Rethinking: Almighty (El Shaddai)

Matte Downey, Oct 3, 2017, 9:22 PM
Matte Downey

Image result for nursing mother artwork

One of most prevalent names we have for God is Almighty. We find this designation appearing not only in the scriptures but in creeds. The Nicene Creed begins: "We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible..." In theological terms, we find this aspect represented by the word omnipotent (omni = in all ways, potent = powerful). All of these words refer to a being who has complete, unlimited, absolute power.

This is meant to be comforting, I am sure, but think for a minute about someone having unlimited power. As George Orwell famously said, absolute power corrupts absolutely. I think we can safely say that power in itself is not a good thing. The other factor to consider here is this: what kind of relationship do we have with those in positions of power? Michael Reeves notes that if God is The Ruler, the one in charge, giving the laws, then "my relationship with him can be little better than my relationship with any traffic cop. ... And so it is with the divine policeman: if salvation simply means him letting me off and counting me as a law-abiding citizen, then gratitude (not love) is all I have. In other words, I can never really love the God who is essentially just The Ruler. And that, ironically, means I can never keep the greatest command: to love the Lord my God." [1] With this in mind, let's take a closer look at the term "Almighty."

In the Hebrew Bible, Shaddai is commonly translated as Almighty. It occurs 48 times in the Hebrew Bible. The name El Shaddai (El = generic term for god) occurs 7 times. The meaning of the Hebrew word, Shaddai, is not entirely clear. Though most often translated as Almighty, scholars note that there are other possibilities. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg of the Israel Institute of Biblical studies makes a good case for a different translation.

In our Bibles, אֵל שָׁדַּי "El Shadai" is most often (mistakenly) translated as "God Almighty". The main reason for this stems from an opinion that Hebrew word שָׂדַּי ShaDai is connected with the verb לְשְׁדוד liShDoD, which means "to destroy" or "overpower".  For example, Hebrew word for "bandit" has the same root –שׁודֵד ShoDeD.

El Shadai אֵל שָׁדַּי does have another meaning though. The word שָׁד ShaD has a much closer grammatical connection to ShaDai and it means – "breast." Moreover, when a word ends with an "i"or "ai" it is almost always means "my". So, literally, "El Shadai" could very well mean "God (is) my Breast/s".

If we consider this intriguing imagery as interpretive possibility we may see that the breast is one of the key symbols of sustenance and parental love passed on from God, the parent, to humanity, God's child. So instead of "God Almighty", El Shadai should probably be translated as "God All-sufficient" instead. [2]

Dr. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg is not suggesting that God does not have power but that this particular name is not one which implies a power paradigm. [3] Instead, according to this Hebrew scholar, Shaddai asks us to think of a nursing mother and all the qualities associated with that: nurturing, strengthening, protecting, intimacy, etc. This is indeed an intriguing possibility and merits some consideration, so let's do a little reading exercise. Most of the occurrences of El Shaddai have to do with the covenant established between God and Abraham (and his descendants). Let us look at a few of these passages in order to see what stands out when we read them through a power paradigm (God Almighty) and what we find when we read them with a parental, nurturing relationship in mind (El Shaddai).

Example one: Genesis 17:1-6 (NRSV). Note that 24 years have passed since God spoke his original promise to Abram: that he would be the father of a great nation. So far, this has not happened. Instead, Abram has lived in instability, told lies to gain political advantage, endured familial strife, and had a child by his mistress.

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, "I am [El Shaddai]; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous." Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, "As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.

Reading this passage through a power paradigm, what stands out? The directive to be blameless. Also, the I will's and you shall's spoken by God come across as forceful imperatives. Reading this through a parental, nurturing lens, we notice the aspects of fruitfulness, faithfulness, a sense of reassurance, and a desire to bless Abram.

Example two: Genesis 28:1-3 (NRSV). Here we have Isaac, Abraham's son, giving a charge to his own son, Jacob, and reiterating some of the Abrahamic covenant. Again, read it through the power paradigm, then through the nurturing lens and note the differences.

Then Isaac called Jacob and blessed him, and charged him, "You shall not marry one of the Canaanite women. Go at once to Paddan-aram to the house of Bethuel, your mother's father; and take as wife from there one of the daughters of Laban, your mother's brother. May [El Shaddai] bless you and make you fruitful and numerous, that you may become a company of peoples.

When we read this with God Almighty at the forefront, we again notice the forceful directives about not marrying a Canaanite and the pressure to obey. However, if we look at the passage through a parental, provisional viewpoint, we note that the words directly following El Shaddai have to do with fruitfulness and blessing. One person observed that when they read this through the lens of a protective mother, they could hear overtones of a Jewish matron concerned that her son marry a nice Jewish girl.

Example three: Genesis 49:22-25 (NRSV). Here we have Jacob's last words to his son, Joseph. It is a blessing and a reminder of God's covenant.

Joseph is a fruitful bough, a fruitful bough by a spring; his branches run over the wall. The archers fiercely attacked him; they shot at him and pressed him hard. Yet his bow remained taut, and his arms were made agile by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob, by the name of the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel, by the God of your father, who will help you, by the [Shaddai] who will bless you with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that lies beneath blessings of the breasts and of the womb.

When read through the lens of power, the battle imagery jumps out (attack, shot, bow, arms made agile), and we do see the use of the word "mighty" here which is the Hebrew word, awbeer. God is described in many ways in this passage: Mighty, Shepherd, Rock, God of your father, and then El Shaddai. The words which follow El Shaddai seem to fall in line with the imagery of a nursing mother: blessings of the breasts and of the womb. Reading this through a nurturing lens also pulls focus to the first few lines referring to fruitfulness.

Example four: Psalm 91:1-4 (NRSV).
You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the [Shaddai], will say to the Lord, "My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust. For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence; he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler."

Within the power paradigm, we notice defensive images such as fortress, shield, and buckler (a small shield). But if we take note of all the bird imagery, another view comes into play: that of a mother hen protecting her chicks: cover you with his pinions (end part of the wing), give refuge under his wings, deliver you from fowler (one who snares birds) and protect from deadly pestilence (disease). There is something undeniably strong in the image of a protective mother with her young. Instead of conquering an enemy, we have the notion of protecting that which is precious and vulnerable. As a side note, this reminds me of Jesus's words in Matthew 23:37.

One final example: Job 29:1-6. Shaddai is used 39 times in the book of Job. That's a lot! We often think of Job's story as a power struggle between God and an adversary, but take a look at the imagery in this passage and see whether the power paradigm or the nurturing paradigm makes the most sense.

Job again took up his discourse and said: "O that I were as in the months of old, as in the days when God watched over me; when his lamp shone over my head, and by his light I walked through darkness; when I was in my prime, when the friendship of God was upon my tent; when the [Shaddai] was still with me, when my children were around me; when my steps were washed with milk, and the rock poured out for me streams of oil!"

Instead of notions of overcoming evil through power or might, we find references to friendship, to a trusted light guiding the way, to the presence of family, to steps washed with milk, and plentiful oil. There is a longing for intimacy, not power.

To be fair, elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible we do find Shaddai used in more forceful contexts, especially in Joel 1 where we find a message of judgment and hope for repentance. But if we think of a mother saying, "Enough!" to children who are misbehaving, the imagery still holds.

In considering that El Shaddai might actually refer to the image of a nursing mother instead of a powerful ruler, the creeds read differently as well. "We believe in one God, the Father [Shaddai], maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible..." God now becomes both Father and Mother to us. For many who have a hard time relating to God as father, this is significant. And the imagery does not lack anything in the area of authority; if you have ever seen a mother whose child is threatened, you realize that she is every bit as compelling as a policeman, not because of her power, but because everything she does is fuelled by love. Power is dangerous unless it is rooted in love.

In these passages, we have seen a God who sustains, who feeds, who comforts, who protects, who blesses, who makes fruitful, who is strong, who is faithful, who enters into a covenant, and who is enough/sufficient. This is El Shaddai.
For more, check out my 5-part blog series on the Names of God:

[1] Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2012), 20.


[3] The name which does refer to power, especially power to accomplish that which we cannot do, is YHWH Sabaoth, Lord of Hosts. See my blog:

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