DRAFT. This edition: April 7, 1998. First edition: March 3, 1998.

On the Witztum-Rips-Rosenberg Sample of Nations

We study the Witztum-Rips-Rosenberg (WRR) sample of nations (see [WRR2, WRR3]) and find clear evidence that their results were obtained by selective data manipulation and are therefore invalid. Our tool is the study of variations - we vary the sample of nations in many ways, and find that the variations are almost always "worse" than the original. We argue that the only way this can be possible is if the original was "tuned" in one way or another. Finally, we show that "tuning" is a sufficiently strong process that can by itself produce results similar to WRR's.
Dror Bar-Natan
Institute of Mathematics
The Hebrew University
Giv'at-Ram, Jerusalem 91904
   Brendan McKay
Department of Computer Science
Australian National University
Canberra, ACT 0200
Shlomo Sternberg
Department of Mathematics
Harvard University
Cambridge, MA 02138

1. Introduction
    1.1. Some technical notes
    1.2. Acknowledgements
2. The choice of prefixes
    2.1. How good is their story?
    2.2. Why Vilna Gaon on Job?
    2.3. "The people of X"
3. "Tuning" on War and Peace
    3.1. The first story - Leaders
    3.2. The second story - Celestial Guardians
    3.3. The third story - Genesis ain't a War Epic
    3.4. Stories, Stories, Stories
4. More evidence
    4.1. The plural form
    4.2. The identification of the nations
        4.2.1. On orthography and on back translation
        4.2.2. A bit on Targum Yonatan
        4.2.3. Other identifications of the nations
        4.2.4. More on Genesis, chapter 10
    4.3. Other nice experiments
        4.3.1. The relation to the text
        4.3.2. The identifications of the nations and countries
        4.3.3. An alternate form for "the language of X"
    4.4. Some global choices
5. How much more have we done?
    5.1. Disclaimer
6. Conclusions
    6.1. A Personal note by the first author
7. Appendix: Notes on the Metric
    7.1. The permutation test on control texts
    7.2. Discussion
8. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Readers who tend to shy away from mathematics are assured that they can skip everything that appears too technical and still understand practically everything that really matters.

Let us start with a very brief review of the results of Witztum, Rips, and Rosenberg. WRR argue that there is a "code" hidden in the Hebrew Bible by means of "equidistant letter sequences". That is, they argue that if one reads the Hebrew text of the Bible (or just the book of Genesis alone) in equal skips, reading only every 7th or 19th or 666th letter and ignoring all spaces, the resulting stream of letters is far from random. More specifically, they argue that often one finds within this stream a meaningful word or a meaningful phrase, and that related words and phrases found in this way tend to be found unusually close to each other. They provide anecdotal examples, but acknowledge that serious study cannot be founded on anecdotes, and thus they proceed to describe (in [WRR1]) a reasonable (though far from perfect, see section 7) statistical procedure for measuring the significance of the phenomenon.

The details of WRR's procedure appear in their paper, and are too lengthy to repeat in full in this introduction. So we give only a digest. First, they define a certain notion of "distance", c(w,w'), between a pair of Hebrew words w and w', by finding some occurrences of w and w' in the text as equidistant letter sequences (ELSs), and by measuring in some specific way the distance between such occurrences of the word w and of the word w'. Programs for computing c(w,w') are available and are not difficult to use. For example, it takes our primary computer about 30 seconds to find that c(hmhrw"l,y"b kslv)=4/125. The distances c(w,w') are by construction rational numbers between 0 and 1, with denominator at most 125. So we find that the distance between ELSs of hmhrw"l, a designation of Rabbi Shlomo Luria, and the ELSs for his date of death, 12th of the Hebrew month of Kislev, is nearly as small as it can be. WRR argue that this phenomenon is recurring. They demonstrate it by constructing (in a certain systematic manner), a list of 32 famous rabbis, each with a list of designations, and by computing their distances to their dates of birth and death, written in several reasonable forms. The result is a list of distances (163 distances, to be precise). Some of these distances are very small (i.e., near 0) and some are very big (i.e., near 1), but overall, these distances tend to be small.

Rabbi Shlomo Luria and 12 of Kislev
The convergence of hmhrw"l and his date of death, y"b kslv, in Genesis.

How small? Again the details are in [WRR1] and we only present a summary. WRR give this question two answers. The answer that is most relevant to us is formed by multiplying together those 163 distances and then scaling the product in a particular way to form a value between 0 and 1 called P2(names, dates) (or simply, "the P2 score") where "names" stands for the list of designations of rabbis and "dates" stands for the various dates associated with each rabbi. The result was originally intended by WRR to denote a probability, and would be quite astonishing if that were true:

P2(names, dates)=1.15 10-9.

The reason why this is not a probability is that the method used to compute it from the 163 distances is based on some false assumptions. In order to avoid this problem, WRR introduced a second method of giving a numerical significance value to the apparent smallness of the 163 distances. They generate one million random permutations of the list of dates, and compute P2(names,permuted dates) one million times. If P2(names, dates) turns out to be smaller than P2(names,permuted dates) in most cases, then we know that names of rabbis tend to be closer to their own birth and death dates than to the birth and death dates of other rabbis. So we don't need to interpret the smallness of P2(names, dates) directly; instead, we simply see what proportion of the random permutations are smaller than P2(names,dates). This proportion turns out to be exceedingly small - 3 of 1,000,000, to be precise. (We say that the "permutation rank" of the list of names and the list of dates is 4/1,000,000). This is a rather impressive quantitative measure of the proximity of ELSs for words with related meaning, and Witztum-Rips-Rosenberg conclude that it cannot be due to chance.

The biggest problem with this argument is that it still depends on some human input, which may have been tuned to generate the impressive final result. For example, one has to choose which designations to use for each rabbi. Maybe many "bad" designations (those that appear far from their corresponding dates) were omitted? Maybe several "good" designations were inserted artificially even though they are hardly ever used? If any of these were done, no wonder the 163 distances measured are unnaturally small as a group! In a future publication we plan to detail these problems (and a few others) in greater depth. (An intermediate partial report in [BM] demonstrates that there is enough flexibility in the definition of the data to allow an equally strong result to be "cooked up" for War and Peace.)

When one of us (Bar-Natan) confronted Prof. E. Rips with these problems, he gave several answers (to be discussed elsewhere), but also added that anyway, since the publication of [WRR1], he and his colleagues had generated several new samples that produced highly significant results and that involved no human input at all (beyond the choice of general topic). He suggested to Bar-Natan that he study these samples too. The purpose of this paper is to report our findings in relation to the "Nations Sample", the one that Rips told Bar-Natan to study first, presumably because he thought it was in some sense the best.

Raphael's Noah
Raphael's "Noah and his Sons building the Ark", 1517.

In brief, the Nations Sample is the following: (Full details are in [WRR2, WRR3]).

As a first list of words, take the 68 names of descendants of Noah, as they appear in [Genesis, chapter 10] (there are 70 descendants listed in that chapter, but two of the names repeat - wba and cvylh). As a second list, of words with related meaning, take exactly the same 68 names, only with the prefixes io (nation of), aru (country of), wpt (language of), and ktb (script of) appended in front of each one (plus some additions, see below). To justify their choice, they refer to a tradition that each of the original 70 nations of the world (according to the Bible, the descendants of those 70 persons) has four attributes: its name, its country, its dialect, and its script. In addition to these four attributes, WRR sometimes associate with each nation X a few more words: the construct Xyo, meaning "the people of X", and newer names for the nation of X and the country of X. These associations are made only for some nations, subject to some rules that we will review (and criticize) in section 4. The lists they get are reproduced in table 1. Within this paper, we divide their list of `related words' into two parts: the "regular part", consisting of columns 2-5 of table 1, and the "irregular part" consisting of columns 6-8 of that table.

Once again, when distances are computed between the ELS occurrences of the descendants of Noah and the `related words' in table 1, the results are astonishing. The resulting P2-score is 2.59817 10-6, and the permutation rank is even more impressive - according to our computations it is 15 out of one billion (109), according to [WRR2] it is 4 out of one billion, and according to [WRR3] it is 17 out of one billion! Again, WRR argue that this cannot be due to chance.

We note that there is some difference of methodology between [WRR1] and [WRR2, WRR3]. In [WRR1], the distance measure c(w,w') is defined by searching for occurrences of both w and w' as ELSs, and by computing (in an appropriate way) the distance between these occurrences. In [WRR2, WRR3], the distances are computed (in much of the same way) between ELS occurrences of w' (with skip greater in absolute value than 1) and straight or reverse occurrences of w (i.e., occurrences with skips +1 or -1). All the words w that are considered in [WRR2, WRR3] are names of descendants of Noah, and by the nature of their definition, they all appear in [Genesis, chapter 10] with skip +1. This difference of methodology explains the "Relation to the Text" in the title of [WRR2] - what [WRR2] seem to prove is that there is a relationship between the "coded" occurrences of the words w' in columns 2-8 of table 1 and the "straight" occurrences of the words w in the first column of that table. For a technical reason, WRR restrict the definition of c(w,w') to words w' that have between 5 and 8 letters. No such restriction is imposed on the word w.

In this paper we criticize those impressive results of Witztum, Rips, and Rosenberg, and show them to be invalid. We show that there is much more choice in making up table 1 than meets the eye; enough choice to generate a similar result in several control tests. More importantly, we show that whenever WRR had to choose, they somehow knew to make the choice `correctly' - namely, to make the choice that makes their result appear more significant. We find this difficult to accept if the data was correctly prepared without peeking at it first. In section 2 below we present a strong piece of evidence that such `tuning' was done: we measure the P2 score of the same list of 68 names with 136 other lists, obtained by adding 136 different reasonable prefixes to these names. We get 136 scores (that seem to be pretty random, as a whole), and it turns out that 3 of the 4 prefixes that WRR use, io, ktb and wpt, are the top 3 scorers in our list of 136! This is a rather improbable result; we believe it suggests that Witztum, Rips, and Rosenberg cheated and tried (either directly or indirectly, see section 2) many possible prefixes before deciding which four to use. They've added the fourth prefix, aru, only because they needed to build a reasonable story around the other three.

Could it be that WRR first had the story and only then chose the prefixes? Even if so, the fact that there are many other very good possible prefixes whose P2 success is rather low, means that in this context there is no unusual proximity of ELSs for nations and related notions. But anyway, we explain that this possibility is rather unlikely. The question boils down to "how many as-good stories are there?". If there are many, how come they've picked just the right one? And so we spend the rest of section 2 criticizing their story. The following section, section 3, shows that there are very many good stories indeed. In fact, so many that we could choose one that got a permutation rank of 5/108 on a control text! (The regular part of their sample, involving only the four prefixes, gets a permutation rank of only 566/108).

In section 4 we present some more evidence that WRR tuned their data to get the results they wanted. In section 4.1 and section 4.2 we consider a few variations of the irregular part of their sample. In all cases we find that the variations we considered are `worse' than the original, suggesting that the original was somehow optimized. In section 4.3 we report on a few experiments that by the WRR logic should have been successful, but aren't. In section 4.4 we report on some global choices WRR had in arranging their list. There we find some variations of the WRR experiment that improve its results slightly, but it seems that testing these variations was almost impossible given the technical means that were available to WRR.

Following a brief disclaimer in section 5, we discuss our results and present our conclusions in section 6.

1.1. Some technical notes

Unless otherwise noted, the computations reported in this article were carried out using the program WRR gave us, els2.c. We modified it to work under Unix and re-wrote the permutation test part, but made no modifications to the main part of the code. The text of Genesis and the text of War and Peace we used were also given to us by WRR, though we've modified the text of War and Peace to get the text WGP, as described in section 3.

1.2. Acknowledgements

We are sad to report the untimely death on March 21, 1998, of Dr. Michael Weitzman of the University of London. Michael was an authority on the Aramaic scriptures. His criticisms, advice and encouragement were of great value to us. We will miss them just as we miss him.

We also wish to thank Maya Bar-Hillel, Alec Gindis, Gil Kalai, Michael Sokoloff, and the others who helped, for their suggestions and support.

2. The choice of prefixes

Let X be a name of a nation, as in [Genesis, chapter 10]. The WRR results are that ELSs for X tend to appear in close proximity to ELSs for ioX, aruX, wptX, and ktbX. If this is so, it is unnatural to believe that this phenomenon is restricted to these four prefixes. We would expect that X would also appear in close proximity to bnyX, to mljX, to abyX, and to X itself, without any prefix. With that in mind, we made a list of some 129 possible prefixes, and tested them all. Only prefixes in the length range 2-4 were considered. Longer prefixes produce very few distances, as attaching them to a nation name nearly always gives a word longer than 8 letters or a word with no ELS. Later on we tried a few additional prefixes, and we decided that it is better to disregard a few prefixes whose original inclusion was based on an error (misspelling, irrelevance). We were left with some 136 reasonable prefixes, shown in table 2. (The prefixes we decided to disregard are shown in table 3, to allay any suspicion that we were selective in our choice of prefixes.) We then computed the P2 score corresponding to each one of the table 2 prefixes. The results of this computation are shown in table 4. The prefixes in that table are ordered by increasing P2 score. Some have a very good P2 score, some have a bad P2 score. Overall, it seems that the P2 scores observed are distributed rather evenly in the relevant range (between 0 and 1), and the corresponding permutation ranks (also shown in table 4) exhibit behavior not unlike what one would expect (see section 7 for a detailed analysis).

This by itself is a significant piece of evidence against the work of WRR. Essentially, we have just performed 132 attempted reproductions of the WRR experiment (4 of our 136 prefixes are the 4 used by WRR). If there were any truth in the phenomenon of codes, we'd expect to see many "good" P2 scores and permutation ranks (values near 0), and only a few bad ones (values near 1). This is not what we get, and hence we view our 132 attempted reproductions of the WRR experiment as 132 failures.

But this is not all. Take a closer look at table 4; the biggest question mark regarding WRR's work is right there. If they did not have some prior knowledge, how does it happen that three of their four prefixes are the top three successes in table 4?

It is pointless to compute the odds of that happening by chance alone; some prefixes are clearly "better" than others. If codes do exist in the book of Genesis, they are probably more likely to speak of io gmr (the nation of gmr) than of wyr gmr (the song of gmr). But why don't the codes speak about obvious and often-used constructs such as bny gmr, (people of gmr) mlj gmr (king of gmr), al gmr (God of gmr) or xba gmr (army of gmr)? Can one seriously say that ktb gmr (script of gmr) is more likely to be coded than dgl gmr (flag of gmr), zri gmr (seed of gmr, offspring of gmr) or ceay gmr (sins of gmr)? And who would have guessed that the Vilna Gaon would himself suggest the prefixes nmvs (laws of, manners of) and lbvw (dress of, clothing of), that a-priori seem somewhat artificial? (See section 2.2). While we cannot put a number on it, it is clear that the chance of picking the top three prefixes from within so many possibilities without any prior knowledge is very small.

(Just to get a feel for the scale: if there are just 50 prefixes and they are all equally likely, the probability of choosing four at random and finding that three of them are the top three is 1 in 4,900. If there are 100 such prefixes, the probability drops to 1 in 40,425.)

So maybe some prior knowledge was available to the authors of [WRR2, WRR3]? We can't tell exactly how they gathered such knowledge. Maybe they stared at rectangular-shaped printouts of the book of Genesis for a very long time, until they found a few anecdotal appearances of io gmr or wpt mgvg, and only then they decided to turn it into a full scale sample? Maybe they found ELSs for, say, arpkwd, continued them backward and found that they tend to be preceded by ktb, and only then they've decided to use the prefix ktb in their sample? Maybe they simply made up a table like our table 4, decided to use io, ktb, and wpt, and then cooked up a good story around these prefixes and added the prefix aru to make the story look better?

This brings us to the question, how good is the story? True, we have 132 failed replications and thus at least as many question marks, but maybe the wonder isn't with the non-existent success of the many prefixes in table 4, but rather in the nice story woven around the top prefixes in that table? After all, maybe the mere fact that such a nice story can be sewn around the top successes is by itself a miracle? The experiment is not a quantitative proof of that, and putting probabilities next to it (as WRR attempt to do) is silly, but still, isn't it impressive enough? So our next task is to try and see how good the story really is, and how hard it is to make up stories just as good.

2.1. How good is their story?

Here's the story, as WRR tell it in [WRR2]:

Jewish tradition further tells us ([VG1]), that a nation has the following four characteristics:
  1. its name.
  2. its country.
  3. its language.
  4. its script.
The Book of Job
The opening page of a 15th century Italian printing of the book of Job

Let us take a closer look at the relevant section in [VG1], a commentary on the book of Job by the Vilna Gaon:

 ydvi ky himyo bktby qdw hyv nbdlyo barbih inynyo. a, bwmvtyho. ky kl io nqra il
wo abyho hrawv` awr yvxayo mmnv kmv kvw mxryo pve kni` vkdvmh mhimyo awr id hyvo
hzh nqrayo kl zrio mxryo advmy hkl il wo hrawv`. b, bwo mdynvtyho. ky wmvt hmdynvt
nqrayo g"k bwo hmysdo kmv aru mxryo. hnh nqrat hmdynh i"w hmysd avth vk` aru kvw
aru kni` vkdvmh. g, blwv`. ky lkl a' hskymv lwv` myvcd vnqra lwv` mxry lwv` kvw.
hd, bktb. awr lkl a' yw ktb myvcd. vh` arbih inynyo hlh wamrnv hmxao mpvrw bmamr
brawyt yv"d alh bny wo lmwpcvto llwvnvto barxvto lgvyho. mwpcvto hva hhbdl ha' mh
whavmh bkllh nqrat il wo raw hmwpch awr mmnv ncxbh. llwvnvto hva hhbdl hg' who mtclpyo
klo blwvnvt mtclpvt wvnvt zh mzh. barxvto hva hhbdl hb' vysvb il wmvt mdynvto. vhhbdl
hd' bktb hva mrvmz g"k bmamr lmwpcvto lgvyho wkl avmh nqrat gvy bp"i bay` mcsvr dbr.

In plain English (our translation),

It is known that nations in the holy scriptures are distinguished by four characteristics: 1) by their name. For each nation is called after their first father from whom they descend, viz. Cush Mitzraim (Egypt), Phut, Canaan, etc., so that until the present day they are called Egyptians, Edomites, all on account of the originator. 2) By the name of their country. For the names of the countries are also called after the founders, like the land of Egypt - it is named after its founder. Similarly the land of Cush, the land of Canaan and so on. 3) By dialect. For each nation agreed upon a special dialect which is called the Egyptian dialect, the dialect of Cush. 4) In script. As each nation has its own script. These four characteristics you can find explicitly in Genesis chapter 10: "These are the sons of Shem according to their families, their dialect, in their lands, according to their nationalities." The phrase "their families" is the first distinction - that the nation as a whole is named after the head of the family from which it was hewed. "Their dialect" is the third distinction - that they all differ with distinct dialect for each. "In their lands" refers to the second distinction - and turns on the names of their countries. The fourth distinction - in the script - is also hinted at in the passage "their families , their nations" - that each and every people is called a "nation" unto itself without lacking anything.
The Vilna Gaon
The Vilna Gaon

Let us see what choice of prefixes would seem to follow if we accept the Vilna Gaon's defining characteristics of nationhood. The third characteristic is dialect - lwv` is the word that the Vilna Gaon uses to describe dialect, and it is the word that the Torah uses. But instead, WRR use the word wpt. Notice that that the prefix wpt is very successful for their purposes (see table 4). Indeed, the words wph and lwv` are not completely synonymous. According to the commentary of Rabbi S. R. Hirsch [Hi] to this passage, wph should be translated as "language" while lwv` means "dialect".

Now let us turn to the first criterion - description by "name". The most reasonable constructions suggested by the Vilna Gaon's explanation would be to apply the prefix wo (name of), or to use the plain name of each nation without any prefix. Both possibilities give poor results. Instead, WRR chose to use the prefix io, which only makes sense if it refers to the actual forefather - the nation of Gomer, for example. But WRR use it even as a prefix to the plural forms - the nation of the Ludites, in which case it has nothing to do with the Vilna Gaon's first criterion. Furthermore, the Torah uses the word gvy for nation, not io. The Vilna Gaon in a commentary related to this chapter [VG2, on Isaiah 1:4] makes a point of explaining the distinction in meaning between these two terms. The prefix gvy performs much worse than io, so again it seems that the choice made by WRR to use io was to optimize their outcome, not as a result of any objective criterion.

There is a bit of additional "story" in [WRR2]. They say they choose the prefixes io, aru, and wpt because they appear as prefixes in "Biblical expressions", and that using ktb as a prefix would make a "Biblical formation" where a "Biblical expression" does not exist. This very much seems like an ad-hoc excuse, and different and as good ad-hoc excuses could have been invented to support the prefix lwv` (used by the Vilna Gaon in the above quote derived from [Genesis, chapter 10]), the empty prefix, or, for that matter, almost any other prefix. Furthermore, it is hard to take seriously the "Biblical expression" excuse, that applies to only 3 of the 4 prefixes and that applies just as well to many other prefixes that fail miserably. We also note that the issue whether a word is Biblical or not didn't seem to matter when WRR assembled columns 7 and 8 of table 1, where even misspelled non-Hebrew words are used.

In summary, the prefixes chosen by WRR are but poorly supported by the story they bring in support of them. Prefixes more obviously suggested by their story do much worse.

2.2. Why Vilna Gaon on Job?

Why look at [VG1], the Vilna Gaon's commentary on the book of Job, and not at [VG2], in his commentary on [Isaiah 1:4]? There the Vilna Gaon says:

 acr hmbvl ntclqv lwbiyo avmvt ao bsybt pyrvd mwpch vmwpch lixmh,
av mcmt lwvnvt mvplgvt, av arxvt mvplgvt, av nymvsyo mvplgyo,
vz"w lmwpcto barxvto llwvnvto lgvyho. ... 

In short, the Vilna Gaon says that after the Deluge the people split into 70 nations, and lists four reasons: different families (the prefix mwpct, "family of"), different dialects (the prefix lwv`), different countries (the prefix aru), and different laws (the prefix nmvs). Running the permutation rank program on Genesis with these four prefixes, the rank we get is 6/100, about 10,000 times worse than the rank the four WRR prefixes get, even though we share one prefix with them. Using the alternative spelling nymvs instead of nmvs the score is 9/100 - even worse. Using mnhg instead of nmvs we do a bit better and get a score of 3/100 (still 5,000 times worse than WRR), but we cannot justify this replacement either by reading the Vilna Gaon quote shown above or by reading the Bible, where the meaning of mnhg is "driving" or "charioteering", and not "laws" or "manners". Were WRR just lucky to choose the Job commentary over the Isaiah commentary?

The Book of Isaiah
A paragraph from the Book of Isaiah, the dead-sea scrolls edition

In yet another place, his commentary on the book of Esther [VG3], the Vilna Gaon writes

...ky havmvt nclqyo bd' dbryo, bktb vlwv`, varu - ..., vbmlbvwyo.
.. because the nations differ by 4 attributes, by script ktb and dialect lwv`, and country aru - ..., and by dress mlbvw.

Here we are led to consider the four prefixes ktb, lwv`, aru, and mlbvw (or lbvw). With two prefixes in common with WRR, the permutation rank here is a mere 8/1000. Replacing mlbvw by the shorter and equivalent lbvw, we get 89/1000. Replacing it by the common bgd, we get 31/1000. Were WRR just lucky to choose the Job commentary over the Esther commentary?

The book of Esther
A 17th century Italian manuscript of the book of Esther

Another possibility is to read one of the verses on which the Vilna Gaon bases his commentaries, [Genesis 10-5]:

malh nprdv ayy hgvyyo barxto, ayw llwnv, lmwpcto, bgvyho.
The King James translation of this verse is
By these were the isles of the Gentiles divided in their lands; every one after his tongue, after their families, in their nations.
The prefixes suggested here are ay (isle of), aru (country of), lw` (tongue of, meaning dialect of), mwpct (family of), and gvy (nation of). The permutation rank is 130/1000, another failure.

2.3. "The people of X"

Why did WRR consider the column labeled Xyo in table 1? If X is a name of a country, the plural form of X is usually Xyo, and in Hebrew it is a reference to the people of that country. If the country is ywral, the people of that country are the ywralyo. The Vilna Gaon almost certainly makes no reference to that form (he only writes mxryo which is usually vocalized as mitsrayim (in the Bible), not mitsrim, and is not a plural, and advmy, which is a singular (though in one source we've seen [VG1] quoted with advmyo; we think advmy is more authentic, but we could be wrong). So it's not clear why the column Xyo is at all present in table 1. It's neither "the name of X", nor "the nation of X", nor is it required by reading [VG1]. Anyway, there are at least two equally valid ways to refer to "the people of X": bnyX and anwyX. Looking at table 4, we see that neither one is a great success.

3. "Tuning" on War and Peace

Let us now see how easy (or hard) it is to invent stories like WRR's so as to get similar results on another text. There is a slight problem; for the distance function c(w,w') to be defined, the word w has to appear in the text with no skips. But very few texts other than Genesis contain in them words such as ptrsyo. So we had to create our own text. We took an initial segment of a Hebrew translation of Tolstoy's War and Peace of the same length as Genesis, and replaced a part of it by chapter 10 of Genesis, so as to ensure that all the relevant names will indeed be found. We placed the Genesis graft in War and Peace in its original location in Genesis, from letter number 11,570 to letter number 12,692, and called the resulting text WGP (War Genesis Peace). The text WGP is available at http://cs.anu.edu.au/~bdm/dilugim/Nations/WGP.txt. (It is worthwhile to note that the Genesis piece inserted in WGP comprises only 1.4% of its total length, and fully contains only about 0.02% of the ELSs in WGP). We then computed the P2-score of the prefixes in table 2. The results are in table 5. Finally, we went fishing for stories that could justify building a sample around some of the top prefixes in table 5. Here are three such stories (an additional brief story is in section 4.3.1):

3.1. The first story - Leaders

The most obvious story is to say that each nation has leaders, and hence we should expect a phrase like mlj mgvg (king of mgvg) to appear not very far from mgvg. Hence we take our prefixes to be mlj, mlky, wr, wry, raw, and rawy (king of, ruler of, leader of, in both singular and plural). Running the permutation test program with these prefixes as input and on the text WGP we get a score of 149/1,000,000. Not as good as the WRR choice of four prefixes, whose Genesis score is about 6/1,000,000, but nice enough for a first attempt.

There is a small problem here. Could it be that the surprising correlation we just found on WGP is due to the "G" (Genesis) part that we grafted in? If so, then the same list of 6 prefixes should do at least as well on the original Genesis. But its Genesis score is only 393,814/1,000,000, relieving our worries.

mlj mxryo
King Khafre of Egypt

3.2. The second story - Celestial Guardians

We now explain how the choice of the prefixes mlky, wr, iyr, and alhy can be derived from the commentary of the great medieval scholar, Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, known as the Ramban (and also as Nachmanides to the English speaking public). In his commentary to [Leviticus 18:25] he discusses the celestial beings who represent and supervise the Nations of the world. We quote him at length. In the following quote the above four prefixes are clearly used, and the Ramban explicitly makes reference to our chapter in Genesis - the Table of Nations - in his commentary (we follow Chavel's translation [Na]):
But the secret of the matter is in the verse which states "When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when He separated the children of men, He set the borders of the People" etc. "For the portion of the Eternal is His people" etc. [Deuteronomy 32:8-9]. The meaning thereof is as follows: "The Glorious Name" [ibid. 28:58] created everything and He placed the power of the lower creatures in the higher beings, giving over each and every nation, "in their lands, after their nations" [Genesis, 10:31] some known star or constellation, as is known by means of astrological speculation. It is with reference to this that it is said. "which the Eternal thy G-d hath allotted unto all the people", [Deuteronomy 4:19] for He allotted to all nations constellations in the heavens, and higher above them are the angels of the Supreme One whom he placed as Lords (wryo) over them, as it is written, "But the prince (wr) of the kingdom of Persia withstood me" [Daniel 10:13] and it is written there, "lo the prince (wr) of Greece shall come" [ibid, 20]. They are called "kings" (mlkyo) as it is written [there] "and I was left over there beside the kings (mlky) of Persia" [Daniel 10:13]. Now "the Glorious Name" [Deuteronomy 28:58] is "G-d of gods (alhyo), and Lord of lords" [Deuteronomy 10:17] over the whole world. But the Land of Israel, which is in the middle of the inhabited earth, is the inheritance of the Eternal, designated to His name. ...

... nations over whom He appointed princes (wryo) and other celestial powers (alhyo), ...

... since He is the G-d of gods Who rules over all, and He will in the end "punish the host of the high heaven on high", [Isaiah 24:21] removing the celestial powers and demolishing the array of the "servants", and afterwards He will punish "the kings of the earth upon the earth" [Ibid.]. This is the meaning of the verse stating "The matter is by the decree of `irin' (iyry`) (the wakeful ones) and `sh'elta' (the sentence) by word of the holy ones" [Daniel 4:14], meaning, the matter that was decreed on Nebuchadnezzar [that he be driven from men and he eat grass as oxen etc.] is the pronouncement of the guarding angels and the sentence of the word of the holy ones, who have ordained on the powers emanating from them that it be so. They [the angels] are called irin (iyry`) [literally: "the wakeful ones"] because from their emanations proceed all the powers that stir all activities, similar to that which it says, "and behold `ir' (iyr) (a wakeful one) and a holy one came down from heaven. He cried aloud and said thus: Hew down this tree" etc. [Daniel 4:10-11]. ...

... This is the meaning of the expression, "and he will go astray after the foreign gods (alhy) of the land", ...

Notice that he uses the phrase mlaj (angel) as the supervisor or wr of the constellation of each nation. In this connection he uses the phrase wr yv`, for example, to illustrate his principle. He maintains that these supervisory angels can also be referred to by the prefix mlky and also illustrates it by referring to mlky prs. He also refers to these guardian angels as alhyo and as iyry`. For this reason, we may feel fully justified in choosing as our prefixes mlky, wr, iyr, and alhy. Notice that these four words all appear explicitly (three of them as prefixes) in the above quotation. When a word appears in the quotation in both singular and plural form, we always prefer the (shorter) singular form. When it appears only in plural form, we can't know if it is reasonable to use it in singular form and hence we keep it in plural form.

alhy yv`
Greek Gods

alhy awvr
The Goddess Ishtar
The Assyro-Babylonian Goddess of love Ishtar.

Running our program again, using these four prefixes on the text WGP, we get a permutation rank of 5/108, about 100 times better than the WRR prefixes on Genesis! Once again our prefixes get a boring result on Genesis (310,817/106), so our result is not due to the G piece in WGP.

Seal of the Ramban
The personal seal of the Ramban

3.3. The third story - Genesis ain't a War Epic

Our third story is admittedly the weakest, but it is instructive and fun. And after all, what's life without a smile here and there?

Consider the prefixes cyl (army of, corps of), gdvd (battalion of), crb (sword of), and alpy (thousands of, family of, part of the tribe of). The first three are clearly war-related. The fourth also feels war-like to the Hebrew-trained ear. That feel is confirmed by the verse

"vyqrbv al mwh hpqdyo awr lalpy hxba wry halpyo vwry hmavt",
from [Numbers 31:48] .
"And the officers which were over thousands alpy of the host, the captains of thousands, and captains of hundreds, came near unto Moses".

It is quite un-surprising that such a war-like lineup of prefixes does well on the war-epic-based WGP, getting a permutation score of 6/1000. It is just as expected that on Genesis, a book of creation and holiness, this lineup fails miserably, getting a permutation score of 999,460/1,000,000.

Napoleon's retreat from Waterloo
Napoleon's retreat from Waterloo, June 17, 1815

The Creation of Adam
Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam"

3.4. Stories, Stories, Stories

In this section we have shown some stories that produce good scores in WGP. None of them are perfect, but at least one is as good as WRR's (who didn't even use the actual prefixes their story gave).

Of course, the real question is not how many successful stories can be found for Genesis or WGP. The real question is: faced with a set of prefix performances which are essentially random, what is the probability that a successful story can be woven around some of the best prefixes? It is a very difficult question, but our success with WGP and the experience it gave us suggests that the probability is quite good. The number of potential stories is so vast that one of them is almost certain to be a winner.

Obviously we could also use our data to concoct additional stories that give good results for Genesis. Readers should remember that our case is that finding good stories is easy for any text.

4. More evidence

4.1. The plural form

[WRR2] explains the column labeled Xyo in table 1 as follows:
Concerning the expressions "Xyo" [meaning: the people of X], we are aware of the fact that only valid linguistic formations should be used; therefore we use these expressions if, at least, their singular form Xy appears in the Hebrew Bible. For instance, for gmr (item 1) we do not take gmryo, since the expression gmry does not appear in the Hebrew Bible; so we cannot know whether it has any meaning at all. The check was done using Even-Shoshan's New Concordance of the Bible (Even-Shoshan, 1981).

The decisions WRR made in this paragraph seem completely arbitrary. Why not take all plural forms? In most cases no Hebrew speaker would have any difficulty deciding what the correct plural gentilic form of a given nation's name is, even if no hints are given in the Bible. Alternatively, why not require that the plural appears explicitly in the Bible? And why remove the definite article from nations 36-44 (from hybvsy through hcmty)? This they did without even telling us about it even though they kept it except in this place. In addition, it seems that WRR did not even fully comply with the rule they stated above, for they have taken awvryo as the plural form of awvr. The word awvryo does not appear in the Bible, and the word awvry appears there once, in reference to the tribe of awr. When the people of awvr are mentioned in the Bible, they are called awvro. Finally, there is a problem with the treatment of lvdyo. See below.

Asher by Chagall
Marc Chagall's "awr"

It turns out that if WRR's mistake is corrected or if any of their decisions is reversed, it always weakens their result. Is it reasonable to assume that WRR knew which column to choose if they didn't try some of the other possibilities? Here are the relevant scores in a tabular form: (the raw data is in table 6)

Table 7: Permutation test scores (out of 106) for the various choices regarding the plural form.
WRR WRR without awvryo WRR with awvro WRR without lvdyo Common Sense Extension Explicit Plural In Chapter Keep h All With h
Number of words considered 33 32 33 32 62 23 19 33 33
Score 4,836 28,534 44,661 14,683 119,448 70,361 133,070 18,745 609,227

Let us explain the columns of this table.

4.2. The identification of the nations

[WRR2] explains the columns labeled "new nation name(s)" and "new country name" in table 1 as follows:
In Talmudic literature we find various new names for nations and countries, and we cannot decide in favor of one against the other. We preferred to use a single source. The Aramaic translation of Genesis that gives the largest number of new names is Targum Yonatan. We used Targum Yonatan as printed in Torah Shelemah (Kasher, 1929) (with Torah Shelemah's corrections according to the Ginsburger manuscript and others). ...

... Targum Yonatan is a translation into Aramaic. We need the identifications of the nations, but we do not intend to check whether the Aramaic appears non-randomly as ELS's. Thus, where the Hebrew formation exists, we used it alone.

... Here, as in [WRR1], we used the grammatical orthography - ktiv dikduki.

In this section we wish to study how reasonable was WRR's choice of a source, how faithfully they followed it, and whether the idea of looking for the "new" identifications of the nations and the countries was sound to start with.

4.2.1. On orthography and on back translation

"Grammatical Orthography", supposedly used in [WRR2, WRR3], was defined in [WRR1] by reference to the entry for "ktyb" in the Hebrew-Hebrew dictionary [ES]. The definition given there for grammatical orthography (ktiv dikduki) is (our translation) "some words are spelled using defective spelling, ktyb csr, and some using plene spelling, ktyb mla, according to the rules of the masoretic grammar [the grammar used in the masoretic Bible] ... In our time, grammatical orthography is common only in vocalized texts [texts with nikud]. The orthography in this dictionary is grammatical orthography ...". In other words, the notion of grammatical orthography is simply not defined for words in foreign languages such as Aramaic. Also, when WRR write "where the Hebrew formation exists...", what exactly do they mean? Clearly, there is some choice in deciding what is the precise Hebrew formation parallel to some Aramaic word. So overall, WRR left themselves much freedom in transcribing Ginsburger's Targum Yonatan. Let us see how they used this freedom. In so far as we could tell, WRR obtained their list of identifications from Ginsburger's Targum Yonatan (as printed in [Ka]) using the following procedure:
  1. For any given nation, look at the identification(s) in the text of Targum Yonatan and the identification(s) in the Ginsburger footnotes. Ignore all identifications that differ from the original nation name only by a minor spelling change (iyrq versus irq, for example).
  2. If the identification(s) in the text and in the footnotes differ, the footnotes take precedence.
  3. Several identifications are given in the Aramaic plural form, with the letters "ay" appended at the end of the word. If the identification at hand is a new country name, WRR keep the suffix "ay" in place. If it is a new nation name, they translate the suffix into the Hebrew form "yo".
  4. Finally, the following 7 corrections are made (some, presumably, because of the back translation into Hebrew, and some, presumably, to comply with grammatical orthography): hmdyy gets replaced by hmdy, mqdynya by mqdvnya, akyya by akya, irbya by irb, lvbay by lvb, and pnepvlyeyh by pnepvlyey, and mvvryeynvs gets altogether dropped. (The last two corrections are irrelevant to the end result because the words involved are longer than 8 letters).
We've tried several variants of the WRR procedure. First, some of the 7 corrections WRR made seemed unnatural. Why is hmdyy replaced by hmdy? The original Targum Yonatan is not vocalized with the exception of a very few vowel signs, but in [Ka], the word hmdyy is vocalized, and there's a Hiriq under the first Yud. In this vocalization, it is senseless to remove the second Yud. Why is mqdynya replaced by mqdvnya but apryqy is not replaced by apryqa or apryqh and erss is not returned to the form trwyw? Why is akyya replaced by akya? The word akyya is not vocalized in [Ka] and neither akyya nor akya appear in the Bible, so the change is at least optional. Why is lvbay replaced by lvb but smray is not replaced by smr? In each case, one may come up with some excuse, but one could also come up with an equally valid excuse for making a different decision.

As it turns out, undoing any of the first 5 of the WRR corrections weakens their result (and the last 2 are irrelevant, as noted above):

Table 8: Permutation test scores out of 106.
WRR (columns 7 and 8 of table 1) turning hmdy
back to hmdyy
turning mqdvnya
back to mqdynya
turning akya
back to akyya
turning irb
back to irbya
turning lvb
back to lvbay
4,277 11,891 11,872 5,737 5,599 9,105

It is interesting to note that the job of back-translating Targum Yonatan into Hebrew was carried out earlier, for completely different purposes, by Rieder [Ri2]. We have extracted the Hebrew formations out of [Ri2], and kept the Aramaic where [Ri2] gave no parallel Hebrew formations, getting a new list of identifications. This list (which has a better claim to be "correct" than the WRR list, as it was made in advance by an independent professional) is shown in the column titled "WRR with Rieder's Hebrew (literal)" in table 9. The column titled "WRR with Rieder's Hebrew (modified)" is the same, only that we've attempted to convert Rieder's original spellings into what appears to be the WRR notion of correct spelling - namely, we've reduced double Yuds into single Yuds and used the word both with and without the vowel "a" when it appears as a "mater lectionis" (see [WRR1]). The column titled "WRR - Modified Ginsburger" contains the original WRR choices. The results of the permutation test for these lists of identifications are shown in table 10. The two "Rieder's Hebrew" lists get results which are about 100 times weaker than the WRR result!

Note. WRR often prefer to spell geographical names with a final a, rather than with a final h. When the final h's in the two "Rieder's Hebrew" columns are replaced by a's uniformly (except for brbryah, which ends with a h even in the "WRR" column), the permutation test scores are slightly better but they are still statistically insignificant and around 50 times worse then the WRR score. For the "literal" column the score is 157,726, and for the "modified" column it is 230,659.

Table 10: Permutation test scores (out of 106) for other choices of spellings and back translations.
WRR - Modified Ginsburger WRR with Rieder's Hebrew (literal) WRR with Rieder's Hebrew (modified) WRR, reducing vv WRR with yo WRR with ay WRR with h
4,277 401,722 462,379 10,036 4,752 9,036 9,325

The other columns in table 9 and table 10 are:

A quick glance at table 10 shows that these additional reasonable spelling variations give results weaker than WRR's. How did WRR know which precise translation scheme was best for them?

After this section was completed, Doron Witztum issued a paper [Wi] in which he gave the following clarification of his 'ktiv dikduki' rule:

The original quote reads, "For words in Hebrew, we always choose what is called the grammatical orthography ...". Note that we specifically say "words in Hebrew," not "Hebrew words" - that is, any word which has been rendered into Hebrew, even if derived from a foreign language, is to be written in grammatical orthography. The only expressions which do not fall under this rubric are words derived from languages which themselves use Hebrew characters, such as Yiddish and Ladino, because these languages do not need to be rendered into Hebrew. This rule was followed consistently in the construction of both published lists regarding all foreign names.
We sincerely wonder if Mr Witztum really believes what he wrote, as both the English phrase "words in Hebrew", and the Hebrew phrase "mlyo bibryt" (which is how the rule appears in [WRR3]) mean "words belonging to the Hebrew language", which does not include foreign words merely transliterated into the Hebrew script. Nevertheless, our present interest in the quotation concerns the reason given for excluding Yiddish and Ladino. It is obvious that Aramaic fits the same conditions perfectly. Therefore, according to Mr Witztum's own interpretation, whether or not it makes sense, we should not apply 'ktiv dikduki' to Aramaic words, nor in fact modify their spelling in any way. Obviously this contradicts what he did in [WRR2].

In any case, the primary issue is not whether it is defensible to apply 'ktiv dikduki' to Aramaic words. The primary issue is whether it was required of WRR to do that. The answer is clearly that they had a choice, as they had not considered Aramaic words before (to our knowledge) and their rule can be argued to apply or not very easily. As we have demonstrated, they made the decision in the way most favorable to themselves and then applied it in the most favourable way, even to the extent of making advantageous errors.

4.2.2. A bit on Targum Yonatan

What is "Targum Yonatan"? The Talmud relates that Yonatan ben Uziel, a student of Hillel, fashioned an Aramaic translation of the Prophets. It makes no mention of any translation by him of the Torah. So all scholars agree that this Targum is not due to Yonatan ben Uziel. Indeed, de Rossi [de Ro] (16th century) reports that he saw two very similar complete Targumim to the Torah, one called Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel and the other called Targum Yerushalmi. A standard explanation, cf. for example [Go] is that the original title of this work was Targum Yerushalmi, which was abbreviated to t"y, and these initials were then incorrectly expanded to Targum Yonatan which was then further incorrectly expanded to Targum Yonatan ben Uziel. For this reason, scholarly publications generally refer to the work as Targum Pseudo-Yonatan.

The first of these manuscripts cited by de Rossi is thought to have been the basis of the first printing in Venice (1591) where the false title Targum Yonatan ben Uziel is used. The second manuscript - the only known one to still exist - is in the British Museum and was published by Ginsburger in 1903. This formed the basis for Rabbi Kasher's editorial notes in his Torah Shelemah. Unfortunately, Ginsburger's work was unreliable, so the whole basis of the choices of WRR is without foundation. More on this later.

The so-called Targum Yonatan ben Uziel is more than a mere translation. It includes much Aggadic material collected from various sources as late as the Midrash Rabbah as well as earlier material from the Talmud. So it is a combination of a commentary and a translation. In the portions where it is pure translation, it often agrees with the Targum Onqelos.

As to the date of its composition, this is a matter of dispute. The majority opinion, on the basis of much internal evidence, is that it cannot date from before the Arab conquest of the Middle East despite incorporating some older material. For example, Ishmael's wife is called by the legendary Arabic name Fatimah. Such evidence is summarised in [Ma]. As an upper bound, it is referred to (perhaps for the first time) in 15th century commentaries. Gottleib [Go] puts the time of composition toward the end of the eighth century. On the other hand, since the Geonim are unfamiliar with it, and Rashi doesn't mention it, Rieder [Ri1] puts the composition some time after Rashi, perhaps during the period of the crusades. The one surviving manuscript was probably written in the 16th century and is an unknown number of generations removed from the original.

Now to Ginsburger's "corrections" which were incorporated by Rabbi Kasher into his Torah Shelemah. Rieder (Leshoneinu vol 32. p.298) demonstrates that Ginsburger's edition is full of errors and incorrect copying and that it confused the printed version with manuscript and vice versa. Rieder writes as follows in the introduction to his edition [Ri1]:

The many errors in the edition of Ginsburger have tripped up many investigators in their work. Outstanding among these is Rabbi M. M. Kasher, in his Torah Shelemah where he copied the errors of Ginsburger or his "corrections" as if they were actually in the manuscript.
He goes on to give many startling examples of such false "variants".

The third author would like to record here his fond memory of many pleasant and instructive conversations he had with Rabbi Kasher over 40 years ago. Rabbi Kasher was a man of great warmth, intelligence, and wit. In a work of such encyclopedic proportions as the Torah Shelemah, it was inevitable that he had to rely on the scholarship of others, rather than to examine all manuscripts himself. It is unfortunate that he was tripped up by Ginsburger.

4.2.3. Other identifications of the nations

To remedy the poor choice of the Ginsburger "corrections" made by WRR, we have also run the permutation program using the Rieder edition of the Targum Yonatan, and using the Targum Yonatan manuscript printed in [Cl]. The identifications of countries and nations in the Rieder edition of Targum Yonatan and in [Cl] are presented in the columns labeled "Rieder" and "Clarke", respectively, in table 11 (note that we've treated the ay suffixes in the same way as WRR). The columns labeled "Modified Rieder" and "Modified Clarke" in table 11 are the same, only that we've tried to back translate Rieder and [Cl] to Hebrew and use "grammatical orthography" following the precedents in [WRR2, WRR3]. The column labeled "Ginsburger" in table 11 contains the source of the Ginsburger "corrections" as it appears in [Ka], and the column labeled "Modified Ginsburger" is the same, only modified as in [WRR2, WRR3] - in other words, it is simply the WRR choice of identifications.

We have also run the permutation program on several other plausible lists of identifications (well, at least no less plausible then WRR's choice). These lists are also printed in table 11, under the columns labeled "Targum Yerushalmi" and "Modified Targum Yerushalmi" (Targum Yerushalmi as printed in [Ka]), "Talmud Yerushalmi" and "Modified Talmud Yerushalmi" (Talmud Yerushalmi as in the Responsa database [Re]), "Talmud Bavli" and "Modified Talmud Bavli" (Talmud Bavli as in [Re]), and "Midrash Rabbah" and "Modified Midrash Rabbah" (Midrash Rabbah as in [Re], Vilnius version).

The results of these runs of the permutation program are printed in table 12. The rows labeled "#" in that table contain the number of identifications appearing in each source.

Table 12: Permutation test scores (out of 106) for the various country and nation identifications.
Source: Ginsburger Rieder Clarke Targum Yerushalmi Talmud Yerushalmi Talmud Bavli Midrash Rabbah
# 39 39 34 22 16 10 22
Score: 66,445 721,658 686,283 54,081 870,221 453,783 482,268
Source: WRR - Modified Ginsburger Modified Rieder Modified Clarke Modified Targum Yerushalmi Modified Talmud Yerushalmi Modified Talmud Bavli Modified Midrash Rabbah
# 38 37 32 22 16 10 22
Score: 4,277 353,231 285,627 180,365 104,791 85,065 563,935

This table clearly indicates that the decision WRR made (to use Ginsburger's Targum Yonatan) worked to their benefit.

One other thing that we tried was to collect all identifications appearing in Kasher [Ka]. After all, WRR explicitly write "in Talmudic literature we find various new names for nations and countries, and we cannot decide in favor of one against the other", and that they took Ginsburger's Targum Yonatan because it "gives the largest number of new names". So clearly, WRR think that the more the better, and clearly, as [Ka] is the source they've used, [Ka] was available for them. So according to their logic, taking everything that appears in [Ka] should give better results than just taking the identifications in Ginsburger's Targum Yonatan.

Oddly enough, the opposite turns out to be true, as shown in table 13, with the corresponding raw data in table 14. In table 14, the column titled "Kasher" contains the identifications appearing in Kasher in their literal form (except that we've treated the ay suffixes like WRR do), the column titled "Modified Kasher" is the same only that we've used the WRR precedents for back translation and grammatical orthography, and in the column titled "Modified Kasher, reducing vv" we've further reduced all occurrences of vv to v, as explained in section 4.2.1.

Table 13: Permutation test scores (out of 106) for the identifications appearing in Kasher's "Torah Shelemah" ([Ka]).
  WRR - Modified Ginsburger Kasher Modified Kasher Modified Kasher, reducing vv
# 38 138 128 127
Score: 4,277 251,140 9,615 27,120

We note that the Kasher data fully contains the Ginsburger data (by definition: the Ginsburger data appears in the Kasher book), and hence any optimization that WRR may have performed on the Ginsburger data (the choice of spelling rules and of back translation, the mere fact it was chosen, and chosen over other possible sources, the treatment of the ay suffixes) improves also the scores for the Kasher data. So it is of interest to note that if the Ginsburger data is removed from the three Kasher columns in table 14, the permutation scores drop to 586,547, 127,056, and 214,454 of 106, respectively.

For the amusement of our readers and to help them appreciate the wealth of data in Kasher's book that WRR ignored, we include one page out of Kasher's book as figure 1. (The PostScript version of this figure is available separately from the main PostScript file, at http://cs.anu.edu.au/~bdm/dilugim/Nations/KasherPage.ps).

4.2.4. More on Genesis, chapter 10

Chapter 10 of Genesis, known as the Table of Nations, is a unique document in all of ancient literature. Much effort throughout history has been devoted to identifying the nations named in the table. For a partial survey of the literature up to 1971, see the bibliographical references at the beginning of [We, Chapter 10]. A computer search has yielded many many more references. It is certainly not our intent to give a survey of this vast field, nor are we competent to do so. But a few remarks are in order.

For some of these nations, the identification is certain. Thus Yavan (yv`) is clearly Ionia, and Madai (mdy) is clearly Media since these names have survived unchanged down to our time. Some identifications are almost universally agreed upon, such as Gomer (gmr) being identified with the the Cimmerians (Kimmeroi) in the classical authors and Gimirrai in the cuneiform texts. Some suggestions are intriguing - for example Westerman's observation ([We]) that Japeth (ypt) (the name of one of the sons of Noah) agrees phonetically with the Greek Iapetos, one of the Titans in Greek mythology, the son of Ouranos and Gaia. Some of the identifications of the nations are in dispute, and some nations are completely unidentified.

The organizing principle of the list is also a matter of scholarly discussion. For example, [AARS, Kr, WF] suggest that the division is geographical: three spheres of peoples and lands which meet in the region of the Holy Land. Other organizing principles - by way of life, or by profession, for example - have been suggested. Some of the names seem to be place names, some names of tribes or peoples, and some names of individuals.

The Hebrew Table of Nations
The Hebrew table of nations according to [WF]

Suppose a (partial) list of identifications has been worked out in a given period and in a given language. In the course of time, this list of identifications will inevitably be corrupted, especially if the copyist does not speak the language and is completely unfamiliar with the geographical terms. For example, the printed version of the Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 10a) identifies Madai and Yavan as "Macedonia and 'as its name implies'". This is clearly a mistake. Yavan should have been identified as Macedonia, and the name Madai=Media is unchanged. Obviously the copyist or the typesetter, not understanding what he was dealing with, simply transposed the two identifications. (This particular error was caught by Rabbi Joel Sirkes, see Hagahot haBah ad locum.) In other places, where we do not know the correct identification of either the Hebrew original or the Aramaic translation, undetected errors are unavoidable. This is why the WRR experiment using names from the Targum Yonatan was meaningless from the start, even without the gaffe of using Ginsburger's incorrect version.

4.3. Other nice experiments

4.3.1. The relation to the text

The title of [WRR2] contains the phrase "the relation to the text". But instead of measuring the relation to the text, their distance function c(w,w') measures the relation to the text and to the reversed text - in the computation of c(w,w') the word w is searched for with both skip +1 (text) and skip -1 (reversed text). This means, for example, that in the computation of c(mw, aru mw), not only occurrences of the word mw in the text of Genesis are considered, but also all 519 occurrences of the word wo, whose meaning is completely different. Thus the phrase "the relation to the text" is false advertising, and should have been replaced by "the relation to the text and the reversed text".

If reverse occurrences of the word w are not considered in the computation of c(w,w'), in most cases this does not change the value of c(w,w') by much, because most names in column 1 of table 1 simply do not appear in the reversed text anywhere. But it is still amusing to note that the honest "relation to the text" result is 25/107 (computed using our own programs), about 150 times weaker than "the relation to the text and the reversed text" result computed by WRR.

At this point, when textual matters are at the height of our concerns, we are lead to consider the textual residues of the ancient nations, their books and their letters, and the semantic information we can gather out of these texts, the language, script, and orthography of these nations. Thus we are led to consider the prefixes spr (book of), mktb (letter of), wpt (language of), ktb (script of), and ktyb (orthography of). True to the current context, we test only the relation to the true text and not the relation to the reversed text. Doing so, we get a permutation rank of 19/1,000,000 for WGP. For Genesis, the permutation rank is 338/1,000,000, consistent with the fact that two of the prefixes we use here are taken from the WRR sample.

Note that we have found a reasonable experiment that gets quite a good result in two different texts simultaneously. The reader may choose to infer that achieving a good result in only one text is not much of a challenge.

Could it be that the WGP success is at least partially due to codes that lie entirely within chapter 10 of Genesis and have nothing to do with War and Peace? This would be the case, and it would weaken our point considerably, if it turns out that there are many ELSs for expressions of the form pX entirely within chapter 10 of Genesis, where p is one of the 5 prefixes listed above and X is one of the 68 descendents of Noah. But it turns out that the number of such ELSs in chapter 10 of Genesis is precisely zero.

4.3.2. The identifications of the nations and countries

Column 2 of table 1 contains phrases of the form ioX, "the nation of X", and column 7 of that table contains the "modern" identifications (at least according to WRR) of these nations. Pretending to believe WRR, we expect that ELS occurrences of the phrases in column 2 should appear close to ELS occurrences of the words in column 7. As most phrases in column 2 do not appear in the text or the reversed text, the appropriate distance function to use here is the one used in [WRR1]. The permutation rank one gets is 39/100 (on 7 measured distances) - completely insignificant. Similarly it makes sense to compute the permutation rank of column 2, ioX, against column 6, Xyo, using the distance function of [WRR1]. The result is 78/100 (on 20 measured distances). Finally, column 3, aruX against the identifications of the countries in column 8, gives 16/100 (on 5 measured distances).

4.3.3. An alternate form for "the language of X"

In Hebrew, just as the construct Xyo refers to "the people of X", so does the construct Xyt refer to "the language of X" (for example, when in [WRR3] WRR refer to the language in which Targum Yonatan is written, they call it "armyt"). This calls for another experiment - run column 1 of table 1 against a variant of column 6 in which all yo suffixes get replaced by yt. The result is 68/100 - a failure.

4.4. Some global choices

This section is different in nature from the previous ones (and from the following ones) in that it is the only one in which we report on permutation ranks that are meaningful only if evaluated using at least a billion permutations, a number so large that according to WRR (in [WRR3]) it was at the edge of what their computers could do. (Specifically, they write in a comment following table 6 of [WRR3] that they couldn't compute the P1 permutation rank (see [WRR1]) with a billion permutations because they lacked computer power). Thus, in all likelihood, WRR could not have performed the experiments reported below.

Some of the nations in [Genesis, chapter 10] appear there with some grammatical prefixes and/or suffixes, and not in the raw form. Namely, nations 36-44 (from hybvsy through hcmty) appear with both the definite article prefix h and the possessive suffix y, and nations 13, 14 and 26-33 (ktyo, ddnyo, and from lvdyo to kptryo) appear with the plural suffix yo. It makes sense to experiment with the raw nation names (without the prefixes and suffixes). Here are some results:

Table 15: Permutation test scores (out of 1010) for some global choices. (For the 3 largest scores we used only 109 permutations and then renormalized).
WRR Deleting h and y for #36-44 Deleting yo for #13, 14, 26-33 Deleting all grammatical prefixes/suffixes Ignoring repetitions
(see below)
P1 permutation rank
146 17,710 28 (137) 3,420 (12,030) 46 6


  1. Deleting the yo suffixes turns lvdyo into lvd and ddnyo into dd`. lvd and dd` are already nation names, and so the total number of nation names reduces to 66. The numbers not in parenthesis in table 15 result from a computation that ignores this fact. The way to treat this fact is suggested by the way WRR treated the fact that the names wba and cvylh each appear twice in [Genesis, chapter 10] - they just reduced the number of entries in their lists from 70 to 68. Doing the same we arrive at a list of 66 names, and to compute the permutation rank we have to choose random permutations out of 66! possibilities. The "corrected" scores are presented (when applicable) in table 15 in parenthesis.
  2. In addition we checked what happens if the original WRR experiment is re-evaluated completely ignoring repetitions of nation names, namely, using a total of 70 names. The results are on the column labeled "Ignoring repetitions" of table 15.
  3. Finally, we computed the P1 permutation rank of the original WRR sample. The result is reported in the column "P1 permutation rank".

In table 15 we find the only examples of modifications of the WRR experiment that improve its results. In view of the large number of modifications we examined, all that these exceptions indicate is that WRR did not "play" with these particular parameters (remember also that "playing" would have required more computer power than they had, by their own testimony).

5. How much more have we done?

In this context, very little. We've reported all the prefixes that we tried. We've reported all variations of the original WRR experiment that we tried, with the exception of a small number of variations that originated in an error (misreading of some source texts, typos, etc.). None of the variations that we didn't report changes the picture in any way; none gave extreme values, and none did better than the original WRR list.

The text WGP that we used for some of our examples was the second (of the two) that we considered (for that purpose). Before switching to WGP we played briefly with the same verse permuted version of Genesis that WRR used as a control text. But very quickly we realized that the fact that the text locations of the 68 names of nations in the permuted Genesis are evenly spread changes its statistical properties in a significant way and makes it a very poor control (see a further discussion in section 7).

5.1. Disclaimer

We made every effort to ensure that this article is free of substantial errors. But no scientific piece of work of comparable size can be entirely error-free. If you find any errors in this article, please let us know and we will fix them in the next edition (and add your name to the acknowledgements...).

6. Conclusions

WRR used the prefix wpt rather than the prefix lwv` used both in [Genesis, chapter 10] and in [VG1], even though the two prefixes have different meaning. This deviation from the originals is both highly unnatural and highly beneficial to WRR's purposes. It seems that a similar game was also played with the prefix io. This by itself is a clear indication that WRR looked at the data before assembling their final sample, and this by itself is sufficient to invalidate their results.

But as we have seen in section 2, this is not all. WRR managed to "guess" 3 of the most successful prefixes without being distracted by some much more "tempting" guesses such as bny or mlj, which are used in the Bible hundreds of times, without being distracted by other sources who wrote on chapter 10 of Genesis, without being distracted by other writings of the Vilna Gaon on that same chapter, and without letting the precise language used in [VG1] interfere. And as shown in section 4, almost every other aspect of their experiment is perfect or near perfect. Is this believable?

Reuven tosses a coin 20 times in a row, and 20 times in a row he claims that he guessed right which way it will fall, before it actually fell. Reuven clearly proved something to a significance level of 2-20. What did Reuven prove?

Finally, we know from section 3 and section 4.3.1 and from the experience we gained in [BM] that deliberate cheating can produce results that appear to be highly significant without really being so.

mlj tgrmh
King Midas of Phrygia
King Midas of Phrygia (according to Josephus Flavius, Antiquities of the Jews 1-6-1, Phrygia is tgrmh). Helenic tradition tells us that anything that King Midas touched turned into gold (play, epilogue-fable). Do Witztum, Rips, and Rosenberg have similar powers over significance levels?

6.1. A Personal note by the first author

I wish to express special thanks to Prof. David Kazhdan of Harvard University for his insistence (in public and in person) that the WRR claims on codes in the Book of Genesis deserve serious study, whatever the conclusions may be.

Much as I thank David for introducing me to this subject, and much as I learned from (but not enjoyed!) working on it, it is time for me to move on (and back) to other things, or else the harm already done to my career will grow fatal and my kids will go hungry. So except for some commitments I have already made (the most important of which is moral support to Brendan), I quit from this subject. This paper is sure to get a response from WRR, and I (and my co-authors) may get personally attacked. My future lack of response should not be interpreted as my inability to respond, but rather as my concern for my family.

I first approached the results of WRR with a great deal of scientific (and personal) curiosity. The results of [WRR1], and even more so, of [WRR2, WRR3], seemed very solid, and, if true, they would have been one of the most significant human discoveries ever. As the findings reported here have unfolded, my curiosity turned into anger, and over the 5-6 months that we spent writing this paper, my anger got replaced by fond memories of the good old times before all of that, when I was studying honest mathematics. It is a good time to quit.

7. Appendix: Notes on the Metric

This appendix is more technical in nature than the rest of the paper, and is intended for the more mathematically and/or statistically oriented readers. In this appendix we study some of the technical features of the distance function c(w,w') and some aspects of the statistical methodology used in [WRR2, WRR3]. We show that c(w,w') has some undesired features that lead to a failure of the statistical analysis of [WRR2, WRR3]. Thus, even if the serious problems uncovered in the main part of this paper were not present, one could not take the significance result reported by WRR, of some parts in a billion, as anything meaningful.

The basic problem should be clear to anyone who studies table 1. The Nations Sample is about the c(w,w')-distance between the words in the column labeled X and the words in the other columns. But there is an obvious structural correlation between these two sets of words; most of the words w' in columns 2-8 are just extensions of the corresponding words in the first column. Therefore their lengths are correlated and their letter-contents are correlated. Thus there is a clear structural difference between the identity permutation and any other permutation; anybody (even a computer) can pick out the identity permutation from within a billion random permutation by looking at completely structural properties of the lists, completely independently of the text, without the need of any understanding of the historical or theological context.

It is the job of the distance function c(w,w') and the statistical analysis to filter out this effect. They should have been designed in such a way that the obvious structural peculiarity of the identity permutation would not give it any a-priori advantage (or disadvantage) over a randomly chosen permutation. Unfortunately, c(w,w') and P2 do not do their job properly, and the identity permutation remains distinguished. This undermines the permutation test and renders its results invalid.

In section 7.1 we show the results of some very brief tests we did on control texts. A distinct non-uniformity in the permutation ranks is noted, especially at the extremes. However, Genesis does not seem at all exceptional from this point of view. In section 7.2 we offer some preliminary discussion.

7.1. The permutation test on control texts

We begin by summarising the behaviour of the permutation text for Genesis and WGP, applied for our 136 prefixes. The raw data for some of this table appears in table 2.
Table 16: Statistics of various permutation ranks for the 136 prefixes in the texts Genesis and WGP. (All numbers computed using our program, not WRR's).
Genesis WGP
binoriginalrestrictedforward originalrestrictedforward
0212317 232528
1191721 111012
212914 171310
3121317 121410
410116 141212
59129 11157
6111014 5514
7161417 11108
814167 151413
9121114 171822
min5364931465 5274753429
mean463298463125457162 473084477535481131
max990821990921996492 997088998727997716
  1. The columns marked "original" concern the metric as WRR define it. The nation names may appear forwards and backwards, and there is no restriction on the placement of the ELS of the second word. The columns marked "restricted" are the same, except that ELSs lying entirely inside the section of the text containing Chapter 10 of Genesis are ignored. The columns marked "forward" are like "original" except that the nation names must appear in the forwards direction.
  2. The first ten rows show the numbers of prefixes for which the rank order lies in each of bins 0,1,...,9, where bin i contains permutation rank orders 100000i+1 through 100000(i+1) out of a million.
  3. The last three rows show the smallest, average, and maximum rank orders out of a million.

Several things can be seen from the table. There does seem to be an excessive number of ranks in the smallest bin, and the minimums appear to be smaller than expected. (For 136 independent uniform variables, the expected minimum is 7299.)

One might imagine in that evidence of codes, but that would be unfounded. A minimum of 500 or less is not very unlikely (almost 6.6% if the ranks are uniform and independent). Moreover, the minima for Genesis and WGP are about the same, and the tiny differences between the "original" and "restricted" distributions show that to be not primarily due to the Genesis 10 portion of WGP. Standard goodness-of-fit tests fail to show any difference between the distributions for Genesis and WGP, even though they do verify that the overall non-uniformity is probably real.

To investigate whether non-uniformity and exaggerated extremes are the norm, we ran the same tests on 10 control texts. We generated each control text by randomly permuting the order of the words within each verse of Genesis except for the verses in Chapter 10. Chapter 10, where all nation names are found in a specific fixed order, was left alone in order to make the comparison with Genesis and WGP more meaningful.

The results are tabulated below. ELSs within Chapter 10 are ignored, just as for the "restricted" columns in the previous table. (However, as for the previous table, this restriction makes hardly any difference.)

Table 17: Statistics of the permutation ranks for the 136 prefixes in ten control texts. (All numbers computed using our program, not WRR's).
binText 0Text 1Text 2 Text 3Text 4Text 5Text 6 Text 7Text 8Text 9
01519222318 1714131919
1131381512 613181318
2171316158 1813151113
31314797 1618101211
49713710 1291377
51611131216 5128108
610792222 108131810
791320109 1311151610
81315151414 2315131113
9212413920 1622181927
min53143991 1584608874 49791806184 62472481
mean504905517197 496493458654534142 519963522828505910 512851514246
max999807999923 999141997583999864 999849999229997025 991129998778

The most obvious characteristic of these distributions is their inconsistency. A few are near-uniform, but others are skewed markedly in the positive or negative direction. Both the minima and maxima appear exaggerated.

Several things should be clear from these results. Firstly, WRR's assumption of uniformity in the rank orders is unfounded, as many of the texts give profoundly non-uniform distributions. More importantly, the non-uniformity may be more pronounced at the extremes of the distribution where WRR measure their "significance levels".

7.2. Discussion

Given the absence of any real evidence of a non-chance phenomenon, it is hard to see much justification for the months-long study that would be needed to understand the permutation test properly in this context. However, we can make a few pertinent observations.

Take the artificial example of two nation names, ABCD and EFGH, and two prefixes, WX and YZ. If EFGH has many ELSs (compared to perturbed ELSs) with a letter close to an appearance of ABCD in the text, then both c(ABCD,WXEFGH) and c(ABCD,YZEFGH) have an enhanced probability of being small. Similarly for the opposite extreme. Thus, c(ABCD,WXEFGH) and c(ABCD,YZEFGH) will tend to be positively correllated. This applies to each pair of prefixes, but the degree of correllation will depend in a complicated manner on the lengths of the prefixes and the letters they contain.

This correllation between the prefixes could partly explain the overall non-uniformity evident in the tables above. It also undermines the WRR result severely, as they use four prefixes at once and they will tend to reinforce each other. However, it is not clear whether the correllation adequately explains the actual shape of the distribution or the exaggerated extremes.

Another contribution to the confusion is the natural clumpiness of letter distributions through the text. If w and w' have letters in common, this clumpiness will tend to make c(w,w') smaller than expected. Obviously, this favors the identity permutation especially.

Other factors are operating as well, but we don't pretend to know their effect. Our lack of understanding is illustrated by the absence of any plausible theory to explain the exaggerated maximum scores in our experiments. However, we are not embarrassed by this situation. The embarrassment belongs to WRR, who used their defective methods without even acknowledging that there were questions to be asked about them.

A final point to make is that even if Genesis gave profoundly different results from randomly-generated control texts, we would not know the reason. Anyone with a small amount of Hebrew can see at a glance that Genesis is not random, so why should we expect it behave as if it is? Natural texts have many statistical properties that random texts don't, including clumpiness of letter distributions at all scales, short-range correllations, and perhaps [ASEAS] long-range correllations. How do we know that WRR's ELS experiment is not just measuring some property of natural texts? (Recall that in WRR's experiment the identity permutation is structurally distinct!) The question suggests using other natural texts as controls, but why should we expect those to behave quantitatively like Genesis? The lack of suitable controls for computer analysis of biblical texts is a well known dilemma. See [Bar] for a discussion.

8. Bibliography

Y. Aharoni, M. Avi-Yonah, A. F. Rainey and Z. Safrai The MacMillan Bible Atlas (third edition), MacMillan, New-York 1995.
M. Amit, Y. Shmerler, E. Eisenberg, M. Abraham and N. Shnerb, Language and Codification Dependence of Long-range Correlations in Texts, Fractals 2 (1994) 7-13.
M. Bar-Hillel and W. A. Wagenaar, The Perception of Randomness, Advances in Applied Mathematics 12 428-454 (1991).
D. Bar-Natan and B. McKay, Equidistant Letter Sequences in Tolstoy's "War and Peace", draft, 1997.
D. J. Bartholomew, Probability, Statistics and Theology, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society A 151 (1988) 137-178.
E. G. Clarke, Targum Pseudo-Jonathan of the Pentateuch: text and concordance, Ktav Publishing House, Hoboken New-Jersey 1984.
A. Even-Shoshan, A new dictionary of the Hebrew language, Kiryat-Sefer, Jerusalem 1989.
Z. Y. Gottleib, Targum Yonatan ben Uziel al haTorah, Melila 1 (1944) 26-34.
S. R. Hirsch, Hamishah humshe Torah, English translation by M. Ha-Levi, Judaica Press, Gateshead 1976.
M. M. Kasher, Torah Shelemah, (1929).
E. G. Kraeling, Rand McNally Bible Atlas, Rand McNally, New York 1956.
M. Maher, Targum Pseudo-Jonathan: Genesis, Volume 1B of The Aramaic Bible, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville 1992.
The Nachmanides, hrmb"`, Commentary on the Torah, prvw htvrh, translated and annotated by C. B. Chavel, Shilo, New-York 1971-76.
C. F. Pfeiffer, Baker's Bible Atlas, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, 1961.
D. Rieder, Targum Yonatan ben Uziel al hamishah humshe Torah, hu'tak miktav yad London, British Museum Add. 27031, im hearot vetikunim me'et David Rieder, haAkademyah haAmerikanit lemada'e haYahadut, Jerusalem 1974.
--, Targum Yonatan ben Uziel al haTorah, meturgam leIvrit im be'urim zionei mekorot umakbilot, Jerusalem 1984.
The Bar-Ilan Responsa CD-ROM, version 5, Bar-Ilan University, Israel.
[de Ro]
dei Rossi Azariah ben Moses, Meor Enayim, Makor, Jerusalem 1969/70.
The Vilna Gaon, A Commentary on the Book of Job, spr dbr alyhv, bavr il spr ayvb.
--, Aderet Eliyahu, adrt alyhv.
--, A Commentary on Megilat Esther, spr mgylt astr.
C. Westerman, Genesis 1-11, a Commentary, English translation, Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis 1984.
D. Witztum, E. Rips and Y. Rosenberg, Equidistant Letter Sequences in the Book of Genesis, Statistical Science 9-3 (1994) 429-438.
--, -- and --, Equidistant Letter Sequences in the Book of Genesis: II. The Relation to the Text, preprint, circa 1995. Retyped copy available at http://cs.anu.edu.au/~bdm/dilugim/Nations/WRR2/.
--, -- and --, xp` cbvy bdylvg wvvh bspr brawyt: mvbhqvt seeyseyt wl htvpih, (Hidden codes in Equidistant Letter Sequences in the Book of Genesis: The Statistical Significance of the Phenomenon), Preprint accompanying a lecture given by E. Rips to the Israeli Academy of Sciences, 1996.
D. Witztum, A Refutation Refuted, Part 2. Available as a PDF file.
G. E. Wright and F. V. Filson, The Westminster Historical Atlas to the Bible, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia 1956.

Attachments: table 1, table 2, table 3, table 4, table 5, table 6, table 9, table 11, table 14, figure 1.

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© Copyright (1998) Dror Bar-Natan drorbn@math.huji.ac.il, Brendan McKay bdm@cs.anu.edu.au, and Shlomo Sternberg shlomo@math.harvard.edu.