El Shaddai and the Gender of God (Revised)
In the last few weeks, a debate has been raging on the Internet, and particularly on Twitter, about the gender of God. It started when Owen Strachan called out Rachel Held Evans for using a feminine reference to God and called her a heretic (see also this). And thus began a twitterfeud.
Mimi Haddad, president of Christians for Biblical Equality, wrote a post called “Is God Male?” that goes over some of the feminine biblical imagery for God and summarizes reasons why using both feminine, masculine, and non-gendered images for God is a good thing. As has been stated over and over again: all language describing God is metaphorical and limited by our human understanding. That is why we cannot conclude from masculine pronouns or feminine images that God is either male or female. God is neither and both and beyond either.
But I wanted to add another element to the debate because, as far as I know, no one has considered it recently: the possibility of a feminine name for God in the Hebrew Bible. Yahweh, God’s favored name, is non-gendered. Properly translated, it means “the One who is” or “I am.” It most certainly does not mean LORD, even though almost all modern English translations render it thus. This is a continuation of a long tradition started by the Jews in which the word “Lord” (Adonai) is substituted for the sacred name YHWH. Jews considered the name YHWH too sacred to be uttered, and so the less sacred name Adonai was used to replace it in all spoken readings of the text. English translations render YHWH as LORD (all caps) not as a translation, but in deference to this long-standing tradition of substitution.
Numerous names for God can be found in the Bible: El Roi, El Elyon, Elohim, El Olam, etc. But one of these names, El Shaddai, is especially intriguing in the context of feminine language for God. Why? Because it could be a feminine name for God.
El Shaddai is invariably translated in our English Bibles as “God Almighty.” This rendering is apparently based on the Greek Old Testament’s translation of the name as pantokrator, which means “all powerful.” Although the Greek OT (LXX) translated the name this way, the etymology of a Hebrew word does not derive from Greek. The Greek translators interpreted the Hebrew to mean pantokrator, but the etymology of the word doesn’t support that translation.
The main Hebrew lexicons, Brown-Driver-Briggs (BDB) and The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (HALOT, also known as K-B for its editors, Kohler and Baumgartner), both offer various possibilities for the etymology of the word shaddai. One possibility is that it derives from the verb שדד shadad. שדד shadad means “to deal violently with,” but none of the lexicons or theological word books suggest that shaddai means “God of violence.” Another possibility, found only in BDB, is that the name comes from שדה shadah , which means “to pour out,” and refers to God as “rain giver.” The Kohler-Baumgartner lexicon (HALOT) suggests that the word could be based on the Akkadian shadu which means “mountain.” Thus, El Shaddai means “The God of the mountain(s).” This seems to be the current favorite among scholars. HALOT also suggests another possibility, such as the idea that El Shaddai refers to one of the ancestral gods, but the meaning of the name is uncertain.
One possibility that is not mentioned in either BDB or HALOT is found in both the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (TDOT) and also in the New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis (NIDOTTE). And that is that the name Shaddai comes from the word thdw/y which means “breast” (or “mountain.”) (See TDOT, I:257; NIDOTTE, I:401). Although TDOT concludes that “God of the mountain” is the best translation, the fact that it recognizes “The God of Breasts” as a possibility is significant.
In Hebrew the word שד shad means “breast.” The noun itself is masculine in form even though it refers only to female breasts. TDOT notes that shaddai follows a common pattern for divine name formation using a “natural element plus an adjectival suffix. One thinks of ‘Artsay, Tallay, and Pidray, wives of Ba`al whose names mean “One of the Earth,” “The Dewy One,” and “the Misty One” (TDOT, I:256). Thus Shaddai would mean “The Breasted One.” 
The etymology of El Shaddai remains uncertain and contested. As HALOT concludes, “Despite several attempted and suggested explanations the etymology of שדי has still not been completely clarified” (II:1421). For this reason, we should not dismiss possibilities like “The God of Breasts” simply because some scholars have come to an admittedly uncertain consensus on “God of the Mountain(s).”
Although etymology is certainly important in determining the meaning of a word, how the word is used in context ultimately determines what it means. For example, the word הלך halak usually means “go” or “walk.” But in some contexts it can mean “to do something continually” (2 Sam. 13:19) or even “to have sexual intercourse” (Amos 2:7)! An example of this same sort of thing can be found in English. “To nail” typically means to use a hammer to insert a nail. But a crude usage also exists: “he nailed her.” The word ברך barak which usually means “to bless” can also mean “to curse” in certain contexts (see 1 Kings 21:10; Ps. 10:3). We have similar examples in English, for example the word “bad” being used to mean “radically cool.”
Context determines meaning. If we look at El Shaddai in its various contexts, it has a semantic range of meaning. In other words, it can mean different things in different contexts, anywhere from “The God of Breasts” to “The God of the Mountain(s)” to a derived meaning “Powerful God.” I will limit my discussion to the contexts that seem most likely for the translation of “The God of Breasts.”
Virtually every use of El Shaddai occurs in a fertility context (exceptions are Exod. 6:3 and Ezek. 10:5). A few uses of Shaddai (without El) also occur in fertility contexts. What this means is that when the biblical writers wanted to emphasize that God is a God of fertility (and how better to envision such a God than as a God with breasts?) they used the name El Shaddai (or, in a few cases, Shaddai).
Gen. 17:1 (cf. vv. 1-6 for fertility context): God tells Abram, “I am El Shaddai” and subsequently reiterates the covenant between God and Abram, focusing in vv. 4-6 on Abram’s fertility.
Gen. 28:3 (cf. v. 4 in addition for fertility context): Isaac blesses Jacob in the name of El Shaddai and emphasizes that this God will make Jacob fruitful and numerous with multiple offspring.
Gen. 35:11: God appears to Jacob as El Shaddai and commands him to be fruitful and multiply.
Gen. 43:14: Jacob sends his sons back to Egypt with Benjamin and asks that El Shaddai return Joseph and Benjamin to him. While not overtly about fertility, Jacob views Joseph and Benjamin as his true progeny and fears losing them.
Gen. 48:3 (cf. v. 4 for fertility context): Jacob relates what happened to him at Luz when El Shaddai appeared to him (cf. 35:11).
Gen. 49:25 (this verse uses only Shaddai): “by the God of your father, who will help you, by Shaddai who will bless you with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that lies beneath, blessings of the breasts (שדים shadayim) and of the womb.” (Thanks to Yossie Bloch for pointing this verse out to me. I accidentally omitted it).
Ruth 1:20, 21: Naomi bitterly speaks of how Shaddai has dealt bitterly with her, depriving her of progeny (fertility).
Learning that El Shaddai might mean “The God of Breasts” usually freaks people out. It ruins the Amy Grant/Michael Card song. It makes them uncomfortable. But if indeed El Shaddai can mean “The God of Breasts” isn’t that an amazing concept coming from a patriarchal culture? El Shaddai then refers to a God who nurtures sexuality and bestows fertility (or takes it away). The God of Breasts gives us insight into a deity who encapsulates (and goes beyond) both masculine and feminine characteristics. This name combatted the ancient notion that a god must have a consort, like Baal had Asherah. The God of Breasts is the God of fertility. There is no other. 
The God of Breasts is but one possible name for God. But it is an important one to remember when we hear people arguing that God is literally a male. If a patriarchal society employed both masculine and feminine metaphors for God and even used the possibly feminine name El Shaddai, why are we so uncomfortable with non-masculine images for God? If we claim to be biblical, but use only masculine images for God, then we aren’t really being biblical, are we? The Bible, the early church fathers, the mystics, and the so-called “heretics” of today are calling us to expand our language for God. If we limit ourselves to gendered language, we have created a graven image of God.
El Shaddai, El Shaddai,
El Elyon, Adonai
Age to age You’re still the same
By the power of your name.
May we let the power of God’s many names and the multiple metaphors for God expand our understanding of God beyond our comfort. Let us challenge ourselves to speak of God in new ways, in non-limiting ways, in ways that include rather than exclude.
May the God of Breasts make fertile your imagination, nurture your understanding, and multiply your metaphors. Amen.
 The form of the word Shaddai with its doubled dalet and -ay ending puzzles scholars. HALOT concludes that “the (doubling of the) d in שדי is secondary, and the ending -ay is the normal North-West Semitic gentilic termination . . . .” Thus, arguments that say שדי cannot be related to the word שד (breast) because of the doubled dalet are less compelling.
 All the lexicons and theological wordbooks agree that the El names derive from Canaanite religion (see especially TDOT, I: 256). Since the Canaanite religion was polytheistic and included female deities, it would make sense that the Israelites might incorporate goddess qualities into their God while still maintaining monotheistic views. They certainly incorporated other ideas from Canaanite culture, including temple design, emphasizing Yahweh as a God of fertility over against Baal (see Hos. 2:14-23), and adopting the El shrines as their own.