Word Study: Lost in Translation?
- Tuesday, May 07, 2013
If the seraphim are not “burning ones,” does that mean they are flying snakes, like Isaiah 30:6 suggests? The Hebrew word saraph could come from an Egyptian noun (srf) that means “snake.” DDD picks up on this, suggesting a parallel with the Egyptian uraeus serpent—the cobra mounted on the crown of deities. Egypt, parts of the Middle East, and Africa are home to cobras that spit poison at their enemies—causing intense, searing pain. This description fits the Old Testament occurrences of saraph (Numbers 21:6-8).
Like Isaiah’s flying seraphim, uraeus serpents have wings in Egyptian art. They are portrayed this way for two reasons: (1) the cobra’s broad hood, which expands when it is ready to strike, looks like wings; and (2) Pharaoh—whom the uraeus serpents guarded—was identified with Ra, the Sun god, and Horus, the Falcon deity. The uraeus serpent of Egypt was a symbol of protection and power.
By searching for “uraeus” in the Context of Scripture (COS), we learn that the Gebel Barkal Stela of Thutmose III, after likening Pharaoh to the god Horus, warns: “It is his uraeus that overthrows them for him, his flaming serpent that subdues his enemies” (COS Vol. 2, pg. 15). In some Egyptian art, these serpent guardians are also depicted with hands and feet. This isn’t surprising since Egyptians frequently merged human and animal characteristics in their representations of divine beings.
But would Egyptian symbolism have a place in Israel? Yes. Archaeologists have found royal seals with Israelite names that bear the images of winged, uraeus cobras.1 This archaeological material was not available to the Septuagint translators or Jerome, who translated the Vulgate—hence the confusion then and now.
The seraphim of Isa 6 are best understood as serpentine, divine throne guardians.2 The message to Israelite readers of the day: Yahweh is on the throne, ruling Egypt and every other nation, not Ra or Pharaoh. Isaiah uses these guardians of Egypt’s Pharaoh (who was hailed as a god) to demonstrate the supremacy of Israel’s God. The seraphim work for the LORD of hosts, and so appealing to Egypt is a waste of time (Isaiah 30:6).
Anything Egypt has to offer, God already controls. Anything the powers of this world have to offer, the LORD already rules. As Jesus said to Pilate just before He was sentenced to death: “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11 ESV). So don’t waste your time appealing to the powers of here and now.
1. The leading authority on Israelite iconography in its ancient Near Eastern context is Othmar Keel. See his book, co-authored with Christoph Uehlinger, Gods, Goddesses, and Images of God in Ancient Israel (translated by Thomas H. Trapp; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), pgs. 270–77.
2. Philippe Provençal, “Regarding the Noun שׂרף in the Hebrew Bible,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament (2005): 371–79.
Article (originally entitled Repaint the Sistine Chapel: Angels are Becoming Snakes) courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Logos Bible Software. Each issue of Bible Study Magazine provides tools and methods for Bible study as well as insights from people like John Piper, Beth Moore, Mark Driscoll, Kay Arthur, Randy Alcorn, John MacArthur, Barry Black, and more. More information is available at http://www.biblestudymagazine.com. Originally published in print: Copyright Bible Study Magazine (Mar–Apr 2010): pg. 31–33.
Publication date: May 7, 2013
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