Seek and Ye Shall Find

CHRISTIAN FUNDAMENtalists believe that the Bible is the literal word of God, written by human authors guided by the Holy Spirit. But Orthodox Jews go the fundamentalists one better. Many of these most observant of the children of Israel believe that every letter of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, was dictated one by one to Moses by God. Why would he go to all that trouble? The Lord works in mysterious ways, but an explosive book that landed in stores last week claims to explain why God spelled it out so precisely. In ""The Bible Code'' (264 pages. Simon & Schuster. $25), journalist Michael Drosnin argues that a highly complex code in the Hebrew Bible, which depends on the precise positions of all 304,805 letters in the text, ""reveals events that took place thousands of years after the Bible was written ... In a few dramatic cases it has foretold events that then happened exactly as predicted.''

Those events include some of the most dramatic of the age. ""Economic collapse'' and ""1929'' are encoded starting with a verse in Exodus and ending in Deuteronomy. (The code-breaking often spans several books.) ""Hitler,'' ""Nazi and enemy'' and ""slaughter'' are hidden in Genesis. ""Wright brothers'' and ""airplane'' are also in Genesis; ""Edison,'' ""electricity'' and ""light bulb'' are in Numbers. ""Atomic holocaust,'' ""Japan'' and ""1945'' run from Numbers to Deuteronomy. The code does not confine itself to mere politics. ""Shoemaker-Levy'' (the name of a comet) and ""will pound Jupiter'' are encoded in Genesis; the comet slammed into the giant planet in 1994.

No wonder the book is causing a sensation. But is it correct? Many mathematicians and code breakers are treating it as a statistician's version of cold fusion. Harvard University mathematician Shlomo Sternberg, who is also an orthodox rabbi, warns that ""you can become clever at manipulating a text, making something appear that looks miraculous.'' Don Foster of Vassar College, who uses computers to analyze Shakespearean texts, says, "A wicked little devil is whispering in my ear that these [code finders] could do the same thing with a telephone directory if they thought it was a spiritually significant text."

"The Bible Code'' echoes a 1994 study, published in the scholarly journal Statistical Science. Three Israeli mathematicians reported that the Book of Genesis contains what has come to be known as a ""Torah code.'' The three researchers, led by Eliyahu Rips of Hebrew University, programmed a computer to scan Genesis for the encrypted names of 32 sages who lived between the ninth and 18th centuries. The program searched by ""skip code.'' In a skip code, the message is decrypted by taking every 10th, or 44th, or 3,007th or any other nth letter. The program starts with the first letter of Genesis, searching both backward and forward. No hit? The program then starts with the second letter, and repeats the skip search. Then it starts with the third letter, on and on until it finds the key word - the name of the sage. After enough tries, the program found most of the names. The odds against that occurring by chance alone were 62,500 to 1, Rips and colleagues calculated. For a further test, they ran the same program on a Hebrew translation of ""War and Peace,'' and on scrambled versions of Genesis. They found no such associations, suggesting that the matches are not hidden in just any old text.

Drosnin, a reporter formerly with The Washington Post (owner of NEWSWEEK) and The Wall Street Journal, heard from an Israeli intelligence aide in 1992 that Rips had pushed Biblical cryptography further. Drosnin paid Rips a visit, and after hours of interviews over several years and some code-breaking of his own produced the book. And an immediate furor. In a Feb. 4 letter to Simon & Schuster, Rips states that ""details of events that took place thousands of years after the Bible was written are enclosed [sic] in the Bible.'' He also backs Drosnin's claim that a colleague found, encrypted in the Bible, the date Scud missiles from Iraq would fall on Israel during the gulf war - three weeks before the attack. But last week in Jerusalem Rips told NEWSWEEK'S Joseph Contreras that Drosnin ""is on very shaky ground, and [the book] is of no value.'' He denied the book's implication that he and Drosnin had worked together, saying, ""I do not support the book as it is or the conclusions it derives.''

Yet ""The Bible Code'' finds its startling matches much the way Rips found the encrypted names of the Jewish sages. A program first arranges the Torah into a continuous string of 304,805 Hebrew letters. Then it searches for a key word by skip code. When it gets a hit, it rearranges the text into an array whose length is the number of characters in the skip code. That is, if the letters in ""Yitzhak Rabin'' appear every 4,772d letter, as they do, then the array is 4,772 letters across. Finally, the program scans the letters in the array vertically, diagonally, backward and forward for close or interlocking words related to the key word. The hits are astounding. The one that made a believer out of Drosnin, he says, was his discovery, in 1994, that the only time ""Yitzhak Rabin'' appears encoded in the Bible it is crossed by ""assassin will assassinate.'' Drosnin flew to Israel to give a warning letter to the prime minister. A year later Rabin was dead.

To many mathematicians and code breakers, this intensive manipulation of text reeks of the cryptographer's warning that one can find anything in anything if one looks in enough clever ways. One problem is loose interpretation. Harvard's Sternberg points out that what Drosnin reads as ""assassin who will assassinate'' near Rabin's name could also be read as Rabin's being a murderer, killing Israelis (as his political foes charged) by pursuing peace. Relationships are in the eye of the beholder.

The greater problem is what statisticians call ""data mining.'' It means that thousands of possible skip codes, starting at any of tens of thousands of letters, yield many, many hits. When mathematician Brendan McKay of Australian National University performed a skip-code search on the Law of the Sea treaty (minus the vowels, since Biblical Hebrew lacks them also), he found ""Hear the law of the sea'' and ""safe UN ocean convention to enclose tuna.'' And in the Hebrew translation of ""War and Peace,'' McKay found, in skip code, 59 words related to Chanukah, including ""miracle of lights'' and ""Maccabees.'' The odds against all 59? More than a quadrillion to 1.

To be legitimate, says cryptanalyst Harold Gans, recently retired from the National Security Agency, a Bible decoder must specify what he is looking for in advance (as Rips did in his 1994 study). Otherwise, the criterion for matches is slippery, a case of you know it when you see it. Drosnin did not notice an encrypted ""Amir'' near Rabin's name until police arrested a man by that name for the killing. Might texts other than the Bible in fact contain eerie matches, too, as long as one is flexible about what counts? If so, that would confirm the view that, with enough computer searches on a long enough text, one can find anything. Drosnin's response: ""When my critics find a message about the assassination of a prime minister encrypted in "Moby-Dick' I'll believe them.''

In fact, Drosnin argues that Bible codes are not predictions but ""probabilities.'' So the message about a world war beginning with an atomic attack on Jerusalem in the next decade is not firm, he says. Just as many mathematicians are skeptical of the statistical basis for the Bible code, so some theologians deplore its implications. ""The notion of God putting secret codes into the Torah is idolatrous,'' says Rabbi Neil Gillman of Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. God does not play dice, as Einstein said; does he write word games?