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El Shaddai

When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” Genesis 17.1-2.

What God actually said to Abram was, “I am El Shaddai …” and that is the first time we encounter in the Bible this particular name which God gave to himself. Thereafter it is used another four times in Genesis and 33 times elsewhere, mainly in the book of Job. But the trouble with this name is that no one can agree what the second part of it actually means. The el bit is fairly straightforward. It carries the idea of strength and authority and is always translated, quite simply, as “God”. But what of shaddai?

As can be seen from this morning’s reading, shaddai is almost always translated as “Almighty” but the reason for that is not particularly sound. When the Hebrew Bible began to be translated into Greek in Alexandria in around 300 BC, the translators used the word pantokrator, meaning “all powerful”, as the equivalent of shaddai, but for no linguistic reason that anyone has been able to discover. There is no Hebrew word meaning “powerful” from which shaddai could have been derived. But is there any Hebrew word from which shaddai might have been derived? Oh yes! And once we know what it is we can see why, perhaps, the Septuagint translators shied away from recognising it. For the Hebrew word shad is a very common word that means “the female breast” — the source of milk, sustenance, comfort. Given that, why didn’t those ancient translators use the Greek word for “Sustainer”? It would have been much nearer the mark.

The fact is that there have been many, in every age and generation, who have been unhappy with the idea of God having a feminine aspect. But why? When God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1.26), it was before woman “was taken out of man” (Genesis 2.23), so the man who was made in the “likeness” of God was at that point a unity of both male and female and thus mirrored both masculinity and femininity within the godhead. That is why God can say: “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you” (Isaiah 66.13). And that is why he can call himself El Shaddai. The one who is both strong and powerful (el) but who is also a mother’s breast (shaddai) to his children … to Abraham … to Israel … and to me.

As I think on that, I am carried to a cave where cattle are sheltered in Bethlehem and I see a tiny baby nuzzling the breast of Mary and drawing life and strength and comfort from her milk. And I am reminded that this baby is none other than El Shaddai himself become flesh … Jesus, who has come to take me and all the world back to the breast of Mother God that we may feed on her and live, just as he now feeds on his mother, Mary.

El-Shaddai, El-Shaddai
El-Elyon na Adonai
Age to age You’re still the same
by the power of the name.
El-Shaddai, El-Shaddai
Erkamka na Adonai
We will praise and lift You high,
El-Shaddai.

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