Does anyone know what saraph שָׂרָ֥ף means? It is sometimes translated as "fiery serpent" but this word הַשְּׂרָפִ֔ים, sharing the same root is also translated as "fiery" (serpent), and also "seraphim."

Keeping in mind that נָחָשׁ means serpent (31 occurrences)

שָׂרָ֥ף is translated to "a fiery serpent"

Num. 21:8

Make a fiery serpent (שָׂרָ֥ף)...

Isaiah 14:29

for from the serpent’s (נָחָשׁ֙) root will come forth an adder (צֶ֔פַע), and its fruit will be a flying fiery serpent (שָׂרָ֥ף)

Isaiah 30:6

from where come the lioness and the lion, the adder and the flying fiery serpent (שָׂרָ֥ף)...

נָחָ֤שׁ שָׂרָף֙ is translated to "fiery" "serpents"

Deut. 8:15

who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery (שָׂרָף֙) serpents (נָחָ֤שׁ) and scorpions

הַנְּחָשִׁ֣ים הַשְּׂרָפִ֔ים is translated to "fiery" "serpents"

Num. 21:6

Then the LORD sent fiery (הַשְּׂרָפִ֔ים) serpents (הַנְּחָשִׁ֣ים) among the people...

שְּׂרָפִ֔ים is translated as "seraphim"

Isaiah 6:6

Then one of the seraphim (הַשְּׂרָפִ֔ים) flew to me...

Isaiah 6:2

Above him stood the seraphim (שְׂרָפִ֨ים).

They are also described as "flying" in Isaiah: 6:2, 6:6, 14:29, 30:6 (both "seraphim" and "serpent" alike). It also seems like שָׂרָף֙ could denote another creature altogether (as it is described alongside serpents).

The Numbers 21:6-9 passage reads:

6 Then the LORD sent fiery (הַשְּׂרָפִ֔ים) serpents (הַנְּחָשִׁ֣ים) among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents (הַנָּחָ֑שׁ) from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent (שָׂרָ֔ף) and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze serpent (נְחַ֥שׁ) and set it on a pole. And if a serpent (הַנָּחָשׁ֙) bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent (נְחַ֥שׁ) and live.

The Septuagint renders Num. 21:6,7,8+9 (from the root οφις) as "deadly serpent" and "serpent(s)" and Isaiah 6:2+6 (σεραφιν) as "seraphim." I can't see the distinction between a "fiery serpent" and a "seraphim" in Hebrew, whereas the Sept. employs different words.

The seraphim as described in Isaiah 6 appear to be the same as the "living creatures" (ζῷα, also "animals") described in Revelation 4, as they are described around God's throne, with 6 wings, and also profess the same saying - the only two occurrences in the entire bible.

Isaiah 6:1-6

Isaiah’s Vision of the Lord 1 In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”

4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”

6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”

Revelation 4:6-8

6 And around the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: 7 the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight. 8 And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!”

I'm also wondering why they are called different things in Greek if they are in fact the same. And if they are described as "animals" could there be another "animal" separate from "serpents" in the OT? Could it even denote a "dragon"?

1 Answer 1


The lexical meaning of שָׂרָף "seraph" is given in the appendix below from BDB.

The noun occurs just 7 times in the OT: Num 21:6, 8, Deut 8:15, Isa 6:2, 6, 14:29, 30:6, as documented by the OP. I am not sure what can be added to this data other than the rather obvious observation that seraphim are either a name for the firey angels around the throne of God or real vipers/snakes on earth.

APPENDIX - BDB entry for שָׂרָף

I. שָׂרָף noun masculine Isaiah 14:29 a serpent, usually venomous (possibly from above v, from burning effect of poison); — absolute ׳שׂ Numbers 21:8 (J E; on Arabic parallels see JacobArabic Dichter ii. 93, iv. 10 f.), apposition ׳נָחָשׁ שׂ Deuteronomy 8:15, plural הַנְּחָשִׁים הַשְּׂרָפִים Numbers 21:6; a flying serpent, or dragon, שָׂרָף מְעוֺפֵף Isaiah 14:29; Isaiah 30:6.

II. [שָׂרָף] noun masculineIsaiah 6:2 plural שְׂרָפִים seraphim (probably akin to I. ׳שׂ, as beings originally mythically conceived with serpents' bodies (serpent-deities, compare Isaiah 14:29; Isaiah 30:6), or (CheComm.) personified of lightning, compare arts. SERAPHIM, StrachanHast. DB CheEncy. Bib.; Di Marti and others compare also Egyptian guardian-griffins, called Šerref; see also כְּרוּב; on Assyrian Šarrapu (-bu), epithet of god Nergal, connected by DlWB with √ שָׂרַף, see שָׁרָב, ZimKAT 3. 415); — in OT. majestic beings with six wings, and human hands and voices, attendant upon ׳י Isaiah 6:2,6.

  • + 1 so the answer depends on whether one seeks an answer from the Bible or from surrounding cultures as in BDB Jul 31, 2023 at 22:15
  • @DanFefferman - It is often difficult to separate culture idiom and semantics as these all feed on, and inform each other.
    – Dottard
    Jul 31, 2023 at 22:18
  • Indeed... and an examination of the cultural idiom can teach us a great deal. Aug 1, 2023 at 1:46

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