One of the names by which God is known in the Hebrew Bible is El Shaddai. This name has been popularized by a contemporary Christian song entitled “El Shaddai.” The first words of this song, “El Shaddai, El Shaddai, El-Elyon na Adonai,” introduces three names by which God is known in the Old Testament: El Shaddai, El-Elyon, and Adonai.
The song also introduces the unintelligible “Erkamka na Adonai,” an expression that many Christians delight in using to praise God, but one which they have no idea of what it means. I think that the expression as it appears in the song deserves a post in itself in order to explain its meaning, but that will come later.
El Shaddai is one of the many names by which the God of the Old Testament was known. The real name of God is YHWH or Yahweh. This is the name God revealed to Moses and Israel on Mount Sinai and this is the name by which God himself said people should remember him: “This is my name forever; this is how I am to be remembered generation after generation” (Exodus 3:15).
In a previous post, “The Titles of God in the Hebrew Bible,” I listed several of the many names and titles by which the people of Israel experienced God. The list on that post was only a small sample of the ways God was described and experienced in the Bible.
The word El was used in the West Semitic world to refer to a god or a deity. The word El was used not only in the Hebrew Bible but also in Akkadian, Phoenician, and many Semitic languages. The etymology of the word is uncertain, but it seems to designate power or might.
In the Hebrew Bible, the word El is used in the most general way as a designation of a deity, whether of the true God or of the false gods, even of the idols used in pagan worship. The word El is found throughout the Old Testament except in the book of Leviticus.
El could designate the name of any god, but it was also used as the name of a particular god in the Canaanite pantheon. El was the supreme god of the Canaanites. The presence of El in the Hebrew Bible raises questions about the religion of the patriarchs.
Many scholars believe that Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews, was a manifestation of the high god of the Canaanites, who appeared to Moses on Mount Sinai as the God of Israel. According to these scholars, the incorporation of El’s characteristics into Yahweh helps to explain the presence of the name El in the worship of the patriarchs.
Most of our knowledge about the god El comes from Canaanite literature found at Ugarit dated to the Late Bronze Age. El was the father of the gods in the Canaanite pantheon.
Since El was worshiped as a high god by many of the people in the Ancient Near East during the second millennium B.C., it is probable that El became part of Israel’s history, not by accident, but as a result of the cultural practices of the early Israelites or because of the ancient Israelite traditions in which El was used as a generic name of the deity.
In the patriarchal narratives, the name El was used together with other epithets of God to designate the God the patriarchs worshiped. Scholars have surmised that these names may reflect the Semitic culture of the early patriarchs or that the god El played an important part in the religion of the patriarchs. The divine names with the El component are also associated with particular places in the history of Israel.
Some of the names of God compounded with the word El are as follows:
1. El Elyon, translated as “God Most High” (Genesis 14:18-22), is associated with Abraham and Melchizedek and the city of Salem (Jerusalem).
2. El Roi, translated as “The God of Seeing” or “The God Who Sees,” is associated with a well located between Kadesh and Bered (Genesis 16:13).
3. El Olam, translated as “The Everlasting God” (Genesis 21:33), is associated with Beer-sheba.
4. El Elohe Israel, translated as “God, the God of Israel” (Genesis 33:20), is associated with Shechem.
5. El Bethel, translated as “The God of Bethel” (Genesis 31:13; 35:7), is associated with Bethel.
The El Berith mentioned in Judges 9:46 refers to the god worshiped by the indigenous Canaanite population at Shechem.
The early Israelites believed that God was the El who brought them out of Egypt, since they did not know the real name of God. If fact, Yahweh himself told Moses that in the days of the patriarchs, he revealed himself to them by the name El:
“God spoke to Moses and said to him, ‘I am Yahweh. To Abraham, Isaac and Jacob I appeared as El Shaddai, but I did not make my name Yahweh known to them’” (Exodus 6:2-3 NJB).
Thus, it seems that after the revelation of God’s name to Moses, the El manifestations of God became associated with Yahweh, the God of Israel, and the names of God compounded with the Semitic word El were used less often to refer to the God of the ancestors.
A survey of the use of the word El to designate the God of Israel reveals that in many cases, the biblical writers used the word El to designate the true God, a God distinct and superior to the God used in the religions of the Ancient Near East. In the mind of the Israelites, Yahweh was the God of gods, the great, mighty, and awesome El (Deuteronomy 10:17). He was also proclaimed as “The El of the elim” or “The God of the gods” (Daniel 11:36).
The God of Israel was called “The Great and Mighty El” (Jeremiah 32:18), “The El Who Does Wonders” (Psalm 77:14), “El, the God of the Spirits of All Flesh” (Numbers 16:22), “The El of Heaven” (Psalm 136:26), “The El that Is Above” (Job 31:28), “The El Who Hides Himself” (Isaiah 45:15), and “The Living El” (Joshua 3:10).
The people of Israel experienced God in their lives and that experience gave them a reason to express their feelings about their God. God was “El My Rock” (Psalm 42:9), “El Is My Savior” (Isaiah 12:2); “The El of My Life” (Psalm 42:8), “The El Who Fulfills His Purpose for Me” (Psalm 57:2), “My El” (Psalm 118:28), “El Is My Strong Refuge” (2 Samuel 22:33), “The El Who Girds Me with Strength” (Psalm 18:32), and “The El Who Avenges Me” (2 Samuel 22:48).
The people of Israel had a special relationship with God. God was “The El of Jeshurun” (Deuteronomy 33:26), “El Their Savior” (Psalm 106:21), “The El Who Gave You Birth” (Deuteronomy 32:18), “The El Who Forgives” (Psalm 99:8), “The El of Our Salvation” (Psalm 68:19-20).
Israel also used the word El to describe God’s character and divine nature. God was “The Faithful El” (Deuteronomy 7:9 ), “The Holy El” (Isaiah 5:16), “The El of Truth” (Psalm 31:5), “The El of Knowledge” (1 Samuel 2:3), “The El of Glory” (Psalm 29:3), “The Righteous El” (Isaiah 45:21), “The Jealous El” (Exodus 20:5), “The El, Great and Terrible” (Nehemiah 1:5), and “The El of Recompenses” (Jeremiah 51:56).
One aspect of the religion of the patriarchs is that they worshiped only one God and not many. Abraham’s family probably worshiped the moon god venerated in Haran (Joshua 24:2). It is also possible that Abraham identified the God who appeared to him as El, since Abraham did not know God’s real name (Exodus 6:2-3). However, the biblical text emphasizes that the God Abraham worshiped was not the same God the Canaanites worshiped. The God of the patriarchs was the God who appeared to Abraham, distinct from the gods of Canaan, since none of the patriarchs offered sacrifices in one of the Canaanites temples.
Tryggve N. D. Mettinger, In Search of God: The Meaning and Message of the Everlasting Names. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988.
R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, and Bruce Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. 2 vols. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1980.
Studies on El Shaddai
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary