The stars and the shepherds

For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars together, proclaim the holy birth,
And praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth!

It struck me this year that in this well known Christmas carol Phillips Brooks describes the angels that announced Christ's birth to the shepherds as "morning stars." And not without reason. Luke describes them as "a multitude of the heavenly host" (2:13). That is Old Testament language and it is interesting to take a wee peek at it.

A very common epithet for God in the Hebrew Bible is “Yhwh of hosts” (yhwh tsebaôt), “God of hosts” ('elohê tsebaôt), or some other combination such as “Yhwh God of hosts” (yhwh 'elohîm tsebaôt). For instance,
Thus says the Yhwh,
who gives the sun for light by day
and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night,
who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—
Yhwh of hosts is his name . . .
(Jer 31:35)
The epithet, in one version or another, appears almost 290 times in the OT. Clearly the idea was a prevalent one in ancient Israel. The “hosts” or “armies” in question are sometimes Israel (Exod 6:26; 12:17, 41, 51; 1 Sam 17:45) but there are more than a few references to “the host/army of heaven.” Sun, moon, and stars are clearly amongst the host of heaven (Gen 2:1; Deut 4:19; 17:3). However, the phrase is also clearly used of the divine council (1 Kgs 22:19; 2 Chr 18:18). Indeed, the link between the sun, moon, and stars and the “gods” is clear in the warnings to the Israelites not to worship the “host of heaven,” clearly identified as the sun, moon, and stars conceived of as gods (Deut 4:19; 17:3; cf. 2 Kgs 17:16; 21:3, 5; 23:4; Jer 8:2; 19:13; Acts 7:42).

That these heavenly armies/hosts (tsebaôt) were sometimes actively involved in warfare is suggested by the Song of Deborah in Judges 5. There we read:
“The kings came, they [i.e., the tribes of Israel] fought;
then fought the kings of Canaan,
at Taanach, by the waters of Megiddo;
they got no spoils of silver.
From heaven the stars fought,
from their courses they fought against Sisera.”
(Judg 5:19–20)
Here the stars in heaven are pictured as joining the armies of Israel in fighting against Sisera. The earthly battle had a heavenly counterpart.

This idea of the stars as God’s heavenly army fighting for Israel is also found in the vision in Dan 8:1–14 that depicts the empire of Alexander the Great as a goat with a horn (Alexander). The horn is broken off and is replaced by fours horns (Alexander’s four general who divided his empire after his death). The vision focuses on a “little horn” descended from one of the four horns. This is Antiochus IV, the arch opponent of Israel and Israel’s God: “Out of one of [the goat’s four horns] came a little horn, which grew exceedingly great toward the south, toward the east, and toward the glorious land. It grew great, even to the host of heaven. And some of the host and some of the stars it threw down to the ground and trampled on them” (Dan 8:9–10). Here Antiochus’ opposition to Israel is presented as a battle against “the host/army of heaven.” And he has some measure of success — some of the stars (i.e., the heavenly army) are thrown to the ground and trampled (cf. the assault on the stars in Isa 14:13). Here we seem to be presented with a vision that highlights the heavenly dimension of Antiochus’ earthly conflict against the temple in Jerusalem. The attack on Jerusalem’s temple was an assault on the very stars of heaven, on the divine council itself. Of course, this is a symbolic vision but it is of interest because it reveals the continuing influence of the ancient association of stars and heavenly beings.

These stars/gods were made by Yhwh and so worship Yhwh. Thus Ezra prayed,
“You are Yhwh, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you” (Neh 9:6; cf. Ps 148:1–3).

So the association of angelic beings and stars — indeed the blurring of any sharp boundary between them — was well established when Luke wrote his Gospel. Luke clearly imagined an army of angels worshipping God and proclaiming the good news but it is also very plausible to suggest that these angels were linked in Luke's mind with the stars. It is the stars themselves — the hosts of heaven — that declare the birth of the Saviour to the shepherds.

The interesting question this poses for us is what we modern people are to make of this. We do not think of stars in the same way that ancient people did. We see great big balls of burning gas; we do not see angels. And while we cannot give up our modern understandings of stars I think that we have disenchanted the cosmos too much. I suggest that we need to recover a mystical sign-ificance to astral bodies. We need to grasp that for us too stars can point beyond themselves to the transcendent God and his glory in creation, indeed, to his gospel. But how do we re-enchant the cosmos without losing the discoveries of science?


Steve said…
Great post, Robin. I was reminded of this passage from Lewis's Dawn Treader:

‘I am Ramandu. But I see that you stare at one another and have not heard this name. And no wonder, for the days when I was a star had ceased long before any of you knew this world, and all the constellations have changed.’

‘Golly,’ said Edmund under his breath. ‘He’s a retired star.’


’In our world,’ said Eustace, ‘a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.’

‘Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.’
Robin Parry said…


Yes, I love that scene and like you I think that Lewis points to a way forward here.

Have you read either of Michael Ward's excellent books on Lewis and the symbolism of medieval cosmology ("Planet Narnia" and "The Narnia Code")?

Steve said…
I have not, but I am familiar with his basic line of argumentation. There does seem to be something in medieval thought that we can learn from, but "chronological snobbery" (fueled by the abuses of hyper-supernaturalism) makes us afraid of listening. I guess that's part of the challenge you are highlighting here, eh?
Maybe stars are like coral- they are the product of the tiny coral creatures that dwell within them.

The stars that we see are perhaps emanations of the angels, but the angels themselves are more than the stars.

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