atbash

I stayed home from work today (trying to ward off a kidney stone; so far, so good), and I used the time to catch up on some reading. I read a really interesting piece: Paul Y. Hoskisson, “Jeremiah’s Game,” Insights 30/1 (2010), which you can read here. This is about Jeremiah’s use of a game called atbash.

This game was a pedagogical tool in teaching children the Hebrew alphabet, which consists of 22 letters. You put the letters in two rows of 11 letters each, from right to left and then in the second row from left to right. I can’t reproduce the Hebrew letters here, so I’ll represent them using English letters (and going left to right and then right to left):

a b g d h w z h t y k

t s r q s p ‘ s n m l

The name of the game, atbash, comes from the first two letters on the left side of this chart. To play the game, instead of using the letters you normally would to spell a word, you use the corresponding letters in the other row. So to illustrate using an English example, if I said “He’s a real sty,” applying the atbash to sty you would get “ham,” giving the real thrust of the insult.

Scholars have observed that Jeremiah actually uses atbash at several places in his text. For instance, at Jer. 25:26, the KJV renders “and the king of Sheshach shall drink after them.” The context concerns the fate of various kings who opposed God’s will. But no place “Sheshach” is known. Applying the atbash key to ssk, the word becomes bbl, the Hebrew name for Babylon.

You might think this was a cipher to be able to prophesy against other kingdoms without their knowledge of the prophecy. But the same atbash appears at Jer. 51:41:

How is Sheshach taken! and how is the praise of the whole earth surprised!
how is Babylon become an astonishment among the nations!

Here the atbash cipher Sheshach is given in parallelism with Babylon, so the meaning cannot be missed.

Another example is at Jeremiah 51:1: “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.” Literally the Hebrew says “and upon the dwellers of lb qmy” and doesn’t make any sense as it stands. Running lb qmy through the atbash key, you get ksdym, which is the Hebrew word for the Chaldeans, a synonym in Jeremiah’s day for Babylonians. So what the passage really means is “Thus saith the Lord: Behold, I will raise up against Babylon and the inhabitants of Chaldea a destroying wind.”

Given that Jeremiah was a contemporary of Lehi and his family, one wonders whether there might be some atbash in the text of the BoM. Hoskisson opines that any atbash that may have originally been present probably would not have survived the translation process into English, concluding his piece with the following sentence: “Too bad.”

I had never encountered this phenomenon, and thought it was way cool, so I wanted to share the gist of it here with you.

Comments

  1. Interesting Kev. Is this what scholars will do in thousands of years when reading our blog archives. A representative thesis title: “The use of LOL among the technological elite.”

  2. neato!

  3. Very cool, Kevin.

  4. This is extremely cool. But my real question is, how does one ward off kidney stones?

  5. Yeah, I second that question by meems. By drinking lots of water?

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Yup, drinking tons of water. I’m back at work today, so even though I can tell it’s still there, so far, so good. Moving around is also good for it (laying in bed is not).

  7. ygyț ytaagh gpk’
    Hope you are feeling better soon.

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