Jer 51:1 - Athbash

Charles David Isbell cisbell at
Thu Dec 28 17:55:13 EST 2000


I wrote a bit about this phenomenon in the Sassanian era Aramaic magic
bowls. "Some Cryptograms in the Aramaic Magic Bowls," Journal of Near
Eastern Studies 33 (1974):4, 405-407.

I have no answer as to why 'Athbash is used only sometimes in the biblical
text.  Could it be that some later editor of the text knew the power of
magic in common belief, and "threw in" a magical spelling for extra effect!

----- Original Message -----
From: "Dan Wagner" <Dan.Wagner at>
To: "Biblical Hebrew" <b-hebrew at>
Sent: Thursday, December 28, 2000 4:41 PM
Subject: RE: Jer 51:1 - Athbash

> Brian,
> I've been having the same questions about Jeremiah's 'athbash, and asked
> on another list recently. To quote that post, here's what the LXX does
> these, and some other observations i've made so far:
> > My question is: Why? The text is explicit as to the
> > reference, with plenty of examples spelled out with normal
> > Hebrew in reference to Babylon. So why the codes? Are these
> > actually rare Hebrew or cognate words with a play on another
> > meaning (sometimes said so for Leb-qamay, but perhaps only
> > before they figured out what they were)?
> >
> > By the way, the 'athbash (?4X in MT) is glossed (1X; Jer.
> > 51:41), translated (1X; Jer. 51:1), omitted (2X; 25:26 and
> > perhaps 25:25 if indeed unknown _ZMRY_ is corrupted from
> > _ZMKY_ and thus 'athbash for repeated _(YLM_), but never
> > transliterated by LXX.
> >
> > I still don't know why they are used. Besides secrecy,
> > suggestions include everything from late scribal editing and
> > magical charms to code names in common use by the Babylonians
> > themselves. If the latter, poetic variation may be the only
> > reason, except in Jer. 25:25 for repeated Elam which might
> > indicate a double-dose of punishment for its kings, though i
> > can't explain why since the contextual focus is on the king
> > of Sheshak who will drink after all those other misc. kings.
> > The scribal editing/addition would almost make sense (cf.
> > LXX), but then why duplicate only for Elam?
> >
> > I'm still planning/hoping to find more literature on the
> > topic, esp. e.g.'s from ANE.
> Can anyone supply data from other ANE literure using the 'athbash?
> Dan Wagner
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