‘Have you read ‘The Da Vinci Code’?” a friend asked me recently about the runaway best seller.
“No,” I said. “Is it any good?”
“It’s only the worst novel I’ve ever read,” my friend said. “But you might get a language column out of it. There’s a chapter there about an ancient Hebrew code called Atbash. You should check it out.”
I knew a little about Atbash, spelled yaz` in Hebrew. It’s a simple substitution code of the kind, easily decipherable by trained cryptographers, in which certain letters of the alphabet regularly take the place of others. In Atbash (hence its name), the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Alef, is switched with the last letter, Taf; the second letter, Bet, with the next-to-last letter, Shin, and so forth. To write Philologos –– in Hebrew, qebelelit –– for example, you would write gtxtktkne. If you insisted on pronouncing this, which I wouldn’t advise, it would come out sounding like Vamakapakaparapah..
Checking out “The Da Vinci Code , ” in which two main characters — Harvard “symbologist” Robert Langdon and Paris cryptologist Sophie Neveu — solve an esoteric murder mystery with the help of Atbash, I found this account of it:
“For years, religious scholars had been baffled by biblical references to a city called Sheshak. The city did not appear on any map or in any other documents, and yet it was mentioned repeatedly in the Book of Jeremiah…. Finally, a scholar applied the Atbash cipher to the word, and his results were mind numbing. The cipher revealed that Sheshak was in fact a ‘code word’ for another very well-known city… Sh-Sh-K, when placed in the substitution matrix, became B-B-L. B-B-L in Hebrew spelled Babel…. The mysterious city of Sheshak was revealed as the city of Babel, and a frenzy of biblical examination ensued. Within weeks, several more Atbash code words were uncovered in the Old Testament, unveiling myriad hidden meanings that scholars had no idea were there.”
“The Da Vinci Code” may not be the worst novel ever written, but it’s not the best scholarship, either. If anything is a bit mind numbing, it’s the mixture of truth and falsehood in the above passage. Here are the basic facts:
The “repeated mention” of Sheshak in the book of Jeremiah consists of all of two verses, 25:26 and 51:41. In the latter verse, Jeremiah, prophesying the downfall of Babylon, declares, “How is Sheshak taken!… How has Babylon become an astonishment among the nations!”
The “scholar” who “finally” applied the Atbash cipher to the name Sheshak (which, indeed, is obscure) was the third-century C.E. Mishnaic sage Rabbi Simon, who is quoted in the midrashic anthology Bamidbar Rabba as saying, “Sheshak in Atbash is Babylon [Bavel, in Hebrew].” Rabbi Simon may have been basing himself on a tradition of interpretation that seems to be present already in the third-century BCE Greek Septuagint, the first translation of the Bible, in which “Sheshak” is rendered as “Babylon.” Needless to say, no noticeable “frenzy of biblical examination” followed his observation.
Assuming that Rabbi Simon was right about Sheshak, there is exactly one other likely “Atbash code word” in the Bible, and that is in the same 51st chapter of Jeremiah, verse 1. There, at the beginning of his vision of doom, Jeremiah says, in the words of the King James Bible, “Thus saith the Lord: Behold, I will raise up against Babylon, and against them that dwell in the midst of them that rise up against me, a destroying wind.” The phrase “against them that dwell in the midst of them that rise up against me” sounds as awkward in the original Hebrew as it does in English, and the Septuagint rendered “them that rise up against me [ lev kamai ]” as “the Chaldeans” — a synonym for the Babylonians. Since the Hebrew word for “Chaldeans,” kasdim , is the Atbash of lev kamai , it has been speculated that both lev kamai and Sheshak were understood by the translators of the Septuagint to be Atbash ciphers.
If this is the case, Atbash is indeed very ancient, going back not merely to the time of Rabbi Simon, but to at least the third-century BCE, and, possibly, to the age of Jeremiah several hundred years earlier. The problem with this is that it is difficult to understand what would have made Jeremiah use a cipher for “Babylon” when he mentions it openly in the same verse. Why encode what you’re not trying to hide? And yet at the same time, while it’s perfectly possible that Sheshak was the name of a real place or person that later readers of the Bible were unable to identify — and that lev kamai means what King James says it does, or is a garbling of something else — it seems improbable that both Sheshak and lev kamai, occurring in close proximity in a prophecy about Babylon, just should happen to have Atbash readings denoting Babylon or Babylonians. Could this be a mere coincidence?
It’s a mystery — a more interesting one, if you ask me, than the one Robert and Sophie manage to solve in “The Da Vinci Code.”