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Seraph, Seraphim

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The Oxford Companion to the Bible What is This? Provides authoritative interpretive entries on Biblical people, places, beliefs, events, and secular influences.

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    Seraph, Seraphim

    Hebrew singular and plural for supernatural beings associated with the presence of God, and in postbiblical tradition identified as one of the choirs of angels. They appear only once in the Bible, in the call‐vision of Isaiah (chap. 6), where they sing praise to God in the now‐famous words of the “Thrice Holy” hymn. Isaiah saw the Lord on his throne, surrounded by seraphim in the same way that early rulers were surrounded by a courtly retinue. Like the derivative four living creatures of Revelation 4.8, the seraphim had three pairs of wings, one for flying, one for covering their eyes (for apparently not even these beings could look directly on God), and one to cover their feet (almost certainly a euphemism for genitalia).

    The noun śārāp is usually related to the verb śārap, “to burn.” Because the term appears several times with reference to the serpents encountered in the wilderness (Num. 21.8; Deut. 8.15; Isa. 14.29; 30.6), it has often been understood to refer to “fiery serpents.” From this it has also often been proposed that the seraphim were serpentine in form and in some sense “fiery” creatures or associated with fire. In Isaiah 6.6 one of the seraphs brings the prophet a live coal from the fire on the altar; note, however, that the seraph uses tongs.

    David G. Burke

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