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Angels have been with humanity for time immemorial. As far back as ancient Greece and Babylon, there are records of fiery humanoid creatures that intervene on behalf of humankind. The Abrahamic religions have created classifications with an entire hierarchy, with specific assignments to indicate their proximity to God and what their role is.
But no classification is as mystifying as that of the Seraphim.
The Seraphim (singular: Seraph) hold a special function in Heaven as being closest to God’s throne. However, they also have other intriguing aspects, which are possibly due to them having far more ancient origins.
Where Did the Seraphim Originate?
Seraphim are angelic beings in Christianity, who belong to the highest order of the celestial hierarchy. They are associated with light, purity, and ardor.
Seraphim as we know them today come directly from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The most notable Seraphim are mentioned Isaiah 6:1-6. In the latter verse, the description of the Seraphim go as follows:
Above him (God) 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. 3 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.
These descriptions offer an interesting image of the Seraphim, identifying them as important beings with great power, who sing the praises of God. However, there are variants of the Seraphim depending on the religious context they’re viewed within.
Religious Variants of the Seraphim
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam each have different accounts of the Seraphim.
- The Jewish tradition provides detailed layers about these beings, along with information on distinguishing Seraphim from other orders of angels. The descriptions don’t depict them as angels at all, but as humanoid-like supernatural beings. The Books of Enoch, Deuteronomy and Numbers all discuss the presence of Seraphim.
- The Christian indication of Seraphim in the Book of Revelation depicts them as human-like, but they are also animal hybrids. Here, they have lion faces, eagle wings, and serpent bodies. There’s discrepancy and debate over these creatures, as some scholars theorize these aren’t Seraphim at all but separate entities altogether because of their chimera-like appearance.
- Islamic traditions also incorporate the belief of Seraphim, with similar purposes to Christian and Jewish structures. But Muslims believe Seraphim to have both destructive and benevolent powers. These will be evident on the Day of Judgment during the Apocalypse.
Etymology of Seraphim
To further understand the Seraphim’s origins and meanings, it’s helpful to look at the etymology of their name.
The word “Seraphim” is plural for the singular, “Seraph”. The Hebrew suffix –IM indicates that there is at least three of these beings, but there could very well be many more.
“Seraph” comes from the Hebrew root “Sarap” or the Arabic “Sharafa”. These words translate to “burning one” or “be lofty,” respectively. Such a moniker denotes that the Seraphim are not only fiery beings, but ones that have a capacity for flying.
While the word Seraphim is used in the Bible to refer to these celestial beings, the other use of this word refers to serpents.
As such, scholars suggest that the word Seraphim can be translated to literally mean “fiery flying serpents.”
Ancient Origins of the Word Seraphim
The etymology of the word “Seraphim” translating to “burning serpents” gives clues that their origins came long before Judaism, Christianity, or Islam.
Ancient Egypt has several creatures throughout their tomb and cave art depictions. What’s more, the the uraeus worn by Pharaohs portray winged serpents of fire often on or floating about a human’s head.
Babylonian myths also have certain tales about serpents that can fly about and produce fire in relationship to thought, memory and song. In these contexts, Seraphim were traditionally seen as the equivalent to the human mind.
All this brings in an interesting connection to the ancient Greek conception of the Muses. They too held sway over the human mind in connection to memory, dance, mind, and song with several loose associations with fire and serpents.
These pre-Judeo-Christian associations of “fire” and “flying” surround the human mind in relationship to themes of thought, memory, song, and ultimate reverence for the Divine. This idea carries on and lives through the Abrahamic understanding of who and what the Seraphim are.
The Order of Seraphim and Their Characteristics
Depending on the Abrahamic religion to which you’re referring, the Seraphim take on slightly different characteristics. But all three Christianity, Judaism and Islamic beliefs indicate these burning beings are closest to the throne of God.
Seraphim in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam
According to Christian accounts, the Seraphim are the first order of angels, next to the Cherubim, and sing His praises all day. Today, some branches of Christianity propose that there is a 9-level hierarchy of angels, with Seraphim and Cherubim being at the highest levels. However, it’s important to understand that the Bible doesn’t identify any hierarchy of angelic beings, so this is possibly a later interpretation of the Bible.
Jewish traditions also believe in Seraphim in a similar manner to that of Christians, but they give a more in depth look at their character, order, appearance, and function. Most of these Judaic references place Seraphim as fiery serpents. It’s this reference to snakes that distinguishes the Seraphim from the rest of the orders of angels.
In Islam, no specifics are mentioned about the Seraphim except there are only two who sit nearest to God’s throne. These differ in that they have three wings on their faces, instead of two. They are beings of light who carry the recorded deeds of humankind that they will present on Judgment Day.
Appearance of Seraphim
In one of the few accounts we have about Seraphim in the Bible, they’re described as having six wings and many eyes, so that they can watch God in action all the time.
They are described as having eloquent and indescribable beauty. They have large, booming singing voices, and enrapture anyone blessed enough to hear them in person.
Their six wings are a peculiar feature.
- Two for flying, which represents their freedom and praise.
- Two for covering their faces, so that they will not be overwhelmed by God’s brilliance.
- Two on their feet, to signify their humility and submission to god.
However, in the Greek Orthodox Bible, it says that the two wings veil the face of God rather than the faces of the Seraphim.
When considering translations in this way, literal interpretation of varying texts becomes important to understand the full scope and picture. This is because older languages don’t always convert easily into English.
The Role of the Seraphim
The Seraphim play an important role in Heaven, singing unceasing praises to the Almighty.
Seraphim sing hymns, dance, and exalt the praises of God and His infinite holiness. This highest, holy order of angels combines love and truth while reflecting divine compassion and righteousness. They are a reminder to humankind of the Creator to His creation, showing how to sing and revel in God’s praise.
They do not sleep, keeping constant vigil over God’s throne with unceasing song. This gives them a sort of protective guardianship role in conjunction with the Creator.
Cleansing Away Sin
Isaiah’s telling of his experience with one Seraph points to their ability to remove sin from the soul. This particular Seraph carried a hot coal from the altar and touched it to Isaiah’s lips which cleansed him of sin. This act purified him enough to sit in the presence of God and to be his spokesman for humankind.
Their ability and constancy in songs and hymns also shows us another major aspect to the purpose of Seraphim. The Trisagion, or thrice hymn, which contains the triple invocation of God as being holy, is an important aspect of the Seraphim.
The Seraphim are burning angelic beings who sit closest to God’s throne, offering songs, praises, hymns, dances and guardianship. They have the potential to cleanse souls of sin and teach humanity how to honor the Divine. However, there is some debate concerning what exactly the Seraphim are, with some indications that they are fiery serpent-like beings.