Many Christians use the divine name El Shaddai in worship, but most of them do not know the meaning of this title.
Those who try to understand the meaning of this name used by the people of Israel to identify their God, generally translate El Shaddai as “God Almighty,” the name used in several English translations of the Bible (see Genesis 17:1, NRSV, NIV, ESV). However, the translation “God Almighty” does not actually provide the basis for the proper understanding of the true meaning of El Shaddai.
The translators who worked on the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Old Testament, did not understand the meaning of the name El Shaddai. They translated the name El Shaddai in several different ways. In the book of Job, they used the word pantokratōr sixteen times to translate the name Shaddai. The word pantokratōr means “The Ruler of All.”
Oehler (p. 90) said that early interpreters associated the name Shaddai with the Hebrew words “še” and “day” and translated the name El Shaddai as “He Who Is Sufficient.” However, this interpretation of the divine name has been rejected by modern scholars.
Other scholars have associated El Shaddai with the Hebrew word šad, a word that means “breast.” Thus, according to these scholars, El Shaddai should be translated “The God with Breasts” and be identified with a fertility goddess who nurtured and provided for her devotees.
Harriet Lutzky, in her article “Shadday as a Goddess Epithet,” Vetus Testamentum 48 (1998): 15-36, identified El Shaddai as the name of the goddess Asherah. Lutzky found an association with Shaddai and breasts in Jacob’s blessing of his sons. In blessing Joseph, Jacob said: “The God of your father who will help you, by God Almighty who will bless you with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that couches beneath, blessings of the breasts and of the womb (Genesis 49:25). The association of El Shaddai with breasts and the goddess Asherah has been rejected by most scholars.
Other scholars have associated the name El Shaddai with the Hebrew word šadād, a word meaning “destruction.” Joel 1:15 speaks of “the destruction from Shaddai.” However, as Mettinger wrote, this association of the Hebrew word for destruction with the name El Shaddai “is probably a pun, not a linguistic historical derivation” (p. 70).
Most scholars have accepted the meaning of the word proposed by W. F. Albright in his article “The Names Shaddai and Abraham,” Journal of Biblical Literature 54 (1935): 173-204. Albright proposed that the name Shaddai comes from the Akkadian word šadû, a word that means “mountains.” Based on this view, El Shaddai should be translated as “The God of the Mountain.”
This meaning of the divine name probably means that God was one who appeared to his people on a mountain. When Abraham came to the mountainous region east of Bethel, he pitched his tent, built an altar to God, and invoked the name of the God who had appeared to him (Genesis 12:8). The name El Shaddai may also explain the reason the God of Israel was known as “The Rock” (Deuteronomy 32:4).
The divine name Shaddai appears forty-eight times in the Hebrew Bible. Seven times the name appears as El Shaddai and 41 times it appears simply as Shaddai. The name Shaddai appears in several sections of the Hebrew Bible:
9 times in the Pentateuch.
2 times in the book of Ruth: Ruth 1:20-21.
4 times in the prophets: Isaiah 13:6, Joel 1:15, Ezekiel 1:24, 10:5.
2 times in the book of Psalms: Psalms 68:14, 91:1.
31 times in the book of Job.
The title El Shaddai appears primarily in the patriarchal narratives found in the book of Genesis. The passages where the title El Shaddai appear are: Genesis 17:1; 28:3; 35:11; 43:14; 48:3; Exodus 6:3; and Ezekiel 10:5. The reference to El Shaddai in Ezekiel is the only place where Shaddai appears with the word El outside of the Pentateuch.
Besides the six occurrences in the Pentateuch mentioned above, the name Shaddai appears also in Jacob’s patriarchal blessing (Genesis 49:25) and in the oracles of Balaam (Numbers 24:4, 16).
The divine name Shaddai also appears in the names of Israelites during the times of the Exodus: Zurishaddai (Numbers 1:6) and Ammishaddai (Numbers 1:12). The same Shedeur (Numbers 1:5) also contains the root of the name Shaddai. The name Shedeur is an abbreviation of Shaddai-ur
Frank M. Cross, in his book Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973), p. 53, said that the name Shaddai-ammi appears on an Egyptian figurine dated c. 1300 B.C.
The name Shaddai generally appears in the Hebrew Bible in the context of promises and blessings. El Shaddai appeared to Abraham and promised him that he would “be the father of a multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:4). It was Shaddai who blessed Sarah and promised that she would conceive a son in her old age (Genesis 17:16). Shaddai also promised Abraham that he would bless Ishmael (Genesis 17:20).
When Isaac blessed Jacob, he blessed him with the promise that he would become the father of many people: “El Shaddai bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, that you may become a company of peoples” (Genesis 28:3).
El Shaddai himself exhorted Jacob to be fruitful and multiply: “I am El Shaddai: be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall spring from you” (Genesis 35:11). Shaddai also appears in Jacob’s blessings of his children (Genesis 49:25) and Balaam’s blessing of Israel (Numbers 24:6,16).
The same motif of blessing is associated with Shaddai in the book of Job. Eliphaz the Temanite told Job that it was Shaddai who blessed the wicked and filled their houses with good things (Job 22:17-18). Job himself recognized that Shaddai was the one who had blessed him with wealth, health, and children (Job 29:5). Naomi complained that Shaddai had taken away the blessings he had given to her in the past (Ruth 1:20-21).
After God revealed his true name to Moses, the name El Shaddai was seldom used by the people of Israel. When Moses came before the people in Egypt, he came speaking to them in the name of Yahweh, therefore proclaiming that Yahweh was the true God, the God who had appeared to the fathers as El Shaddai. El Shaddai was the God of promise; Yahweh was the God who was about to fulfill the promises made to the ancestors.
Thus, the patriarchs experienced El Shaddai as a God who blessed them and promised them a hope and a future. Although the people of Israel experienced their God as one who appeared to them in the mountains, they did not worship the mountains as some people did. The psalmist asked: “I lift up my eyes to the hills– from where will my help come?” (Psalm 121:1). Their faith was not in the mountains of God, but in the God who created the mountains.
W. F. Albright. “The Names Shaddai and Abraham,” Journal of Biblical Literature 54 (1935): 173-204.
Frank M. Cross. Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973.
Harriet Lutzky. “Shadday as a Goddess Epithet.” Vetus Testamentum 48 (1998): 15-36.
Tryggve N. D. Mettinger. In Search of God: The Meaning and Message of the Everlasting Names. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988.
Gustave F. Oehler. Theology of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, n.d.
G. Stein, “שָׁדַּי,” Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament. Vol. 14. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 204), 418-446.
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Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary