Cherubim and seraphim

3D illustration of the Ark of the Covenant inside the Holy Temple illuminated by a shaft of light from heaven.

Following is another in a series of excerpts from What Every Christian Should Know About the Angel of the LORD, released by High Street Press.

In Scripture, we encounter two peculiar types of heavenly creatures who look nothing like angels. That’s because cherubim and seraphim are never called angels in the Bible. They do not deliver messages or appear in human likeness. Yet cherubim and seraphim share certain features and carry out the same function: to guard the presence of God. This sometimes brings them into contact with people, but they are never sent to people. 

In a sense, cherubim and seraphim are hybrid figures. That is, they possess human attributes as well as animal features. We find such beings in the Ancient Near East, especially as creatures who represent power or prevent evil. So, cherubim and seraphim are welcome protectors of those they’ve come to guard. At the same time, they are terrifying creatures to trespassers.

Note some distinguishing characteristics of these heavenly creatures:

First, cherubim and seraphim are said to have wings, though the number of wings varies (Exod. 25:20; 37:9; Isa. 6:2).

Second, cherubim at times are described as having four faces, along with human and bovine body parts (Ezek. 1; 10). These may represent strengths for which the animals are known: ox (power); lion (strength, majesty, danger); human (wisdom); eagle (mobility, speed).

Third, seraphim is the plural form of sarap, a Hebrew word also translated “snake” (Num. 21:6, 8; Isa. 14:29). According to Michael Heiser, this term is drawn from Egyptian throne guardian terminology. The Egyptian Uraeus serpent, drawn from two species of Egyptian cobra, fits all the elements of the supernatural seraphim who attend Yahweh’s holy presence in Isaiah 6. The relevant cobra species spit burning venom, can expand wide flanges of skin on either side of their bodies – considered wings in antiquity – and are obviously serpentine.11

Fourth, neither cherubim nor seraphim are qualified by the terms malak or angelos, so it is incorrect to think of them as angels. 

Fifth, as in the garden of Eden, cherubim are placed at the boundary between the sacred and the profane to protect the holy from contamination. For example, they keep Adam and Eve, who are expelled from the Garden of Eden, from returning (Gen. 3:24). 

Sixth, the word cherub probably means “gatekeeper” or “intercessor.” The word is used ninety-one times in the Old Testament. Frequently in the Old Testament, the writers refer to God as sitting or enthroned among the cherubim (Num. 7:89; 2 Sam. 6:2; Ps. 80:1).

Seventh, cherubim adorn the golden ark of the covenant, with their wings spreading across the mercy seat, or cover of the ark, on which the high priest sprinkles sacrificial blood to atone for the people’s sins.

Eighth, seraphim are similar in description to cherubim and serve God as they proclaim his holiness (Isa. 6:1-3; Rev. 4:6-10).

We encounter cherubim and seraphim in our study of the angel of the LORD, but it’s important to keep in mind that these divine beings are never depicted as angels, nor is the preincarnate Christ ever called a cherub or a serap.

Next: A special angel