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Atbash cipher [Dec. 11th, 2008|09:46 pm]
The Eidolon
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I'm continuing my attempt to read the entire Old Testament this year
(though it looks as if it will take me a little over a year). Reading through
Jeremiah, I have learned about the atbash cipher. Evidently it is one of
the world's oldest attempts at cryptography. When Jeremiah refers to
Babylon (which he repeatedly predicts will conquer and punish Judah)
he normally uses the normal Hebrew word "בבל".
(Interesting--when I paste Hebrew script my browser cursor moves
backwards--Safari is smarter than I had realized with foreign scripts...)
But in Jeremiah 25:26 he refers to it as "Sheshach" (ששך), the last of the
nations which will finally drink the cup of the Lord's destruction.
This is believed to be a simple cipher where each Hebrew letter is
substituted for the one at the opposite end of the alphabet. The
English equivalent would be A<->Z, B<->Y, C<->X and so on.
The name "atbash" refers to the first two Hebrew letters and their
substitutes: Alef <-> Taf, Bet <->Shin, or approximately A-T-B-Sh.

Why Jeremiah (or one of his followers who later transcribed his work)
used such a cipher is unclear to me. It would be reasonable to assume
that when pronouncing a prophecy of doom against a powerful nearby
neighbor, it might be well to use a measure or discretion. The cipher
could have been used to avoid punishment from the Babylonians or
their agents if any read Jeremiah's work. Arguing against this is Jeremiah's
legendary lack of tact--he was arrested and nearly executed for his
continual prophecies of doom against Jerusalem and criticism of the
temple authorities. Also confusingly, Jeremiah uses both the regular and
unciphered words for Babylon in the same curse in verse 51:41. If
secrecy were his goal, leaving the answer right next to the encrypted word
does not suggest he was trying very hard. My guess (unsupported by any
research, of course) is that the phrase was originally used as a code word
to avoid repercussions, but that the final form of the Book of Jeremiah we
have now was compiled after the fall of Babylon, when such precautions
were no longer necessary, so we have a mix of forms.

Anyway, known examples of atbash-type encryption in the Bible are rare.
There are 3 known examples in Jeremiah and a possible one in 1 Kings
9:13. But in a work as long as the Bible there are also countless opportunities
for unintentional atbash readings. And so the Kabbalists and the
Bible-code adherents and such have had centuries to find more or less
plausible examples. Particularly if the letters used do not have to be adjacent
(I've found links to diagonal examples, for instance), there's almost no limit to
how far you could go with this. I suppose you could do a statistical analysis
based on the length of the Bible and the number of reasonable ciphers and
codes and reading frames one could use. After all that, maybe one could
predict the typical number and length of hidden word strings one could find
in the Bible and establish confidence intervals to guess if the known hidden
strings are statistically meaningful. But I doubt anyone would be convinced
one way or the other. From conspiracy theorists to gnostics and Kabbalists,
there seems to be a deep human drive to find hidden, secret meanings in
life. And the more you try to argue against it, the more they will be convinced
that everyone else is either blind to their insights or trying to suppress the truth...
LinkReply

Comments:
[User Picture]From: beth_leonard
2008-12-12 05:42 am (UTC)
Interesting. What translation and/or study bible are you using? Does it include notes like this or do you know this from other outside reading?

--Beth
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: theeidolon
2008-12-12 02:00 pm (UTC)
I've been reading the New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha. It's
based on the "Revised Standard Version" translation. It seems to be a good, scholarly
translation. It's an expanded version of the Bible I had to buy for freshman Civ in
college (that version didn't have the Apocrypha, and is now falling apart). The footnotes
are pretty good, but brief. The rest of the information I looked up from other sources
on the web. For example, in Jeremiah 25:26 is has "And after them the king of
Babylon shall drink." with the translation note: "Heb Sheshach, a cipher for Babylon"
and the footnote: "Babylon is written in the Hebrew text as "Sheshach"; this kind of cipher,
in which the letters are substituted in reverse order of the Hebrew alphabet, is called
"atbash" (see 51.1, 41 n)." Everything I wrote beyond that I looked up other places, but
the notes are enough to point out topics of interest and get me started.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: jon_leonard
2008-12-12 05:43 am (UTC)
I've run across the term "Shannon tautology" to describe the sort of accidental code (or whatever) that you're talking about: Something where the effort you put into decoding it accounts for all the information you get out. It doesn't seem to be that common a usage, possibly because information theory is somewhat obscure.

An interesting topic, unfortunately somewhat overrun by cranks.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: anne1204
2009-12-05 06:14 pm (UTC)
Hmmm, i haven't thought about hidden, secret meanings inside the bible before.A good friend of mine offered me a bible scripture and there are few months now since i started reading it. I haven't noticed the existence of any ciphers so far, but i will surely look for them now, after reading your post.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: theeidolon
2009-12-09 01:37 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the comment, and a retroactive welcome to you. The ciphers are generally
in (ancient) Hebrew, so for a layperson like me, the only way I would be even aware
of them is by reading the annotations. Good luck with your Bible reading!
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)