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What were seraphim?
The meaning of the Hebrew term śārāph (plural, śerāphîm) is uncertain. Most suggest that it is derived from the verb śārāph, which means “to burn completely.” The noun śārāph would then mean “the burning/fiery one.” Many believe that the term designates a serpentlike creature, but this is far from certain. We have to examine the biblical evidence and the different uses of the term.
1. Śerāphîm and Serpents: A number of passages associate śerāphîm with serpents. As a result of the Israelites’ rebellion in the wilderness the Lord sent “venomous [śerāphîm] snakes among them” (Num. 21:6).* After the people confessed their sin, the Lord ordered Moses “to make a snake [śārāph] and put it up on a pole” (verse 8). In this last verse the term śārāph refers back to the full phrase “venomous [śeraphîm] snakes.” In Deuteronomy 8:15 the wilderness is described as a “thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes [nāchāš śārāph, literally, “seraph snake”] and scorpions.”
The question is, what is the meaning of the term seraph in these passages? It is used as an adjective designating a specific type of serpent. Based on the meaning of the verbal form, śārāph would designate a snake whose bite causes a burning sensation, a severe inflammation of the skin that kills a person, i.e., a venomous serpent.
2 . Śerāphîm as Heavenly Beings: In Isaiah 6 the term śārāph is applied to heavenly beings. We should keep some details in mind. First, the term snake is not used in this chapter. Second, the term is used as a noun. Third, the form of this being is fundamentally human. The two seraphim had faces, hands, and feet, and were able to sing and communicate through language, i.e., they were rational beings (verses 2, 6, 7). They had six wings and could fly; they were angelic beings. Fourth, they had a specific function. They were “above” the throne of God; perhaps hovering over it, or standing around it as royal guards ready to serve the Lord. More specifically, it was their role to proclaim the holiness of the Lord and to minister on behalf of sinners in the heavenly temple (verses 3, 7). Their deportment expresses a spirit of humility and reverence in the presence of the Lord.
Why are they called śerāphîm? The verb “to burn” (śārāph) could express the idea of brightness, suggesting that the seraphim were angelic beings of extraordinary brightness or fiery appearance. Perhaps their brightness, their six wings, and their position with respect to the throne of God distinguish them from cherubim, who are often associated with the throne of God.
3. Śerāphîm and Demonic Beings: Two passages in Isaiah associate seraphim with evil. This may go back to the experience of Israel in the wilderness. The wilderness in the Bible is a symbol of death and a residence for demons. The Israelites, who during the time of Isaiah were asking Egypt for support, are described as going through the desert, “a land of hardship and distress, of lions and lionesses, of adders and darting snakes [śārāph mecōphēph, literally, “flying serpents”]” (Isa. 30:6).
Animals could be used as symbols of the demonic (e.g., Ps. 7:2; 1 Peter 5:8), and the prophet could be suggesting that the road to Egypt is one where demonic powers reside. In this case “the flying seraph” would represent evil angelic powers (see Isa. 30:7, where Egypt is identified with Rahab, a demonic monster defeated by the Lord [Ps. 89:10]). In Isaiah 14:29 the Philistines should not rejoice, because a king worse than the others will come; he will be like a “flying seraph.” Neither in Isaiah 30:6 nor in 14:29 is the seraph identified with a serpent. In both cases it flies and is a symbol of evil that could stand for demonic powers operating within history. This may suggest that Lucifer was supported by seraphim.
On the positive side, think about the reverence and humility displayed by seraphim, who, glorious in appearance, choose to cover their bodies in order to proclaim that only the One sitting on the throne deserves all glory.
* All Bible texts referred to in this article are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.