A seraph (pl. seraphs or seraphim //; Hebrew: שְׂרָפִים śərāfîm, singular שָׂרָף śārāf; Latin: seraphi[m], singular seraph[us]; Greek: σεραφείμ) is a type of celestial or heavenly being in the Abrahamic religions.
Literally "burning ones", the word seraph is normally a synonym for serpents when used in the Hebrew Bible. A seminal passage in the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1-8) used the term to describe fiery six-winged beings that fly around God's throne singing "holy, holy, holy". This throne scene, with its triple invocation of holiness (a formula that came to be known as the Trisagion), profoundly influenced subsequent theology, literature and art. Its influence is frequently seen in works depicting angels, heaven and apotheosis. Seraphs are mentioned as celestial beings in an influential Hellenistic work, the Book of Enoch, and the Book of Revelation. Tradition places seraphs in the fifth rank of ten in the Jewish angelic hierarchy and the highest rank in the Christian angelic hierarchy.
Origins and development
The word seraphim, literally "burning ones", transliterates a Hebrew plural noun; translation yields seraphs. The singular, "seraph", is more properly rendered saraph. The word saraph/seraphim appears three times in the Torah (Numbers 21:6–8, Deuteronomy 8:15) and four times in the Book of Isaiah (6:2–6, 14:29, 30:6). In Numbers and Deuteronomy the "seraphim" are serpents—the association of serpents as "burning ones" is possibly due to the burning sensation of the poison. Isaiah also uses the word in close association with words to describe snakes (nachash, the generic word for snakes, in 14:29, and epheh, viper, in 30:6).
The Isaiah vision of seraphs in an idealised Jerusalem First Temple represents the sole instance in the Hebrew Bible of this word being used to describe celestial beings. "... I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and His train filled the Hekhal (sanctuary). Above him stood the Seraphim; each had six wings; with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew." (Isaiah 6:1–3) The seraphim cry continually to each other, "Holy, holy, holy, is YHWH of hosts: the whole earth is full of His glory." (verses 2–3) One seraph then carries out an act of purification for the prophet by touching his lips with a live coal from the altar (verses 6–7). The text uses the word "seraphim" but adds no adjectives or modifiers emphasising snakes ("nahash", etc.). At the same time the description gives the creatures both human and avian attributes. A strong association with fire, though, is maintained. Within the Hebrew Bible itself however, the seraphs do not have the status of angels. It is only in later sources (like De Coelesti Hierarchia or Summa Theologiae - see below) that they are considered to be a division of the divine messengers.
Seraphs appear in the 2nd century BC Book of Enoch where they are designated as drakones (δράκονες "serpents"), and are mentioned, in conjunction with cherubs as the heavenly creatures standing nearest to the throne of God. In the late 1st century AD Book of Revelation (iv. 4–8) they are described as being forever in God's presence and praising him: "Day and night with out ceasing they sing: 'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come.'" They appear also in the Christian Gnostic text On the Origin of the World, described as "dragon-shaped angels".
The 12th century scholar Maimonides placed the seraphs in the fifth of ten ranks of angels in his exposition of the Jewish angelic hierarchy. In Kabbalah, the seraphim are the higher angels of the World of Beriah ("Creation", first created realm, divine understanding), whose understanding of their distance from the absolute divinity of Atziluth causes their continual "burning up" in self-nullification. Through this they ascend to God, and return to their place. Below them in the World of Yetzirah ("Formation", archetypal creation, divine emotions) are the Hayot angels of Ezekiel's vision, who serve God with self-aware instinctive emotions ("face of a lion, ox, eagle"). Seraphim are part of the angelarchy of modern Orthodox Judaism. Isaiah's vision is repeated several times in daily Jewish services, including at Kedushah prayer as part of the repetition of the Amidah, and in several other prayers as well. Conservative Judaism retains the traditional doctrines regarding angels and includes references to them in the liturgy, although a literal belief in angels is by no means universal among adherents. Adherents of Reform Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism generally take images of angels as symbolic.
Medieval Christian theology places seraphs in the highest choir of the angelic hierarchy. They are the caretakers of God's throne, continuously singing "holy, holy, holy". Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite in his Celestial Hierarchy (vii), drew upon the Book of Isaiah in fixing the fiery nature of seraphim in the medieval imagination. Seraphim in his view helped the Deity maintain perfect order and are not limited to chanting the trisagion. Taking his cue as well from writings in the Rabbinic tradition, the author gave an etymology for the Seraphim as "those who kindle or make hot":
The name seraphim clearly indicates their ceaseless and eternal revolution about Divine Principles, their heat and keenness, the exuberance of their intense, perpetual, tireless activity, and their elevative and energetic assimilation of those below, kindling them and firing them to their own heat, and wholly purifying them by a burning and all-consuming flame; and by the unhidden, unquenchable, changeless, radiant and enlightening power, dispelling and destroying the shadows of darkness
The name "Seraphim" does not come from charity only, but from the excess of charity, expressed by the word ardor or fire. Hence Dionysius (Coel. Hier. vii) expounds the name "Seraphim" according to the properties of fire, containing an excess of heat. Now in fire we may consider three things.
First, the movement which is upwards and continuous. This signifies that they are borne inflexibly towards God.
Secondly, the active force which is "heat," which is not found in fire simply, but exists with a certain sharpness, as being of most penetrating action, and reaching even to the smallest things, and as it were, with superabundant fervor; whereby is signified the action of these angels, exercised powerfully upon those who are subject to them, rousing them to a like fervor, and cleansing them wholly by their heat.
Thirdly we consider in fire the quality of clarity, or brightness; which signifies that these angels have in themselves an inextinguishable light, and that they also perfectly enlighten others.
The seraphim took on a mystic role in Pico della Mirandola's Oration on the Dignity of Man (1487), the epitome of Renaissance humanism. Pico took the fiery Seraphim—"they burn with the fire of charity"—as the highest models of human aspiration: "impatient of any second place, let us emulate dignity and glory. And, if we will it, we shall be inferior to them in nothing", the young Pico announced, in the first flush of optimistic confidence in the human capacity that is the coinage of the Renaissance. "In the light of intelligence, meditating upon the Creator in His work, and the work in its Creator, we shall be resplendent with the light of the Cherubim. If we burn with love for the Creator only, his consuming fire will quickly transform us into the flaming likeness of the Seraphim."
Christian theology developed an idea of seraphs as beings of pure light who enjoy direct communication with God.
- "Strong's H8314 - Saraph". Blue Letter Bible. Retrieved 2011-12-05.
- Dictionary of deities and demons in the Bible. Brill. 1999. p. 742. ISBN 978-90-04-11119-6.
- Dictionary of deities and demons in the Bible. Brill. 1999. p. 746. ISBN 978-90-04-11119-6.
- Kosior, Wojciech. "The Angel in the Hebrew Bible from the Statistic and Hermeneutic Perspectives. Some Remarks on the Interpolation Theory". The Polish Journal of Biblical Research, Vol. 12, No. 1 (23), pp. 56-57. Retrieved 1 December 2013.
- Enoch, xx. 7, lxi. 10, lxxi. 7.
- The Nag Hammadi Library in English. Harper & Row. 1977. p. 166. ISBN 0-06-066929-2.
- Angels 2: Wings on Fire, kabbalaonline.org: "These creatures of the world of Beriya, are the higher angels, called serafim, from the Hebrew word for burn, saraf."
- Dionysius the Areopagite. "VII". Celestial Hierarchy. Retrieved 2011-12-05.
- Jewish Encyclopedia: Seraphim
- "Seraphim". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913.