By Cris Putnam
I was recently sent a link to this article from The Jewish Daily Forward’s website by an anonymous author, Philologos, who imagines (mystical music begins) the existence of an esoteric Rabbinic tradition for a nephilim messiah. He bases this wild conjecture on an actual rabbinic commentary. Here it is in English from a reputable source:
Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 96b–97a.
… R. Nahum said to R. Isaac: ‘Have you heard when Bar Nafle will come?’ ‘Who is Bar Nafle?’ he asked, ‘Messiah,’ he answered, ‘Do you call Messiah Bar Nafle?’—‘Even so,’ he rejoined, ‘as it is written, In that day I will raise up [97a] the tabernacle of David ha-nofeleth [that is fallen].’ He replied, ’ Thus hath R. Johanan said: In the generation when the son of David [i.e., Messiah] will come, scholars will be few in number, and so for the rest, their eyes will fail through sorrow and grief. Multitudes of trouble and evil decrees will be promulgated anew, each new evil coming with haste before the other has ended.[i]
It is also on the web here. Notice that in the version of the above posted in the linked article Philologos is presupposing his conclusion by adding this so-called translation: “Bar-Niflei [‘the son of the Nephilim’]” surreptitiously:
“Rabbi Nachman [a fourth-century C.E. sage] asked Rabbi Yitzchak: ‘Do you know when Bar-Niflei [‘the son of the Nephilim’] will come?’ He [Yitzchak] answered: ‘Who is Bar-Niflei?’ He [Nachman] said: ‘The Messiah.’ [Yitzchak said]: ‘You call the Messiah Bar-Niflei?’ He [Nachman] replied, ‘Yes, because it’s written [in Amos], On that day I will raise up the sukkah of David that has fallen [ha-nofelet].’”[ii]
The connection to the word “nephilim” is purely the web author’s idea, not the Rabbinic commentary’s:
There is a pun here on nofelet, “fallen,” and nefilim or (as it is more commonly spelled in English) nephilim, the legendary celestial creatures described by the book of Genesis as descending to earth in the generations before the Flood and begetting offspring with humankind.[iii]
There are two glaring problems in this assertion. First, it is not at all clear the Rabbis were making a pun between the word “fallen” and the “nephilim.” This is a real Rabbinic commentary on Amos 9:11 a passage in which the context is “the fallen booth of David” and the restoration of Israel. James associates it with Christ and the church in Acts 15:16. The Hebrew word for fallen is very common:
1392 נָפַל (nāpal) I, fall, lie, be cast down, fail.
1392a נֵפֶל (nēpel) untimely birth, abortion (Job 3:16; Eccl 6:3).
1392b מַפָּל (mappāl) refuse.
1392c מַפָּלָה (mappālâ) a ruin (Isa 17:1).
1392d מַפֵּלָה (mappēlâ) a ruin (Isa 23:13; 25:2),
1392e מַפֶּלֶת (mappelet) a carcass (Jud 14:8), ruin (Ezk 31:13), overthrow (Ezk 32:10). [iv]
There is no actual connection to the nephilim in the original rabbinic source, that is an imaginative leap by the web author Philiologos based on a very superficial similarity between the Hebrew word for fallen and nephilim.
Both words come from the Hebrew verb nafal, “to fall,” and in both ancient Jewish and Christian sources, the Nephilim are sometimes depicted as fallen angels who rebelled against God and were cast down to earth from heaven.[v]
Actually, he is mistaken on both points. First, in Genesis 6 the nephilim are the offspring not the fallen angels, this is the same error made by Patrick Heron. Second, Hebrew grammarian, Michael Heiser has demonstrated convincingly that the “fallen ones” translation for the term “nephilim” is an error albeit a common one. Because of the ‘i’ vowel it really derives from an Aramaic word, “naphil ” meaning “giants” which is why the LXX and all the ancient sources rendered it “giant.”[vi] (Follow the footnote for the grammatical argument by Dr. Heiser.) Furthermore, the context of Numbers 13:33 clearly supports the “giant” rendering. Finally, because the word fallen is a very common word as shown above, it is a fanciful leap to connect an unrelated use of “fallen booth” in Amos 9 to the nephilim. It’s actually silly if you think about it. Even so, Philologos writes:
This passage is intriguing and mysterious. The appellation Bar-Niflei was obviously not a common one for the Messiah, not only because it occurs nowhere else in early rabbinic literature, but also because Rabbi Yitzchak has never encountered it and is surprised, perhaps even shocked, to hear it used that way. Perceiving his reaction, Rabbi Nachman seeks to extricate himself by explaining that it is a reference to the verse in Amos — an explanation that is hardly tenable on either grammatical or contextual grounds. It is clearly a hasty improvisation on his part.[vii]
The above is rank speculation by the web author Philologos. Then he makes a leap to an imaginary esoteric tradition which has no support other than his own imagination:
The conclusion would seem to be that Rabbi Nachman was privy to an esoteric tradition about the Messiah’s descent from the Nephilim that, upon becoming aware of Rabbi Yitchak’s ignorance of it, he did not wish to share with him. But what could this tradition have been? The Nephilim are not positive figures in rabbinic lore; on the contrary, they are described there as outcasts from God’s presence who sowed corruption on earth. Is the Messiah, like Aaron Corbett, one of their latter-day descendants who, gifted with their more-than-human powers, becomes a force for good? Could there have been a connection between such a belief and the Christian doctrine of the Messiah’s divine paternity? We are left knowing no more than Rabbi Yitzchak. We don’t even know whether or not he was taken in by Rabbi Nachman’s sukkah.[viii]
This is why the term ‘nonsequitur’ was invented. It really would only vaguely “seem to be” if we accepted his connection between the very common word fallen and nephilim which is grammatically no connection at all. This whimsical stretch is just a leap by the web author. There is not a shred of evidence presented for the “esoteric tradition.” The original Rabbinic commentary is specifically referenced to Amos 9 and it is talking about the fallen booth of David. The nephilim messiah is nephilim nonsense.
Addendum: One possible explanation (bar Nafale = Son of the clouds) was offered by a biblical scholar here.
[i]Tom Huckel, The Rabbinic Messiah (Philadelphia: Hananeel House, 1998), Am 9:11.
[ii] Philologos, “Shelter From the Storm: Familiar Prayer About a Sukkah Has Little To Do With Sukkot” http://forward.com/articles/163435/shelter-from-the-storm/#ixzz284B24Zbk (accessed 10/01/2012).
[iv]R. Laird Harris, Robert Laird Harris, Gleason Leonard Archer and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 586.
[v] Philologos, “Shelter…”
[vii] Philologos, “Shelter…”