Seraph

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SERAPH

SERAPH (Heb. שָׂרָף, saraf), the term seraph, whose etymology is obscure, appears in the Bible in two distinct contexts. It appears in the singular and plural as the name of a species of serpent (Num. 21:6; Deut. 8:15; Isa. 14:29; 30:6). In Numbers 21 the Lord sends "seraph-snakes" to punish the complaining Israelites (when the people complain the Lord tells Moses to make a "seraph" and place it on a standard, to serve as a homeopathic apotropaic device, whereupon Moses makes a copper *serpent (snake, 21:9)). In Isaiah 14:29 and 30:6, the word saraf is qualified by the word meʿofef, "flying," so that it appears that the seraph-snake is a purely legendary species.

Seraphim in Isaiah 6:2, 6 must be distinguished from the foregoing. These are depicted as composite semidivine beings with three pairs of wings; they stand, fly, and proclaim God's ineffable holiness before the divine throne. As guardians of a throne they recall the *cherubim in Ezekiel 1, although unlike the latter they do not serve as a divine chariot. Winged figures flank the throne depicted on the sarcophagus of Hiram of Tyre, and have been found on incense altars and ivories. A basalt relief from Tell Ḥalaf shows a composite deity with three pairs of wings, holding a snake in each hand. This figure resembles the seraphim of Isaiah 6, although it might be an apotropaic like the seraph/copper serpent in Numbers 21 and archaeological sources. The apotropaic intercessor function typologically connects the first and second cases of its appearance.

bibliography:

G.B. Gray, Numbers (icc, 1912), 277; idem, Isaiah 127 (icc, 1912), 104ff.

[Michael Fishbane]

seraph

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ser·aph / ˈserəf/ • n. (pl. ser·a·phim / ˈserəˌfim/ or ser·aphs ) an angelic being, regarded in traditional Christian angelology as belonging to the highest order of the ninefold celestial hierarchy, associated with light, ardor, and purity.

seraph

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seraph an angelic being, regarded in traditional Christian angelology as belonging to the highest order of the ninefold celestial hierarchy, associated with light, ardour, and purity. Also, a conventional representation of such a being, typically as a human face or figure with six wings, as described in Isaiah 6:2.

The word is recorded from Old English, and comes ultimately from the Hebrew (plural) śĕrāp̱īm; before the mid 17th century, the singular seraph is rare.

seraph

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seraph one of the seraphim. XVII. Back-formation from SERAPHIM, -in.
So seraphic pert. to the seraphim; ecstatic in worship or devotion. XVII. — medL. seraphicus. seraphical XVI.

Seraph

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Seraph. Either a species of serpent mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures, or a type of angelic being.

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