This is starting to be uncanny. In studying the Names of God, we saw that a woman first calls God El Roi, the God Who Sees (Hagar) and another woman (Hannah) is the first to call God YHWH Tzv'ot (Sabaoth), Lord of Hosts.
Now I'm looking at the Name El Shaddai, and while a woman isn't the very first person in Scripture to say this Name, she's one of a very limited few. And her usage is so very interesting.
But let's back up a little. I've spent a little extra time on El Shaddai, thinking that this would be a straightforward study. After all, most of us growing up in the church in the 1980s and beyond are pretty familiar with this Name from Amy Grant's song (https://youtu.be/8txqw-u4V78). It's a great song, by the way, from the lovely melody to the piano accompaniment to the lyrics--and Grant references Hagar and the God Who Sees long before I did here (https://www.christianmusingsfortoday.com/post/the-god-who-sees)!
You'd think we'd know what El Shaddai means, given that many of us have been singing this Name for decades. But, if you were pressed to define it, what would you say?
I know I would have been way off!
And actually, the translation is on the trickier end. Hebrew root words of a term so old that the usage may have changed over time. A compound word. Controversial ideas that touch upon the modern minefield of what defines masculinity and femininity.
This is why I love going to older sources who aren't aware of our modern kerfuffles! Also, I appreciate scholars intellectually honest enough to take on paradoxical and confusing stuff. After all, studying ideas that may need to be held in tension may help us to develop a better understanding and relationship with the God who so surpasses our understanding.
While El Shaddai is typically translated in our Bibles as God Almighty, we need to unpack more of what this Name means, because it's not just about God being strong.
The blue letter Bible blog (https://blogs.blueletterbible.org/blb/2012/06/28/the-names-of-god-el-shaddai/) puts it this way:
El is another name that is translated as “God” and can be used in conjunction with other words to designate various aspects of God’s character. Another word much like Shaddai, and from which many believe it derived, is shad meaning “breast” in Hebrew (some other scholars believe that the name is derived from an Akkadian word Šadu, meaning “mountain,” suggesting strength and power).
This refers to God completely nourishing, satisfying, and supplying His people with all their needs as a mother would her child. Connected with the word for God—El—this denotes a God who freely gives nourishment and blessing, He is our Sustainer. Knowing that God is El Shaddai matters. It matters because it reminds us that the Lord is our mighty God, and like Him there is no other.
Amen! Scofield's commentary says that the origins of this Name are both "interesting and touching."
God is "Shaddai," because He is the Nourisher, the Strength-giver, and so, in a secondary sense, the Satisfier, who pours himself into believing lives. As a fretful, unsatisfied babe is not only strengthened and nourished from the mother's breast, but also is quieted, rested, satisfied, so El Shaddai is that name of God which sets Him forth as the Strength-giver and Satisfier of His people.
Warren Wiersbe says:
"El” is the name of God that speaks of power; but what does “Shaddai” mean? Scholars do not agree. Some say it comes from a Hebrew word meaning “to be strong”; others prefer a word meaning “mountain” (Ed note: sadu) or “breast (shad).” Metaphorically, a mountain is a “breast” that rises up from the plain; and certainly a mountain is a symbol of strength. If we combine these several ideas, we might say that “El Shaddai” is the name of “the all-powerful and all-sufficient God who can do anything and meet any need.”
And Spurgeon, prince of preachers, says,
Christian, remember the All Sufficiency of thy God! Let that ancient name, “El Shaddai”-God All-Sufficient, sound like music in thine ear-as some translate it, “The many-breasted God,” yielding from Himself the sustenance of all His creatures.
So, whatever the root words the translators focus on, I see a consensus in the translation of El Shaddai as God All-Sufficient.
I'm fairly certain I wasn't thinking that as a kid in the 80's listening to the Amy Grant song.
What does it mean for us that God is All-Sufficient?
Probably a number of things! First, it's important to consider how this Name of God changed a bit in its usage in Scripture. Matthew Henry puts it this way:
By this name he chose to make himself known to Abram rather than by his name Jehovah...He used it to Jacob...It is the name of God that is mostly used throughout the book of Job, at least in the discourses of that book. After Moses, Jehovah is more frequently used, and this, El-Shaddai, very rarely...
Many of us are familiar with God introducing Himself as YWHW (Jehovah) to Moses at the burning bush.
But, before that, He introduced Himself to Abram (Abraham's original name) and all the patriarchs as El Shaddai. Actually, God explains this to all of us in Exodus 6: 2-5, where He tells Moses,
I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but by my name YHWH I did not make myself known to them. I also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan...I have also heard the groaning of the Israelites...and I have remembered my covenant.
I'm laughing to myself because I've been poring over tons of commentaries, but just opening the Bible and seeing God's own explanation makes everything clearer.
God introduced one aspect of Himself to the patriarchs for covenantal purposes, and this covenant still stands. He made original promises as El Shaddai regarding Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob's descendants, and now He is visiting those very descendants and significantly increasing His interactions with them, all the while making Himself more fully known to Moses and to those who would worship Him.
And, indeed, the first instances of El Shaddai in the Bible all come from God making covenant promises to the patriarchs regarding the promise of offspring. For example, in Genesis 17, God tells Abraham,
I am El Shaddai; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.
The next instances involve Isaac blessing his son Jacob, asking El Shaddai to "bless you and make you fruitful and increase your numbers until you become a community of peoples." Later, El Shaddai appears to Jacob at Bethel and assures him that he will indeed do this.
The most frequent use of God's Name Shaddai is actually in the book of Job, which is one of the oldest books in the Bible. After Genesis and Job, the usage of El Shaddai decreases in Scripture. Thus, El Shaddai is one of the most ancient Names of God. This Name, as far as can be discerned, has connotations of mind-blowing strength and incredibly caring nurturing. While we see God use this Name with the patriarchs primarily regarding His covenantal blessings pertaining to their children, in Job, the emphasis is on God's power and might. He is Almighty. He is the Over-Powerer.
You see why this is controversial? Half of society today would be super uncomfortable with the translations based on the Hebrew root that has to do with breastfeeding. This is the source of the concept of God as Nourisher. This is why God is all-sufficient and all that we need. However, how is this any different than David saying, in Psalm 131, that he's like a weaned child with its mother as he meditates on God?
Now, the other half of society doesn't really like the masculine overtones of an all-powerful Being claiming to be the Over-Powerer to poor little Job. And yet, most of us like the idea of something coming to ward off and protect us from problems and difficulty. I've been reading about the rise of the occult during the pandemic. It doesn't ring intellectually honest to me that the people who would recoil against the concept of an Almighty Being have no problem with pursuing incantations calling upon unknown other beings for protection and power. Or, as this Atlantic article puts it (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/03/witchcraft-juliet-diaz/605518/) "unconventional sources of power"--something people seek out during periods of uncertainty. Christians may have their own version of this, as we seek out ways to feel more powerful ourselves while subtly distancing ourselves from the Source of this power.
Anyway, we don't have to stumble on an ancient linguistic conundrum to know that El Shaddai can be both powerful and nurturing! There are plenty of other passages in Scripture that show God as loving and caring and nurturing and also as all-powerful and all-consuming. I could write blog after blog on this. We need to see past our modern issues with gender and see that God is beyond all of this!
In an age where we are grappling with the very concepts of masculinity and femininity, how intriguing and refreshing to have this reminder that, despite us (admit it--we all do it!) picturing God as a bearded man on a throne, God is Spirit. That means, neither male nor female. We need to lose the image of Zeus and reflect on the mystery that God, all through the Scriptures, is both loving and strong. He's caring and all-powerful. One does not negate the other.
And there are so many implications of what this complex, deep, multi-faceted Name of God means for us! I also haven't forgotten that I still haven't named the woman who is one of the very few people in the Bible who says this Name herself. And--not a surprise!--it has to do with suffering. Next blog post!