Host of Heaven

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HOST OF HEAVEN , an expression used in the Bible and in post-biblical Jewish literature to denote comprehensively either (a) supernal beings or (b) stars. The precise implication of the term "host" is variously understood. Where the reference is to supernal beings, these are sometimes portrayed as a palace guard attendant on God. Thus the prophet Micaiah describes them as standing beside the divine throne (i Kings 22:19); while in Psalms 103:19–21 they, together with his "envoys [angels]," "stalwarts," and "servitors," are bidden to bestow blessings on the enthroned Lord. In such contexts the term "host" (Heb. צָבָא, ẓavaʾ) is used in the technical sense of "palace corps." The same meaning is attached to the term in certain earlier texts from the city of Nuzi and in the Akkadian expression, "host of the court" (ṣab bāb ekallim). Similarly, "envoy" corresponds to the Akkadian "palace courier" (mu irru sa ekallim) (Krueckmann, in: Reallexikon fuer Assyriologie, 1:448), and "servitor" elsewhere in the Bible denotes an officer of the royal entourage (ii Sam. 13:17–18; i Kings 10:5). The picture reflects the widespread ancient notion that things on earth have their counterpart in heaven. The celestial beings are also portrayed as a formal militia, marshaled and commanded by God. In the words of the prophet in Isaiah 40:26: "Lift up your eyes and see: who created these? Who is it leads forth their host by roster, summoning each by name?" the metaphor is distinctly military. Similarly, in Isaiah 45:12 the military image is equally explicit in the words: "I [the Lord] it was whose hands stretched out the heavens and who commanded all their host" (cf. Isa. 13:3). Again, in Joshua 5:14–15, the otherworldly figure who appears to Joshua before the siege of Jericho, drawn sword in hand, announces himself as a "captain of the Lord's host." It has been suggested that this concept of a celestial (or divine) army has a parallel in the Mesopotamian designation of certain deities (e.g., Marduk) as "musterers" (asiru) of lesser gods.

The concept is connected with the title "Lord of Hosts" (or "Lord God of Hosts," or "God of Hosts"), frequently attributed to the Lord in the Bible. It is by no means certain, however, that these hosts were originally regarded as celestial. This title (which is not found in the Pentateuch nor in Joshua and Judges) first occurs in connection with the sanctuary at Shiloh, where the Ark of the Covenant was deposited (i Sam. 1:3, 11; 4:4). Since the Ark served also as a palladium (cf. Num. 10:35–36; i Sam. 4:1–7:2; ii Sam. 11:11; 15:24–26), it is probable that the title (which came later to be associated especially with Jerusalem, the Ark's subsequent home: cf. ii Sam. 5:10; 6:5; Isa. 31:4, 9) originally designated the Lord as leader of Israel's warhosts on earth – a probability enhanced by the fact that in Hebrew the word for "host" is never used in the plural to signify the heavenly array. The Lord is indeed said, in several passages of Scripture, to lead the armies of His people (i Sam. 17:45; Ps. 24:8–10; 60:12; cf. also Ex. 7:4; 12:17), and often in Isaiah the title is associated specifically with His bellicose activity (e.g., 1:24; 2:12; 9:6; 10:16, 23, 26, 33; 13:4, 13; 14:22, 24; 17:3; 19:4, 16; 29:6–7). On the other hand, it should be observed that in Mesopotamian texts certain gods are described as lords of the host (kissatu), i.e., of the total content of heaven and earth (Reffs, in: W. Muss-Arnolt, Assyrisch-Englisch-Deutsches Handwoerterbuch, 1 (1905), 453–4), and since the word "host" is likewise employed in the Bible (e.g., Gen. 2:1) in this vaguer sense, it is possible that in the course of time this wider meaning came to be read into the traditional title. Indeed, the Septuagint commonly renders it "Lord of All" (Παντοκράτωρ), and it is such an extended interpretation of the word for "hosts" that may likewise be detected in their mistaken rendering of the homonymous ẓevaʾot in Song of Songs 2:7 and 3:5 as "powers," where it really means "gazelles."

Most often the "host of heaven" is identified with the stars, being associated expressly with the sun and moon (e.g., Deut. 4:19; Isa. 24:21–23; 40:26; Jer. 8:2). In such cases, however, they are probably regarded as living beings rather than as inanimate phenomena, for it is thus that stars were commonly envisaged in the ancient Near East. In Mesopotamia, for example, each major deity was associated with a heavenly body, while in a Canaanite mythological poem from Ras Shamra-Ugarit (iv ab, i. 4–5) the expression "divine beings" (bn ilm) is parallel to "assembly of the stars" ([p]hr kkbm), and in Job 38:7 the morning stars which sing in chorus are associated with "divine beings [Vulg. sons of God]" who shout for joy. In this respect, they are regarded as a militia; in the Song of Deborah (Judg. 5:20) the stars are said to fight from heaven against Sisera.

Apostate Israelites worshiped the host of heaven (cf. Deut. 4:19; 17:3; Jer. 8:2). This cult was favored especially by Ahaz (ii Kings 17:16) and Manasseh (ii Kings 21:3, 5), but was eventually suppressed by Josiah in 621 b.c.e. (ii Kings 23:12). Sacrifices were offered and incense burnt on rooftops (Jer. 19:13; Zeph. 1:5). An Ugaritic text speaks similarly of setting up thrones (mtbt) for the sun on a roof. The practice was known also in Babylon (J. Morgenstern, in: Mitteilungen der Vorderasiatisch-Aegyptischen Gesellschaft, 3 (1905), 110 ff.; and W.R. Smith, Lectures on the Religion of the Semites (1927, 19693), 580) and is attested at a later date as current among the Nabateans (Strabonis Geographica (1921–25), 15:4–25). A myth about the host of heaven may be recognized in Isaiah 24:21–23. The Lord, it says, will eventually settle accounts with "the host of high heaven on high and the kings of earth on earth." They will be rounded up and locked in a dungeon. Then the Lord of Hosts will be installed on Mount Zion as the one true king, and so great will be the sheen of His splendor (Heb. kavod) streaming over His courtiers (literally, elders) that even the sun and moon will be put to shame. As in the parallel case of the leviathan myth (27:1), the prophet here projects a primordial event into eschatology. What inspires his words is an ancient tale relating how certain celestial beings, ranging themselves as a rebel army, were expelled from heaven by the supreme god or his champion. The parallel example from the ancient Near East is in the Babylonian Epic of Creation, where Marduk routs the rebel hosts of Tiamat and Kingu and imprisons them in cellars (4:111–114). A similar myth was current among the Hittites (Pritchard, Texts, 120 ff.), while a familiar classical parallel is the banishment of the Titans to Tartaroa. The myth survived in later ages, allusions to it occurring in Enoch (86:1; 88; 90:20–24), in the Book of Revelation 12:7–9, and the Epistle of Jude 13 in the New Testament, in an Aramaic incantation of the ninth (?) century c.e., and in the liturgy of the Mandeans. Significantly enough, the rebels are identified with stars (Gaster, in bibl., par. 185; J. Morgenstern in: huca, 14 (1939), 100). Another story of the celestial host appears in Genesis 32:1–3, where Jacob encounters a contingent of otherworldly beings and at once exclaims, "This is God's army [or, an army (camp) of divine beings]." This, however, may be simply a Hebrew version of the widespread myth of the Phantom Host, a ghostly army of departed warriors who ride intermittently across the sky, especially on dark or stormy nights. Although they are more commonly described in European folklore as a hunt, the notion that they are an army is indeed well attested in ancient and modern sources, surviving, for instance, in the Spanish designation of them as exercito antiguo or huesta antigua (Gaster, in bibl. par. 71).

In post-biblical literature the same ambiguity is associated with the expression "host of heaven" as in the Scriptures. Thus, in Ben Sira 43:7, where the moon is described as their "instrument [? jewel; Heb. keli]," they are clearly astral. On the other hand, in Enoch 60:1 they are conjoined vaguely with "angels"; in 61:10, with the supernal hierarchy; and in 104:6 (as again in Dead Sea Hymns 11:13), with the sainted dead, but it is not said that they are stars. Nor does an identification with stars appear anywhere in the Dead Sea Scrolls; the host is simply a supernal congregation. Thus the Hymns speak of the "host of the holy ones" (3:22; 10:3, 5), of the "host of spirits" (13:8), and of the "host which possesses [transcendental]knowledge" (18:23). Nevertheless, they are indeed envisaged as a militia: in the War Scroll it is said explicitly that they will participate in the final campaign against Belial and the forces of evil – an idea which has its perfect counterpart in Iranian doctrine and which is anticipated in Scripture in the words of Zechariah 14:5: "The Lord my God will come [and] all the holy beings be with thee [lxx: Him]."

Lastly, it should be observed that the concept of supernal beings as a host tends to be superseded in later rabbinic literature by the portrayal of them as a celestial family (Aram. Pamalyaʾ de-maʿlah; cf. Latin familia); while among the Samaritans they are sometimes called simply "the folk on high" (ʿam ʿilliaʾi; cf. M. Heidenheim (ed.), Bibliotheca Samaritana, 2 (1896), 191, line 11–12), a term which may well have been borrowed from the Arabs and is intended to stand in contrast to the designation of terrestrial spirits as "earth folk" (ahl al-ard; cf. K. Kohler, in: Archiv fuer Religionswissenschaft, 13 (1910), 75–79).


B.N. Wambacq, L'épithète divine Jahvé-seba'ôt (1947); W.F. Albright, in: jbl, 67 (1948), 376–81; T.H. Gaster, Myth, Legend and Custom in the Old Testament (1969), par. 71, 185; O. Eissfeldt, Kleine Schriften, 3 (1966), 103–23; 417–25.

[Theodor H. Gaster]