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Where do the images of seraphs come from?

Seraphim Seals

Q. I’m an artist doing research for my thesis on angels and apsaras. Where does the snake image of seraphs and other bull-like angelic creatures come from?

A. The image of the seraph as a snake probably comes from Egyptian art. (The term ‘seraph’ means both fiery and snake; the idea is probably that the snake’s venom is fiery, i.e., the victim of a snake bit feels a burning sensation) There are eighth century B.C.E. stamp seals from ancient Judah that portray the seraph, and the image is similar to a snake common in Egyptian art of that era and earlier.

Seraphim Seals 

Here you can see drawings some of these seals from Othmar Keel and Christoph Uehlinger, Gods, Goddesses and Images of God in Ancient Israel (Fortress Press, 1998). I also include a drawing of a similar snake or asp from an Egyptian headdress. As Keel and Uehlinger point out throughout their book, Egyptian art had a very strong influence on Judean and Israelite art.

Incidentally, seals 273 and 274a are especially interesting. Seal 273 portrays Yhwh symbolically as a sun disk wearing a crown (a typical representation in Israelite-Judean art). Yhwh is thus portrayed as king, and surrounding him are the seraphs. Seal 274a may portray Yhwh as king, sitting on some sort of structure or throne, also attended by a seraph, this time a seraph with wings.

These seals picture basically the same scene portrayed by Isaiah in the opening verses Isa 6:1-7. The text on seal 273 states that it belonged to a courtier of King Ahaz named Ashna. In light of the similarity between the seal and Isaiah 6, it is worth noting that Jerusalem in the eighth-century B.C.E. was a very small town, that both Isaiah and Ashna lived during the reign of King Ahaz, and that Isaiah enjoyed very close connections to the royal court in which Ashna served (see Isa 7-9). Consequently, it is inconceivable that Isaiah and Ashna did not know each other.

  • Benjamin Sommer

    Benjamin Sommer is professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Prior to teaching at the Jewish Theological Seminary, he served as Director of the Crown Family Center for Jewish Studies at Northwestern University. His book The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel (Cambridge University Press, 2009) won several awards. His most recent book is Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition (Yale University Press, 2015).