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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Seraphim

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SERAPHIM . The seraphim are mentioned only in a single passage of Scripture ( Isaiah 6:2 ff.). In his inaugural vision, Isaiah sees these supernatural creatures grouped about Jehovah’s throne in His heavenly palace. The prophet furnishes no elaborate description of the form of these beings, and apparently assumes that his readers will be able to fill in what he omits; but he does make clear that they are six-winged creatures. With one pair of wings they hover around Jehovah’s throne; and with the other two they cover their faces and their feet, actions symbolical of humility and adoration. The seraphim are arranged in an antiphonal choir, singing the Trisagion, and their chorus is of such volume that the sound shakes the foundations of the palace. In the prophet’s vision they have human voices and hands (v. 6), but it cannot be asserted with equal certainty that they possess human bodies. The prophet leaves us in no doubt about the function of these creatures. They are ministers of Jehovah, occupied in singing the praises of their Sovereign, and in protecting Him from the approach of sin and evil. The seraphim may be traced in the Imagery and symbolism of the NT Apocalypse, where the four living creatures, in both their function and their form, are a combination of the seraphim with the cherubim of Ezekiel’s vision (cf. Isaiah 6:2 ff., Ezekiel 1:1-28; Ezekiel 2:1-10 , and Revelation 4:8 ).

It was customary with the prophets to transform and purify popular conceptions, by bringing them into relation with their ethical idea of God. The seraphim are an illustration of this process. The popular mythical seraphim were a personification of the serpent-like flash of lightning. The usage and meaning of the singular sârâph (= ‘ fiery serpent ,’ Numbers 21:6 , Isaiah 14:29 ), as well as the etymology of the word, suggest this view of the origin of the seraphim. The later Jewish tradition, according to which they are serpents, points in the same direction (Enoch 20. 7, 61. 10 et al .). The brazen serpent, Nehushtan , which was removed from the Temple by Hezekiah, was a relic probably connected with the popular mythical conception, and it may have suggested the seraphim of the heavenly palace to Isaiah’s mind.

Two other theories of the origin of the prophetic conception have been advanced, but there is little that can be said in their favour. Some would derive the name from the Babylonian Sharrapu , a name for Nergal the fire-god, and consequently would regard the seraphim as the flames that enveloped this deity. Others have endeavoured to associate them with the Egyptian griffins ( seref ), half-lion and half-eagle, which are represented as guardians of graves. According to the latter view, the duty of guarding the threshold of the Temple would be the function that must be assigned to the seraphim of Isaiah’s vision. In criticism, it may be remarked that the Egyptian griffin is more akin to the Hebrew cherub, and the latter should be sharply distinguished from the seraph (cf. art. Cherub).

James A. Kelso.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Seraphim'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdb/s/seraphim.html. 1909.

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