A Nephilim Messiah in a Rabbinic Commentary?

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:

Amos 9:11.

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.

Derivatives

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).

[iii] Ibid.

[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…”

[vi] Micheal S. Heiser, “The Meaning of the Word Nephilim: Fact vs. Fantasy,” http://www.michaelsheiser.com/nephilim.pdf (accessed 10/01/2012).

[vii] Philologos, “Shelter…”

[viii] Ibid.

 

Who were the Nephilim? A Response to Herescope & Larry DeBruyn

Pastor Larry DeBruyn has written a reply in response to my defense of  Tom Horn and Chuck Missler which he posted at his own website here and at the herescope site here. I respect him as servant of the Lord, as well as the folks at Herescope who usually seem to be well intended. I have no personal axe to grind but I will call it like I see it. The original article entitled “Doomsday Datesetters 2012” is hyperbolic and inaccurate as both Missler and Horn are outspoken against date setting. I find this unfortunate as I have admired the work of Sarah Leslie in the past.

DeBruyn’s essay is well written and reflects more serious scholarship than the previous offering. While he acknowledges that the “sons of God” are certainly to be understood as supernatural beings, he advocates an odd non-contingent interpretation of the Nephilim’s relationship to the “sons of God.”  His interpretation lacks force as no ancient commentator nor modern Hebrew scholar I can find agrees with it. Exegesis is about getting to what the original author meant, not simply offering possible readings. This was all addressed thoroughly enough in my original post (refer to the quote form the Word Biblical Commentary).  Scholarship aside, I find his essay objectionable because DeBruyn has quoted me out of context, appropriating the same misleading methodology as Gaylene Goodroad.  DeBruyn writes:

Based upon this interpretation, this critic of the Herescope post cavalierly dismisses Mrs. Goodroad’s alternative interpretation “as an example of very poor exegesis” and that “there really is no valid scholarship to suggest otherwise”?[4] Condescendingly, he asserts that Mrs. Goodroad’s take is “histrionic” (i.e., meaning “excessively emotional or dramatic”).[1]

While it is easy to burn straw men, it doesn’t advance the discussion. This is a demonstrably unfair and inaccurate presentation of my criticism. I certainly did call her exegesis poor and her criticism histrionic but he has taken it out of context. I wrote “she seems histrionic in her assertions:” punctuated with a colon in specific reference to her accusation that the majority opinion amongst scholars (the supernatural offspring view) is a “scheme to downplay the importance of the incarnation…it takes away from Christ’s uniqueness, virgin birth, atonement” and that it “diminishes the Gospel!”[2] I wonder if she will also accuse Francis Schaeffer of “scheming to downplay the incarnation.” It is histrionic and patently absurd. My original criticism is actually quite generous. DeBruyn continues:

In his fine commentary on Genesis, Allen Ross notes “four predominant interpretations of the ‘sons of God’: they are

  1. the line of Seth, the godly line;
  2. fallen angels;
  3. lesser gods; or
  4. despots, powerful men.”[6]

As evidenced by reading both the Horns’ and Goodroad’s interpretations, both fall within the interpretative options Ross lists; the Horns identifying with number two, and Goodroad with number four. Obviously, if Goodroad’s interpretation falls within the fourth category, it is unfair to call her understanding “poor” and “histrionic.”

Again “histrionic” only seems unfair divorced from the context I offered it in. Why does he resort to such misleading antics? It is also important to note that the fact that a commentary lists four views says nothing about their validity. As my original post documented Hebrew Bible scholars are in wide agreement that the text means the Nephilim were the offspring of the fallen angels and human women. The commentary I quoted presented textual and historical evidence. Proper exegesis is to interpret a passage on its own terms interacting with the original languages. The goal is the author’s intent. Neither Goodroad nor DeBruyn are doing that in my opinion. They are relying on English translations and seem to have a preconceived agenda. That her exegesis was poor is also evidenced by her referring to the term “Watchers” as some sort of apocryphal device when it is used by the prophet Daniel in canonical scripture (Dan 4:13, 17, 23). Not to mention, that she argues the Nephilim were simply “big bullies” rather than supernaturally endowed. DeBruyn presents a slightly better argument by G. Charles Aaslders:

It has been correctly pointed out that the text establishes no causal connection between these two historical phenomena. In fact, the text specifically states that the giants were already present when the “sons of God” produced children by the “daughters of men.”[3]

If this is so, I wonder why the vast majority of Hebrew scholars see it otherwise. This is where exegesis comes into play. Using the Hebrew/English reverse interlinear in my logos bible software I quickly see that the Hebrew text of Genesis 6:4 reads:

The key term here אֲשֶׁר, rendered “when” in English also carries the meaning of “because.”

834 אֲשֶׁר, בַּאֲשֶׁר, כַּאֲשֶׁר, מֵאֲשֶׁר [’aher /ash·er/] . A primitive relative pronoun (of every gender and number); TWOT 184; GK 889 and 948 and 3876 and 4424; 111 occurrences; AV translates as “which”, “wherewith”, “because”, “when”, “soon”, “whilst”, “as if”, “as when”, “that”, “until”, “much”, “whosoever”, “whereas”, “wherein”, “whom”, and “whose”. 1 (relative part.). 1a which, who. 1b that which. 2 (conj). 2a that (in obj clause). 2b when. 2c since. 2d as. 2e conditional if. [4]

That definition surely supports a causal relationship.  I will be the first to admit that I am not a Semitic languages scholar but Dr. Michael Heiser, the academic editor for logos bible software, is a recognized authority. I emailed him the above argument by Aaslders that there was no causal connection and that the Nephilim were already present. He wrote back,

“I know of no grammatical possibility for this – ask him to produce it.”

Pastor DeBruyn, that is an invitation from Dr Heiser to mount an argument from the Hebrew grammar that supports a non-causal interpretation.  As far as DeBruyn’s view that there was nothing genetic going on with the Nephilim he contends,

Via the mating process, the “sons of God” appeared to have transgressed the created order of life, terrestrial and extraterrestrial, by infusing the “the daughters of men” with supernatural powers that they in turn, and in an occult way, passed on to the nephilim-gibborim, powers that might be compared unto those that will belong to the “man of sin” at the end of the age,[5]

While this is an interesting theory and likely has truth to it, I don’t understand the pressing need to divorce the account of any space-time material substantiality.  Angels manifest as physical beings in the bible, for instance the “men” that visited Abraham come to mind (Gen 18). The men of Sodom surely had little doubt about their material potential (Gen 19:5). But DeBruyn concludes,

In short, the Genesis record does not support the fantastic construct that the change in the nephilim was physical. When the sons of God took the daughters of men to wife, the nephilim were already giants.[6]

Again a quote from a dated commentary will not suffice. This is not supported by exegesis and it doesn’t make much sense logically. The text connects them firmly to the offspring of the angels (Gen 6:4). While I don’t know if it was genetic or purely supernatural, I suspect it was both. How can anyone say that there was no genetic component?  Giantism is a genetic condition and the biblical text also supports further evidence of mutations,

And there was again war at Gath, where there was a man of great stature, who had six fingers on each hand, and six toes on each foot, twenty-four in number, and he also was descended from the giants.(2 Sa 21:20)

That sure sounds physical to me!

 

 


[1] Larry DeBuryn, “Demons, Daughters and DNA,” http://guardinghisflock.com/2011/06/22/demons-daughters-and-dna/ (accessed 6/24/2011).

[2] Gaylene Goodroad, “DOOMSDAY DATESETTERS 2012,” http://herescope.blogspot.com/2011/06/doomsday-datesetters-2012.html (accessed 6/24/2011).

[3] G. Charles Aalders, Genesis: Bible Students Commentary, Volume I, and William Heynen, Translator (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981): 156.  [As quoted by Deburyn]

[4] James Strong, The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible : Showing Every Word of the Text of the Common English Version of the Canonical Books, and Every Occurrence of Each Word in Regular Order., electronic ed. (Ontario: Woodside Bible Fellowship., 1996), H834.

[5] DeBuryn, “Demons, Daughters and DNA”

[6] Ibid.

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