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.
I have also written a post on “The Name of God: Jehovah” and several posts on “Pronouncing the Divine Name” (Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here).
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
NOTE: For other studies on the name of the God of the Bible, read my post Studies on the Name of God.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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A wonderful post today. I really enjoyed reading this. It’s give me much to meditate on this week. God bless you in your ministry and Happy Easter to you!
Thank you for your comment and for visiting my blog. I am glad you enjoyed this post. I love studying the names of God. I hope others will like as well.
My comment will be referring to your older post you listed in this post at: http://claudemariottini.org/2010/02/18/the-name-of-god-jehovah/
I respectfully disagree with you on a number of points on your older post.
1. It has never been established as fact, that the Masoretes inserted the vowels of Adonai into the Tetragrammaton. For one, YHWH appears 6828 times in the Hebrew text of Scripture but it is never identified as a Qere-Ketiv by either a scribal circle or a marginal note. Second, these are not the exact vowels of Adonai, especially in the Leningrad Codex which only matches one vowel. Also, 29 out of the 31 names that begin with YH in the Hebrew Scriptures also use a sheva under the Yod, and nearly all names ending in H have a kamatz on the second last consonant.
2. There is no evidence what so ever that the Septuagint “Translated” YHWH as Kurios. Actually, all known pre-Christian Jewish LXX manuscripts include the Tetragrammaton. It was second century Christian LXX manuscripts that contain, not kurios, but the nomina sacra KS in place of God’s name. In fact there is not one shred of evidence that the full spelling kurios was ever used to replace God’s name in any LXX manuscript.
3. Finally, your authoritative use of Yahweh is completely unwarranted. Yahweh is nothing more than an academic guess. Yehowah is the form that is actually preserved in hundreds of Hebrew manuscripts. If we are free to adopt or dismiss any vowel points we wish, then we can make the Hebrew Scriptures say anything we want. Can you honestly say we have enough evidence to dismiss ONLY the preserved vowel points of YHWH?
Thank you for your comment. I cannot respond in detail to all the issues you raised in your comments. I may do so at a later date. Let me briefly address some of the issues you raised.
1. The original Hebrew was written unpointed. The vowels were added by the Masoretes. The vowels of YHWH were added in order to avoid the pronunciation of the divine name.
2. The reason the pointing in YHWH is never identified as a Qere-Ketiv by the scribes is because, as J. Weingreen said in his book on Hebrew Grammar, the form is a Qere Perpetuum.
3. The name Yahweh is an academic construct, but one which has a strong historical background.
4. You mentioned that there are hundreds of Hebrew manuscript that preserve the name Yehovah. Send me the name of 5 or 6 of these manuscripts so that I can study your claim.
I may come back to this topic in a future post.
Thanks for the response. I would like to briefly reply to your points.
1. The Masoretes added the vowel points to preserve the Hebrew pronunciation at that time. Could you please show me in the writings of the Masoretes where they explain that they deviated from this normal practice and pointed the Tetragrammaton as a device to prevent its pronunciation? Or do people merely assume this is what happened based on speculation?
2. I was under the impression that even Qere Perpetuum have a scribal circle and/or marginal note on some of their occurrences. Could you give me an example of a Qere Perpetuum that never has the circle or note? (besides YHWH of course)
3. First, I don’t think I would agree with the idea of a “strong historical background” for a pronunciation that was created 200 years ago, even if it was based on a 4th century Greek form. Second, I think we should be cautious about basing a pronunciation from a language that can not produce an H sound in the middle of a word.
4. What I was referring to are the many medieval pointed Hebrew manuscripts that use the form YeHoWaH. I don’t really have the time to go through lots of Hebrew manuscripts to distinguish which ones have YeHoWaH and which ones have YeHWaH. However, here is a short list of ones that do have YeHoWaH.
1241 A.D. Codex Hillely
1260 A.D. Damascus Keter “Crown”
1008 A.D. Codex Leningrad
And probably many of the Cairo Geniza collection
Ironically, not one manuscript has YaHWeH.
This is a very interesting and helpful post. I feel like printing it out and keeping it in the cover of my Bible for future reference.
Professor, I’m looking forward to your post regarding the phrase “Erkamka na Adonai.”
Howard, in response to your last post in point 1: You claim that we can rely on the vowels in the Masortetic text because it “preserve[d] the Hebrew pronunciation at that time,” but the name of the Lord was not spoken at that time in history, so they could not be preserving what went unpronounced.
I will try to write that article as soon as possible. As for your comment to Howard: he wrote a book, which I have not read, and it seems that he is trying to defend his position. However, it seems that his position goes against the main stream of scholarship.
Professor Mariottini, actually my book only uses one chapter to examine the pronunciation of the name. The rest of the book examines the possibility that God’s name originally appeared in the New Testament and other related issues. If you were at all interested, I would be more than happy to send you a PDF version.
Nate, no where did I say we can rely solely on the Masoretic vowel points, it is actually a very complicated issue. The point I was trying to get across was that the usual arguments put forth to reject the form Jehovah are usually not sound arguments. Take for example your own authoritative statement. Where is your evidence that all Jews everywhere followed this ban on the name? Are you not just repeating something that someone else said? I would suggest you look into Karaite Judaism, these are Jews that do not accept or follow the Oral Law. More important though, is that some of these Karaite Jews rejected the ban on pronouncing God’s name. And you know what? Many believe the Masoretes were Karaite Jews including Aharon Ben Mosheh Ben Asher. Modern Karaite Jews who do pronounce the name such as Nehemia Gordon use the form Yehovah.
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I thoroughly enjoyed reading your posts on the meaning of the names associated with the song El Shaddai. I have just started studying the names of God with a well-known Bible teacher on the radio. Who stated that El Shaddai means The God all sufficient and referenced the part of your post that dealt with the canaanite god who had breasts. And I’m paraphrasing, in that Shaddai. Is a compound word a part of which referred to. As a newborn babe is dependent upon a mothers milk which is sufficient in and of itself to sustain life. And out of God sufficiency brought life to Sara’s womb. I would appreciate any thoughts and comments that you have on this. I teach a small group Bible study I want to accurately and clearly teach the word of God. Thank you and God bless.
I apologize for the delay in answering your comment. Thank you for visiting my blog.
El Shaddai should be associated with the God of the mountains and not with a god with breasts. This idea of a God with breasts (it is not the God of the Bible but it always a pagan goddess) is a pagan idea that is associated with fertility religion and should never be associated with the God of the Bible. God is our provider and he sustains his people. But to associate God with breasts is not biblical and should never be taught as a biblical possibility.
Check the Archive page of my blog and you will find several articles on God and his names and titles.
Again, thank you for visiting my blog.