Who are Seraphim and Cherubim?

One of the most mysterious creatures in the Bible we come across is the seraphim and cherubim. A visual illustration of how they are presented is bizzare and unimaginable. In this blog, we will investigate into what these seraphim and cherubim are.

Seraphim

Below is the best picture I can find for the correct representation for Seraphim.
Source: weebly.com

Isa 6:1-3 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one cried to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; The whole earth is full of His glory!”

Digging a little deeper, we will soon notice that Seraphim are serpents. Isaiah 6 is not the only place Seraphim occurs. It also appears in several other places and on all those places, they are mentioned as fiery serpents. However, here in Isaiah 6, the word is merely transliterated but actually represents a serpent.

Num 21:8 And Moses prayed to the Lord for the people; and the Lord said to Moses, Make thee a serpent, and put it on a signal-staff; and it shall come to pass that whenever a serpent shall bite a man, every one so bitten that looks upon it shall live (LXX). 

Num 21:8 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.”

In the above passage, serpent, fiery serpent – all refer to the same Hebrew world Seraph. Seraphim is plural for Seraph.

Edit: I was told that Seraph simply means burning and does not mean serpent as I posted in this blog. Hence, I re-investigated this to correct if I had erred. However, the more I investigated, the more I can see clearly, Seraph means serpent. Below are two good examples.

Num 21:8-9 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery [H8314 שָׂרָף saraph], and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze [H5175 נָחָשׁ nachash – serpent], and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.

As you can clearly see, God is asking Moses to create a Saraph and set it on the pole. Moses interprets it can makes a Nachash and set it on the pole.

Isa 14:29 “Do not rejoice, all you of Philistia, Because the rod that struck you is broken; For out of the serpent’s  [H5175 נָחָשׁ nachash – serpent] roots will come forth a viper, And its offspring will be a fiery flying serpent [H8314 שָׂרָף saraph].

We can also see Saraph used as a word for serpent in the book of Isaiah itself. In the last part of the above verse – fiery flying serpent, there are only two Hebrew words for flying and Saraph. If Saraph means just burning, then it simply means flying burning. However, the meaning is very obvious that Saraph is a word for serpent.

Cherubim

Gen 3:24 So He drove out the man; and He placed cherubim at the east of the garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.

The first occurrence of Cherubim was in Genesis when God placed them at the east of the garden to guard the way to tree of life. Hence, cherubim were given a role to guard.

Exod 25:18 “And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work you shall make them at the two ends of the mercy seat.

Cherubim were made at the ends of the mercy seat which was placed on top of the ark of the covenant.

1Sam 4:4 So the people sent to Shiloh, that they might bring from there the ark of the covenant of the LORD of hosts, who dwells between the cherubim. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God. 

2Sam 6:2 And David arose and went with all the people who were with him from Baale Judah to bring up from there the ark of God, whose name is called by the Name, the LORD of Hosts, who dwells between the cherubim. 

2Kgs 19:15 Then Hezekiah prayed before the LORD, and said: “O LORD God of Israel, the One who dwells between the cherubim, You are God, You alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth. You have made heaven and earth.

During the period of Samuel, David and Hezekiah, the dwelling place of God is generally expressed as between the cherubim referring to the mercy seat above the ark of the covenant.

Heb 9:5 and above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail.

This is again echoed in the book of Hebrews. Even though it doesn’t describe in detail in Hebrews, Cherubim are mentioned for glory.

Ezek 10:2 Then He spoke to the man clothed with linen, and said, “Go in among the wheels, under the cherub, fill your hands with coals of fire from among the cherubim, and scatter them over the city.” And he went in as I watched.

Cherubim are also mentioned in the visions of Ezekiel when describing the glory of God.
Source: angel-ology.com  

Ezek 1:5-8 Also from within it came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had the likeness of a man. Each one had four faces, and each one had four wings. Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the soles of calves’ feet. They sparkled like the color of burnished bronze. The hands of a man were under their wings on their four sides; and each of the four had faces and wings.

Ezek 10:20 This is the living creature I saw under the God of Israel by the River Chebar, and I knew they were cherubim.

The above is how the four living creatures are described in the book of Ezekiel. 
Source: endtimestrumpet.wordpress.com

Rev 4:7-8 The first living creature was like a lion, the second living creature like a calf, the third living creature had a face like a man, and the fourth living creature was like a flying eagle. The four living creatures, each having six wings, were full of eyes around and within. And they do not rest day or night, saying: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, Who was and is and is to come!”

The above is how the four living creatures around God’s throne are described in Revelation. John however, never mentioned that these 4 living creatures are Cherubim. 
The Cherubim placed in the ends of the mercy seat and also in Solomon’s temple had only two wings and no detailed description of them is mentioned.
Cherubim have the following characteristics:
  • They seems to have different shape.
  • They always have shapes associated with ox, lion, eagle and man.
  • They have different count of wings.
  • They had a role of guarding and praising God day and night.
What are we supposed to do with these creatures? What do they represent? Are they literal or metaphorical? If metaphorical, what metaphors do they represent? These are the many questions arises to us.

Cherubim are not unique to Bible

It is also equally important to understand cherubim are not unique to the Bible. This is similar to the word Hades which is referring to Sheol of Hebrew.

Hades was the ancient Greek chthonic god of the underworld, which eventually took his name. (wiki) 

While Tartarus is not considered to be directly a part of the underworld, it is described as being as far beneath the underworld as the earth is beneath the sky. It is so dark that the “night is poured around it in three rows like a collar round the neck, while above it grow the roots of the earth and of the unharvested sea (wiki).

Just because Peter used the word Tartaros and other New Testament authors used Hades, does it mean Tartaros and Hades as in their original meaning is true? Absolutely not!

1Cor 15:55 “O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?” 

Hos 13:14 “I will ransom them from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death. O Death, I will be your plagues! O Grave (Sheol), I will be your destruction! Pity is hidden from My eyes.” 

Hos 13:14 I will deliver them out of the power of Hades, and will redeem them from death: where is thy penalty, O death? O Hades, where is thy sting? comfort is hidden from mine eyes (LXX).

We can also see another example from Peter’s sermon in the book of Acts.

Ps 16:10 For You will not leave my soul in Sheol, Nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption. 

Acts 2:31 “he, foreseeing this, spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ, that His soul was not left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption.

As you can see, Sheol in Hebrew is translated into Hades in Greek, so that the Greek speaking population can understand and relate it. But Sheol is neither Hades nor does Bible acknowledge the true meaning of Hades or it’s deity. This is same for words in other cultures used in the Bible to represent which people can understand and relate it but may not represent the true meaning of it. This is exactly the case with Cherubim.

The origin of the symbolic cherub antedates history, and points to the time when man began to shape his ideas of supernatural powers by mystic forms, especially the combination of parts of the strongest animals of land and air (the lion and the eagle), which resulted in the numerous grotesque figures in Middle Eastern lore and architecture. One of these is the Babylonian lamassu, a protective spirit with a sphinx-like form, possessing the wings of an eagle, the body of a lion, and the head of a king. This was adopted largely in Phoenicia (wiki). 

Source: biblicalarchaeology.org
(An ivory Phoenician-style cherub from Arslan Tash)
What do these creatures represent? They are representing the likeness of glory. This is well explained by Ezekiel when he sums up his vision about God.

Ezek 1:28b … This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD.

Another way to directly explain is to ask ourselves if God is seated on the throne. Is God’s throne literal or metaphorical? We know it is metaphorical because God is Spirit and Heaven is His throne. However, throne here is used for us to relate a King and His absolute authority. Today we don’t have many monarchs who have absolute authority like in those days, nor can we relate God to a King where parliament has the authority. 
We see the same symbolism in the book of Revelation.

Rev 5:6-8 And I looked, and behold, in the midst of the throne and of the four living creatures, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as though it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent out into all the earth. Then He came and took the scroll out of the right hand of Him who sat on the throne. Now when He had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.

In the same vision of John where the four living creatures similar to the vision of Ezekiel , Jesus Christ is also shown as symbol.
Source: deviantart.com
The above slain Lamb having 7 eyes and 7 horns represent our Lord Jesus Christ in the vision. If Jesus Christ is represented using a strange symbol, why not the Cherubim?

Num 23:22 God brings them out of Egypt; He has strength like a wild ox. 

Exod 19:4 ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself.  … Deut 32:11-12 As an eagle stirs up its nest, Hovers over its young, Spreading out its wings, taking them up, Carrying them on its wingsSo the LORD alone led him, And there was no foreign god with him. … Prov 23:5 Will you set your eyes on that which is not? For riches certainly make themselves wings; They fly away like an eagle toward heaven. … Lam 4:19a Our pursuers were swifter Than the eagles of the heavens. 

Num 23:24 Look, a people rises like a lioness, And lifts itself up like a lion; It shall not lie down until it devours the prey, And drinks the blood of the slain.” … Prov 30:30 A lion, which is mighty among beasts And does not turn away from any; … Amos 3:8 A lion has roared! Who will not fear? The Lord GOD has spoken! Who can but prophesy?

Gen 1:27 So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. 

Cherubim were used as symbols to represent glory of God where 
  • OX represents strength. This is how God brought the Israelite people out of Egypt. The strength of God is compared to the strength of a wild ox.
  • LION represents might. This is how God made the Israelite people after redeeming them from slavery. God Himself compares His words to the roar of a lion. Jesus Christ is also called the Lion of Judah.
  • EAGLE represents how it fly swiftly towards the sky. This is how God made the Israelite people come out of Egypt.
  • MAN represents the image of God, knowing good and evil.

The combination of ox, lion, eagle and man represents a powerful symbol of God’s glory in ancient Israel and this is how God showed the likeness of His glory to His prophets in visions.

Source: Wikipedia

The Lion of St Mark in Venice is a good example. It represents the evangelist St Mark, pictured in the form of a winged lion, is the symbol of the city of Venice and formerly of the Republic of Venice. This symbolism went out of use in recent times because, knowledge had increased and we no longer admire the strength of these animals anymore, nor compare them any longer.  However, this imagery and idea still exists in forms of humans with super powers in comics etc.

Conclusion

Seraphim and cherubim are symbols of might, strength, swiftness and knowledge which are not literal but metaphorical used to represent with the likeness of the glory of God. They are not angels, nor referred anywhere as angels. Seraphim and cherubim do have wings. But angels in the Bible never had wings and they literally appeared, ate and walked in this world (e.g., during the time of Abraham, Lot and Sodom).