Ser'aphim (Heb. Seraphim', שׂרָפַים; Sept. Σεραφίμ, or Seraphs; the plural of the word שָׂרָŠ, saraph), celestial beings described in Isa 6:2-6 as an order of angels or ministers of God, who stand around his throne, having each six wings, and also hands and feet, and praising God with their voices. They were therefore of human form, and, like the Cherubim, furnished with wings as the swift messengers of God. Some have indeed identified the Cherubim and Seraphim as the same beings, but under names descriptive of different qualities: Seraphim denoting the burning and dazzling appearance of the beings elsewhere described as Cherubim.
It would be difficult either to prove or disprove this; but there are differences between the Cherubim of Ezekiel and the Seraphim of Isaiah which it does not appear easy to reconcile. The "living creatures" of the former prophet had four wings; the "Seraphim" of the latter, six; and while the Cherubim had four faces, the Seraphim had but one (comp. Isa 6:2-3; Eze 1:5-12). If the figures were in all cases purely symbolical, the difference does not signify (see Hendewerk, De Seraph. et Cherub. non Diversis [Reg. 1836]). SEE CHERUBIM. There is much symbolical force and propriety in the attitude in which the Seraphim are described as standing, while two of their wings were kept ready for instant flight in the service of God; with two others they hid their face to express their unworthiness to look upon the Divine Majesty (see Ex 3:6; 1Ki 19:13; comp. Plutarch, Quoest. Romans vol. 10), and with two others they covered their feet, or the whole of the lower part of their bodies — a practice which still prevails in the East when persons appear in a monarch's presence (see Lowth, ad loc.). Their occupation was twofold — to celebrate the praises of Jehovah's holiness and power (Isa 6:3), and to act as the medium of communication between heaven and earth (ver. 6). From their antiphonal chant ("one cried unto another") we may conceive them to have been ranged in opposite rows on each side of the throne. As the Seraphim are nowhere else mentioned in the Bible, our conceptions of their appearance must be restricted to the above particulars, aided by such uncertain light as etymology and analogy will supply. We may observe that the idea of a winged human figure was not peculiar to the Hebrews: among the sculptures found at Mourghaub, in Persia, we meet with a representation of a man with two pairs of wings springing from the shoulders and extending, the one pair upwards, the other downwards, so as to admit of covering the head and the feet (Vaux, Nin. and Persep. p. 322). The wings in this instance imply deification; for speed and ease of motion stand, in man's imagination, among the most prominent tokens of divinity. The meaning of the word "seraph" is extremely doubtful; the only word which resembles it in the current Hebrew is saraph, שָׂרִŠ, "to burn," whence the idea of brilliancy has been extracted. Such a sense would harmonize with other descriptions of celestial beings (e.g. Eze 1:13; Mt 28:3); but it is objected that the Hebrew term never bears this secondary sense. Gesenius (Thesaur. p. 1341) connects it with an Arabic term signifying high or exalted, and this may be regarded as the generally received etymology; but the absence of any cognate Hebrew term is certainly worthy of remark. It may be seen in the article SERPENT SEE SERPENT that a species of serpent was called saraph, and this has led some to conceive that the Seraphim were a kind of basilisk-headed Cherubim (Bauer, Theolog. A.T. p. 189); or else that they were animal forms with serpent's heads, such as we find figured in the ancient temples of Thebes (Gesen. Comment. in Jes.). Hitzig and others identify the Seraphim with the Egyptian Serapis; for although it is true that the worship of Serapis was not introduced into Egypt till the time of the Ptolemies (Wilkinson, Anc. AEgypt. 4, 360 s. q.), it is known that this was but a modification of the more ancient worship of Kneph, who was figured under the form of a serpent of the same kind, the head of which afterwards formed the crest of Serapis. But we can hardly conceive that the Hebrews would have borrowed their imagery from such a source. Knobel's conjecture that Seraphim is merely a false reading for sharathim (שָׁרָתָים), "ministers," is ingenious, but the latter word is not Hebrew. See the Studien und Kritiken, 1844, 2, 454. SEE ANGEL; SEE CHERUB; SEE LIVING CREATURE; SEE TERAPHIM.