Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The Burning Ones

One of the five books of the Torah, In the Wilderness (known to us as Numbers), relates that the people of God complained. They were dissatisfied because they had no bread and no water, and hated the manna which they did have. So God sent them a serpent plague, at which they relented and asked Moses to intercede. Moses, the prophet of angelic patience, interceded. Then the Lord told Moses to make a copper serpent and put it on a pole for the people to look at. Those who looked at the serpent were healed.

Now as I happened to be reading this passage (21,4-9) in two translations, I noticed that one had God telling Moses to make a ‘bronze serpent’, but the other a ‘fiery serpent’. Whence the difference? I glanced at the Hebrew text to see if the words were alike. This was not the case, but one of the words was oddly familiar.

The ‘fiery serpents’ that the Lord sent His people are, in Hebrew, ha-nechashim ha-seraphim. The last word’s meaning is related to ‘kindle’ or ‘burn’; it probably refers to the effect of the poison. God tells Moses to make a saraph (the Hebrew-English Tanakh translates ‘a seraph figure’) and put it on a pole. So Moses makes a copper serpent (nechash nechosheth).

Intrigued, I wanted to find out if there is any connection between the snakes and the angels. It seems that seraphim do not often appear in Scripture. They appear in this story and its flashback in Deuteronomy. Other than that, they are only mentioned in Isaiah – but in very different contexts. Twice the saraph appears as a dragon-like creature, a horrifying enemy:

Rejoice not, all Philistia,
Because the staff of him that beat you is broken,
For from the stock of the snake there sprouts an asp,
A flying seraph branches out from it.

Through a land of distress and hardship,
Of lion and roaring king-beast,
Of viper and flying seraph,
They convey their wealth on the backs of asses…

But in one passage, we suddenly find the seraphim at the Heavenly Court – hardly less terrible:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I beheld my Lord seated on a high and lofty throne; and the skirts of His robe filled the Temple. Seraphs stood in attendance on Him. Each of them had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his legs, and with two he would fly.
And one would call to the other,
“Holy, holy, holy!
The LORD of hosts!
His presence fills all the earth!”
The doorposts would shake at the sound of the one who called, and the House kept filling with smoke.

These ‘burning ones’ do not seem to have any serpentine features; they are like winged men. One of them purifies the prophet’s lips by pressing a live coal to it. It is therefore assumed that there is no direct connection between the snakes and the angels. But the double meaning of saraph (in one book!) remains intriguing.

Traditionally, the Seraphim have been identified as the highest order in the hierarchy of angels, because they ‘burn’ with love for God; they surpass even the Cherubim, who are characterized by wisdom and deep knowledge of God. Apparently love is higher even than wisdom.

By the way, if you were wondering what happened to the saraph that God commanded Moses to make: it turned out just a copper serpent after all. After it had served its purpose, the Israelites started worshipping it as an idol, which was reason for King Hezekiah to smash it (2 Kings 18,4). Yet it still burns in the Christian spiritual memory as an image of Jesus, the life-giver lifted up on the cross (John 3,14-15) in the wilderness of the world; the Son of Man and Son of God, who burned with zeal for his Father’s house, and offered up ‘this temple’ as the final burnt offering.

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