Seraphim (Seraph) in the Bible — The Fiery Ones

Seraphim in the Bible - The Fiery Ones

Who are the Seraphim?

Seraphim (singular Seraph), a heavenly entity portrayed as having two or three pairs of wings and acting as God’s throne bodyguard in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic literature. Seraphim, also known as the flaming ones, figure in the Old Testament as six-winged beings praising God in what is known in the Greek Orthodox church as the Trisagion (“Thrice Holy”)—Isaiah 6:3. The seraphim are the highest-ranking celestial creatures in the hierarchy of angels in Christian angelology.

Introduction to the Seraphim

It is in chapter 6 of the Book of Isaiah that we are given a look into what exactly the prophet had seen in one of his more compelling visions.

It was in the year that King Uzziah had died, and Isaiah tells us in what is known as Isaiah’s commission that he had seen God seated upon a throne. But it wasn’t just God that had caught his eye, but also the six-winged angelic creatures that floated above him. These, as Isaiah tells us, were the Seraphim or the singular Seraph—otherwise known as the Burning Ones or the Fiery Ones.

Isaiah tells us,

“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” At the sound of their voices, the doorposts and thresholds shook, and the temple was filled with smoke.” — Isaiah 6: 1-4

We understand from this passage that the seraphim had six wings and that Isaiah had seen these creatures flying around the exalted throne of God.

Why do the Seraphim Cover their Faces and Feet?

You’ll notice he described them as having their wings covering their faces and feet, though the reasons for this are ambiguous. It has been suggested that they cover their faces to protect Isaiah, for they shunned so brightly that they would blind him if they were to reveal themselves.

We know that the word Seraphim was the Hebraic root word for Seraph meaning ‘To Burn’, hence the Burning Ones. So, by this, it could be understood that the seraph was akin to fire, and thus, did indeed emit fierce radiant light that Isaiah would not have been able to bear.

You’ll notice that whilst Isaiah recognizes that they do have faces, it is unclear whether he gets to see their features or is merely assuming they have human facial features based on the rest of their composition.

Additionally, the covering of their feet might be in respect to God who they constantly circle, for they would not want to reveal any dirt or uncleanness in his presence.

This could also be another reason why they use two of their wings to cover their faces, for they wish to remain humble in the presence of God and deemed themselves to be unworthy to even look upon him, which does say a lot about the humility of Isaiah and humans in general, for any one of us would likely be gawking about the room with amazement. Though Isaiah does atone for this folly shortly after.

It might also even be a precautionary effort, for if they did see the face of God, they might not be able to comprehend it and or be stricken for having dared to look at him, something that Isaiah comes to fear after having glanced at God.

The Role of the Seraphim

With this constant circling, they repeatedly proclaim the holiness of God and his glory, making it clear that he is the highest being and that he is the one that they hold in the highest regard. The declaration of him being holy outlines God as being sacred and certainly determines him as greatness personified—an entity that is and should be constantly worshipped. Perhaps, an example to believers that their celebration of God should never be forgotten.

Why did the Seraphim Use the word ‘Holy’?

What’s interesting about this passage (Isaiah 6:1-4) is the Seraphim’s declaration of the word ‘Holy’ three times in a row—often referred to as the ‘Trisagion’.

In ancient Jewish culture, the number three was a representation of fulfilment and so, anything that came in threes was usually a good omen. In this instance, holy is used three times not just as an affirmation of the holiness of God but also the wholeness of God, which believers see as evident in the past, present and future.

The use of Holy three times also connotes the appearance of God as the father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, suggesting that the Seraphim’s repetition of the word holy is not coincidental but meaningful and used to promote the greatness of God.

The Voice of the Seraphim

Amongst this, Isaiah also speaks of the sound of the seraphim voices, those which are so intense that the doors shake and the entire temple in which he stands is flooded with smoke.

Whilst this could be merely a sign of their power in that they cause the foundations of the building to rumble with just the mere sound of their voice, it might also be said that this was symbolic of earthquakes or tremors, those which in ancient times could have been equated with the divine presence of God or associated with a god because of the tremors he was seen to evoke in the bible.

The Seraphim Atone of Sins

The Seraphim Atone of Isaiah Sins

Isaiah’s account continues with him becoming painfully aware that he is unprepared for this encounter and that, unlike the seraphim, he has not hidden his face nor his feet, and has not shown the high levels of humility that God would have likely expected.

With this, he immediately begins to panic, telling us,

‘“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it, he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”’ — Isaiah 6:5-6

As we can see, Isaiah fears the worst. He recognizes that he is unclean and a sinner, and that he has come from unclean sinners, yet he has now seen God in the flesh—something he deemed himself unworthy of doing.

Yet, it is perhaps because of this immediate realization of this and his subsequent repenting that the seraphim take pity on him and rush to absolve him of his sin. They realize that his sorrow is genuine and that going by his reaction, he probably would have taken a better precaution to be humble had he been more prepared for this encounter.

As we can see, one of the Seraphim flies over to him and places a coal on his lips. There he tells Isaiah that because this had touched his lips his sin and guilt were now removed. Because the coal would likely have been boiling, it links in with an idea that Isaiah was purified by the fire or by the Seraphim who were in essence the fiery ones.

There’s also an idea established here that the Seraphim, along with being the eternal worshipers of God, also can remove people’s sins if they believe them to be authentic in their repentance.

With his sins cleared, Isaiah was then able to speak to God directly and proceeds to nominate himself to do God’s bidding.

Cherubim and Seraphim

Whilst Isaiah’s account appears to be the only reliable source of Seraphim in the bible, in that he does identify and describe them as such, the Seraphim do exist in other biblical Apocrypha, including the Book of Enoch, where Seraphim are mentioned alongside Cherubim as they coexist around the throne of God — also known as the Ophanim (Wheel of God).

Both entities are described as relating to the sun or that they are elements of the sun itself, which would fit in quite well with the Seraphim, which is known as the Burning Ones.

The Appearance of the Seraphim

The Appearance of the Fiery Ones

The implication here would of course be that the Seraphim shine so brightly that it would not be possible to conceive them—well, not without blinding yourself anyway—or that they can produce such high-intensity heat that only God can bear to stand next to them.

In other ideas of Christian theology, the Seraphim can be seen as the caretakers of God’s throne, and much like Isaiah’s account, they too continuously sing the words “Holy Holy Holy.”

There are also ideas that the Seraphim assisted God in maintaining order in the world, though the specifics of this are often vague. Other ideas focus on the heat or fire that the Seraphim have been associated with and that the fire is a symbolic notion for their relationship with God. For fire’s movement is constant and gradually rises upward, much as the Seraphim do as they fly above God, and the constant crackling of the fire could be linked with the constant praising of his name.

The other idea that paints the Seraphim as fire is that fire consumes that which it touches and thus, destroys, or in the case of the Seraphim, destroys the sin of a person, much like that which is done for Isaiah.

Some might say that the fire cleanses and in this, the Seraphim are indeed quite similar. There is also the idea that we’ve already discussed that fire emits light and that the seraphim share the same property—though, a far more divine and intense light that can be comparable to the sun itself.

The Seraphim in Judaism

In Judaism, Isaiah’s vision is recognized in various Jewish services and the Seraphim are acknowledged. In the Kabbalah, for example, the Seraphim are seen to drift from God, only to burn up and return to his side.

Whilst in other beliefs, the Seraphim become equivocal to that of the Cherubim, as seen in Ezekiel’s vision. But in more conservative Judaism, the Seraphim and Angels are generally seen as more symbolic than anything else.

The Seraph in Islam — Iblis?

In Islam meanwhile, a hadith by a Persian scholar Al-Tirmidhi speaks of a conversation between the prophet Muhammad and Allah, where they speak of the exalted assembly, those being the angels amongst Iblis, who disputed the creation of Adam or who had refused to bow to him.

It is believed that the Seraphim are included within this category or that Iblis had been of the Seraphim himself. Or perhaps, the only Seraph, for he was created from fire—fire being a key trope for these angelic beings.

Though this belief and idea are not universal, nor is it specified in the Quran. Seraphim, at least in the way described by Isaiah, does not seem to have much of a presence.

Are Seraphim Serpents?

Another interesting idea regarding the Seraphim paints them in a more malevolent light, where they adopt the form of serpents.

Seraph Snake - the Seraphim

In Numbers 21:6 for example, God sends venomous serpents amongst the Israelites after their rebellion in the wilderness, but in some translations and ideas, the serpents are replaced with that of the Seraphim. This is also true for Deuteronomy 8:15, where the wilderness is described as a thirsty and waterless land with venomous snakes and scorpions.

In the original Hebraic, the term ‘seraph’ can be found instead of snakes, suggesting that God might have sent the Seraphim to punish those who had rebelled. Some have interpreted the meaning of this translation as a particular type of snake, this ‘Seraph Snake’, and that they might be referring not to an angel, but instead a reptile of some kind.

There’s also the idea that the snakes were venomous, and so, their bite could be linked with the burning sensation one might feel should they have come across a Fiery Seraph.

Another cool idea is that the snakes in the wilderness are described as flying, something they certainly would have in common with the Seraphim.

Other ideas proposed that the Seraphim were the angels who supported Lucifer in his rebellion or that Lucifer himself was a Seraphim, which some belief facilitated his transformation into a Serpent in the Garden of Eden. But I feel like these ideas are a bit of a stretch and I could not find any concrete evidence to support this eviller essence of the Seraphim.

What we have instead is the account from Isaiah, which is far more reliable and certainly more characteristic of an angelic being and one who praises God eternally. We can gather from Isaiah’s account that the seraphim are utterly devoted to God, and far too keen to praise his name than to turn against him.

They appear to be pristine beings who never tire in their activity and exude not just palpable heat but a radiant and enlightening warmth that perhaps gives credence to their dispelling and destroying of sin.

Art Credit: Raul Bottero, Tumblr.com.

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