June 17, 2024
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What Is the Meaning of the Word Seraphim?

In the book of Isaiah, Chapter 6, the prophet has a vision in which he sees God sitting on a throne, with seraphim above him. Each has six wings. With two wings they cover their face, with two wings they cover their legs and with two wings they fly. They call to one another: kadosh, kadosh, kadosh… One of them uses tongs to take a burning coal from an altar and touches Isaiah’s mouth, purifying him.

What exactly were these seraphim? The meaning of the term is of interest because seraphim are referred to many times in the davening (usually in the context of the Kedusha prayer).

A widely held view is that they were angels made of fire. This view is expressed, for example, by Rambam (Yesodei Ha-Torah 2:4) and Radak (Sefer Ha-Shorashim.) (But query, if the seraphim were made of fire, why was those tongs necessary?)

We can also find some other fire-based interpretations in traditional sources. For example, Rav S.R. Hirsch writes that they were angels with the power of fire, enabling them to overpower everything and change it to material suitable for their own purposes. Another source I saw (a commentary on Rambam) suggests that the term seraphim alludes to their awesome appearance (noraim be-mareihem): whoever looked at them was burned. Taking a completely different approach, Ibn Ezra notes that one of them touches Isaiah’s mouth with a burning coal. He suggests that they were all called seraphim due to this mission. Finally, the vision also recorded that the area was filled with smoke (likely from the altar, and not from the seraphim). This allows Malbim to suggest that this smoke was an allusion to the future burning of the First Temple that these angels would have a role in and explains why they were called seraphim.

But if we look at all the other references to saraph or seraphim in Tanach, we find something completely different. The references at Bamidbar 21:6 (ha-nechashim ha-seraphim) and 21:8, and Devarim 8:15 (nachash, saraph, ve-akrav) are to serpents. (With regard to the difference between nachash and saraph, S.D. Luzzatto suggests that a saraph is a nachash that has the ability to poison.) The references at Isaiah 14:29 and 30:6 are also to serpents; serpents that fly (saraph me’ofef). (Such creatures may never have actually existed; this deserves a future column.)

Thus, outside of Isaiah Chapter 6, saraph and seraphim always refer to serpents! This gives us reason to speculate that this may be its meaning in Isaiah Chapter 6 as well. A Divine/royal figure surrounded by serpents? Have any of us ever heard of something so unusual? We all have. In ancient Egypt, the uraeus serpent, standing on its coil, was the symbol of royalty of the pharaohs and of the gods. Archaeology has discovered numerous depictions of ancient Egyptian pharaohs (and their wives!) with the uraeus serpent on their foreheads. It seems that the uraeus was a symbol of protection of the pharaoh and of the sacred objects. (There was also a belief that it breathed fire on enemies!) Images of the uraeus as a royal symbol have also been found in ancient Israel from around the time of Isaiah, as Egyptian artistic motifs spread to Israel. (See the material by Joines, below.)

The seraphim of Isaiah Chapter 6 have wings, legs and a face, and are able to talk. One can argue that this makes it difficult to view these seraphim as serpents. But the implication of the word seraphim may be merely that they are angels that in some significant way resemble serpents. They can be composite figures that have both serpentine and human features.

In our “serpentine angel” interpretation, we now have a completely different picture of the throne scene in Isaiah Chapter 6. Many scholars adopt this interpretation. See, e.g., Koehler-Baumgartner, “The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament,” and K. Joines, “Winged Serpents in Isaiah’s Inaugural Vision,” JBL 86 (1967) pp. 10-15, and Joines, “Serpent Symbolism in the Old Testament” (1974). (There is also an ancient source that adopted this interpretation: Enoch 20:7.)

I am not claiming that the Tannaim and Amoraim understood the seraphim of Isaiah 6 in this way. I am just trying to be an “original intent” scholar and determine what the word may have meant at the time of Isaiah in the eighth century B.C.E. (For a midrash on Isaiah 6:2, see Sifrei Haazinu 306: ha-seraphim: she-echad me-hem yachol lisrof et kol ha-olam kulo. See also Devarim Rabba 11:9, which refers to sarfei lehavah and is probably giving an interpretation of Isaiah 6:2. See also Shemot Rabba 15:6.)

We can rebut the “serpentine angel” interpretation by citing a point made by Samuel David Luzzatto. Luzzatto has an answer to the argument that all the other references to seraphim in Tanach are to serpents. Fiery seraphim are not mentioned anywhere in Tanach precisely because they have a body of fire and are too dangerous to have contact with humans. Fiery seraphim are the highest levels of angels and attend only to God. Since they are confined to that heavenly locale, we would not expect them to be mentioned anywhere else in Tanach! In this way, we can accept that most of the references in Tanach are to serpent seraphim, while the ones in Isaiah Chapter 6 are to fiery seraphim. (But there is a subtle problem with Luzzatto’s approach. If our fiery seraphim did not exist anywhere but in the heavens, how did Isaiah know what to call them? Isaiah says he sees “seraphim.” This implies that he is describing an object that he already recognized.)

I leave it up to you whether to adopt this intriguing “serpentine angel” interpretation. This interpretation did make its way into one of the notes of the Daat Mikra commentary on Isaiah Chapter 6.

Also, I have to address the reason that serpents are called seraphim. I have seen it suggested that it was due to the burning sensation at the time of the bite, or the burning of the subsequent skin inflammation or the subsequent burning fever. See also Rashi to Num. 21:6, and Tanchuma 19 and Num. Rabba 19:22 (she-sorfin et ha-nefesh).

Finally, it seems to be only coincidental that the word “serpent” resembles the words saraph and seraphim.

By Mitchell First

 Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. His recently published book is “Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy” (Kodesh Press, 2015). He can be reached at [email protected]. He is careful to avoid both serpents and fiery angels.


For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.

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