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The True Bible Codes: Midrash and the Masoretic Text

From: Conservative Judaism
Volume 64, Number 2, Winter 2013
pp. 26-37 | 10.1353/coj.2013.0006

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The True Bible Codes:
Midrash and the Masoretic Text1


A number of years ago, there was a great flurry of attention to the “hidden codes” in the biblical text. It began with a rather technical and seemingly dry statistical analysis by three Orthodox statisticians, published in 1988, in the unlikely venue for biblical studies, the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society.2 The authors supposedly demonstrated that there were words encoded into the Hebrew biblical text that were not accidental, and the implication was that they could only have been placed there by divine foresight. For instance, they showed that by treating the letters of Genesis as a string, the word “Ḥanukkah” could be found in close proximity to “Ḥashmonai” (Hasmonean). Shortly after, the supposed phenomenon of biblical codes gained wide popularity with the best seller book, The Bible Code by Michael Drosnin.3 Drosnin found such intriguing modern references as “Yitzḥak Rabin” close to rotzei·aḥ asher yirtzaḥ, “the murderer who will murder” (Deuteronomy 4:42). Bible codes have been used as an outreach tool by such groups as Aish HaTorah to convince people of the clear divinity of every word of the Torah. Since then, numerous mathematicians and cryptologists have shown that the supposed code findings could have as easily been discovered in Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Yet we know that certain “codes” may have been purposely encrypted in the biblical text by early scribal traditions. Much attention has been paid to the ten places where we find dotted letters in the Torah text. There has also been extensive research on tikkunei sof’rim, the “corrections of the scribes.”4 [End Page 26] Saul Lieberman suggests that both of these phenomena, the dotting of words and the tikkunei sof’rim, may be related to similar phenomena of the Greek grammarians. We will not review the literature about these two textual phenomena except to point out that they both seem to indicate that some scribal traditions reflected interpretive traditions of the biblical text.5

However, little attention has been paid to other interpretive and midrashic traditions reflected in the scribal and masoretic traditions of the biblical text.6 Tradition views the entire Oral Torah as a reflection of traditions and interpretations of these textual hints which were part of the original biblical text and which date back to Sinai. However, from a modern, historical-scholarly point of view, the rabbis interpreted and commented on irregularities already in the biblical text they received—what Isaac Heinemann called “creative philology.”7 Clearly, midrashic method itself is based on interpreting unusual orthographic or syntactical oddities in the biblical text.8 This is not to say that all midrashic interpretations originated in the classical rabbinic era. The Bible itself interprets early biblical passages, and the interpretive tradition of the biblical text is ancient and pre-dates the rabbis. James Kugel shows the origins of ancient biblical interpretation in pre-rabbinic apocryphal and pseudepigraphal books.9

There is widespread and ample evidence of interpretations deriving from the biblical text in versions of the text that were available to ancient and rabbinic interpreters. Sometimes the rabbis had a text which differed from other Hebrew manuscripts. So, for instance, the rabbinic midrash10 comments on the elliptical passage in the Cain and Abel story: “And Cain said to his brother Abel . . . and when they were in the field Cain rose up and slew his brother” (Genesis 4:8). The missing piece of dialogue in the masoretic text is interpreted in the midrash as a quarrel which leads to murder. However, other ancient versions, which must reflect other Hebrew biblical manuscripts, simply have for the “missing” part, “Let us go to the field.”11 This is one example of the rabbis interpreting a version of the Hebrew text which did not exist in all ancient versions, but which became the masoretic version. On the other hand, sometimes the rabbis had a version of the text which differs from our masoretic version. We can deduce this because the interpretations they offer must reflect a different reading than the one we have. This phenomenon was noticed by traditional commentators and...