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Jeremiah 25:26 reads,

וְאֵת כָּל מַלְכֵי הַצָּפוֹן הַקְּרֹבִים וְהָרְחֹקִים אִישׁ אֶל אָחִיו וְאֵת כָּל הַמַּמְלְכוֹת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר עַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה וּמֶלֶךְ שֵׁשַׁךְ יִשְׁתֶּ֥ה אַחֲרֵיהֶֽם
and all the kings of the north, near and far, one after the other—all the kingdoms on the face of the earth. And after all of them, the king of Sheshak will drink it too.

The term Sheshak has traditionally been explained as a reference to the city of Babylon. Through the Atbash code form (which seems to date back to the days of the Major prophets) the letters of the Hebrew alphabet are substituted to its correspondent letters. Thus ששך becomes בבל. Atbash is also used by Jeremiah in chapter 51.

My question is, why did the prophet feel the need to encode Babylon through the Atbash instead of spelling it out? Some suggested that he was afraid of his books falling into the hands of the Babylonians, since he was predicting doom for them. But that can hardly be considered as a plausible solution since in verse 12 the fall of the king and city of Babylon is clearly mentioned. What else has been suggested to explain the usage of cryptic language by the prophet Jeremiah?

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Basically, we don't know. Several suggestions have been given and scholars have studied this for decades, but there is no true agreement. Here is an overview of suggested positions.

This must be Atbash

We have extra-biblical sources that confirm that Atbash and other letter substitution methods were known and "widely practiced in antiquity" (Lieberman, 1962. Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, p. 73). We have three well-known cases in the Hebrew Bible, all in Jeremiah (25:26; 51:1; 51:41) and possibly a fourth in 1 Kings 9:13. However, some have argued that the practice was much more widespread (e.g., Noegel, 1996. "Atbash in Jeremiah and Its Literary Significance: Part 1." in Jewish Bible Quarterly 24, 82–89). The problem with recognising words that do fit in context as Atbash is that it's difficult to tell whether original readers would have recognised it (and then, what signifies the use of Atbash there — although on the other hand, as Noegel mentions (p. 88), Rashi may have understood a case of חמר in Jer 18:2–4 when he calls the passage "an inverted verse").

Indeed, as you say, it is unlikely that the well-known cases are meant to hide the true meaning from the authorities. In Jer 51:41 שׁשׁך and בבל even occur in the same verse (Noegel, p. 83). Noegel also reviews some literature including ideas that "Sheshak was a genuine name for Babylon and need not therefore be understood as a cipher" (Nicholson, 1965. The Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, vol 2., pp. 222–223) and "It is a literary device, possibly insulting or with some other emotional overtones, but possibly, too, used by the Babylonians themselves" (Thompson, 1980. The Book of Jeremiah, p. 749). However, as Noegel notes, these suggestions must be rejected because "in the voluminous Neo-Babylonian materials at one's disposal there is no mention of a שׁשׁך".

A magical interpretation

Noegel himself suggests (p. 83–84, with references):

It is commonly accepted that the ancients, in biblical Israel and in the Near East in general, believed words to be more than an extension of the spoken idea; they possessed the substance and form of that idea. Thus, once spoken, words were capable of affecting the observable reality. [...] Therefore, if we are to understand the purpose of atbash in Jeremiah, we must first consider this ancient mindset. Thus, if words possess power and essence, atbash represents a reversal of that power and essence. As we shall see, atbash typically occurs in contexts in which power struggles take place.

On the other hand, Leuchter (2004. "Jeremiah's 70-Year Prophecy and the שׁשׁך/לב קמי Atbash Codes." Biblica 85, pp. 503–522) disagrees (p. 506):

There can be little doubt that the Jeremianic tradition places far greater emphasis on the power of written prophecy than any of the prophetic traditions from which it drew, but there can [sic] little likelihood that the coding represents a word-magic formula. [...] The Jeremianic tradition consistently inveighs against the hypostatization of systems, icons and ideas within Israelite religious consciousness [...] The application of magical dimensions to the atbash coding in the Jeremianic passages would be inconsistent with the dominant theo-polemical scheme of the text.

Fear of Babylon's name

Leuchter (p. 507) also discusses Steiner (1996. "The Two Sons of Neriah and the Two Editions of Jeremiah in Light of the Two Atbash Code-Words for Babylon", Vetus Testamentum 46, pp. 74–84), who thinks Atbash was originally used to preserve earlier versions of the book of Jeremiah under Babylonian dominion and are then used "as a commentary on communal fear of Babylonian dominance":

Although the popular use of this code-word among the Jews must have been motivated, at least initially, by fear of the Babylonians, its use in Jer li 41, in a prophecy full of undisguised references to Babylonia, would seem to have the opposite motive. In context, it has the effect of the flouting the taboo against anti-Babylonian agitation. The expressions ššk and lb qmy are surrounded by quotation marks in Jeremiah, to be read in a voice dripping with sarcasm. When the prophet wails "How was 'Sheshach' captured?" in a mock lament, he seems to be saying: "Here is what will happen to the power whose very name you fear to utter openly".

As Leuchter (p. 508) notes, this explanation has some difficulties, namely that it seems Atbash was used by a literary elite, not in common speech, and more importantly, that we have no evidence that people were indeed afraid to "utter openly" the name of Babylon.

A reference to a cuneiform inscription

Leuchter himself (pp. 509–510) suggests a connection to an inscription from the reign of Esarhaddon (681–669) which reads in part:

The people who lived there went, appointed to the mob, into slavery. 70 years, the allotment for its abandonment, he wrote, but compassionate Marduk, his heart quickly relented and he turned (it) upside down. He declared its inhabitation in 11 years.

Leuchter writes:

Commencing the building program 11 years after Sennacherib completed his campaign, the inscription establishes the divine ordination of Esarhaddon's efforts, making him the bearer of Marduk's will and presenting the building policy as the restoration of Babylon's sanctity. The manner in which this process is realized is through a literary feature of the inscription itself, with the cuneiform symbol representing the number 70 inverted to appear as the symbol representing the number 11. [...] It is difficult to avoid seeing uncanny similarities between Esarhaddon's inscription and the Jeremianic material under consideration. Both texts deal with a divine decree concerning a 70-year repression, and both texts rely upon scribal methodology to invert the decree. In the case of the Esarhaddon text, the inversion takes place with the cuneiform symbol itself; the atbash code in the Jeremianic text represents an analogous method applied to the Hebrew alphabetic script.

In the remainder of the article, Leuchter makes it plausible that the original readers would have understood the reference.

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  • great job Keelan. I was just wondering what is the "divine decree concerning a 70-year repression" found in the babylonian inscription? Furthermore, did this influence Jeremiah's prophecy of the 70-year exile in Babylon? Please clarify as this information is new to me. – Bach Feb 11 '18 at 1:20
  • @Bach the argumentation is quite extensive, I didn't want to copy it completely. Do you have access to the article? I think it is possible to read it for free if you make a (free) JSTOR account. Let me know if you don't manage and I can give you a PDF. – user2672 Feb 11 '18 at 7:23
  • Keelan i read the article. it is quite fascinating. But, in my view Leuchter makes a weak case in explaining the inversion of Atbash in Jeremiah, since in Jeremiah the inversion serves no purpose as it does in the Esarhaddon inscription. However, it is fascinating how he connects the Jeremaic prophecy with the well known Esarhaddon 70-year tradition. thanks again. – Bach Feb 25 '18 at 17:26
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There are so few examples that it is difficult to say that it was an Atbash code rather than an accident of the language.There was a goddess Sheshach (1) (2) and so Jeremiah may have simply been using a localized name.

Another possibility is that BBl and ShShK are in fact the same name as passed through the confusion of the languages at Babel. There are several studies to indicate that languages became new languages by the shuffling of the alphabet. (3) Therefore the code would not be an intentional code, but a remnant of the event at Babel which displayed itself in the local name for Babel.

(1) https://books.google.com/books?id=iYkBAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA207&lpg=PA207&dq=goddess+sheshach+-bible&source=bl&ots=NM85MOiSsd&sig=eSGNRUg5UvvT6lnT1gy0A43W4YU&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiX_Y33h4rWAhVhr1QKHfJxAbEQ6AEIJjAA#v=onepage&q=goddess%20sheshach%20-bible&f=false

(2) https://books.google.com/books?id=vEkSAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA6&lpg=PA6&dq=goddess+sheshach+-bible&source=bl&ots=5Jyf-4cn6n&sig=hPZDt9xJOXGlRvDBYNFxi_1mUTQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiX_Y33h4rWAhVhr1QKHfJxAbEQ6AEIKTAB#v=onepage&q=goddess%20sheshach%20-bible&f=false

(3) Edenics is based in a Jewish hermeneutic that places trust in the written record of scripture and attempts to find evidences. This is no different than the scripture mentioning the name of a city and having archeologists go look for it.

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  • He certainly used it intentionally. I was suggesting that the appearance of a code might be accidental to language. – Bob Jones Sep 4 '17 at 0:34
  • Bob is Bob backwards and foreward.. it must be an insideous plot to not allow me to hide... ;) <--sarcasm – Bob Jones Sep 4 '17 at 0:37
  • "I was suggesting that the appearance of a code might be accidental to language." What do you mean by that. Can you explain yourself? – Bach Sep 4 '17 at 0:47
  • From the wiki article you linked to: "A few English words also 'Atbash' into other English words: "irk"="rip", "low"="old", "hob"="sly", "hold"="slow", "holy"="slob", "horn"="slim", "glow"="told", "grog"="tilt" and "zoo"="all". Some other English words 'Atbash' into their own reverses, e.g., "wizard" = "draziw." Shall we suggest these are intentional codings or merely accidents of the language? – Bob Jones Sep 4 '17 at 1:21
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    לב קמי (Jeremiah 51:1) is also traditionally interpreted as atbash for כשדים (Chaldeans) so you would also have to explain that too (even though it does have a non-atbash meaning) – b a Dec 14 '17 at 11:23

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