy 28, 64, with the year appearing in Exodus 17:2. This “next war” is encoded in Genesis 36, 15, Numbers 12, 8 and its beginning after the death of the prime minister is seen in Genesis 25, 11.

Chapter three, “All His People to War,” deals with predictions concerning terrorism in Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's name and election are seen in Exodus 19, 12, Deuteronomy 4, 47, and Numbers 7, 83.

The fourth chapter, “The Sealed Book,” deals in part with the existence of “The Bible Code” in the Bible. The existence of Bible Code is seen encoded in Deuteronomy 12, 11–17, as does its seal before God (cf. Dt 12, 12). That the computer was necessary is seen in the appearance of “computer” in Daniel 12, 4–6.

Chapter five, “The Recent Past,” discloses the appearance of a number of historical events from the recent past encoded in the Bible. FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) appears in Genesis 40, 11, Deuteronomy 9, 1; his office as president is seen in Numbers 25, 18. “Atomic holocaust” appears in Numbers 29, 9 and Deuteronomy 8, 19. Japan is found in Numbers 29. 9. The year that Hiroshima was bombed, 1945, is found encoded in Deuteronomy 8, 19. “President Kennedy” is found in Genesis 34, 19–50, 4; “to die” is seen in Genesis 27, 46–31, 51. “Dallas,” the city where he was assassinated, appears in Genesis 10, 7–39, 4. His assassin's name, “Oswald,” appears in Numbers 34, 6-Deuteronomy 7, 11, along with the same phrase that predicts Rabin's assassination “assassin who will assassinate.”

Even the Oklahoma City bombing is encoded. “Oklahoma” is found in Genesis 29, 25–35, 5; “death,” which crosses the state's name is seen in Genesis 30, 20.

The final three chapters, “Armageddon,” “Apocalypse,” and “The Final Days,” deal with possible future disasters pointing to the world's end either by nuclear war or earthquake sometime early in the 21st century.

It should be kept in mind that the book is written in journalistic style by a professional reporter, not a trained theologian. Paragraphs are extremely short; dialogue is brief. It is written in a documentary, I-wasthere style. Information is reported, not analyzed. In good journalistic style, more than one source is consulted and listed.

One wishes, however, for something more profound—especially since this book treats a fundamentally important text in the religious and spiritual lives of hundreds of millions of people the world over.

Having some understanding of the Bible as a religious text, the cultural and historical environment out of which it grew, and its continued use as normative for human conduct today is vitally important. To miss that is to miss the point of the Bible. That the Bible functions normatively for different faith traditions is missed by the author. He implies that the Hebrew Bible (which contains only 24 books and only those originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic) and the Christian Old Testament are identical: they are not. The Catholic Old Testament contains 46 books, based on the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (called the Septuagint) and authored in three languages (Aramaic, Greek, and Hebrew).

In addition, the author seems to imply that prophets in the Bible were most concerned with the business of predicting the future rather than on challenging their contemporaries to practice what they, the prophets, preached.

What punishment, if any, the future might bring was described in terms of curses for breaking Israel's covenant with God. In essence, one finds a theological understanding of history in the Bible: this, if anything, is the hidden message of the Bible.

As is customary in this genre, the author claims neither to be religious nor to believe in God so as not to prejudice his account. In this way, he is open not only to treating the Bible like any other piece of purely human literature, but also to using any type of scientifically critical method to interpret it objectively. However, this stance in itself highly prejudices the author's viewpoint and can be considered methodologically suspect. Since Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Providentissimus Deus (1893), there have been a number of documents issued by the Church's Magisterium that point out appropriate scientific exegetical methods useful for interpreting the Bible.

Pope Pius XII's encyclical, Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943), for example, directs Catholic exegetes to use appropriate ancillary sciences (e.g., philology, history, literary analysis, etc.) to determine the underlying theological scriptural message. Vatican II's Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum, 1965), cautions Catholics from using any scientific method whose underlying philosophical presuppositions deny any supernatural origin to the Bible. The Pontifical Biblical Commission's instruction on The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (1993) discusses a number of newer critical methods (e.g., canonical criticism, feminist criticism, sociological analysis, structuralism, etc.). Each of these Church documents, however, presumes that the Bible essentially describes human experience of God's interventions in history.

While the Bible's theological message (i.e., God intervenes from time to time in history and offers salvation to the human race) remains valid for all time, the Bible was never intended to serve as a prophecy of specific events, particularly of our own time. This is carrying biblical fundamentalism (or literalism) to an extreme.

Stigmatine Father Pius Murray is library director at Pope John XXIII National Seminary, Waltham, Mass.