What are Seraphim?

What are Seraphim? December 15, 2010

When Isaiah sees Yahweh enthroned in the temple, he also sees seraphim standing above the throne (6:2), one of which flies to him carrying the coal that will purify his unclean lips (v. 6). What are these creatures at the throne of God?

The word seraph comes from the Hebrew verb “burn,” and so the seraphim are, fundamentally, “burning ones.” Burnings whats? From Isaiah 6, we learn that they are burning beings with six sings (v. 2), but also with faces and feet (v. 2). One of them has at least one hand, since he takes the goal from the altar in his hand to touch Isaiah’s lips (v. 6). Needless to say, these are composite burning beings, combining features of birds (or winged creatures) with human features and appendages.

The noun seraph occurs several other times in the Old Testament, and those passages have been used to attempt to identify the seraphim of Isaiah’s vision. What do they tell us?

The word is first used in Numbers 21:6, 8, the incident of the fiery serpents. Through the course of that passage, the word shifts in meaning. In verse 6, it functions as an adjective modifying “serpent” ( nachash ), prompting the people to cry to Moses to pray for relief from the serpents ( nachash ; v. 7). In response, Yahweh tells Moses to construct a “fiery one” ( seraph ) to be set up on a pole, as a standard, for Israel to look to (v. 8), but what Moses actually constructs is a nechash nechashet , a “bronze bronze-one/serpent.” In other words, the word seraph has become a way of speaking about a bronze serpent. Seraph in this context thus refers to a serpent, but it’s important to notice that the word takes on that connotation in a context where serpents are already part of the story. It’s not evident that the word in the abstract bears this meaning.

Deuteronomy 8:15 uses the word again, recounting the dangers of teh frightening wilderness, which include scorpions, drought, and “fiery serpents” ( nachash saraph ). As in Numbers 21:6, the word modifies serpents (perhaps referring to fiery color, or to the fiery bite) but doesn’t mean “serpent.”

The other uses of the word occur in other place in Isaiah. In 14:29, he describes the fruit of the serpent ( nachash ) as fiery flying ones ( saraph me’ophep h, the latter from ‘uph , to fly). It is not entirely clear that the fiery flying one is a serpent, but the fact that it is teh “fruit” of a serpent suggests that it is serpentine. In 30:6, he refers to the land of the south, which is populated by lions, vipers, and, again, fiery flying ones ( saraph me’opheph ). The fact that these fiery ones fly connects them back to Isaiah 6, the winged fiery ones that are around the throne of Yahweh.

So does the evidence indicate that seraphim are flying, fiery serpents? In an old JBL article, Karen Randolph Jones argues that the answer is yes. She points to similarities with the Egyptian uraei, an erect cobra standing on its coil with its neck spread out like wings, and concludes: “A plausible conclusion in view of the linguistic and archeological evidence is that the seraphim of Isaiah’s inaugural vision are to be understood in the light of the Egypt symbol of the winged uraeus. Yahweh is called ‘the King’ (6:5), and in his temple he is like a majestic monarch whose regalia fills his palace. The Egyptians used the crawling serpent as an emblem of chaos and evil, but the uraeus is always standing. The seraphim of Isaiah 6 are standing. The four wings of an Egyptian uraeus represent the pharaoh’s rule to extend to the four corners of the earth; the winged seraphim chant ‘the whole earth is full of his glory’ (6 3). The reverent repetition of the trisagion of the seraphim shook the temple, filling it with smoke; the Egyptian uraeus belched consuming fire on the pharaoh’s enemies. The wings of the seraphim are raised and lowered, as so often are those of the uraei. At a period when Egyptian art was so common in Palestine, it is not surprising to find it in the symbolism of Isaiah. Also, if the symbol of the winged uraeus could find a place in the palace of the ninth-century B.C. Israelite kings, it may well have been in the palaces of the eighth-century B.C. monarchs in Jerusalem yet unexcavated.”

Appealing to analogies to Canaanite depictions of Baal, John Day suggests another connection ( VT , vol. 29): Baal is sometimes depicted in a cloud with seven thunders and seven bolts of lightning, and these are sometimes personified as servants of Baal, part of Baal’s royal entourage, and “the seraphim in Is. vi are to be regarded as personifications of the lightning.” In form, Day agrees that the lightning is serpentine: “they are winged serpents (uraei) with an ultimately Egyptian origin. In this there is an analogy with the cherubim which, as winged sphinxes, are ultimately Egyptian in origin as regards form but could symbolize the clouds on which Yahweh rose in the manner of the Canaanite god Baal.”

So, what Isaiah sees slithering, flaming lightning that flashes from the cloud that fills the temple, winged fiery lightning-serpents. Why would Yahweh reveal Himself to Isaiah in this way? It is perhaps alluding back to Numbers 21: In Isaiah’s day as in Moses’, the people have unclean lips, made unclean by complaints and grumbling against Yahweh’s provisions. Isaiah sees Yahweh enthroned and ready to unleash the fiery ones among them.

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