Sunday, January 10, 2010

Nefilim, Refaim, Anakim: Biblical Giants

[Goliath (and David, prematurely crowned) from Kaufmann Ms. of the Mishneh Torah, at www.hum.huji.ac.il/cja/IJA2.htm ]

Many cultures have traditions of a primordial race of giants. The Greeks have the Titans, the Irish the Fomor. Jews too. Among the monstrous beings mentioned in the Bible, few get more attention then giants. Goliath the Gittite, of course, is the banner example, but it turns out he is only the most prominent of many.

The basis for the tradition of a race of giants is Gen. 6:4, the same locus classicus for the tradition of fallen angels. The angels, as you may remember, came down and took wives among mortals. The giants were either around at the time of those events, or the offspring of those unions (the phrasing of the Hebrew in Gen. 6 is ambiguous): "The nefilim [possibly meaning 'fallen ones,' it's debatable] were on the earth in those days...," and may or may not be the basis of the stories about mythological heroes "....these were the gibborim [heroes, superheroes, demigods?] of old, the men of renown." However under-defined the language of Genesis, the earliest translation of the Bible, the Septuagint, assumes Genesis is talking about gargantuanism, translating both nefilim and gibborim as "giants."

Variously known as the Nefilim [often spelled "Nephilim"] (Num. 13:32-33), Refaim (II Sam. 21:16-22), Emim (Deut. 2:1o-11, 21), Refadim (Ibid. - though this may be a simple scribal misspelling of "Refaim") or the "Children of Anak" (Deut. 9:2), the giants were prevalent enough that the spies saw them throughout their scouting of Canaan, "...we saw men of giant stature...we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers... (Num. 13:32) and Moses repeatedly alludes to them in Deuteronomy, most notably in reference to the massive King Og of Bashan, who approached 15 feet in height (Deut. 3: 11): "Only King Og of Bashan was left remaining of the Refaim." Apparently this was not a wholly accurate report. Hundreds of years later, David's soldiers had to kill a number of them (II Samuel 21; I Chron. 20:4-8). Perhaps the different names signified different clans within the ethnos of giants.

Numerous as they are vague, these passages would be the basis for a very elaborate complex of legends about giants in post-Biblical Jewish literature.

To learn more, read the entries Giants; Goliath; Og, in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Af and Chemah: Dark Angels of Destruction

Af and Chemah (or Hemah) are Hebrew for "Wrath" and "Anger." The angelic names are derived from Ps. 37:8 and Deut. 9:19, where these two words are understood to be proper nouns, the personifications of God's fury.

Af and Chemah are two of the six angels of death, the others being Gabriel over kings; Kapziel over youths; Mashbir over animals; Mashchit over children. Af and Chemah are the destructive angels over men and beasts (Beit ha-Midrash, 2:98). Unlike the others, however, these are often paired together, apparently because they are chained to each other with bonds of black and red fire on the seventh level of heaven (Gedulat Moshe).
They have been unleashed on earth several times, most notably to destroy Jerusalem for its sins (T.B. Shabbat 55a) and to punish Moses for failing to circumcise his son Gershon (Exo. 4; T.B. Ned. 32a):

R. Judah b. Bizna lectured: When Moses was lax in the performance of circumcision, Af and Hemah came and swallowed him up, leaving nought but his legs. Thereupon immediately Zipporah 'took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son'; straightway he [they?] let him alone. In that moment Moses desired to slay them, as it is written, "Cease from Af and forsake Hemah" (Deut. 9:19) (Nedarim 32a) [1]

Zal g'mor - To learn more consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

1. Trans. from the Soncino Talmud.