Vision of Isaiah.

Class of heavenly beings, mentioned only once in the Old Testament, in a vision of the prophet Isaiah (vi. 2 et seq.). Isaiah saw several seraphim, their exact number not being given, standing before the throne of Yhwh. They were winged beings, each having six wings—two covering their faces, two covering their feet, and two for flying. The seraphim cry continually to each other, "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory" (vi. 3). The "foundations of the thresholds" (R. V.) of the Temple were moved by the sound of their voices. One of the seraphim flew to Isaiah with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar, and with which he touched the lips of the prophet to purge him from sin. Isaiah gives no further description of the form and appearance of the seraphim; he apparently assumes that his readers are acquainted with them. Nevertheless, it may be concluded from the description that the seraphim were conceived as having human faces, human hands, and human voices. However, one should not too hastily conclude that the seraphim were winged human forms. At least this was not the original conception, although later Judaism pictured them so. The seraphim are frequently mentioned in the Book of Enoch (xx. 7, lxi. 10, lxxi. 7), where they are designated as δράκονες ("serpents"), and are always mentioned, in conjunction with the cherubim, as the heavenly creatures standing nearest to God. In Rev. iv. 6-8 four animals are pictured as standing near the throne of God; each has six wings, and, as in Isaiah, they sing the "Trisagion."


The passages cited furnish conclusive evidence against the idea, popular for a time, that the seraphim belong to the same category as angels. They have nothing whatever to do with the "messengers of God"; in the Jewish conception the two have always been distinguished. Dan. x. 13, the Book of Tobit, and other sources, afford information concerning a series of "chief" angels, but allusions to the seraphim are entirely lacking, and an etymological connection of the name "seraf" with the Arabic "sharif" (to be exalted or distinguished) is equally valueless.

On the other hand, there is a striking similarity between the seraphim and cherubim. Both are winged creatures, half human, half animal; both stand near the throne of God, and appear as its guardians; and, as has already been stated, they are always mentioned together in the Book of Enoch. This, however, by no means proves that the origin of the two was the same; it only shows that in later Jewish conception, as well as in the conception of the contemporaries of Isaiah, these two classes of heavenly beings were closely related.

Some authorities hold that the seraphim had their origin in the Egyptian "seref," a composite, winged creature, half lion and half eagle, which guarded graves, carried dead kings up to heaven, and transmittedprayers thither. The form and office of the seref, however, suggest rather the Jewish cherubim.

Babylonian Origin.

According to other investigators, the conception was of Babylonian origin. Friedrich Delitzsch and Hommel associate the seraphim with the Assyrian "sharrapu," a name which, in Canaan, designated the Babylonian fire-god Nergal. The seraphim, then, would be the flames in which this god manifested himself. An argument against this theory is that until now no one has been able to show that the word "seraph" was ever used as a name of a god. According to a third and more probable theory, the seraphim originally were serpents, as the name implies. Among many peoples of antiquity serpents played an important part in myth and folk-lore. For instance, there were Tiamat in the Babylonian legend of the Creation, and the Uræus serpent in Egypt. Consequently, since the Jews shared the superstitious ideas of surrounding nations in other respects, it should not be a matter of wonder if they adopted this notion as well. That the serpent filled a special rôle among them as a demoniacal being may be seen from the story of Adam's fall (Gen. iii.). In this connection the names "Dragon Spring" and "Serpent Pool" (places in the vicinity of Jerusalem) are worthy of being noted. A brazen serpent brings relief from the effects of the bite of the fiery serpents (Num. xxi. 9 et seq.) which Yhwh sent among his disobedient people in the wilderness. Isaiah (xiv. 29, xxx. 6) speaks of fiery, flying serpents and dragons; and a brazen serpent, Nehushtan, stood in the Temple at Jerusalem, and was an object of worship until the time of Hezekiah, who destroyed it as being idolatrous (II Kings xviii. 4 et seq.). The worship of Nehushtan was plainly a remnant of ancient superstition, and was reconciled with the worship of Yhwh by connecting Nehushtan with the scourge of snakes in the wilderness and the rescue from them (Num. xxi. 9 et seq.). Therefore the theory seems possible, even probable, that the seraphim have their counterpart in the flying serpents of Isaiah (comp. also II Esd. xv. 29). It is only natural that these winged guardians of Yhwh's throne were soon ranked as higher beings and invested with the human form or with some features of the human body; and it was because of the very fact that they were adopted into the Yhwh cult that they were, in process of time, ennobled and spiritualized.

E. G. H. I. Be.
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