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Word Study: Lost in Translation?

  • Jacob P. Massine Contributor to Bible Study Magazine
  • 2013 7 May
Word Study: Lost in Translation?

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.

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 Originally published in print: Copyright Bible Study Magazine (Mar–Apr 2010): pg. 31–33.

Publication date: May 7, 2013