Egypt was a terrifying empire during Isaiah’s lifetime (ca. 750–700 bc). Yet they seemed like a viable ally for Israel—a nation surrounded by hostile countries. But God said, “Therefore shall the protection of Pharaoh turn to your shame, and the shelter in the shadow of Egypt to your humiliation” (Isaiah 30:3ESV). He declares reliance on Egypt to be futile.

Hence the unsettling scenery a few lines later: “An oracle concerning the animals of the Negeb. Through a land of trouble and distress, of lioness and roaring lion, of viper and flying serpent” (Isaiah 30:6 ESV). Wait a minute. Flying snakes?

Using the ESV Hebrew-English Reverse Interlinear of the Old Testament, we learn that the term underlying the translation “flying serpent” is שׂרף מעופף (saraph me’owpheph). Saraph also occurs in Isaiah’s vision of God’s throne: “Above[the Lord of hosts] stood the seraphim (שׂרפים; the plural of saraph [שׂרף]). Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew” (Isaiah 6:2 ESV).

Since the term occurs in both passages, why is the word transliterated in Isaiah 6:2 (spelled out in English based on the Hebrew), but translated in Isaiah 30:6  Why do we have seraphim in one passage and flying snakes in another? And aren’t seraphim angels anyway? How do we unravel all this?

Ancient translators were also perplexed. The Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (3rd–1st centuries BC), transliterates the Hebrew שׂרפים (saraphim) in Isaiah 6:2 as its Greek equivalent σεραφιν (seraphin). However, like modern translations, the Septuagint uses the term for snake (ασπις, aspis) in Isaiah 30:6 The Latin translation, the Vulgate (late 4th–early 5th centuries ad), does the same thing.Isaiah 6:2’s שׂרפים (saraphim) is ported over as seraphin and Isa Isaiah 30:6’s שׂרף (saraph) is translated regulus volans (royal flying one). The ancient translations are no help.

It appears the seraphim are fighting identify theft. So for this word study, we have to go beyond the word level to the cultural level. Although theologians, translators and artists have considered the seraphim of Isa 6 to be angels, they are never called that in the Bible. Time to repaint the Sistine Chapel.

The Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (DDD) says the word saraph occurs seven times (Numbers 21:6,Numbers 21:8Deuteronomy 8:15 Isaiah 6:2-6Isaiah 14:29 Isaiah 30:6). DDD notes that the verb saraph means “to burn, incinerate, or destroy” (DDD, pgs. 742–44). At first, this definition appears to contextualize the throne room scene: “the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke” (Isaiah 6:4). But the smoke is probably coming from the burning coals on the altar (Isaiah 6:6), not the seraphim.