What are the Seraphim of Isaiah 6 – Burning Angels or Serpentine Guardians?? #131

[podcast src=”https://html5-player.libsyn.com/embed/episode/id/14335289/height/360/theme/standard/thumbnail/yes/direction/forward/” width=”100%” height=”360″ scrolling=”no” class=”podcast-class” frameborder=”0″ placement=”top” use_download_link=”” download_link_text=”” primary_content_url=”http://chtbl.com/track/C2GDE1/traffic.libsyn.com/biblemystery/BibleReadingPodcast131.mp3″ theme=”standard” custom_color=”#87a93a” libsyn_item_id=”14335289″ /]Hello everybody and happy Friday to you. After a long and rambly Coronavirus intro yesterday, today’s intro is short. I would say short and sweet, but it’s actually just short.

Comment: Jesse: I don’t see the video Set your eyes that you mention. I will go look for it on youtube. FIXED! 

Today’s Bible readings include Numbers 16, Psalms 52-54, Isaiah 6 and Hebrews 13. Our focus passage is the famous throne room passage of Isaiah 6, in which Isaiah (in the year King Uzziah dies) sees God high and elevated on His throne, attended and accompanied by these mysterious creatures called ‘seraphim’ that only appear in one chapter in the entire Bible! Let’s go read Isaiah 6, and then discuss what these beings might be.

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphim were standing above him; they each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another:

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Armies;
his glory fills the whole earth.

The foundations of the doorways shook at the sound of their voices, and the temple was filled with smoke.

Then I said:

Woe is me for I am ruined
because I am a man of unclean lips
and live among a people of unclean lips,
and because my eyes have seen the King,
the Lord of Armies.

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, and in his hand was a glowing coal that he had taken from the altar with tongs.

Isaiah 6:1-6

What a fascinating passage! For one, we get some insight into the physical appearance of God, which was covered in depth in episode 69 of the podcast. He is often depicted in the midst of smoke and fire and accompanied by shaking and other marvels. And often there are various and sundry heavenly beings surrounding the throne, including the seraphim we see here.

Fascinating creatures, these seraphim. They can fly, they can talk, and they have six wings – a pair that covers their face, a pair that covers their feet, and a pair for flying. I have been familiar with Isaiah 6 for a very long time, at least since I was a teenager. I suspect – but don’t remember – that the pastor of the church I grew up in referred often to this text, because I was very familiar with it in my youth, and it was amongst the more interesting Bible passages out there. What do you picture when you picture the seraphim in this passage – what do these beings look like in your mind’s eye? I can tell you that for almost my entire life I just thought of them as six-winged angel looking beings – human looking creatures, probably dressed in white and having two big feathered wings on their back, and a small set of feathered wings covering their faces and feet. Is that an accurate picture? I have no idea – I’ve never seen a seraph!

However, when you begin to study angels and demons from what the Bible teaches, and not just what is depicted in pop-culture, a different picture of these beings emerges. For one, angels don’t have wings. Cherubim and seraphim do indeed have wings, but we nowhere see cherubim and seraphim described as angels, so I believe it is wise to conclude that these are a different class of heavenly beings entirely. Likely related to angels, but different somehow. We are given much information about cherubim, including the intriguing possibility in Ezekiel that Satan himself was possibly a cherubim.

You were the seal of perfection,
full of wisdom and perfect in beauty.
13 You were in Eden, the garden of God.
Every kind of precious stone covered you:
carnelian, topaz, and diamond,
beryl, onyx, and jasper,
lapis lazuli, turquoise and emerald.
Your mountings and settings were crafted in gold;
they were prepared on the day you were created.
14 You were an anointed guardian cherub,
for I had appointed you.
You were on the holy mountain of God;
you walked among the fiery stones.
15 From the day you were created
you were blameless in your ways
until wickedness was found in you.

Ezekiel 28: 12-15

This is a fascinating passage, but it tells us next to nothing about seraphim. What are they? Well – other than the brief Isaiah 6 description of these beings, literally the only other thing we can know from the Bible about seraphim comes from the etymology of their name. Unfortunately, that is where our mystery deepens, because – based on the name – many scholars believe that seraphim are either burning/smoking/fiery heavenly beings with wings OR they are cobra-like snake beings. And no, I’m not joking about that. The trouble is that the name seraphim can either come from the verb saraph, which in Hebrew means burning, or from the noun saraph, which in Hebrew indicates a venomous snake like creature. (Presumably because their venom ‘burns,’ when it is injected.) So – which is it? Unfortunately, we don’t know from the Bible text alone, so we will turn to an expert on angels in the Bible, Logos scholar in residence, Dr. Michael Heiser, and he writes:

A number of passages in the Bible utilize the concept of fire in depicting the presence of God. Among the most familiar is Genesis 3:24, where Yahweh stations cherubim with flaming swords at the entrance to Eden to ensure the fallen Adam and Eve do not reenter. In nonbiblical portrayals of divine presence (e.g., the tablets from Ugarit), fiery messengers guard the divine presence.

In Isaiah 6, fiery guardians, seraphim, are present in the throne room of God. The word “seraphim” derives from either the noun saraph (“serpent”; compare the Egyptian word seraf) or the verb saraph (“to burn”). The two meanings likely overlap in Isaiah 6. King Hezekiah’s relationship with Egypt, which coincided with Isaiah’s ministry, influenced the royal iconography during Hezekiah’s reign. Seraphim may therefore refer to a cobra and its burning venom (Egyptians considered cobras to be divine guardians). Psalm 104:4 also refers to fiery “ministers” in Yahweh’s presence.

Aside from fiery beings, many biblical passages describe both Yahweh’s throne room and presence as fiery and full of smoke. In Exodus 3, Yahweh appears to Moses in a burning bush. After the Israelite people have left Egypt, the divine presence moves with them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night (Exod 13:21–22; 14:24). Yahweh at one point descends on Mount Sinai in fire and smoke (Exod 19:18; 24:17; compare Rev 15:8). Other passages create the impression that fire is a stock image in describing the appearance of Yahweh (Deut 4:36; Psa 144:5; 2 Sam 22:7–13). At times a rushing or stormy wind accompanies fire imagery (Ezek 1:4; Isa 28:2; 29:6; 30:27–30; Psa 50:3; compare Heb 12:18). Other passages describe God Himself as a consuming fire (Deut 4:24; 9:3; compare Heb 12:29), and Yahweh uses fiery bursts and lightning bolts as weapons against his enemies (Josh 10:11; Psa 18:7–14; 21:9; 148:8; 2 Sam 22:13–15; Isa 30:30).

This imagery carried into the New Testament, most prominently in the events of Pentecost in Acts 2:

And when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in the same place. And suddenly a sound like a violent rushing wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. And divided tongues like fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability to speak out (Acts 2:1–4).

The stormy aura of “a violent rushing wind” accompanied by flaming “tongues” indicates that the gathered disciples are now in the divine presence; the throne room of God has come to them. This fire is associated with the Holy Spirit—the presence of God. As with other prophetic figures, the apostles are commissioned in the divine presence by the divine presence.

Michael S. Heiser, “Fire as a Motif of Divine Presence,” in Faithlife Study Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2016).

Now, Heiser doesn’t tip his hand here as to what his best guess on seraphim is – snake-like being, or burning heavenly being, but he does in his book The Unseen Realm:

The seraphim of Isa 6:2, 6 that attend Yahweh’s throne may also have been fiery beings if the noun derives from the verb saraph (“to burn”). It is more likely that seraphim derives from the Hebrew noun saraph (“serpent”), which in turn is drawn from Egyptian throne guardian terminology and conceptions. If that is the case, Egyptian imagery relating to the divine throne guardians includes fire as well.

Michael S. Heiser, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible, First Edition. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015).

So – can it be that the throne of God is attended and protected by heavenly and flying snake-like beings? It is possible, but I would say that I am at about 50-50…maybe even 60-40 in favor of seraphim being heavenly flying creatures that are somehow burning with something that resembles fire. My only reason for leaning in this direction is because of the astonishing prevalence of FIRE in so many of the narratives – Old and New Testament – that describe the setting of the throne room of God, and so few narratives that describe anything serpent-like in relation to God. There’s also the feet thing. Snakes don’t have feet, but I do believe that Satan – the tempter in the garden of Eden – did have feet before he was cursed, so the being the deceived Adam and Eve was likely some sort of reptile/dragonish creatures – at least at first, and not a snake-like creature.

This is a mystery – one of many – that I look forward to learning personally in Heaven!


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