By Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz
“The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.” (Genesis 6:1-4)
Giants are generally thought to be found in fairy tales and fables, but surprisingly, they also play an important role in the Bible. While everyone knows the story of David and Goliath, giants have a significant role much earlier in the timeline of the world and may even play a role in the Messianic process.
Characters referred to as Nephilim, literally “the fallen”, are described in the sixth chapter of Genesis, before the flood. In the pre-flood era of Noah, the Bible says that the “Sons of Elohim” cohabited with the daughters of men, and God immediately decided to limit man’s lifespan to one-hundred and twenty years. The offspring of these unions were called Nephillim.
Elohim is one of the names of God used in the Torah, usually referring to His aspect expressed through nature and judgment. This would make the term, the “Sons of God”, a theologically problematic term for most everyone. Elohim is also used to mean a human judge as well, and some sources understand that to be its meaning here.
The Rashbi, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, is a sage from the 2nd century during the Roman persecution who appears extensively in the Talmud and is the originator of the Zohar, the foundational work in the literature of Jewish mystical thought known as Kabbalah. He warns against understanding the use of Bnei Elohim in this verse to mean “the Sons of God”, and most sources explain it to mean angels.
Classical interpretation of the Bible relies heavily on the Midrash, a tradition of stories and fables that help explain the basic text. A remarkable Midrash appears in several sources explaining the appearance of the Nephilim, the fallen ones, as being a product of angels.
The Midrash relates how, before the flood, mankind was sinning greatly and God began to regret creating man. Three angels – Shamchazai, Uza, and Uzziel – came to God and said they could replace the sinning men, repopulating the world with perfect angels. God warns them that they will sin even more, however they persist in their claim. God relents, and when the angels descend into the world and see the daughters of men, they sin, and their descendants are the Nephilim, described as giants, that are mentioned again later in the Bible.
There are several important points in this story. Prominent Rabbinic sources describe the angels’ jealousy of man’s role in serving God, inevitably illustrating how man has the ability to transcend the angels by overcoming the difficulties and temptations unique to creatures of flesh and blood.
Another source in the Babylonian Talmud relates that Sihon and Og, two kings mentioned later in the Bible, were descendants of the angel, Shamchazzi. The Midrash states that Og was alive in the time of Noah but escaped the flood by clinging to the side of the Ark. In Genesis 14:13, a “fugitive” (Palit) comes to tell Abram about Lot’s capture. Og was named in Deuteronomy 3:11 as the only remaining man from the Rephaim, a biblical race of giants, and his bed was described as being enormous and made entirely of iron .
The Nephilim are mentioned again in Numbers 13:33. The 12 Spies were sent into the Land of Israel and reported, “There we saw the Nephilim, the sons of the Giant of the Nephilim, and we were in our eyes like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes.” Anak, translated as “enormous”, was the archetypal giant and father of the race of men that lived in Hebron.
The Midrashic sources explain that Anak was Og, one of the descendants of the Nephilim, and the fugitive from the flood. Another Midrash tells how Og attacked the Jews in the desert and Moses killed him.
There is a connection between the reappearance of these giants and the coming of the Messiah. In the Talmud, Sanhedrin 97a, there is a discussion between Rav Nachman and Rav Yitzchak.
Rav Yitzchak asks, “Do you know when Bar Naphli (the sons of the fallen) will come?” Rav Yitzchak asks, “Who are the Bar Naphli?” Rav Nachman answered, “It is Messiah”.
Rav Nachman brings down a verse from Amos 9:11, “On that day will I raise up the fallen tabernacle (Sukkah) of David and I will build it as in the days of old.” The Talmud goes on to describe the difficult times preceding the Messiah. This section of the Talmud also explains that the Messiah will come the year after a Sabbatical cycle is completed, as was explained in a Breaking Israel News article.
“Bar Naphli” in the Talmud clearly refers to specific people who both Rav Yitzchak and Rav Nachman have heard of, and who Rav Nachman connects with the coming of the Messiah. As noted previously, the Hebrew verb “Naphal” translates as “fall” but here, in the Talmud, the word is “Naphil’ in Aramaic. In the language of the Talmud, Naphli means “‘giant”.
By the discussion in the Talmud, it seems clear that these Bar Naphli, giants, will return in time to usher in the Messiah.