Are there secret codes in the Bible?

Q. Dan Brown claims in The DaVinci Code (p. 304) that “text encrypted with Atbash” is found throughout Jewish mystical writings and “even the Old Testament.”  Is this true?

Sheshak

Thanks to reader Don Johnson (see comment below), I am now offering an updated version of this post.

Exactly two words in the Bible are encrypted in a code known as Atbash.

The name Atbash comes from the first, last, second, and next-to-last letters of the Hebrew alphabet: Aleph, Taw, Beth, Shin.  The name shows how this code works:  the first and last letters are substituted for each other; the same for the second and next-to-last letters; and so forth.

An equivalent code in English would be called AZBY:
A <-> Z,
B <-> Y,
C <-> X,
and so forth.
In AZBY the word “Bible,” for example, would come out “Yryov.”  This is how this kind of code works.

God gave the prophet Jeremiah the assignment of publicly announcing his judgment on the nations, including the Babylonian empire, which would soon conquer Jeremiah’s own country of Judah.  This assignment was fraught with danger for the prophet, so he spoke the word “Babel” (the Hebrew name for Babylon) in Atbash code, and it came out “Sheshak“:

“This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, said to me: ‘Take from my hand this cup filled with the wine of my wrath and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it. . . . After all of them, the king of Sheshak will drink it too.'”

Enough of Jeremiah’s listeners could apparently decrypt this code that the promise of ultimate deliverance could be spoken without the prophet’s life being unnecessarily jeopardized.

Later in the book there’s another prophecy in which Jeremiah was able to speak more freely (perhaps because it circulated privately until it could be shared more openly), and in that prophecy he leaves no doubt about identity of the earlier Sheshak:

“How Sheshak will be captured, the boast of the whole earth seized!
How desolate Babylon will be among the nations!”

At the start of that prophecy he also identifies Babylon with Leb Hamai, Atbash code for Chaldea, another name for the Babylonians:

“See, I will stir up the spirit of a destroyer
against Babylon and the people of Leb Kamai.”

But Babel and Chaldea in Jeremiah are the only two words in the Bible that have been put in Atbash code.  So we shouldn’t search the Scriptures for mysterious encrypted messages the way the characters would in a Dan Brown thriller.  There aren’t any messages of that type there.

Instead, we should be inspired by the faith and courage of prophets like Jeremiah, who were agents of a divine resistance movement that proclaimed the time when earthly pretenders would be put down and God’s kingdom established throughout the earth. And we should ask how we can be the same kind of agents in our own place and time.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

8 thoughts on “Are there secret codes in the Bible?”

  1. In the Book of Jeremiah, לב קמי Lev Kamai (51:1) is Atbash for כשדים Kasdim (Chaldeans), and ששך Sheshakh (25:26; 51:41) is Atbash for בבל Bavel (Babylon).

    In Revelation, it is possible that 666 is a veiled reference to Nero, as his name maps to that number. My take is that IF one assumes that the 666 reference is to a living person from that day, then it is to Nero.

    It is also trivially true that a written language is a code for a the code of spoken language and it turns out these codes are very close but not identical, as some jokes only work (by being ambiguous) when spoken or when written for example.

  2. Don,
    Thank you very much for this helpful comment. I have updated my post in light of it, so that Sheshak and Leb Kamai are both acknowledged as Atbash codes for Babel and Chalea, respectively. You make a good point that 666 in Revelation is also something of a word in code. I’ll address that in my next post. Thanks again!

      1. Agreed.

        We might also note that the word “Babylon” itself is used not as a word-in-code but as a code word, for Rome, at the end of 1 Peter (“She who is in Babylon,” i.e. the church in Rome, “sends you her greetings”) and in Revelation, where Rome, the “city on seven hills,” is represented as “Babylon the great, the mother of prostitutes,” sitting on seven hills. Circumstances similar to those Jeremiah was living under required these New Testament authors to use the code word instead of denouncing Rome overtly.

  3. Yes, I was going to mention that also. However, none of these codes are intended for secrecy, they are more like masking rather than secrecy as they are so easily figured out.

    1. Perhaps like emails written in sensitive contexts today where God is called “the boss,” the church is called a “club,” etc. Easy to figure out, but the writers aren’t being openly defiant.

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