Host of Heaven
HOST OF HEAVEN (צְבָ֣א הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם). Usually refers to heavenly bodies or heavenly beings. The exact phrase is found about eighteen times in the OT in addition to five places where “their host” is used with probable reference to the heavens.
The basic meaning of the root sb’.
Although the most frequent meaning of the root may have to do with warfare or an army, it does not seem that this meaning is the most fundamental. At least some passages do not bear that meaning easily (Num 4:3). It becomes a question then whether these passages should be explained as metaphorical extensions of the basic meaning “army” or taken as themselves illustrative of a broader basic meaning such as “group,” of which the examples meaning “army” are a specialization. In this light, is the host of heaven to be thought of as an army of heaven, or a group of beings inhabiting heaven? Contrary to some of the more standard lexical tools (BDB, KB), it would appear that comparative Sem. data does not support the meaning “army” as the basic force of the word. The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary gives the meaning of ṩābu as “group of people, contingent of workers, troop of soldiers.”
Linguistic aspects of the phrase.
In the phrase under consideration the word “host” is always used in the sing.-collective form rather than the pl. form which is found in the phrase “Yahweh Səbaŏth.” It is generally in the form “all the host of heaven.” One must be careful to distinguish between “host of heaven,” “host(s) of Yahweh” (both sing. and pl.), and “Yahweh of hosts” (always pl.). There is no necessary connection between these phrases. For the last phrase, which is not the main concern of this article, see M. Tsevat in HUCA (1965), 49-58, where he interprets the name Yahweh Səbaŏth as “Yahweh (is) armies,” that is “God is protection.” The LXX renders the word ṩəba in many ways including the following: kosmos (Deut 4:19), dunamis (2 Kings 17:16), stratia (Jer 8:2), astēr (Dan 8:10), and astron (Isa 34:4).
The host of heaven as heavenly bodies.
In most of the passages the host of heaven prob. has reference to heavenly bodies, either in general or in reference to stars in particular These are mentioned in several different connections.
a. The host of heaven is not to receive worship (Deut 4:19; 17:3).
Alongside these direct references stand passages which refer to the same activity, but where the phrase “host of heaven” is not used. Among Josiah’s reforms was the taking away from the Temple the horses “dedicated to the sun” (2 Kings 23:11). Men worshiping the sun was an abomination to Ezekiel (8:16). It is possible that the references to the queen of heaven (Jer 7:18; 44:17-19, 25) have in mind the worship of some heavenly body, perhaps the sun; cf. Dahood, Revista Biblica (1960). An alternative would be to identify this deity with Ishtar who was called queen of heaven in Assyria and was identified with Venus. Another probable reference to Israelite worship of the host of heaven is found in Amos 5:26. The words tr. “tabernacle” and “Chiun” in KJV are prob. names of the Assyrian astral deity Sakkuth or Kaiwan (Saturn). The Massoretes evidently have changed the vowels of these objectionable names to Sikkuth and Kiyun, after the pattern of the word šiqqūş, “abomination.”
c. Very striking is the relationship expressed in the fact that the host of heaven was allotted by God to all the peoples of the earth (Deut 4:19) except Israel. That this must mean more than allotment for the regulation of time and life, but also for worship is shown by Deuteronomy 29:26 where Israel is accused of worshiping gods which were not allotted to them (for worship); cf. KD and Romans 1.
d. Sometimes the host of heaven is seen as the object of God’s creative activity and renders obedience to the will of God. It may be that the host of Genesis 2:1 is broader than the host of heaven; i.e., it is the host of heaven and earth, including the whole of creation. The host of heaven was made by divine breath (Ps 33:6), named and controlled by God (Isa 40:26; 45:12). The faithful working of the heavenly bodies is prob. what is meant by “the host of heaven worships thee” (Neh 9:6), and their seemingly endless number is used as an illustration of the number of the descendants of David (Jer 33:22). Probably Judges 5:20 where the stars fought against Sisera is to be included here, a figure for God using nature to defeat His enemies.
e. At least once the phrase is used in the relationship of receiving God’s judgment. Isaiah 34:4, “All the host of heaven shall rot away,” must be referring to heavenly bodies, since it is parallel to “the skies shall roll up.” It is uncertain whether this is also the meaning in Isaiah 24:21, inasmuch as there “host of heaven” is parallel to “kings of the earth,” although v. 23 mentions the involvement of the moon and sun.
Worship of heavenly bodies in the ancient Near East
The worship of the sun was widespread. In Egypt the sun was worshiped in its various aspects under different names, the chief of which were Re and Aton. In Assyro-Babylonia the sun appeared as a male deity called Shamash (Sumer. Utu). The same word used in Ugarit as Shepesh was thought of as female. In Canaan itself old place names such as Beth-Shemesh, house of the sun, prob. reveal the early practice of sun worship. At Ugarit this practice may have taken place on roof tops as is mentioned in the Bible. The fact that Shemesh was called a chariot-rider in Assyrian texts might explain the placement of horses and chariot at the entrance of the Jerusalem temple as idolatrous sun worship (2 Kings 23:11).
In Ur and Haran, both places of patriarchal contact, the moon was worshiped under the name Sin as a male deity. Earlier Sumer. names were (I)nanna and Ningal. This last name appears in the Ugaritic story of the marriage between Yerah, the Ugaritic moon god, and Nikkal, here a female deity. The probable purpose of this story was the desire for fertility. Again in Canaan a place name, Jericho, from yerah, moon, testifies to the early moon worship under a Canaanite name. Ornaments in the shape of the crescent moon have been found in Pal.
In Mesopotamia the goddess Ishtar is connected with Venus, but it is thought that originally Ishtar was a male deity. This would explain why in the western lands (Ugarit) Venus was thought of as male. In this case, however, it is not one deity but two, one for the morning phase of Venus, Shahar, Dawn, the other for the evening phase, Shalem, Dusk. An important Ugaritic text (52) describes the origin of these deities. In another text (49) mention is made of Athtar, which is prob. the same as Ishtar, only in Ugarit considered male. The fact that the fem. form occurs frequently in Heb. as Ashtoreth shows how much the Israelites must have been involved in worship of the host of heaven.
The names for Saturn have been given above in connection with Amos 5:26.
The host of heaven as angels.
Although host of heaven most frequently means heavenly bodies, there are a few passages where it clearly means something else. In 1 Kings 22:19 (2 Chron 18:18) the prophet Micaiah saw the host of heaven standing beside God’s throne conversing with the Lord, and in v. 21 they are called spirits. This conception of the host of heaven as angelic beings is also seen in Luke 2:13 where it must mean angels. A transitional passage between this meaning and that of heavenly bodies is Job 38:7 where “morning stars” is parallel to “sons of God.”
This passage must receive special consideration. Although vv. 12, 13 are quite difficult, four explanations of the phrase host of heaven can be given for vv. 10, 11. One takes the host of heaven as the stars and explains the little horn’s attack against the stars as figurative of his impiety (Isa 14:13). A second understands the phrase as the deities which the heavenly bodies represent and which were revered by peoples of antiquity. These deities the horn attempted to desecrate, and it even carried the attempt to God Himself (v. 11). A third interpretation views the host of heaven as the people of God who are opposed by the horn. Finally the phrase may mean angelic beings. Perhaps it is unwise to make a judgment in such a potentially symbolic context, but the second alternative seems most plausible.
Host(s) of Yahweh.
This similar phrase sometimes is used of angels (Ps 103:21; 148:2); once it is used of Israel (Exod 7:4). It is not clear what is meant, for the being who appeared to Joshua could be commander of God’s heavenly host or human host (Josh 5:14, 15). The thought of angels as God’s host is also expressed by another Heb. word, mahaneh, “camp, host” (Gen 32:2 ).
C. H. Gordon, Ugaritic Literature (1949); S. N. Kramer, ed., Mythologies of the Ancient World (1961); T. H. Gaster, “Sun,” “Moon,” IDB (1962); J. Gray, “Ishtar,” “Shahar,” IDB (1962); M. Tsevat, “Studies in the Book of Samuel,” HUCA (1965), 49-58.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
See Astronomy, sec. I, 1.
The expression is employed in the to denote
(2) the angels (1Ki 22:19; 2Ch 18:18; Ne 9:6; compare Ps 103:21).
(2) In the other meaning of the expression, the angels are regarded as forming Yahweh’s "host" or army, and He himself is the leader of them--"Yahweh of hosts" (Isa 31:4, etc.)--though this designation has a much wider reference.