What Happens When God Can be Mother Too?

El Shaddai, The Mother Name of God

When people tell you that there is no “Mother” title for God in the Bible, talk to them about El Shaddai. Through the ages, translators and scholars have only guessed at the meaning of El Shaddai. El Shaddai is usually rendered as “God Almighty,” assuming that the root “shad” must refer to the Hebrew word shadad meaning “to violently destroy” or to a word in the Akkadian language, shaddu, meaning “mountain.” There are a few verses in the post-patriarchal period for which the judging, destroying meaning of Shaddai would fit (e.g. Is. 13:6; Joel 1:15). However, as you’ll see, the early use of El Shaddai and Shaddai fully employed the word shad which means “breast” in Hebrew.

Translators and readers seem to believe that the female body and God don’t mix. The New Jerusalem Bible does assert that God Almighty is not a correct translation and uses El Shaddai instead. However, it leaves the question open rather than mention the meaning of shad as “breast.” But a few Old Testament scholars, like David Biale, have answered affirmatively that El Shaddai is indeed the God with breasts. 

The God of Fertility

Shad for a woman’s breast is used multiple times in the Bible (Gen. 49:25; Job 3:12; Psalm 22:9; Song 1:13; 4:5; 7:3, 7, 8; 8:1, 8, 10; Isa. 28:9; Lam 4:3; Ezek. 16:7; 23:3 and others). The ending –ai is the way of making a Hebrew word plural and singular possessive (“my breasts”). With El referring to God-as-power, the essential meaning of El Shaddai is “the divine power of my breasts.” 

David Biale notes in “The God with Breasts: El Shaddai,” “…all of the passages using El Shaddai in Genesis, with one exception, are fertility blessings.” The blessings of the breast, in fact. In ancient times, breast milk nourished babies and children until they were three-years old. Mothers could feed their babies by breast-milk even when other food was scarce. It ensured the survival of people groups, such as the Israelites. (See my post, Divine Breasts, for more about the gift of breast milk). 

In the first example of El Shaddai being used in a fertility context, God reveals one of her names for the first time in Genesis. Though “Yahweh” has been used by the writer(s) of Genesis since chapter 2, God does not actually refer to Herself as Yahweh until She tells Moses how to introduce Her to the Israelites in Exodus 3:14. (Note that I will use the feminine pronoun for the invisible, gender-less God for this post. For more on why gender-neutral language is not enough, go here).

The Genesis Verses

Instead, God calls Herself El Shaddai. God appears to Abram when he is 99 years old in Genesis 17:1. She says to him, “I am [El Shaddai]; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. Then I will make make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.” God continues on in the theme of blessings through children in the rest of chapter 17, changing Abram (“respected parent”) to Abraham (“progenitor of a multitude”) and Sarai (a name for a barren mountain in the area) to Sarah (“noblewoman”).

That’s one example. Genesis 28:3 shows Isaac blessing Jacob with these words: “May [El Shaddai] bless you and make you fruitful and increase your numbers until you become a community of peoples” (TNIV).

When God changes Jacob’s name to Israel, She again announces Her own name in the context of the blessing of fertility. She says, “I am [El Shaddai]. Be fruitful and increase in number” (Gen. 35:11).

In Genesis 43, Israel (Jacob) appeals to El Shaddai when hoping to see his youngest son Benjamin again after sending him down to Egypt with Judah: “And may [El Shaddai] grant you mercy before the man so that he will let your other brothers and Benjamin come back with you” (Gen. 43:14a). Phyllis Trible, in God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, reminds us of the linguistic connection between the womb and mercy in Hebrew. “Rahim” (womb) is related to “rhm” (to show mercy) as well as “rahum” (merciful).

When Jacob is old and ill, he recounts to Joseph the story of El Shaddai’s promise of fruitfulness in 48:3: “[El Shaddai] appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan and blessed me. God told me, ‘I will make you bear fruit and I will increase your descendants until they become a multitude of nations, and I will give this land to your descendants to have forever.'”

When Jacob is dying, he blesses Joseph in the same spirit that his father Isaac blessed him, with the same name of El Shaddai. He says, “…because of your father’s God, who helps you, because of [El Shaddai] who blesses you with blessings of the heavens above, blessings of the deep that lies below, blessings of the breast and womb” (Gen. 49:25). Both “shad” as breast, and the Akkadian “shaddu” for mountain may come into play here, as Jacob goes on to praise his own blessing as being “greater than the blessings of the ancient mountains, than the bounty of the age-old hills.”

Andrew Jukes, a nineteenth century Bible translator, wrote a learned little book called The Names of God in Holy Scripture. He was not afraid to correctly translate El Shaddai, perhaps because of his situation in a foreign country. He writes:

‘Jehovah’ [Yahweh] bears a sword (Deut. 32:41, 42; Ezek. 21:3,5). But ‘El Shaddai,’ the ‘Almighty,’ here revealed to Abram, is not the ‘sworded’ God. His Almightiness is of the breast, that is, of bountiful, self-sacrificing love, giving and pouring itself out for others. Therefore He can quiet the restless, as the breast quiets the child; therefore He can nourish and strengthen, as the breast nourishes; therefore He can attract, as the breast attracts, when we are in peril of falling from Him. This is the ‘Almighty.’

El Shaddai in Other Books of the Bible

Biblical authors refer to God as El Shaddai or just Shaddai 37 more times, and it is worth exploring in some of its other contexts. In Balaam’s prophecy in Numbers 24, Shaddai is the God who speaks and reveals, as She did to Abraham (24:2-4). Balaam then describes the fulfilling of the covenant promise to the patriarchs that the Israelites will flourish: “your descendants will live by running streams” (24:7). Ezekiel 1:24 and 10:15 likewise both refer to El Shaddai’s voice.

The psalmist speaks of God as a covering mother hen in Psalm 91:1 (see my post The Wings of God), with the motherly title Shaddai revived: “You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of [Shaddai].” The mother bird imagery is more explicit in 91:3-4: ”Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare…he will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge.”

The Book of Job uses Shaddai 31 times. Its date is a matter of controversy, but I agree with those who put Job’s author in the second millenium B.C, in the age of the patriarchs, for the reason that Shaddai and El Shaddai do not appear as extensively in any other book. Job opens and closes with the blessings of children: they are signs of Shaddai’s favor in the first part of Job’s life, and again in the last part (Job 1:1-5; Job 42:13-16).

Job’s friends use the name Shaddai as the God who justly disciplines Her children, starting with 5:17: “How happy is the one whom God reproves; therefore do not despise the discipline of Shaddai.” However, Shaddai is not happy with Job’s friends in the end, saying that only Job has spoken rightly of Her (42:7-9). In Job 38:8 and 38:29 Yahweh answers Job and speaks of “my womb.” And She eventually becomes again the God with Breasts who gives Job more children (42:13-16).

The last part of the Book of Isaiah (“Third Isaiah”) uses Shaddai with the metaphor of suckling. In 60:16, the writer prophecies, “You will drink the milk of nations and be nursed at royal breasts. Then you will know that I, Yahweh, am your Savior, your Redeemer, the [Shaddai] of Jacob.”

Isaiah 13:6 and Joel 1:15 use Shaddai in the sense of severe judgement, as mentioned in the first paragraph, which could recall the word shadad (meaning, to violently destroy). The prophets wrote their books in the post-patriarchal era, when Yahweh was the warrior God, notes David Biale. As Biale says, “…in the late texts, Shaddai–used as a substitute for Yahweh–has the associations common to late Israelite theology: awe and veneration at best, fear and hostility at worst.”

In the book of Ruth, Naomi has a sense of a God who deals almost unjustly when she says, “Don’t call me Naomi. Call me Mara, ‘Bitterness,’ for YHWH has afflicted me, and Shaddai has brought bitter destruction on me” (1:20).  Yet, Naomi’s complaint and specific mention of Shaddai would have brought up reminders of the God of the breast who blesses with children, and in this case, takes them away. However, Shaddai eventually does bless Naomi with a child, Obed, her grandson-by-marriage: “Naomi took the child into her lap and she became his caretaker” (4:16). (See my post comparing Naomi and Job here). Perhaps, with both the stories of Job and Naomi, the teaching point is not to misunderstand God as punishing when what one needs is to wait patiently for the blessings of The Breasted One to return.

Pantrokrator with Breasts

Though Almighty is not a correct translation for El Shaddai in the Old Testament, the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) often uses it, calling El Shaddai pantokrator. Andrew Jukes found that in Revelation 1:13 the Pantokrator has a golden sash around his chest; this word chest is mastois in Greek, meaning female breasts. How do commentators handle this? A.T. Robertson says that mastois is an “Old word for breasts of a woman (Luke 11:27; Luke 23:29) and nipples of a man, as here.” That’s one of the best examples I’ve seen of mental back flips to avoid the real meaning of a Biblical text, but he’s actually the only one with courage to even admit that mastois exists in Rev. 1:13. (The verses he mentions, by the way, only refer to a woman’s breasts and do not mention a man’s nipples!)

Jukes was certainly on to something important and unexplored. Interestingly, in Rev. 1:8, Jesus refers to Himself as “The First and the Last.” Wouldn’t it be like God–and I’m assuming She has a sense of humor–to make sure the beginning and ending of the Bible included such a vivid picture of the feminine aspects of God? 

In any case, I am more grateful than ever that El Shaddai was the first revelation of the invisible God. I believe this name gives us full permission and Biblical precedent to call God Mother. Just as importantly, the holy name of El Shaddai reminds us that God affirms and approves of the female body, and identifies with its power. And She has blessed it.

 

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