Seraphim, also known as the ‘burning ones,’ is a kind of celestial body or heavenly being that is said to have originated in ancient Judaism. This term also appears in Christianity, Islam, and Modern Judaism. Traditionally, Seraphim are placed at the highest rank in Christian Angelology. It stands at the fifth rank of ten in the Jewish Angelic Hierarchy.
According to a seminal passage in the Book of Isaiah, this term is utilized to describe six-winged beings known for flying around the throne of God. These beings cry, ‘Holy, holy, holy’ while circling the throne. This throne scene has profoundly influenced theology, literature, and art because of its triple invocation of holiness. This influence is usually seen in angels, heaven, and apotheosis. Seraphim are known as celestial beings in the non-canonical Book of Enoch and the canonical Book of Revelation.
Origin and Development
In Hebrew, the word Seraph means ‘burning.’ This term is used seven times to denote ‘serpent’ in the Book of Numbers. The primary reason for the word ‘burning’ meaning a serpent, is not universally accepted. It might be because of the snake’s fiery colors or maybe because of the burning sensation left by its venomous bite.
It has been identified that the motifs for the displays of seraphs had their sources in Egyptian iconography. The Uraeus denoted divinity, sovereignty, royalty, and divine authority in Egyptian iconography. Seraphim are winged celestial beings with a fiery passion for doing good work for God. Seraphim appear in the Book of Enoch of the second-century BC, where they were mentioned alongside Cherubim.
Seraphim in Judaism
According to Maimonides, the twelfth century scholar, Seraphim existed at the fifth of ten ranks in angels in the Jewish Angelic Hierarchy. The Seraphim lived at a higher state of angels in the world of Beriah (‘Creation,’ first created realm, divine understanding). They had an experience of the distance from the absolute divinity, which causes them to burn up in self nullification continually. Because of this, even though they ascend to God, they have to come back to their place.
Below them in the hierarchy is the World of Yetzirah (‘Formation,’ archetypal creation, divine emotions). These angels are known for serving God with self-aware instinctive feelings (‘face of a lion, ox, eagle’). Seraphim is a constituent of the angelology of modern Orthodox Judaism. Isaiah’s notion is repeated many times in regular Jewish Services, consisting of the Kedushah prayer. This prayer is a part of the repetition of the Amidah.
The conventional doctrines regarding angels are retained in Conservative Judaism, including references to them in the liturgy. Although, a literal belief in the concept of Angels is not universal. People who adhere to Reform Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism are known for taking angel images as important symbols. An eighth century BCE Judean seal denotes a flying snake with human characteristics. Isaiah encounters this in his commissioning as a prophet.
Seraphim in Christianity
The Bearers of the Throne (ḥamlat al-arsh) are comparable to Seraphim, who are also described with six wings and four faces.
According to Medieval Christian theology, Seraphim are the caretakers of God’s throne while continuously singing ‘holy, holy, holy.’ The name Seraphim indicates — a ceaseless and eternal revolution about Divine principle, the vitality of their intense, perpetual, tireless activity, their heat and keenness, and their elevated and energetic assimilation of those below.
Thomas Aquinas, an influential philosopher and theologian, described the nature of Seraphim in his work Summa Theologiae by saying — The name ‘Seraphim’ does not come initially from charity alone. However, it does come from the excess of charity, expressed by the word ardor or fire. Hence Dionysius agreed on the name ‘Seraphim’ because of their properties of fire, which translated into containing too much heat.
Now in this fire, one may consider three things —
Firstly, their movement is always ascending and constant. This symbolizes that they are born without agility towards the idea of God.
Secondly, the active force of ‘heat’ is not found in fire alone, but it has a certain sharpness as a penetrating action. They try to reach even the smallest of things with abundant enthusiasm. This signifies the movement of these angels, which is exercised at maximum capacity upon its subjects. It allows them to rouse their enthusiasm and cleanse them entirely of their heat and energy.
Thirdly, fire represents the quality of clarity and brightness. This signifies that these angels have an inextinguishable light and are capable of perfectly enlightening others.
The Seraphim played a mystic role in Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man (1487), which began to be seen as the epitome of Renaissance humanism. Pico took the fiery Seraphim—“they burn with the fire of charity”—as the highest model of human aspiration: “impatient of any second place, let us emulate dignity and glory. Christian theology developed an idea of Seraphim as beings of pure light who enjoy direct communication with God.”
A Franciscan theologian, Bonaventure, who was Aquinas' contemporary, stipulated that the six wings of the seraph are an essential analogical construct in his mystical work, The Journey of the Mind to God. Christian theology developed an idea of Seraphim as beings of pure light who enjoy direct communication with God.
Seraphim in Islam
These angels are ranked the highest in the Book of the Wonders of Creation and the peculiarities of Existing Things. They are followed by the spirit, archangels, and cherubim. The Bearers of the Throne are laid with the constant responsibility of worshiping God. They keep on existing in the heavenly realm and are not allowed to enter the world of God, unlike other messenger angels.
Seraphim (Sarufiyyun or Musharifin) are straightforwardly mentioned in a hadith from Al-Tirmidhi, in a conversation between Muhammad and God. During the Night Journey, they are often interpreted as a reference to the ‘Exalted assembly’ while disputing the creation of Adam in Surah. This journey concerned what lay between the Heavens and the Earth.
Some other angels who are sometimes identified as Seraphim are — Gabriel and Israfil. Iblis boasted about there being a “seraph created from celestial fire, more excellent than Adam.” This affiliation was not always accurate as sometimes they also identified with Cherubim.