Atbash

ATBASH ăt’ băsh (אתבשׁ). A cryptic device for writing Heb. The first letter, aleph (א) was substituted for the last letter, tau (ת), the second letter, bēth (ב) for the next to last letter, shin (שׁ), etc. No intensive study of atbash in the Bible has been made, but scholars believe there are at least three cases in Jeremiah.

1. Jeremiah 51:1לֵ֣ב קָמָ֑י. The MT divided and vocalized this to read lēb qāmāy, “the heart of those who rise against me.” This reading was followed by Aq., Symm. and KJV. The ASV transliterates it as a place name, Leb-Kamai. However, the LXX at 28:1 (v. 2, Eng. VSS reads χαλδαι̂ους, כַשְׂדִּ֖ים, “Chaldeans,” which is the atbash of לֵ֣ב קָמָ֑י. Therefore, prob. 51:1 is also to be read “Chaldeans” as in LXX and RSV.

2. Jeremiah 51:41שׁשׁך (KJV, ASV) is the atbash for בבל, “Babylon.”

3. Jeremiah 25:26 has the same atbash as Jeremiah 51:41. This may be a textual gloss, since the LXX omits the passage.

Secrecy cannot be the reason for the use of atbash in Jeremiah 51 since the ch. contains plain references to Babylon. Keil suggests that atbash was employed to produce significant double meanings in 51:1, 41, deriving Sheshach from a root שׁכשׁך, “to sink, to crouch,” unattested in OT.

Atbash is further mentioned in the Talmud, Midrash and Kabbala.

Bibliography

W. H. Bennett, “The Book of Jeremiah,” Expositor’s Bible, IV (1940, reprint), 174; C. F. Keil, KD, Jeremiah, I (1960, reprint), 383; J. Bright, Jeremiah: Anchor Bible (1965), 161, 355, 358.