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Header Image: The mosaics on the interior of the dome of the Baptistry of San Giovanni, 1225-c.1310 | Photo wikipedia by Ricardo André Frantz

Have you ever wondered about what the devil is — or was, pre-Fall? You’ve probably been told that he used to be an angel with God, so then why is he often described as a snake, serpent or dragon?

Though there isn’t a great deal given away in Scripture as to the nature of angels, or the heavenly realms in general, we get some glimpses from the visions of the prophets. But what we can also look at is the words which the Bible uses; some of which aren’t translated and so lose their original meaning in English.

The Seraphim

The word “seraphim” is a transliteration of a Hebrew word, rather than a translation, so in English we often will miss the meaning the original hearers and readers would have understood that word to mean. A transliteration, for those unfamiliar with the term, simply means that a foreign word has been converted into its English equivalent of letters, rather than its meaning being used. A relevant example of this would be for the word “satan”. Although it’s come to be used as a name, it’s actually a transliteration of the Hebrew word for “adversary” (שָׂטָן). You can see a few examples of the word usage here as an adversary: 1 Samuel 29:4; 1 Kings 11:14 and as a name in Job 1:6 (The Adversary if translated).

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So what does seraphim mean if it were translated? Basically “fiery serpents”!

The Hebrew word has obscure etymological roots related to burning (literally), which is likely why translators choose to transliterate rather than translate it. We also find similar connections to fire in other parts of Scripture where the heavenly host are mentioned or described; see Ps 104:4 and Ezk 1:13-14 for two examples where God's ministers are "fire and flame", and the living beings move "like a flash of lightning" with fire moving between them.

There are some links with the root word to Babylonian fire-gods and also in Egypt there are eagle-lion-shaped figures referred to as seref which is where we get our English term (and concept) for the “griffin” from. There’s also the possibility that “fiery snakes” is a reference to the venom in a bite, which has allusions to the “fiery darts” of the enemy in Eph 6:16 — though this could just be more about symbolism with Roman soldiers and their weapons than anything else.

The seraphim are one of, if not the highest order of angelic beings, often depicted close to the throne of God singing praises. We first see them in Isaiah 6:2–3 and then briefly again in verses 6 and 7 where one puts a coal on Isaiah’s lips.

Isaiah 6:2–3
Seraphs 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 the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
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As we see from Isaiah’s description of the seraphim, they have wings, faces and feet, and in verses six and seven, they must have hands of some sort to be able to hold tongues and give coal to Isaiah.

We don’t really hear from the seraphim again until we get an inference in John’s Revelation, where they are called “living creatures” in a similar scene that Isaiah saw, described very much in the same way, except with the terrifying visual addition that they are covered in eyes:

Revelation 4:8
And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing,
“Holy, holy, holy,
the Lord God the Almighty,
who was and is and is to come.”

That Ancient Serpent

How does this all relate to the devil? As you probably know, one of the recurring themes for Satan in Scripture is that of a snake, serpent or dragon. The word used in Genesis 3 for the serpent isn’t the same as the word for seraphim — it uses the word nachash [נָחָשׁ] for serpent instead. But looking through the word usage between saraph and nachash the two can get translated in similar ways, though the latter word seems to get the most used, even in conjunction with “fiery serpents” as well as being translated as “fleeing serpents”, and it also has implications towards the Leviathan mentioned in Isaiah 27. Interestingly too, the word nachash also has instances where it gets translated as “divination”, giving the word a deeper and more mystical meaning into the nature of it. It also has a meaning connected to "copper, shining bronze" which also has heavenly connotations in the shiny radiance of the metal (see also Rev 1:15 where Jesus is described as "burnished bronze").

If the Seraphim are serpent-like fiery beings, and the devil was/is one, then it could also explain why he also gets referred to as that “serpent of old” and the “dragon”.

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The interesting thing about all this is the link between the Day of the Lord, God swallowing up death and His defeat of Leviathan as the “fleeing … twisting serpent” who is the “dragon that is in the sea” (Isa. 27:1). This also has very similar imagery to what Revelation 13 says about the dragon and beast which come out of the sea, so there are definitely implications between these dragons, serpents and fiery snakes with the devil and his defeat when Christ triumphed over death and the “powers and authorities” on the cross (Col 2:15).

There’s a lot of scriptures to cover which mentions all of these themes, but I’ll just list a few here where we find the words for seraphim and serpent translated in various ways: Numbers 21:6; Job 26:13; Isaiah 6:6–7; 14:29; 27:1; 30:6. Then the New Testament references to the dragon: Revelation 12:9; 13:1; 20:2.

Serpents in the Garden

With this in mind, maybe it could change our view on the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Could it be that it wasn’t an actual snake speaking to Eve, but rather a seraphim-angel of some type? It would explain why no one was concerned about a talking animal when none of the others appear to be talkative! It could also help to explain the punishment God gives the serpent: to crawl on its belly and eat dust. Snakes already do that, so why would that be something unusual and a punishment for it? This “eating/licking the dust” that snakes now do is referenced again in Isaiah 65:25 and Micah 7:17 as part of their natural state it seems.

Is it possible that this is an allusion to Satan — a potentially fiery-snake-like being — getting cast out of Heaven to the Earth, and now he had to “crawl” around here instead of the heavenly realms? There’s a few places which hint at the devil being on earth and that this is his kingdom and realm now, rather than anywhere else. Jesus talks about “Satan [falling] from heaven like a flash of lightning” (Luke 10:18), which seems to be a link to what we see in Revelation 12 where there was war in heaven which resulted in the devil being cast down to earth:

Revelation 12:7–9
And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world — he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.
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This theme then follows in Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians where he speaks about “the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient” (Eph 2:2). This would also ties back to what Jesus said in John 14:30 that the devil was the “ruler of this world” and how Satan could offer Jesus all the “kingdoms of the world” when he was tempted in the wilderness (Matt 4:8).

Concluding Thoughts

While we won’t ever fully know what the devil is or was, the allusions and inferences throughout Scripture show that he was a heavenly being of some sort who was cast down to the earth.

Whatever the true form of the devil, the Apostles give us enough warning to know we have an enemy who hates the children of God and wants to devour them (1 Peter 5:8), and that he is deceptive and can disguise himself as “an angel of light” to trick us (2 Cor 11:14). John gives us a method of “means testing” the spiritual at least so we have tools at our disposal.

1 John 4:2–3
By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.

The heavenly realms and beings may be shrouded in mystery to us, and maybe for good reason, but we are not defenceless and are left with enough to know how to spot the tricks if the devil but more importantly, we are told that the victory over Satan and evil is ultimately won in Christ!

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A small aside about Ezekiel 28: 12–16, which is a passage of Scripture typically interpreted to be about the fall of Satan, despite the start of this passage being directed to the King of Tyre. In verse 14 and 16 it speaks about a “cherub” (another rank of angelic being, and again, a transliterated word), but depending on which translation you read, the phrasing can either imply that the subject of this text is a cherub, or that the king of Tyre had a cherub with him. Each version has a footnote saying that the meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain here, so I’m not sure it can be a strong argument for or against the devil being a cherub.

Update: Since writing this, I’ve come across this video which summarises Michael Heiser’s teaching on this topic. It appears that I have come to similar conclusions, though he sides with Satan being a fallen Cherub rather than a Seraph. Watch the video here to see some addition information on this topic:


Sources/Further Reading:

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*If anyone is interested in learning about some serious spiritual warfare, I highly recommend reading The Life of Anthony by Athanasius. It’s a biography of the founder of desert monasticism written around AD 356–362. See links below:

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