Michael Drosnin, The Bible Code, Orion Paperbacks, 231pp., £7.99, 1997
Jeffrey Satinover, The Truth Behind the Bible Code, Sidgwick & Jackson, 346pp., £9.99, pb, 1998.
The time of the end referred to in Daniel 12 and Revelation 22, when secrets are revealed and the world is subjected to final judgement, began in 1996. A new holocaust, an atomic [sic] war, is at any time likely to ignite in the Middle East. As Yitzhak Rabin was before him, Benjamin Netanyahu will be killed in office. Jerusalem faces another destruction. It’s the Apocalypse, now.
Michael Drosnin, a New Yorker who has worked on the Washington Post, flips the seals from Daniel’s mysteries to conjure a number one bestseller. He does it by using a modern method of soothsaying that may owe something to the way military signals were encrypted during World War II. The signals, or plaintext, were embedded in an extensive ciphertext. The embedding is determined by a changing algorithm which, with the availability of a computer, can be highly complex. Long before computers, Ramban, a Jewish cabbalist in 13th century Catalonia, used a letter skip approach to reveal from the Torah six thousand-year dispensations of world history. The climactic one, the Day of the Lord, was the sabbatical, and would start a thousand years after his own time. Such prognostication remained a hidden art, since it was plain enough from the ciphertext of the Torah at Leviticus 19:26 that it was prohibited: ‘Do not practise divination’. Some cabbalistic activity, however, found a precedent in the prophets, and indeed the close reader of Jeremiah 25:26 will be at a loss for the identity of the King of Sheshach until he applies a letter substitution code in which the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet represents the first. Sheshach then translates as Babylon, though this is encryption, not divination.
The torch was taken up in the early 20th century by a Slovak rabbi, Michael Weissmandl, who wrote out the text of the Torah on white cards in 10 by 10 arrays. Thus he was able to pick out easily whatever signals were embedded, the name of Abraham, for instance, spelled out with an equidistant letterspace of 49, with one occurrence of the divine name Elohim between each. He found too a signal giving the exact duration of the lunar month, a matter of importance to Jewish observances. In the last fifteen years the computer, invented to enable speed-reading of German ciphertext at Bletchley Park, has rocketed the process into a new era - that of quantum cryptology. In 1996, the year when Computorah: On Hidden Codes in the Torah (M. Katz) was published in Jerusalem, Michael Drosnin obtained a meeting with Shimon Peres and warned him that an imminent atomic attack was in the Bible code. ‘The Bible is not only a book - it’s also a computer program.’ Only a month later, a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 23 people on a Jerusalem bus, and Israel was, in a manner of speaking, precipitated into a war which the code ‘had predicted 3000 years ago’ i.e. when the Torah was written. ‘The code was real.’
There’s a lot more of this in Drosnin, too much in fact. His book has numerous slabs of Hebrew text with letters picked out in any direction, like a kid’s wordsearch, to reveal signals about Scud attacks, Edison’s invention of the electric lightbulb, Jewish sages, Arafat, Hitler, the names of comets only recently discovered and named, anything a fortune teller might bring forth. The slabs are not identified by references, and the (arbitrary) intervals between the letters of the original text are not accounted for. Drosnin asserts that the technique has been rigorously tested by mathematicians, and sets much store by an article published by three academics, after due process of peer review, in Statistical Science in 1994, a point I’ll return to. And Drosnin’s purpose? He notes the quickening of religious interest, even faith, among Jews estranged from orthodox belief. He himself is just awed. The codes are the work of a disembodied intelligence. ‘We know we are not alone.’ He wants to share the signals, and the frisson that goes with them, with as many readers as possible.
Satinover’s urbane book is more lucid, and much more forthcoming with explanation. He provides sufficient information about the methods of the cabbalists, and of NASA, for calculating the duration of the lunar month, his slabs of Hebrew are presented in an elegant typeface, and tend to be referenced. When required Satinover, whose background is in psychology and physics at MIT, Harvard and Yale, explains to the layman matters like probability theory or the Talmud. He writes for fellow Jews, but for Christians too. The question arises, what do the signals say concerning the identification of Jesus as Messiah? Here Satinover is firm: the question is off-limits. Those who have trawled the Torah for the name of Jesus and found confirmation of his Messiahship have ‘misused’ the technique. But Satinover solemnly presents the discovery of the Gedolin, the ‘Great Sages’ of Jewish history between the 9th and 18th centuries AD, with salient dates for each figure, encrypted in the Torah as if in the Book of Life. He credits the mention in the Biblical ciphertext of Saddam - for when he attacked Kuwait the real objective was Israel - and he reports the encryption of the date of the Scud attack on Tel Aviv of 18 January 1991. We are invited to believe on hearsay that the identification was made beforehand.
Satinover, who finds himself up against not only the enemies of Israel, but also the belief that science controls access to the only truth there is, sees the Bible code as a sanctuary. His personal quest is for oases in the scientific universe, and he finds them in the tunnelling particles of quantum mechanics whose motion resists prediction, and in the Torah, which ‘was dictated directly by God to Moses in precise letter-by-letter sequence.’ Now in the last part of the sixth (Jewish era) millennium we have the promise of a new age in which science and belief conjoin. The Bible code indicates that the universe is beholden to a power beyond itself, to One who is interested in communicating with us by a means only he could validate. In the new era, the Torah will once more be heeded, thanks to the momentous findings of quantum cryptology. Jews and Gentiles alike will learn that God’s attention is ‘concentrated upon the small, daily choices of our individual lives.’
But the computer which makes it possible to process vast amounts of text and data is, so far as Satinover’s argument is concerned, a Trojan horse. Like Drosnin he cites the Statistical Science article as conferring an accolade on the discovery of hidden signals in the Torah, and when he refers to academic exchanges on the Internet, it is as providing further confirmation. But any reader who makes use of a computer to access the discussion is soon disabused. Robert Kass, editor of Statistical Science when the article was published, makes a public statement which scotches ‘the notion that there may be some scientific basis for the findings of Witzum, Rips, and Rosenberg.’ His belief is ‘quite the opposite: the authors’ work did not go far enough to make me seriously think, even for a moment, that their results were anything other than coincidental, and likely due to a subtle flaw in their methodology’ (http://lib.stat.cmu.edu/~kass/biblecodes/).
Drosnin reprints the article with the comment that ‘no one has submitted a rebuttal,’ but fifty-five academics from around the world with PhDs in mathematics or statistics or who are faculty members in a department of mathematics or statistics at a college or university have signed up to exactly that (http://www.math.caltech.edu/code/petition.html). ‘The signatories to this letter have themselves examined the evidence and found it entirely unconvincing. We refer in particular to the paper “Equidistant Letter Sequences in the Book of Genesis”, published in Statistical Science in 1994. We would not take such extraordinary claims seriously without a vastly more systematic and thorough investigation. No such investigation has been carried out, nor has the work so far established a prima facie case. In addition, word clusters such as are mentioned in Witztum's and Drosnin's books and the so-called messianic codes are an uncontrolled phenomenon, and similar clusters will be found in any text of similar length. All claims of incredible probabilities for such clusters are bogus, since they are computed contrary to standard rules of probability and statistics.’ They add: ‘Among the signatories are some who believe that the Torah was divinely written. We see no conflict between that belief and the opinion we have expressed above.’