In the pseudo-Dionysian hierarchy of angels, the highest and closest angels to God. The name “seraphim” is thought to be derived from the Hebrew verb saraf, which means to “burn,” “incinerate,” or “destroy,” and probably refers to the ability of seraphim to destroy by burning.
The seraphim may have evolved from the uraeus, the gold serpent (specifically a cobra) worn by Egyptian pharaohs on their foreheads. Uraei without wings and with two or four wings were depicted in iconography throughout the Near East. They protected by spitting their poison, or fire.
The seraphim who became angels in lore perhaps originally had serpent forms with human characteristics. In the Hebrew Bible, the term saraf is applied to fiery serpents. Numbers 21:6–8 refers to fiery serpents sent by the Lord to bite and kill sinning Israelites. After Moses prays for forgiveness, he is instructed to set a fiery serpent atop a pole. Whoever was bitten by it, when he looked upon it, would live.
Moses makes a bronze serpent. Deuteronomy 8:15 refers to the “fiery serpents” and scorpions in the land of Egypt. The prophet ISAIAH described more humanlike seraphim in a vision (Isaiah 6:2–3). He sees the Lord on his throne with six-winged seraphim standing above him.
Two wings covered the face and two the feet—probably to protect them from the intense brilliance of the Lord—and the other two wings were used for ﬂying. The seraphim call out to each other, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; and the whole earth is full of his glory.” One seraphim takes a burning coal and touches it to Isaiah’s lips, proclaiming that his guilt is taken away and his sin forgiven.
According to 3 ENOCH there are four seraphim who correspond to the four winds of the world. Each has six wings that correspond to the six days of creation; each wing is as big as the fullness of a HEAVEN. Each has 16 faces, four facing in each direction, and each face is like the rising sun, the light of which is so bright that even the HAYYOTH, OPHANIM, and CHERUBIM cannot look upon it.
The text goes on to say that the seraphim are so named because they burn the tablets of Satan. Every day Satan sits down with Sammael, prince of Rome, and Dubbiel, prince of Persia, to write down the sins of Israel on tablets. Satan gives the tablets to the seraphim to take to God so that God will destroy Israel. But the seraphim know that God does not wish to do so, and so they take the tablets and burn them.
The Sefer Yetzirah says seraphim are the highest order of angels, and they exist in the Universe of Beriyah, where Binah, which is represented by ﬁre, dominates. Beriyah is the world of the Throne that Isaiah sees in his vision. Some Kabbalists call the seraphim POWERS, forces, or potentials rather than angels. Seraphim are mentioned in Jewish literature and pseudepigrapha, sometimes without speciﬁc description, but as part of the high heavenly host.
According to the Testament of Adam, the seraphim stand before God and serve his inner chamber, and, like the Cherubim, sing the hourly “holy, holy, holy.” 2 Enoch describes them as having four faces and six wings. 3 Enoch says there are four seraphim, corresponding to the four winds of the world. Seraphim are not mentioned by name in the New Testament.
In other lore, seraphim are the created representations of divine love, the ﬁre of which consumes them and keeps them close to the throne of God. They are the only angels to stand above the throne.
They establish the vibration of love, which in turn creates the ﬁeld of life. They purify all and dispel the shadows of darkness. They are of such subtlety that they rarely are perceived by human consciousness. Rulers of the seraphim are Seraphiel, Jahoel, Metatron, Michael, and Satan prior to his fall from heaven.
According to AGRIPPA, seraphim help humans perfect the ﬂame of love. The seraphim are sometimes equated with the Hayyoth. In the Kabbalah, they govern Geburah (Strength), the ﬁfth sephirah of the TREE OF LIFE.
Further Reading :
- Kaplan, Aryeh. Sefer Yetzirah: The Book of Creation. Rev. ed. York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, 1997.
- van der Toorn, Karel, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. van der Horst, eds. Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. 2d ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1999.