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The Seraphim

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Richard Lederman

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The Seraphim

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The Seraphim

The image of YHWH accompanied by a heavenly retinue (צבאות) is ubiquitous in the Prophets and the Writings. Uniquely, in Isaiah’s call narrative, YHWH appears before the prophet accompanied by six-winged seraphim. What are these heavenly beings?

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The Seraphim

God’s answer to Job, Adriaen Collaert, after Jan van der Straet, 1587 – 1591 Rijksmuseum.nl

God and His Seraphim Appear to Isaiah

Isaiah 6, the haftarah for Parashat Yitro, describes Isaiah’s so-called “Throne Narrative.” It begins with Isaiah’s vision of God:

ישעיה ו:א בִּשְׁנַת מוֹת הַמֶּלֶךְ עֻזִּיָּהוּ וָאֶרְאֶה אֶת אֲדֹנָי יֹשֵׁב עַל כִּסֵּא רָם וְנִשָּׂא וְשׁוּלָיו מְלֵאִים אֶת הַהֵיכָל.
Isa 6:1 In the year that King Uzziah died, I beheld my Lord seated on a high and lofty throne; and the skirts of His robe filled the Temple.

God, however, does not appear alone in this vision; he is accompanied by beings called seraphim (שְׂרָפִים):

ישעיהו ו:ב שְׂרָפִים עֹמְדִים מִמַּעַל לוֹ שֵׁשׁ כְּנָפַיִם שֵׁשׁ כְּנָפַיִם לְאֶחָד בִּשְׁתַּיִם יְכַסֶּה פָנָיו וּבִשְׁתַּיִם יְכַסֶּה רַגְלָיו וּבִשְׁתַּיִם יְעוֹפֵף.
Isa 6:2 Seraphim stood above him. Each of them had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his legs, and with two he would fly.

These seraphim were not only flying above God but they call out to each other, what scholars refer to as the Trisagion (“thrice holy”):

ישעיהו ו:ג  וְקָרָא זֶה אֶל זֶה וְאָמַר קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ יְ־הוָה צְבָאוֹת מְלֹא כׇל הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ.
Isa 6:3 And one would call to the other, “Holy, holy, holy! YHWH of Hosts! His presence fills all the earth!”[1]

The sound of their voices shakes the Temple:

ו:ד וַיָּנֻעוּ אַמּוֹת הַסִּפִּים מִקּוֹל הַקּוֹרֵא וְהַבַּיִת יִמָּלֵא עָשָׁן.
6:4 The doorposts would shake at the sound of the one who called, and the House kept filling with smoke.

The text does not explain why the room fills with smoke, but it seems to be connected to the theophany, since smoke also appears on Mount Sinai, and the mountain shakes like the Temple does here (Exod 19:18),[2] which is why Isaiah 6 was chosen as the haftarah for Parashat Yitro (Exod 18–20). It may also be related to the imagery we find in many biblical passages describing YHWH appearing in a cloud (ענן) or fog/thick cloud [3](ערפל).

Once Isaiah realizes he is seeing God, he becomes afraid, because he is standing before God while he is impure:

ישעיה ו:ה וָאֹמַר אוֹי לִי כִי נִדְמֵיתִי כִּי אִישׁ טְמֵא שְׂפָתַיִם אָנֹכִי וּבְתוֹךְ עַם טְמֵא שְׂפָתַיִם אָנֹכִי יוֹשֵׁב כִּי אֶת הַמֶּלֶךְ יְ־הֹוָה צְבָאוֹת רָאוּ עֵינָי.
Isa 6:5 I cried, “Woe is me; I am lost! For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips; Yet my own eyes have beheld the King YHWH of Hosts.”

The seraphim then “purge” Isaiah’s lips of sin:

ישעיה ו:ו וַיָּעָף אֵלַי אֶחָד מִן הַשְּׂרָפִים וּבְיָדוֹ רִצְפָּה בְּמֶלְקַחַיִם לָקַח מֵעַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ. 
ו:ז
 וַיַּגַּע עַל פִּי וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּה נָגַע זֶה עַל שְׂפָתֶיךָ וְסָר עֲו‍ֹנֶךָ וְחַטָּאתְךָ תְּכֻפָּר.
Isa 6:6 Then one of the seraphim flew over to me with a live coal, which he had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs.
6:7 He touched it to my lips and declared, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt shall depart and your sin be purged away.”

Avigdor (Victor) Hurowitz (1948–2013), the late professor of Bible at Ben Gurion University, compares the purification of Isaiah’s lips by the seraphim with mouth purification ceremonies in Mesopotamian literature, particularly the mīs pî (mouth cleansing) ceremony. This ceremony is attested in regard to several cultic circumstances. According to Hurowitz, “The pure mouth enables the person or object to stand before the gods or to enter the divine realm….”[4]

Having been cleansed by the coals of the seraphim, Isaiah hears that God is looking for someone to carry His message to the people, and Isaiah volunteers for the position:

ישעיה ו:ח וָאֶשְׁמַע אֶת קוֹל אֲדֹנָי אֹמֵר אֶת מִי אֶשְׁלַח וּמִי יֵלֶךְ לָנוּ וָאֹמַר הִנְנִי שְׁלָחֵנִי.
Isa 6:8 Then I heard the voice of my Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me.”

From this point on, the passage continues with God’s message to the people,[5] and the seraphim disappear.

YHWH of Hosts

YHWH is never accompanied by any other being when he appears in the Torah.[6] In Isaiah, however, not only is YHWH accompanied by seraphim, but they refer to God as YHWH of Hosts (יְ־הוָה צְבָאוֹת), a phrase that is never used in the Torah,[7]  but which appears 260 times in the rest of the Hebrew Bible. The phrase refers to YHWH’s retinue, i.e., the idea that together with YHWH in heaven are other, lesser divinities, perhaps of more than one sort. 

The biblical texts ascribe various, sometimes overlapping, functions to this retinue.

The Stars as YHWH’s Hosts - A passage in the book of Job would have us understand that the actual physical celestial stars form at least part of the divine retinue.

בְּרָן יַחַד כּוֹכְבֵי בֹקֶר וַיָּרִיעוּ כָּל בְּנֵי אֱלֹהִים.
When the morning stars sang together and all the divine beings shouted for joy. (Job 38:7)[8]

The book of Deuteronomy suggests that the lesser divinities in heaven are gods for other nations. For example, Moses states in his speech:

דברים ד:יט וּפֶן תִּשָּׂא עֵינֶיךָ הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וְרָאִיתָ אֶת הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ וְאֶת הַיָּרֵחַ וְאֶת הַכּוֹכָבִים כֹּל צְבָא הַשָּׁמַיִם וְנִדַּחְתָּ וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתָ לָהֶם וַעֲבַדְתָּם אֲשֶׁר חָלַק יְ־הֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֹתָם לְכֹל הָעַמִּים תַּחַת כָּל הַשָּׁמָיִם.
Deut 4:19 And when you look up to the sky and behold the sun and the moon and the stars, the whole heavenly host, you must not be lured into bowing down to them or serving them. These YHWH your God allotted to other peoples everywhere under heaven.[9]

This verse acknowledges that the luminaries are divinities, but clarifies that they are under YHWH’s command and that the Israelites should not worship them.[10] It seems likely that one inspiration for this image was the fact that the sky, which is YHWH’s home, is filled with stars and planets, which the ancients considered to be divinities in their own right, but that they served under YHWH, as part of his administration of the world.[11] 

A similar concept, though without any reference to stars, appears in one (likely original) version of Deuteronomy 32:8, in the text preserved in 4QDeutj and in the LXX:

בְּהַנְחֵל עֶלְיֹון גֹּויִם, בְּהַפְרִידֹו בְּנֵי אָדָם יַצֵּב גְּבֻלֹת עַמִּים, לְמִסְפַּר בְּנֵי אלהים. כִּי חֵלֶק יְ־הֹוָה עַמֹּו, יַעֲקֹב חֶבֶל נַחֲלָתֹו.
When the Most High assigned inheritance to the nations, when he separated mankind, he established the territories of nations, according to the number of minor gods. YHWH’s share is His nation; Jacob is his allotted inheritance.[12]

Again, these other deities are meant to be gods for other nations, while YHWH is Israel’s god.

YHWH’s Army - The term “hosts” (צבאות) has a military connotation, and indeed, we have at least one biblical reference to celestial beings fighting alongside YHWH, and on his behalf:

שופטים ה:כ מִן שָׁמַיִם נִלְחָמוּ הַכּוֹכָבִים מִמְּסִלּוֹתָם נִלְחֲמוּ עִם סִיסְרָא.
Judg 5:20 The stars fought from heaven, from their courses they fought against Sisera.[13]

Praisers of YHWH - A more common motif is how these divine beings praise YHWH, who they recognize is greater than they:

Deut 32:43 [4Q Deutq and LXX]

הרנינו שמים עִמּוֺ,
והשתחוו לו כל אלהים.
Sing, O Heavenly beings (or: Heavens), with Him, and bow to Him, all ye gods.

Ps 29:1

הָבוּ לַי־הֹוָה בְּנֵי אֵלִים הָבוּ לַי־הֹוָה כָּבוֹד וָעֹז. הָבוּ לַי־הֹוָה כְּבוֹד שְׁמוֹ הִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לַי־הֹוָה בְּהַדְרַת קֹדֶשׁ.
Ascribe to YHWH, O divine beings, ascribe to YHWH glory and strength. Ascribe to YHWH the glory of His name; bow down to YHWH, majestic in holiness.

Divine Council - Sometimes, these beings appear as part of a divine council. For example,

Job (1:6)[14]

וַיְהִי הַיּוֹם וַיָּבֹאוּ בְּנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים לְהִתְיַצֵּב עַל יְ־הֹוָה וַיָּבוֹא גַם הַשָּׂטָן בְּתוֹכָם….
One day the divine beings presented themselves before YHWH, and the Adversary came along with them….

Psalm 82 (1, 6)

אֱלֹהִים[15] נִצָּב בַּעֲדַת אֵל בְּקֶרֶב אֱלֹהִים יִשְׁפֹּט… אֲ‍נִי אָמַרְתִּי אֱלֹהִים אַתֶּם וּבְנֵי עֶלְיוֹן כֻּלְּכֶם.
God stands in the divine assembly; among the divine beings He pronounces judgment…. I had taken you for divine beings, sons of the Most High, all of you.

A particularly telling passage, which combines multiple images of YHWH’s divine retinue appears in Psalm 89:

תהלים פט:ו וְיוֹדוּ שָׁמַיִם פִּלְאֲךָ יְ־הֹוָה אַף אֱמוּנָתְךָ בִּקְהַל קְדֹשִׁים. 
פט:ז כִּי מִי בַשַּׁחַק יַעֲרֹךְ לַי־הֹוָה יִדְמֶה לַי־הֹוָה בִּבְנֵי אֵלִים. 
פט:ח אֵל נַעֲרָץ בְּסוֹד קְדֹשִׁים רַבָּה וְנוֹרָא עַל כָּל סְבִיבָיו. 
פט:ט יְ־הֹוָה אֱלֹהֵי צְבָאוֹת מִי כָמוֹךָ חֲסִין יָהּ וֶאֱמוּנָתְךָ סְבִיבוֹתֶיךָ.
Ps 89:6 Your wonders, YHWH, are praised by the heavens, Your faithfulness, too, in the assembly of holy beings. 
89:7 For who in the skies can equal YHWH, can compare with YHWH among the divine beings, 
89:8 a God greatly dreaded in the council of holy beings, held in awe by all around Him? 
89:9 O YHWH, God of hosts, who is mighty like You, O YHWH? Your faithfulness surrounds You.

Here YHWH is praised by other divinities, who are part of YHWH’s council; they call him YHWH god of Hosts. Isaiah’s seraphim should, thus, be seen as a particular instantiation of this general theme.[16] This depiction is one of three biblical accounts of YHWH appearing before humans together with his retinue.

Micaiah’s Vision of YHWH’s Heavenly Royal Court

In 1 Kings 22,[17] King Ahab of Israel teams up with King Jehoshaphat of Judah to battle the Arameans for control of Ramoth-gilead on the east side of the Jordan River. They consult Ahab’s court prophets, who predict a sure victory. Not satisfied with the response of these sycophants, Jehoshaphat insists on consulting another prophet, a certain Micaiah son of Imla, who declares:

מְלָכִים א׳ כב׃יט …רָאִיתִי אֶת יְ־הֹוָה יֹשֵׁב עַל כִּסְאוֹ וְכָל צְבָא הַשָּׁמַיִם עֹמֵד עָלָיו מִימִינוֹ וּמִשְּׂמֹאלוֹ.  
כב:כ וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הֹוָה מִי יְפַתֶּה אֶת-אַחְאָב וְיַעַל וְיִפֹּל בְּרָמֹת גִּלְעָד? וַיֹּאמֶר זֶה בְּכֹה וְזֶה אֹמֵר בְּכֹה.
כב:כא וַיֵּצֵא הָרוּחַ וַיַּעֲמֹד לִפְנֵי יְ־הֹוָה וַיֹּאמֶר אֲנִי אֲפַתֶּנּוּ…
1 Kgs 22:19 I saw YHWH seated upon His throne, with all the host of heaven standing in attendance to the right and to the left of Him. 
22:20 YHWH asked, “Who will entice Ahab so that he will march forth and fall at Ramoth-gilead?” Then one said thus and another said thus, 
22:21 until a certain spirit came forward and stood before YHWH and said, “I will entice him.”…

Micaiah envisions the heavenly court of the divine King YHWH, and can hear the discussion between him and his royal council.[18]

The parallel to Isaiah 6 is striking.[19] In each instance,

  • YHWH is seated on a throne;
  • YHWH asks for a volunteer with the word מִי “who will…?”;
  • A verbal exchange takes place among the members of YHWH’s royal court;
  • A volunteer announces himself;[20]
  • The mission is to trick people who have angered YHWH.

Yet the two vision scenes are not identical. First, Micaiah offers no physical description of YHWH’s attendants, merely using the generic term “hosts of heaven,” and makes no mention of seraphim.

Second, Micaiah’s vision transports his mind or spirit into the celestial realm whereas Isaiah’s vision is of YHWH appearing in the Temple. It is possible that when Isaiah describes YHWH in the “Temple,” he means a heavenly place in which YHWH’s court meets. If so, seraphimmay mean celestial luminaries, “fiery ones,” with Isaiah picturing them as YHWH’s royal retinue. Nevertheless, it seems equally if not more likely that by “Temple,” Isaiah means the Jerusalem Temple.

Third, and most importantly, when Micaiah sees YHWH on his throne, he is merely watching the proceedings, whereas YHWH is appearing before Isaiah and interacting with him. In this regard, a closer parallel to Isaiah’s vision is that of Ezekiel’s call narrative (Ezek 1) and his subsequent visions of YHWH with his retinue.

Ezekiel’s Winged Creatures

Ezekiel sees God appear with four polymorphous winged beings called chayot (חיות), “living creatures,” each with four faces (that of a human, a lion, an ox, and an eagle) and four wings.

יחזקאל א:ו …וְאַרְבַּע כְּנָפַיִם לְאַחַת לָהֶם….
א:יא וּפְנֵיהֶם וְכַנְפֵיהֶם פְּרֻדוֹת מִלְמָעְלָה לְאִישׁ שְׁתַּיִם חֹבְרוֹת אִישׁ וּשְׁתַּיִם מְכַסּוֹת אֵת גְּוִיֹתֵיהֶנָה.
Ezek 1:6 …each of them had four wings… 
1:11 As for their wings, they were separated: above, each had two touching those of the others, while the other two covered its body.

Two of the creatures’ wings in Ezekiel’s vision are spread out to touch the wings of the neighboring creature, suggesting that they are standing in a circle. The second pair of wings covers their bodies, just as Isaiah’s seraphim do, but unlike Isaiah’s seraphim, these creatures do not have a third pair of wings to cover their faces. (We will discuss the significance of this later.)

A second similarity between the seraphim and chayot is the tremendous amount of noise they make:

יחזקאל א:כד וָאֶשְׁמַע אֶת קוֹל כַּנְפֵיהֶם כְּקוֹל מַיִם רַבִּים כְּקוֹל שַׁדַּי בְּלֶכְתָּם קוֹל הֲמֻלָּה כְּקוֹל מַחֲנֶה בְּעָמְדָם תְּרַפֶּינָה כַנְפֵיהֶן. 
א:כה וַיְהִי קוֹל מֵעַל לָרָקִיעַ אֲשֶׁר עַל רֹאשָׁם בְּעָמְדָם תְּרַפֶּינָה כַנְפֵיהֶן.
Ezek 1:24 When they moved, I could hear the sound of their wings like the sound of mighty waters, like the sound of Shaddai, a tumult like the din of an army. When they stood still, they would let their wings droop. 
1:25 From above the expanse over their heads came a sound. When they stood still, they would let their wings droop.

However, there are several important differences between the seraphim and the chayot. First, Ezekiel’s creatures are attached to each other, and they never turn, but move as a block, ostensibly on wheels (אופנים; Ezek 1:15). They do not move around independently the way Isaiah’s seraphim do.[21]

Second, Isaiah’s seraphim float above YHWH (Isaiah 6:2), while the former are below him:

יחזקאל א:כב וּדְמוּת עַל רָאשֵׁי הַחַיָּה רָקִיעַ כְּעֵין הַקֶּרַח הַנּוֹרָא נָטוּי עַל רָאשֵׁיהֶם מִלְמָעְלָה. 
א:כג
 וְתַחַת הָרָקִיעַ כַּנְפֵיהֶם יְשָׁרוֹת אִשָּׁה אֶל אֲחוֹתָהּ לְאִישׁ שְׁתַּיִם מְכַסּוֹת לָהֵנָּה וּלְאִישׁ שְׁתַּיִם מְכַסּוֹת לָהֵנָּה אֵת גְּוִיֹּתֵיהֶם…. 
א:כו וּמִמַּעַל לָרָקִיעַ אֲשֶׁר עַל רֹאשָׁם כְּמַרְאֵה אֶבֶן סַפִּיר דְּמוּת כִּסֵּא וְעַל דְּמוּת הַכִּסֵּא דְּמוּת כְּמַרְאֵה אָדָם עָלָיו מִלְמָעְלָה.
Ezek 1:22 Above the heads of the creatures was a form: an expanse, with an awe-inspiring gleam as of crystal, was spread out above their heads.
1:23 Under the expanse, each had one pair of wings extended toward those of the others; and each had another pair covering its body…. 
1:26 Above the expanse over their heads was the semblance of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and on top, upon this semblance of a throne, there was the semblance of a human form.

Here YHWH’s throne is not independent of the creatures, but sits on top of the crystal expanse which is being carried by the flying creatures. Finally, these creatures do not speak with Ezekiel, with each other, or with YHWH. In that sense, they are less of an entourage and more like divine beasts pulling a flying chariot.

Cherubim and the Divine Throne

Ezekiel’s vision is reminiscent of another epithet of YHWH’s, “the one enthroned upon the cherubim” or “who dwells among the cherubim” (1 Sam 4:4; 2 Sam 6:2). In fact, in a later encounter with the creatures (ch. 10), Ezekiel does refer to them as cherubim. Ezekiel’s four-faced cherubim are a unique variant on a theme found throughout the Bible and the ancient Near East, that of winged protective figures that either carry the divine throne or, more likely, surround the deity seated on the throne (or standing on a podium) with their extended wings.[22]

These are the same creatures whose statues appear on the ark of the covenant (Exod 25:18–22, 37:6–9) and in the Temple’s Holy of Holies (1 Kgs 6:23–29). In the latter case, their wings are said to be touching, just like the wings of Ezekiel’s creatures:

מלכים א ו:כז וַיִּתֵּן אֶת הַכְּרוּבִים בְּתוֹךְ הַבַּיִת הַפְּנִימִי וַיִּפְרְשׂוּ אֶת כַּנְפֵי הַכְּרֻבִים וַתִּגַּע כְּנַף הָאֶחָד בַּקִּיר וּכְנַף הַכְּרוּב הַשֵּׁנִי נֹגַעַת בַּקִּיר הַשֵּׁנִי וְכַנְפֵיהֶם אֶל תּוֹךְ הַבַּיִת נֹגְעֹת כָּנָף אֶל כָּנָף.
1 Kgs 6,27 He placed the cherubim inside the inner chamber. Since the wings of the cherubim were extended, a wing of the one touched one wall and a wing of the other touched the other wall, while their wings in the center of the chamber touched each other. 

Menahem Haran (1924–2015), late professor of Bible at the Hebrew University, even suggested that Isaiah may have been inspired to envision winged creatures by the enormous statues of the cherubim in the Temple, where Isaiah experienced his vision.[23] And yet, as noted above, the seraphim are quite different in appearance and position to cherubim. Moreover, the prophet was not physically in the inner sanctum of the Temple, where these statues would have been found.

Moreover, these cherubim are static, in contrast to the “hosts” of YHWH in the stories of Micaiah and Job and the seraphim of Isaiah 6, who sit in the divine council, act independently, and are consulted or sent on errands by YHWH.

A Multitude of Divine Beings

Reading all these texts about the divine retinue, tradition envisions each as a different kind of divine being. A classic iteration of this is in the qedusha prayer,[24] in the line that comes immediately after the recitation of the Trisagian:  

הָאוֹפַנִּים וְחַיּוֹת הַקֹּדֶשׁ בְּרַעַשׁ גָּדוֹל מִתְנַשְּאִים לְעֻמַּת שְׂרָפִים…
The ophanim, and the holy chayot, with great noise, lift themselves to the be opposite the seraphim…

The prayer envisions all of these beings together with YHWH in heaven.[25] 

Seraphim: Winged Serpents

Although Isaiah 6 is the only biblical passage to describe divine beings called seraphim, it is not the only passage to use the term at all. The term seraph in singular and plural (seraphim) appears in Numbers (21:4–9), in the story of the serpents attacking the Israelites in the wilderness. There it refers to venomous snakes, probably a general term for cobras or cobra-like snakes that inhabit the wilderness.

Deuteronomy 8:15 also describes seraph serpents as a danger one finds in the wilderness. Neither Numbers nor Deuteronomy describes the serpents as being winged; however, the book of Isaiah does describe seraphim as flying serpents (שָׂרָף מְעוֹפֵף; 14:29, 30:6).

Isaiah’s depiction is clearly not based on actual animals. First, “flying” snakes such as the black-necked cobra are really swinging snakes, that attack from trees; they don’t have wings. Second, no desert cobras “fly” at all, since this requires trees. What then are these winged serpents?   

Hugh Williamson, Regius Professor (Emeritus) at the University of Oxford, suggests that the seraphim are a hybrid, combining the motif of winged serpents known elsewhere in Isaiah, with the image of the giant cherubim among the actual realia of temple furnishings:

…the Seraphim derived their name from the seraph(im) as known elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible but that they were developed in Isaiah’s vision by association with the Cherubim, whose own form as well as function seem also to be reflected in the description.”[26]

Without negating the broader motif connecting seraphim to cherubim, I would argue that a more direct connection can be found in Egyptian iconography.

Egyptian Uraeus

As I argued in my “What is the Biblical Flying Serpent,” (TheTorah.com, 2017), Isaiah was likely influenced by the “winged uraeus” serpent, which was a popular image in royal Egyptian iconography. The uraeus serpent is associated with the Egyptian goddess Wadjet, originally the patron and protector deity of Lower (=northern) Egypt, and eventually one of the two patron deities of the Pharaoh. 

The image of the winged snake was meant as both a threatening and protective image—protective of the pharaoh and threatening to his enemies. As Wadjet says about herself in spell 17 of the Book of the Dead:

Every god is afraid because so great and mighty is my protection of the god from him who would vilify him. Malachite glitters for me, I live according to my will, for I am Wadjet, Lady of the Devouring Flame, and few approach me.[27]

Pharaohs wore the uraeus serpent on their crowns and were often depicted standing beneath winged serpents, whose wings were outspread in a gesture of protection. The Judean King Hezekiah used the winged uraeus imagery in his seals in the period before he surrendered to the Assyrian King Sennacherib, (701 B.C.E.), after which he expunged the Egyptian iconic winged-serpent from the Judahite elites’ repertoire.[28]

Since Isaiah was a contemporary of Hezekiah and active in the king’s court (as is clear from many passages in the books of Isaiah and Kings), it would be logical to surmise that the seraphim of Isaiah’s vision are similarly understood as winged serpents accompanying the divine King YHWH, who, after all, is described in this vision in royal terms as seated on a “high and lofty throne” (Isa 6:1).[29]

Nehushtan: A Visual Cue?

It may even be that Isaiah was not only inspired by Egyptian imagery in general, but by a specific visual cue, the serpent statue purportedly built by Moses and which the Judahites called Nehushtan. Before Hezekiah destroyed the statue, it was venerated by the Judahites, and may very well have been in the Temple itself where Isaiah had his vision.[30]  The statue could have served as a visual cue, suggesting an image of such beings serving as YHWH’s attendants.[31]

An Israelite Variation on an Egyptian Theme

Isaiah’s seraphim, however, are not simply a reproduction of the Egyptian image of winged serpents flying above the king to protect him with their wings. A clue to understanding Isaiah’s image is the anomaly of the six wings.

Egyptian winged uraei were depicted either with two wings or four wings. As Othmar Keel and Christoph Uehlinger—two experts in ANE iconography—note, the symbolism of the two-winged uraeus was that it guarded the object it was carved on while the symbolism of the four-winged uraeus, which was particularly common in Judahite stamp-seals during this period, was that it guards the seal’s owner. With this in mind, Keel and Uehlinger suggest:

The six wings in Isaiah 6 signify an increase in potency even by comparison with the four wings that the uraei have on the Judean name seals. But the point may be that the seraphim that are seen by Isaiah use none of their pairs of wings to protect their lord; instead, apart from the one pair used for flight, the wings function as a way to protect themselves against the rays of the holiness that were coming from their lord and spreading out everywhere.[32]

To put it another way, not only is Isaiah unique in describing YHWH’s divine retinue as having six wings, but he is unique in having the wings cover their own faces. Isaiah does not explain why this is so, but perhaps their unique vantage point, flying over YHWH, required them to avoid looking directly at him, as this would be disrespectful, perhaps even dangerous. More importantly, as Keel and Uehlinger note, unlike the imagery in Egyptian depictions of Pharaoh with the winged uraeus, none of the seraphim’s wings are spread out in order to cover YHWH in the classic protective gesture of this deity, but rather, their wings cover their own bodies and faces.

In this way, Isaiah has adapted the Egyptian uraeus into his Judahite theology. While winged serpents do fly above YHWH’s head like Egyptian uraeus serpents, the seraphim are not great powers who protect YHWH the way Wadjet protects the Pharaoh. Instead, the seraphim are simply part of the divine retinue, servants of the ultimate powerful being, YHWH, who needs no protection.

Published

January 22, 2019

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Last Updated

November 12, 2019

Footnotes

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Dr. Richard Lederman teaches courses in Bible, Religion, and Comparative Mythology at Georgetown University, Montgomery College, and Gratz College. He holds a Ph.D. in Ancient Near Eastern Languages and Literaature from the University of Pennsylvania. Before returning to academia, Lederman worked as a Jewish communal professional. He blogs at thereligioushumanist.com and spiritunboundsandr.blogspot.com.