1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Seraphim

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37365491911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 24 — SeraphimThomas Kelly Cheyne

SERAPHIM, the imaginary supernatural guardians of the threshold of Yahweh’s sanctuary, only mentioned in Isa. vi. (Isaiah’s vision). Their form is not described, but they have not only six wings (verse 2), but hands (verse 6) and feet (verse 2). They are of colossal height, for they overtop Him who is seated on the high throne; and with a voice that shakes the thresholds they proclaim the Trisagion, like the four “ living creatures ” (cf. Cherubim) in Rev. iv. 6-8. Probably in the lost Hebrew text of Enoch xx. 7 “ seraphim ” stood where the Ethiopic and the Greek give “ the serpents ” or “ the dragons ”; Paradise, serpents and cherubim are here made subject to Gabriel. In late Jewish writings, more recognized than “ Enoch,” they are classed among the celestial with the cherubim and the 'ophannim (“ wheels,” cf. Ezek. i.). Now as to their origin and significance. They may originally have had a serpent form, for it is difficult not to regard “ seraphim ” as originally (as in Num. xxi. 8)= “ serpents ”; cf. also the flying serpents of Israelitish folklore in Isa. xiv. 29. If so, Isaiah has transformed and ennobled these supernatural guardians of sacred things and persons. The “ Nehushtan ” broken in pieces under Hezekiah (2 Kings xviii. 4) may have given an impulse to the prophet"s imagination. Was it not a greater thing to ennoble them than to destroy their artistic representation? There is no precise Babylonian or Egyptian equivalent, though attempts have been made to produce points of contact with Babylonian or Egyptian beliefs.

See further Enc. Bib. “ Seraphim,” and cf. Duhm’s Jesaia, ed. 2 (1902), on Isa. vi.  (T. K. C.)