Cherubim & Seraphim

Have you ever read Ezekiel’s first chapter and been completely baffled by the… things found there? Or maybe you had that feeling when you read Isaiah 6? I remember coming across either chapter for the first time and attempting to sketch the descriptions of these creatures called ‘cherubim’ and ‘seraphim’, only to give up in annoyance.

The cherubim are found across the Hebrew Bible, the first time in Gen 3 when Adam and Eve are exiled from the garden of Eden. Meanwhile, the seraphim are found just once. When trying to read the biblical descriptions of these two creatures in a cultural vacuum, they can be utterly confusing. Fortunately, we have tools to help us make sense of what they actually are.

Cherubim

The creature called a ‘cherub’ (plural ‘cherubim’) is found in many parts of the Hebrew Bible. While popularly depicted in artwork as a winged baby, and regarded as just a type of angel, the cherub is something far more terrifying, at least according to some of its depictions. Here is the elaborate passage from Ezek 1.

This was their appearance: they were of human form. Each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf’s foot; and they sparkled like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. And the four had their faces and their wings thus: their wings touched one another; each of them moved straight ahead, without turning as they moved. As for the appearance of their faces: the four had the face of a human being, the face of a lion on the right side, the face of an ox on the left side, and the face of an eagle; such were their faces. Their wings were spread out above; each creature had two wings, each of which touched the wing of another, while two covered their bodies. Each moved straight ahead; wherever the spirit would go, they went, without turning as they went. In the middle of the living creatures there was something that looked like burning coals of fire, like torches moving to and fro among the living creatures; the fire was bright, and lightning issued from the fire. The living creatures darted to and fro, like a flash of lightning.

Cherubim are never called angels in the Bible, nor are they equated with them. While angels are replete in the Bible, especially in the earlier books, Cherubim rarely make any actual appearances. The vast majority of references to cherubim are from ritual objects or sites dedicated to Yahweh, such as the ark of the covenant or the tabernacle. (The Bible never mentions angels as having wings, but cherubim’s wings are frequently mentioned. Because angels and cherubim have been conflated in the popular mind, this is where the idea that angels have wings originated.)

First Kings 6-7 lays out the elegant architecture of the first temple built for Yahweh in Jerusalem. The ark of the covenant was placed in the innermost sanctuary, and two huge statues of cherubim flanked the ark. The walls of the temple also had cherubim engraved, accompanied by images of palm trees and flowers. The ‘bronze sea’, a huge basin which stood outside the sanctuary for ritual washing, had ten stands holding it up. On these stands were more cherubim:

This was the construction of the stands: they had borders; the borders were within the frames; on the borders that were set in the frames were lions, oxen, and cherubim.

While the lion and ox merely accompany the cherub in this imagery, those animals are a more vital feature in the priest Ezekiel’s vision of cherubim, cited above. Ezekiel had his vision five years after the Babylonians took Judean nobility into exile in 597 BC. His vision begins with a storm coming from the north, filled with fire, and it is amid the fire that he sees the four cherubim. The vision continues to describe ‘wheels within wheels’ that hovered beneath each cherubim, and moved along with them. Above the cherubim is a throne, with a burning, man-like figure, who ‘was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of Yahweh’. (Ezekiel’s vision is not the only time the cherubim are associated with storms, e.g. Psa 18, but this may be incidental to Yahweh’s probable origin as a storm god in Edom.) A similar vision of the four cherubim comes in Ezek 10.

No other depictions outside Ezek 1 and 10 show the cherubim with four different faces. Even in Ezek 41, when the prophet has a vision of a second temple built in Jerusalem, the new carvings of cherubim bear only the features of a human and lion. This has led some scholars to speculate Ezekiel has adapted the cherubim to reflect the four chief Babylonian gods, each represented by the face of a creature they were associated with in Babylonian mythology: Marduk (bull), Nergal (lion), Ninib (eagle), and Nabu (man). This would then convey the message to Ezekiel’s readers, however subtle, that Babylon’s gods were mere attendants to Yahweh, such that the Babylonian conquest of the Judeans was something Yahweh had permitted to happen.1

Ezekiel’s descriptive portrayal of the cherubim as having features from lions, bulls, eagles, and humans has led most scholars to but one conclusion: cherubim are the Israelite analogue to the Assyrian lamassu and šîdu (previously mentioned here).

The šēdu and lamassu spirits are usually portrayed as protectors of the individual worshiper. […] Some sources, on the other hand, portray the šēdu and the lamassu as protective spirits which accompany a goddess.2

In fact, the term ‘cherub’ has its roots in the Akkadian verb ‘to bless’, karābu, and the noun ‘intercessor’, kāribu, is used to describe the lamassu and šîdu.3 These creatures were commonly depicted as having the bodies of bulls or lions, the wings of eagles, and the faces of men.

Just as the Hebrew Bible portrays the cherubim as attending to, or functioning as, Yahweh’s throne (statues in his inner sanctum, engravings on his temple), so were huge statues and carvings of lamassu found ‘guarding’ important places in Assyrian and Babylonian cities. Sargon II of Assyria had several lamassu standing at the entrance of his throne room in Dur-Sharrukin. The left side of a frieze on the sarcophagus of the Phoenician king Ahiram depicts him enthroned upon a winged lion with a man’s face, seen here.

Seraphim

Unlike the cherubim, which are found in many books of the Hebrew Bible, the seraphim (singular ‘seraph’) are found precisely once, here in Isa 6.

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphim were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is Yahweh of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, Yahweh of hosts!’ Then one of the seraphim flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’

The information we are given is tantalizingly similar to the cherubim. The seraphim, like the cherubim, have multiple pairs of wings, are found in Yahweh’s temple as attendants to his throne, and there is an earth-shaking voice. Their very name, ‘seraph’, comes from the Hebrew verb saráf, ‘to burn’, which gives us a loose connection to Ezek 1’s cherubim emerging from the fire within a storm.

Although ‘burn’ is used many times in the Hebrew Bible, none of the other occasions refer to this six-winged creature attending Yahweh’s throne. (Ezekiel’s cherubim only have four wings.) However, this verb’s usage does give us a hint as to what these seraphim are supposed to be. Many instances of the verb refer to the burning sensation of a snake bite, and the noun form, ‘burning [one]’, is used just five times outside Isa 6, always in reference to snakes.

The seraphs in attendance around him are to be understood as uraeus-like figures, divine figures in the form of winged snakes. […] the seraphs are protective figures.4

All five of the other uses of ‘burning [one]’ refer to ‘fiery’ snakes (Num 21.6-8; Deut 8.15). Two of those uses are later in Isaiah (verses 14.29 and 30.6). Important for us, Isaiah describes the snakes as ‘flying’, the same verb used for the seraphim in Isa 6. All of this suggests the seraphim are some kind of heavenly serpent. Does the seraph have a parallel in the cultures of Israel’s neighbors, the way the cherub does?

There is now widespread agreement that these [seraphim] are a developed version of the originally Egyptian uraeus, a form of sacred snake with usually two or four wings and also certain human characteristics which, judging by their frequent appearance on seals and the like, were clearly also very familiar in the Levant. In Egypt, these creatures were regularly depicted as royal guardians, sometimes even in connection with thrones […] These features [six wings, human hands and ‘feet’] seem to bring the Seraphim closer to the kinds of six-winged genii [protector deities] as guardians of thrones from Mesopotamia during the Assyrian period.5

Judean bulla depicting a winged serpent. (Source: Robert Deutsch, ‘Six Hebrew Fiscal Bullae from the Time of Hezekiah’, New Inscriptions and Seals Relating to the Biblical World (ed. Meir Lubetski, Edith Lubetski), 64.)

The language used to describe the seraphim has significant overlap with Yahweh’s theophanic thunder or lightning in other parts of the Hebrew Bible (e.g. Psa 18; 29), which itself parallels Baʿal’s thunder and lightning appearing as his servants (mentioned previously). As such, the seraphim are better thought less as ‘creatures’ made by Yahweh, and more as symbolic personifications of his power.6

Are They the Same Thing?

Rev 4 combines the cherubim’s animal body parts and many eyes with the seraphim’s six wings and singing. This suggests the author interpreted them as the same creature. Other late Second Temple literature, however, maintained a distinction between them. First Enoch and 2 Enoch each mention the cherubim and seraphim alongside each other as members of heaven’s population, particularly as the creatures closest to God’s throne.

It is important to note that, just as the seraphim only feature in Isa 6, the cherubim never feature in Isaiah (except for a brief reference in Isa 37, a chapter that has been copy-pasted from 2 Kings). How is it that Isaiah seems entirely ignorant of this pervasive tradition about the cherubim seen all over the Hebrew Bible, and why does he have the snake-like seraphim instead?

Disregarding late interpretations in books like the Revelation or 1 Enoch, the similarities between the cherubim and seraphim, though not identical, make it ‘enticing’ to see them as referring to the same imagery found in Jerusalem’s temple. It could be that Isaiah purposely described the creature from the temple’s artwork as serpentine to remind the reader of the ‘life-restoring’ properties of Moses’ bronze serpent, since the creature of Isaiah’s vision purifies the prophet to make him worthy of his role.7

More than eighty percent of the references to cherubim in the Hebrew Bible come from just four books — Exodus, 1 Kings and its dependent 2 Chronicles, and Ezekiel — all of them products of the exile or later. Every mention of cherubim in Exodus comes from chapters 25-26, the instructions to build the ark and tabernacle, and chapters 36-37, the execution of those instructions. These chapters are a late invention, idealizing the temple’s history by combining elements of various precursors that were scattered throughout Israel.8 The other references to cherubim are scattered in the Hebrew Bible, usually just one or two per book.

This presents us with another possible explanation: that Isaiah’s flying serpents were the original creature of the temple’s art, while the cherubim were retroactively inserted into Israel’s history after the Israelites were exposed to the lamassu during the Babylonian exile.


1 Brian Peterson, Ezekiel in Context, 119-120.

2 Paul-Alain Beaulieu, The Pantheon of Uruk During the Neo-Babylonian Period, 137.

3 G.A. Cooke, Ezekiel, 112.

4 Matthijs de Jong, Isaiah Among the Ancient Near Eastern Prophets, 78.

5 H.G.M. Williamson, Isaiah 6-12, 53-54; cf. Gregory Glazov, The Bridling of the Tongue and the Opening of the Mouth in Biblical Prophecy, 120-121.

6 John Day, ‘Echoes of Baal’s Seven Thunders and Lightnings in Psalm XXIX and Habakkuk III 9 and the Identity of the Seraphim in Isaiah VI’, Vetus Testamentum 29.2, 143-151.

7 Williamson, 56-57.

8 Carol Meyers, Exodus, 219-220.