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A seraph (pl. seraphim ( //); Hebrew: שְׂרָפִים śərāfîm, singular שָׂרָף śārāf; Latin: seraphi[m], singular seraph[us]; Greek: σεραφείμ) is a type of celestial or heavenly being in the Abrahamic religions.
Literally "burning ones", the word seraph is normally a synonym for serpents when used in the Hebrew Bible. A seminal passage in the Book of Isaiah (6.1-8) used the term to describe fiery six-winged beings that fly around God's throne singing "holy, holy, holy". This throne scene, with its triple invocation of holiness (a formula that came to be known as the trisagion), profoundly influenced subsequent theology, literature and art. Its influence is frequently seen in works depicting angels, heaven and apotheosis. Seraphs are mentioned as celestial beings in an influential Hellenistic work, the Book of Enoch, and the Book of Revelation. Tradition places seraphs in the fifth rank of ten in the Jewish angelic hierarchy and the highest rank in the Christian angelic hierarchy.
The word seraphim, literally "burning ones", transliterates a Hebrew plural noun; translation yields seraphs. The singular, "seraph", is more properly rendered sarap. The word sarap/seraphim appears three times in the Torah (Numbers 21:6-8, Deuteronomy 8:15) and four times in the Book of Isaiah (6:2-6, 14:29, 30:6). In Numbers and Deuteronomy the "seraphim" are serpents – the association of serpents as "burning ones" is possibly due to the burning sensation of the poison. Isaiah also uses the word in close association with words to describe snakes (nahash, the generic word for snakes, in 14:29, and efeh, viper, in 30:6).
The Isaiah vision of seraphs in an idealised Jerusalem First Temple represents the sole instance in the Hebrew Bible of this word being used to describe celestial beings. "... I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and His train filled the Hekhal (sanctuary). Above him stood the Seraphim; each had six wings; with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew." (Isaiah 6:1–3) The seraphim cry continually to each other, "Holy, holy, holy, is YHWH of hosts: the whole earth is full of His glory." (verses 2-3) One seraph then carries out an act of purification for the prophet by touching his lips with a live coal from the altar (verses 6-7). The text uses the word "seraphim" but adds no adjectives or modifiers emphasising snakes ("nahash," etc.). At the same time the description gives the creatures both human and avian attributes. A strong association with fire, though, is maintained.
Seraphs appear in the 2nd century B.C. Book of Enoch where they are designated as drakones (δράκονες "serpents"), and are mentioned, in conjunction with cherubs as the heavenly creatures standing nearest to the throne of God. In the late 1st century A.D. Book of Revelation (iv. 4-8) they are described as being forever in God's presence and praising him: "Day and night with out ceasing they sing: 'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come.'" They appear also in the Christian Gnostic text On the Origin of the World, described as "dragon-shaped angels".
The 12th century scholar Maimonides placed the seraphs in the fifth of ten ranks of angels in his exposition of the Jewish angelic hierarchy. They are part of the angelarchy of modern Orthodox Judaism. Isaiah's vision is repeated several times in daily Jewish services, including at Kedushah prayer as part of the repetition of the Amidah, and in several other prayers as well. Conservative Judaism retains the traditional doctrines regarding angels and includes references to them in the liturgy, although a literal belief in angels is by no means universal among adherents. Adherents of Reform Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism generally take images of angels as symbolic. Some adherents view them as part of the Merkabah.
Medieval Christian theology places seraphs in the highest choir of the angelic hierarchy. They are the caretakers of God's throne, continuously singing "holy, holy, holy". Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite in his Celestial Hierarchy (vii), drew upon the Book of Isaiah in fixing the fiery nature of seraphim in the medieval imagination. Seraphs in his view helped the Deity maintain perfect order and are not limited to chanting the trisagion. Taking his cue as well from writings in the Rabbinic tradition, the author gave an etymology for the Seraphim as "those who kindle or make hot":
The seraphim took on a mystic role in Pico della Mirandola's Oration on the Dignity of Man (1487), the epitome of Renaissance humanism. Pico took the fiery Seraphim—"they burn with the fire of charity"—as the highest models of human aspiration: "impatient of any second place, let us emulate dignity and glory. And, if we will it, we shall be inferior to them in nothing", the young Pico announced, in the first flush of optimistic confidence in the human capacity that is the coinage of the Renaissance. "In the light of intelligence, meditating upon the Creator in His work, and the work in its Creator, we shall be resplendent with the light of the Cherubim. If we burn with love for the Creator only, his consuming fire will quickly transform us into the flaming likeness of the Seraphim."
Christian theology developed an idea of seraphs as beings of pure light who enjoy direct communication with God.